2013 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields

October 18th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In Holocaust studies, one type of perpetrator, fashioned after Adolf Eichmann and others who organized deportations of Jews from Berlin headquarters, is the male bureaucratic killer, or desk murderer.  He commits genocide through giving or passing along written orders; thus his pen or typewriter keys become his weapon.  This type of modern genocidaire assumes that the paper, like its administrator, remains clean and bloodless.  The desk murderer does his official duty.  He convinces himself as he orders the deaths of tens of thousands that he has remained decent, civilized, and even innocent of the crime.  What about the women who staffed those offices, the female assistants whose agile fingers pressed the keys on the typewriters, and whose clean hands distributed the orders to kill? (pp. 98-99)

Nearly seventy years after the last death camps were liberated, the mechanics of the Endlösung still trouble readers and historians alike.  Who was involved or at least complicit in the genocide of Jews and other undesirable ethno-social groups?  To what extent, if any, were these mass killings planned?  Did the Holocaust arise from a Sonderweg, or “special path,” that the Germans followed as a response to industrialization and modernity done at a faster pace than those of Western Europe?  Is the Shoah the horrific consequence of the earlier Ostland neo-colonial view of “space and race”?  How does one reconcile the machinery of the gas chambers and desk murderers with images of street violence in the occupied East, as mobs of Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians beat tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Jews, often to death?

To this litany of questions has recently been added another:  what roles did women play in the Holocaust?  For decades, outside of a few memorable cases such as that of the infamous “Bitch of Buchenwald,” Ilse Koch, not much attention has been paid to the roles that women played in carrying out the so-called “Final Solution.”  In landmark studies such as Christopher Browning’s 1993 book, Ordinary Men:  Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solutionin Poland, the “ground level” focus has almost invariably been on men.  Soldiers, Einsatzgruppen, functionaries, and guards, these were the main perpetrators of the killings at their most intimate, face-to-face, level.  But who did the paperwork processing, the nursing, and other tasks both domestic and industrial alike that were a vital component of the concentration camp social societies?  Who helped tend the vast farms on which several thousand Jews and other concentration camp prisoners were forced to work as slaves to supply food for the German armies?  Yet women have often taken a back seat to men in discussions of the Holocaust.

In her National Book Award-nominated history, Hitler’s Furies:  German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower begins to explore the matter of those women (mostly) behind the scenes whose actions (or non-actions) aided and abetted genocide.  Utilizing an impressive number of interviews that she conducted with the now-elderly women who were the farmers, the secretaries, and in some cases the murderesses, Lower has pieced together a history that promises to be a significant study.  Yet that word, “promises,” is a damning one, as Hitler’s Furies fails to become the authoritative or landmark book that it could have become.  It hints at matters, yet does not place them adequately within the framework of current historiographical discussion, leaving the work in that nebulous halfway house between being an oral history of those who were reticent at best to talk of their past lives and a study that places these women and their actions within a larger conceptualization of the Holocaust and its origins and characteristics.

Lower begins her book by introducing several issues that she intends to address.  Among these are institutional power (ranging from direct corporate-style hierarchies to less indirect ones such as the terminology employed in the Third Reich regarding cultures and nations and their degrees of worthiness) and its ability to shape women into the roles desired of them.  Yet, as Lower argues, these women were not passive objects to be set in place but instead were in many cases active agents who themselves engaged in atrocities (and not always then just to please their male companions). This, however, does not mean that the women such as Erna Petri or Liselotte Meier, to name two of the women Lower discusses at length, display a great deal of independence in their actions.  No, their actions, whether they be shooting Jewish fugitives on Petri’s manor or Meier’s torturing of those rounded up as the German army advanced eastward, are placed within the context of what their male lover/husband did:  Petri following the lead of her abusive husband and Meier that of her officer boyfriend.  While Lower does a good job fleshing out the personalities she discusses, there curiously is a relative lack of discussion of motives beyond the coercive factors of society and ideology.  It is as though Petri, Meier, and the others discussed in the book had lives, dreams, and ambitions of their own, but when it comes to the flashpoint of their roles in the Holocaust, those divergent characteristics fade suddenly into the backdrop of those caught up in the competing whirlwinds of loyalty to male-centric power structures and a sadistic joy in inflicting suffering.  More could have been done to discuss this, but Lower’s explanation late in the book felt inadequate in that she relies too heavily on Theodor Adorno’s work on authoritarian personality to explain these women’s actions.  While certainly there is something to Adorno’s view, it does little to account for the complexities of the actions undertaken during this time by both men and women (ranging from outright sedition down through implicit resistance to complicity and then ultimately a surpassing of the authority’s desires, as if by doing so, the perpetrator could assert her own stamp on matters); there is much more to the matter.

