Thursday, May 20, 2010

what more can you give or risk than a life?

It's been a long time since I stayed up all night reading a book, but that is exactly what I did the other day with Every Man Dies Alone. (ACHTUNG, that's an AMAZON link) by Hans Fallada (Don't worry, FTC, that was Wikipedia!).

I guess I'm a little twisted, or maybe I have been watching too much Daria on the box set. Either way, my light summer reading can best be described as "a five hundred page novel about living and resisting to Nazi rule." But wait!

The novel follows Otto and Anna Quangel's campaign of resistance against Hitler. The campaign is ineffectual - immature, even. They write and drop tiny postcards, often in rhyme, deriding Hitler.

Every Man Dies Alone is an intricately plotted, suspenseful ensemble novel. It's a weird novel. For one thing, it's enormous. The sheer scale of characters, points of view, and relationships is reminiscent of Dickens or Hugo. Yet it is informed with a postmodern sensibility.

What I hate about World War II literature and film produced after the war is that it's all so heavily weighted with its own importance. It's filled with wink-wink, nudge-nudge, look, HISTORY and salient details meant to remind you that, oh my god, IT IS OCCURRING DURING HISTORY. Radio broadcasts are abnormally loud; hairstyles are exaggerations; certain bombings become plot devices. That doesn't mean it's bad, necessarily, I am just annoyed by the excesses of devices that scream HISTORY!

Every Man Dies Alone, however, is different. Written in a 24-day frenzy right after the war, Fallada never lived to see its publication. He had spent most of the war in a Nazi insane asylum.

While the translation is a bit stilted, particularly the dialogue, I think in a certain sense it works for the novel because it captures the forgotten, archaic, or awkward turns of phrase used mid-century, though they aren't in the original language of the novel.

I loved this book. I didn't expect to. I was used to stories of WWII resistance involving parachutes and hiding people, not tiny guerilla campaigns whose effects linger in the form of the written word.

From Geoff Wilkes' afterword to the book: "[Anna] protests that this initiative is 'a bit small,' but he points out hat 'if they get wind of this, it'll cost us our lives,' prompting her to reflect that 'no one could risk more than his life,,' and that 'the main thing was, you fought back' (132)" (522). It's about futile resistance, and the question of what it takes to be defeated, and what victory means. That's why Every Man Dies Alone is today's recommendation.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

inner resistance

So, I'm working on some longer Recommendations. Right now I am reading Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada.


A longer recommendation will follow, but rest assured that it is Highly Recommended (TM). Publisher's Weekly says, "This disturbing novel, written in 24 days by a German writer who died in 1947, is inspired by the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, who scattered postcards advocating civil disobedience throughout war-time Nazi-controlled Berlin." The novel is a panorama of one Berlin building as a microcosm of a larger society swept up by fascism. Unlike most other accounts of World War II (or other historical events) this is not written with heavy, weighty historiography and a bunch of nods and winks at THE TIMES. It's authentic because it was written by someone who lived through it, without fully understanding, or even living to see, the long-term historical implications of His Times.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

income and expenditures

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." - David Copperfield
by Charles Dickens

(Achtung FTC! That was an Amazon Associate link!)

Greetings, gentle readers. I'm 2/2 now: TWO recommendations in TWO days!

Today's recommendation is the chilling Maxed Out: Hard Times in the Age of Easy Credit
by James D. Scurlock. (ACHTUNG! Amazon link! FTC must be appeased!)

It's got everything a good horror novel should have: evil villains, a powerful system, terrifying things that happen to good people, the potential for sequels.

Unfortunately, as Orson Welles would say, It's All True. It's not fiction. I saw Maxed Out (the documentary) a few years ago and found it relentless and kind of alarmist: to pile all this information into a 90 minute movie is, honestly, a bit too much, and something some people would dismiss as manipulated or agenda-driven. After all, documentaries that are, like, angry about stuff are totally always fake like that Michael Moore dude, right? Excuse me while I smash my head into the keyboard.


Maxed Out (the book), on the other hand, is a different matter. On the one hand, you can close it and take a few breaths before returning. You can't deny print, or at least, it's harder to. While Scurlock had never written a book before, he has a unique and honest authorial voice that accounts for his own privilege and still manages to objectively assess the people he describes: this isn't' as black and white as victims and perpetrators, and he knows it. I think the book is better suited to this because this medium allows him to account at length for his opinion.

Maxed Out is a blood-boiling indictment of the debt system in America, and how it is destroying lives. It doesn't resort to the self-deterministic rhetoric of other books about finance (the ones that insist that anyone who can't afford the basics is just a glutton). What the book accomplishes more successfully than the documentary is an examination of the larger system: the changing American economy (and not just in the past two years or so, when it got really trendy to use the atrocious grammatical construction "in this economy"), the culture, the rapacious capitalism that preys upon the underclasses, yet requires them in order to keep the wealthy rich.

Maxed Out (best purchased used or gotten from the library, though naturally if you can afford it I'd love you forever if you purchased from my Amazon link) will recenter this crisis in your thinking. It will make you angry and bitter and maybe even depressed, but hopefully it will arm you with knowledge so that you can extract yourself from this system, or at least participate with your eyes more open.

Here are some recent and interesting blog posts related to the subject of the long decline in American prosperity:

Academia and the decline of wealth in America
Academia isn't broken. We are.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

New stories and Old Stories

Hi, readers. Although the semester is ended, I am still swamped, but luckily now I have the time to Recommend some things to you. I know you need it. I know I do too.

Today's recommendation is Susan Campbell's provocative memoir Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl. (n.b.: that's an Amazon link; good thing the FTC is persecuting bloggers instead of those poor victimized bankers).

The book describes Campbell's childhood and "relationship" with Jesus (get the title?), set against her theological interpretations of the Bible and Christianity. I found the book while waiting around for something in the campus union (where there is conveniently located a corporate-owned store that sells books and every kind of cluttery crap imaginable that can be painted with the university logo). Anyway, so I was in there and picked this up, intrigued by the title. The first chapter - a confessional account of a childhood baptism - so entranced and charmed me that I bought the book (whereas usually I spend weeks waffling and finally decide on a cheap copy online, which inevitably ends up smelling funny).

I have complicated feelings about this book, especially considering that I was not raised in any specific religious tradition, am not religious, and have no real insider knowledge of American Fundamentalism. Because of that, I find the book fascinating: it's a totally foreign world to me. Especially when Campbell describes her childhood, this is a funny, provocative read. When Campbell is telling childhood stories, she's really at her best because the description of this sub/culture is unforced and told without condescension.

However, the latter half of the book is a bit dull unless you are seriously interested in theology, in which case it's merely polemical, and, I suspect, unlikely to change hearts or minds. This is not inherently a problem - I just wish she had stuck with the trope of the Jesus "relationship" as it pertained to her childhood within a very specific culture.

Despite this, Dating Jesus is a fascinating look into a world that most of us sinful heathen book-readers will never access, and it manages to present this world in a compassionate way (more than I can do, I guess). If you're into the theology even the last part will be useful and interesting.