Books! When Germany waited and a man fell from a mountain #cbr5

I tend to read books in pairs. I get restless with one so I need something different to switch my focus. I thought it might be fun to write about the two I just finished even though I can’t find much in common between them. The two from this week are dissimilar on so many levels.

I just finished In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I enjoyed Larson’s Devil in the White City quite a bit, so I was excited to see a new book from him. I read a few negative and lukewarm reviews but considering it was Larson I thought it had to be good. He’s a great writer! Well, I was wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me, Larson’s writing is a pleasure to read. The problem is the subject matter. Larson is focusing all of his excellent writing ability on an American family that moves to Germany after the father becomes the first American ambassador in Hitler’s world. They arrive in the mid-1930s, right when things start going downhill. This is a great set up, right?! But what happens? Not a darn thing. They go to parties. They drive around. The daughter has sex with everyone and supposedly (maybe, not really) becomes a potential Russian spy (we think). The father pines for his farm and his unwritten masterpiece on the Old South. To his credit, he tries to warn the US that something is going to happen, but is ignored. The mother perseveres in the face of the stupidity around her and then dies. A cast of German (to be) killers passes in front of us looking like a bunch of clowns and buffoons for the most part. Basically it is the chronicle of when Germany waited…and waited…for something to happen.

There are moments when it becomes more exciting. The Night of the Long Knives is the most interesting part of the book. The problem is that this episode came after I had read through 2/3rds of the book. As my husband said, no one should have to wait that long before getting to something interesting. I kept with it because I like Larson. If I hadn’t read him before I might have given up like so many others. If you are really interested in Hitler’s Germany and REALLY want to know what the American ambassador was doing then (and who his daughter was doing), this is a book for you.

Sad to say, but I got so bored with this book that I kept picking up Sanctus by Simon Toyne. While I’m not a fan of religious conspiracy thrillers, I have read my share of them (cast offs from my mother and yes I will read most anything). I have to say this one is pretty good. In the story, a man throws himself off of a mountain monastery in an ancient city in Turkey and it goes live on television. Through some convoluted detective work they find his long lost sister in America who journeys to Turkey to find out what happened to her brother. She then becomes the central character in an attempt by the monastery to cover up everything (and basically kill off anyone involved). Ultimately the monks are covering up the true nature of the Sacrament inside the walls of the monastery, which if uncovered would change the world. Basically it is the set up for his next book in which the sister gains some bad-ass powers and stuff happens (haven’t read it yet).

In comparison to In the Garden, this one kept my attention. He has the Dan Brownesque style where each chapter is a ‘scene’ and drives the momentum of the reader. In contrast Toyne tends to make things up whereas Dan Brown “reinterprets” already existing reality. So, for example, the town in which all the action takes place is fictional and there are other elements created to suit his purpose. With the exception of a few groan-worthy moments (I won’t give them away), he does a pretty good job of inventing a mythology and keeping the reader invested in the action. If you like religious conspiracy action novels and are looking for a fun beach read, this is definitely one to find at your local public library.

I will leave you with this. As un-PC as this is, apparently there is a Hitler is bored video meme. I leave you with “Hitler and the bunker are really bored”. He must have read In the Garden.

Books! France’s Dirty War #cbr5

I am taking a history class on the Vietnam wars and we just recently finished two  books on the history of France in Indochina. While both are excellent, the first Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 is less accessible. The second, Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, is a readable account of the end of the French period and sets the stage for the next war to come.

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 by Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery is remarkable for its scope. It covers the entire range of the colonial experience from the political, economic, and cultural effects and from the beginnings of colonization to the end after France’s defeat at the battle of Dien Bein Phu.

The French authors aim to create a storyline that doesn’t take sides but shows the interaction of colonizers and colonized, and for most of the book they do this. At the same time, most of their sources are French and they end the book on a strangely sympathetic note. They write

“French colonial imperialism, in the midst of acquiring a new historical shape and a neocolonial project, finally found the political will to take on the issues concerning the development of colonized peoples. It was just then that imperial France was overtaken by Indochina by the unforeseeable: a national, communist revolution that was radically decolonizing and pregnant with another historical project (379).”

This closing commentary seems to indicate that France was going to modernize (doubtful) and that the Viet Minh emerged out of nowhere (?!?). Overall it is a wonderful piece of scholarship and worth a read if you have a strong interest in France’s relationship with Vietnam.

Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Frederick Logevall picks up at the beginning of the World War II and the start of France’s downfall and takes us through 1959 when two Americans are killed at an outpost near Saigon. Along the way he discusses not only France’s actions and mistakes, but also the place of Vietnam in the emerging Cold War and American anti-communist hysteria.

Logevall is a historian at Cornell University and is an excellent writer. He approaches the story from the level of the individuals involved and the choices they make along the way. In this sense it reads almost like a work of fiction because you have a strong sense of the main characters and how they interact with others. While it is a long book, it is so well-written and engaging that it is difficult to put down. I was actually late getting to work one day because I wanted to finish a chapter. If you are interested in the Vietnam War from the American perspective, you absolutely must read this book. It demonstrates nicely the beginnings of our involvement and why it later became America’s Vietnam.

Both books are worth reading, but I would recommend Logevall for casual history buffs. It is definitely a fave of 2013.