Of greater interest, yet barely fleshed out, is the idea that neo-colonialist attitudes toward the East and its denizens might explain the actions of Petri and her compatriots:

Petri’s testimony is rare.  There are few wartime and postwar records of ordinary German women expounding on their views of Jews and the Holocaust.  More common was a colonist discourse about how stupid, dirty, and lazy “the locals” were, referring to Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, or veiled references to the dark terrain infested with “Bolsheviks,” “criminals,” and “partisans,” or to the infantilized native who is clever but inferior, and thus dispensable. (p. 156)

This is where I suspect more and more studies of the Holocaust will go, away from focusing strictly on the mechanics of the Final Solution and toward a broader cultural analysis of the times and in particular the World War I era of Ostland and how the Ostland’s governmental practices, so reminiscent of late 19th century European neo-colonialism in Africa and Asia, helped shape German attitudes toward Ostland and its natives in a much more insidious fashion than the Nazi ideology on “space” and “race.”  Yet despite there being hints of this colonialist attitude in many of the women Lower profiles, she does not give as much credence to this as perhaps she should have.

The sources included in the endnotes is impressive.  Although I haven’t kept up with the literature since late 1997, there are a wealth of studies on the issues of women in the Third Reich and roles of women in the Holocaust that appear to be promising reads.  Yet within the body of her study, Lower rarely mentions any of these other historians and their contributions to the field.  Perhaps this is due to Hitler’s Furies being marketed more to a general audience than toward an academic one, but ultimately this leads to the sense that Lower’s narrative is detached too much from the debates that historians have had on this subject over the past six decades.  While it may be understandable that Lower wants to avoid the old Intentionalist/Functionalist debate regarding the level of intent that the decision-makers had in beginning the Final Solution, the book suffers because there is insufficient grounding of her arguments within the context of larger discussions of the Holocaust’s beginning, mechanics, and how its perpetrators justified their actions.  Even the women involved seem at times acting within a narrative vacuum; there is not enough explanation to cover their myriad actions.

Yet despite these serious issues that I have with Hitler’s Furies, it is a book that at the very least presents vividly-described actresses and whose discussions at least point the way to possible future paths of exploration within the field.  It is a flawed work, but for non-historian readers curious about the time period, it certainly is a work that will appeal to them.  For many historians of the period, however, Lower’s work may be frustrating in the sense that it seems that with just more focus on placing her work within the context of current historiography, her work could have been as important as those of Ian Kershaw and Browning in discussing the mindsets of those involved in the Shoah.  The arguments on complicity and the forms in which it took here will continue to rage on.

2013 Booker Prize finalist: Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

October 6th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Time, no matter how much we attempt to quantify it, forever remains eludible to us.  In her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki explores time’s indefinite qualities by means of a dual (with intrusions of a third) narrative that stretches over two continents and encompasses momentous events such as World War II and the 2011 Japan tsunami in its exploration of Proustian remembrance of times lost and a Schrodingerian reflection on quantum entanglement.

We are first introduced to the sixteen year-old Japanese schoolgirl Nao and her diary about contemporary social life in Japan.  At first amusing for its almost-breathless narration of various school personality types, Nao’s diary quickly turns toward more morbid topics, such as the suicide of her father after his failure to provide for his family in the wake of the 2000 dot com bubble burst and her own reflections (including citations from Proust) on time and in particular on “time beings,” which Nao defines as “someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be” on the opening page of her diary.  Her musings on time and the Zen master Dogen’s commentary that time is itself a being as everything in the entire universe is intimately linked, continuous and yet separate, as moments of time form the novel’s core.  Nao’s personal life is seemingly tragic (there are accounts of attempted violence toward her, among other events) and the mysteries of what happens next adds a thriller-like quality to her narrative.

Balancing out Nao’s diary is the reflection of Ruth, herself an amalgamation of the author herself and a fictional character.  Ruth, living on an island just off the coast of British Columbia, discovers Nao’s diary (along with the diary of a relative who fought in World War II) in the debris that washed ashore sometime after the devastating 2011 tsunami.  As Ruth reads Nao’s diary, she reflects on her own experiences and the questions that arise after she fails to track down whether or not Nao is still alive, if she committed suicide, or if she were caught up in the devastation of the tsunami.  Ruth reflects on time’s uncertainties, how Nao, like Schrodinger’s cat, exists in a state of quantum uncertainty, as any number of events in 2011 could have left her alive or dead.  Too easily, this could have been a trite exercise, but Ozeki delves deeper into the lives of the two women and those connected with them.  Ruth is far more than a middle-aged woman baffled by a schoolgirl’s diary, just as Nao is beyond just a (potentially) tragic character.

