1. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, by Geoffrey Wawro: This is my Best Title winner, for sure. Last month I learned how the World War I led to the end of the Ottoman Empire; this month I moved on to the Habsburgs. History doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it takes a lot of different perspectives before I can wrap my head around something as complicated as a world war.
2. Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett: This is the way to do it. After the facts and figures of A Mad Catastrophe, I needed something to put a human perspective on it, and this first volume in a three-part multi-generational saga was perfect. Following families in England, Russia, Germany and Buffalo during World War I, it shows the war as more than good guys vs. baddies, which, of course, is how it happened. It’s amazing how the losers always get remembered as the bad guys, isn’t it?
3. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson: In this literary version of Groundhog Day, Ursula Todd is born during a snowstorm in 1910 but dies during the labor. Immediately, she is born again, and again, and again. Each birth leads to a different life, with tweaks and changes from the one before. Ursula has a vague sense of what has happened in her past, but only in the form of déjà vu. Part of the point here is that there’s really no one set destiny for each of us, and chance encounters—or misses—are what propel us forward. Another big theme is whether Ursula lives her life again and again in an effort to get it “right” or if there is no right, only different. Then again, Atkinson herself said it’s about being British, so what do I know?
4. Gone Baby Gone, by Dennis Lahane: Private detectives Patrick and Angie are tasked with finding four-year-old Amanda, who disappeared from her unlocked apartment one night while her mother Helene was out. The further they go into Helene’s South Boston underworld, the more complicated the search becomes. This is one of the few books I’ve read after seeing the movie, which I really, really liked. I was pleased to find the book just as good and will definitely be checking out more by Lehane. One word of advice—this is the fourth book in a series. Don’t make the same mistake I did and unknowingly jump in at the middle.
5. John Dies at the End, by David Wong: Oh my. I almost bailed out here because the story is so graphic, but I’m glad I stuck it out to the end when, well, you know. Dave attends a party, where an outsider distributes an inky black drug with the street name “soy sauce.” Dave passes, and by morning the dealer and several users are dead, more users are missing and John is in a very bad way. Through a series of insane events I can’t possibly hope to describe, John and Dave try to determine what the soy sauce is, where it came from and how to get it out of their systems.
6. More Than This, by Patrick Ness: As a nice contrast to that, the protagonist here dies on the first page. Seth drowns, then wakes up in a strange-yet-familiar world that feels like a set created just for him. Seth’s life is revealed in short flashes that make his purgatory all the more painful, reminding him of things lost, things left unfinished, mistakes and regrets.
7. The Lottery and Other Stories, by Shirley Jackson: Some are creepy, some are sad, some are reflective, but what I like most about Shirley Jackson’s stories is that each exists in a ten-page universe. You get just a little vignette, but by the end you have such a strong sense of who the characters are and what message Jackson wanted to get across. I had a college professor who assigned ridiculously low word counts (100 words for a news story, etc.) as a way to teach us how to put each word on trial for its life and figure out how one thoughtful detail can take the place of two or three extemporaneous sentences. Reading these stories is like taking a master class.
And the best thing I read this month…
8. Look Who’s Back, by Timur Vermes: Oh, please go read this. I read an article on how after WWII, the copyright of Mein Kampf was given to the United States, who in turn gave it to Bavaria. The region banned publication of the book in Germany until recently, when it fell into the public domain.
That’s interesting enough to sit and think about, but the writer mentioned this book from 2011 that sees Hitler alive and well, waking up in the middle of present-day Berlin. His efforts to understand modern society are funny enough (“The tallest of the lads now turned to his friends, allowing me to read his name, which his mother had sewn onto a brightly colored jersey. ‘Hitler Youth Ronaldo! Which way to the street?’” pg. 6), but when everyone takes him to be an extremely committed performance artist who then becomes a star of YouTube and reality TV, the story falls into complete absurdity. Hitler here is Archie Bunker and Michael Scott, and if you’re wondering how that can possibly be funny, ask yourself if you ever watched The Colbert Report, if you laughed, and why.
Some will think Hitler and the Nazis can never be the subject of any joke, ever, and I understand where that point of view comes from. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew with Eastern European roots. But this isn’t lighthearted humor; it’s satire. It’s done to make you think, not just make you laugh, and it’s done really, really well. I don’t think making topics taboo and shoving them into a closet does anything to help healing. Not to mention, there’s no more powerful weapon against a hateful ideology than to laugh at it together.