Ozeki’s intermingling of their narratives in alternating chapters (along with citations of the second included journal) creates a fascinating interplay of lives and moments.  By novel’s end, Ozeki arrives at a further understanding of Dogen’s view of time as being something that pervades us and yet exists outside of us.  This acceptance of time (and by extension, lives) as something that fascinates and yet eludes us makes A Tale for the Time Being a powerful novel, not because we arrive at a greater understanding of events, but because it reminds us through its well-drawn characters and excellent prose that some things will forever be beyond our ken and that itself provides opportunities for personal growth and development.  Time is a being, just like we are, and it never remains static, as Ozeki reminds us eloquently in her understated yet moving novel.  Certainly a fitting finalist for the 2013 Booker Prize.

Originally posted at The OF Blog in March 2013.

2013 Booker Prize Finalist and 5 Under 35 Author: NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

October 6th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Soon we are all busy drawing country-game on the ground, and it comes out great because today the earth is just the right kind of wet since it rained yesterday.  To play country-game you need two rings:  a big outer one, then inside it, a little one, where the caller stands.  You divide the outer ring depending on how many people are playing and cut it up in nice pieces like this.  Each person then picks a piece and writes the name of the country on there, which is why it’s called country-game.

But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them.  These are the country-countries.  If you lose the fight, then you just have to settle for countries like Dubai and South Africa and Botswana and Tanzania and them.  They are not country-countries, but at least life is better than here.  Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart? (pp. 50-51)

Zimbabwean-American writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s first novel, We Need New Names, very easily could have been dismissed for being one of “those” novels:  those tales that are set in a poor land (usually a developing country in Africa or Asia) and whose characters’ plights serve to reinforce Western notions of Third World poverty and deprivation.  Yet there is very little pandering, if any, to Western bourgeois expectations here.  Instead, Bulawayo’s tale, set in an unnamed African country that most likely is a stand-in for her native Zimbabwe, explores matters of survival and adaptation in ways that alternate between being funny, profound, and unsettling.

Darling, the first-person protagonist, is a ten year-old girl living in a shantytown named Paradise.  She and her friends invent all sorts of games.  They sally forth into other shantytowns named after famous cities and they forage for material for both their stomachs and their imaginations.  They display a keen awareness of the inequalities in the world, but there is also laughter and an ability to shrug off the pains and travails of everyday life.  The chapters in We Need New Names are episodic, detailing key moments in Darling’s young life, such as this chapter, “Shhh,” on her returning father, who had returned home after several years seeking work in South Africa:

Father comes home after many years of forgetting us, of not sending us money, of not loving us, not visiting us, not anything us, and parks in the shack, unable to move, unable to talk properly, unable to anything, vomiting and vomiting, Jesus, just vomiting and defecating on himself, and it smelling like something dead in there, dead and rotting, his body a black, terrible stick; I come in from playing Find bin Laden and he is there. (p. 91)

This passage, like several others in the book, casts in almost poetic prose the mixture of emotional turmoil and carefully-developed detachment.  Darling knows there is something wrong with the man who has suddenly re-entered her life, but she presents it as a witness, as someone who is forever reporting what has happened around her.  There are moments in which she speaks through her heart, but for the most part, she recounts what she has experienced as if she were one extra degree removed from the action.  This is not a failing of her character, but rather a way to underscore just how Darling has chosen to cope with the situations occurring in her life.  This mixture of matter-of-fact reporting and eloquent prose serves to deepen the importance of the narrative’s events instead of weakening their impact.

As powerful as many of the stories are within We Need New Names, the weakest section might be the chapters devoted to Darling’s emigration from her homeland to live with her aunt in America.  It is not that these chapters are devoid of interesting insights (there are many), but rather that these chapters do not feel as integrated into Darling’s life as the earlier chapters (and flashback sequences toward the end).  More development here in showing Darling’s adjustment to life in the US would have strengthened the already very good narrative even stronger, as it would have made the final chapters, those that detail Darling’s struggle to find a new self-identity, more powerful.  But on the balance, this lack of development late in the novel does not make We Need New Names a weak novel, but rather a strong tale that falters toward the end.

Yet despite this, We Need New Names was an excellent choice for the 2013 Booker Prize shortlist.  It is a smart, engaging novel with an intriguing protagonist.  The plot development for the most part is handled well and the prose is a joy to read.  Outside of the weakness noted above, it succeeds admirably in describing a character and a land in a way that few non-Africans could ever hope to accomplish.  We Need New Names is a very good novel that hopefully signals the beginning of a very long and successful writing career for Bulawayo.  Well worth the effort in tracking it down.

2013 National Book Award for Young Peoples’ Literature longlisted title: Kate DiCamillo, Flora & Ulysses (2013)

October 1st, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Not much goes on in the mind of a squirrel.

Huge portions of what is loosely termed “the squirrel brain” are given over to one thought:  food.

The average squirrel cogitation goes something like this:  I wonder what there is to eat.  This “thought” is then repeated with small variations (e.g. Where’s the food?  Man, I sure am hungry.  Is that a piece of food? and Are there more pieces of food?) some six or seven thousand times a day.

All of this is to say that when the squirrel in the Tickhams’ backyard got swallowed up by the Ulysses 2000X, there weren’t a lot of terribly profound thoughts going through his head.

As the vacuum cleaner roared toward him, he did not (for instance), think, Here, at last, is my fate come to meet me!

He did not think, Oh, please give me one more chance and I will be good.

What he thought was Man, I sure am hungry. (p. 10)

There is something magical that occurs when a child is around nine or ten years old.  The flights of fancy that inspired green skies and blue blades of grass with elongated, misshapen stick-humans populating perilously-leaning houses begins to transform into something more self-aware, something both universal and uniquely personal.  Looking back on my elementary school years in the early 1980s, 4th through 6th grade were wondrous years.  They were the years that I was introduced to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Ralph S. Mouse, to Old Dan and Little Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows, to all the ways that one could eat worms to fulfill a bet.  Thirty years later, those stories linger like an old TV afterimage, influencing still how I decide which stories are worthy of joining my juvenile pantheon of great books.

It is tricky to write stories that speak directly to what is now termed “middle grades” (ages 8-12) readers while still maintaining a freshness of imagination.  Too often the works feel stilted, insincere, as if the adults composing them are uncertain of how to address their readers.  Perhaps the problem lies with “addressing” in the first place.  After all, few people like having someone address their opinions to them without at least some intimate connection.  Judy Blume was one of the rare few authors who could pull this off with aplomb; Margaret and Peter are vastly different characters on the surface, yet there is something about them that speaks to young boys and girls alike even decades after her most famous works were published.  Often writers settle for one of two extremes:  young, developing readers or the “young adults” of 13-21.  There is nothing wrong with writing for those audiences and several marvelous works have emerged in recent years that speak to these audiences.  However, it is a different matter when it comes to readers who are beyond basic reading but who have yet to experience the weird shifts that hormonal changes bring to the adolescent body.

Therefore, I was curious to see how Kate DiCamillo, who twice was either a finalist or winner for the Newberry Award, would tell the story of a bookish ten-year old girl, Flora, who was the only child of divorced parents.  Certainly the premise held great promise:  the introverted, comics-loving girl who discovers that a squirrel she rescues from an out-of-control vacuum cleaner has somehow gained superpowers in the process of surviving the suctioning force of the vacuum.  This is the sort of tale that I enjoyed in 4th or 5th grade, that of the inexplicable granting of anthropomorphic superpowers to an animal.  But would it ring true, or would the premise be all that is appealing about Flora & Ulysses?

For virtually the entire story, I found myself reading the story as if I were ten years old again.  Leaving aside the numerous in-jokes I have made over the years about squirrels, Ulysses (such a fitting name, that, although DiCamillo never directly references The Odyssey) is such a fascinating character in his own right.  DiCamillo has her characters make wry, sometimes witty observations without ever appearing to break the tone of the narrative.  Flora may be more of a shy violet than Cleary’s Ramona ever was, but like Cleary’s lovable rascal, Flora’s views on her life, comics, and her parents’ post-divorce lives contains a strong ring of truth to them because she never feels as though the author were talking at the target audience.  Instead, Flora’s experiences, madcap as they often were in the novel (especially toward the end), are realistic even though the narrative is anything but quotidian life.  DiCamillo’s slightly-skewed suburban setting (romance novel-writing mother, sadistic neighborhood cat, antique lamp shaped like a figurine) allows readers to laugh at the absurdities and to imagine themselves in such improbable events while still empathizing with the emotional aspects of the story.

Flora & Ulysses contains very few flaws.  The writing is engaging, with a sly wit that rewards those readers who have perhaps read a bit more than their peers without ever feeling as though a joke were being played outside their comprehension.  Flora and Ulysses are well-drawn characters (literally as well as figuratively, as there are some comics-like scenes where Ulysses’ new superpowers are on display), but even the secondary characters (such as Flora’s parents, a neighbor, and the neighbor’s troubled great-nephew) shine in the limited time that they appear in the narrative.  Perhaps the story could have been even better with a more tense, drawn-out conclusion, but this is quibbling over a minor flaw.  Flora & Ulysses was recently longlisted for the National Book Award for Young Peoples’ Literature and it certainly merits it, as it is one of the rare few middle grades fiction that reminds me of the voracious 9-10 year-old reader that I once was and the stories that most captivated the younger me.  Yet despite being nearly 30 years older than that reader, Flora & Ulysses contains a charm that belies its target audience.  Perhaps it will be a book that my nearly one-year-old niece will love when she is older.  I plan on finding out, as I will give this book to her when she is older.  If that is not a testament to how well-written this book this, then my words above will not serve any better to underscore this.

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