All of us have that list or pile of books that we should read for any number of good causes, but somehow they remain at the bottom of the pile as we engage more easily in the books we want to read. In this case, my purpose was to learn more about the history of Germany between the two World Wars to flesh out my understanding of characters I’m creating for Mismatch, a novel set in 1945 and dealing with US involvement with providing aid to the Nazis during World War II. When I discovered Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner, a memoir of a young German who was a youth playing with toy soldiers during World War I and who came of age during the years that Hitler and the Nazis came to power, I felt I’d found what I needed to learn more of the social impact of this change of order in Germany. Still, it took a while to commit to reading it. When I did, I found this and much, much more.
For those of us studying this period in hindsight, it is very easy to get bogged down in questions about how the German people could have bought into Hitler’s agenda or not known what was going on regarding the extermination of the Jews. After reading this account of the subtle and insidious ways that Hitler used to permeate the German people with his credo of hate towards the Jews and his propaganda that built on what they wanted to hear, for the first time I could understand how a rational people could ultimately be lead to irrational actions. It also enlightened me to how many people in Germany at that time did not buy into Hitler’s agenda and were acutely aware of how their way of life was being changed forever, and how painful it was when some (like the author and his family) came to that terrible realization that they could no longer live in their native country. Knowing how everything ended for the German people, it was hard not to shout out a warning to the author not to delay, not to keep hoping that it would never get worse than this. Perhaps what this book drove home best was the humanity and vulnerability of the people involved and how many more basic human life decisions were made compared to the calculated political decisions being made at higher levels.
The book stops abruptly before World War II begins, and the manuscript wasn’t discovered until decades later. So much has been written and interpreted about the war during the time the manuscript was not available that it is most refreshing to find a journalistic account of that time period untouched by those interpretations. Ultimately it is an intensely human story, made even moreso as it captures on such a personal level one of the most inhuman time periods in history. I highly recommend it.
Any ruin contains a silent history that speaks to the viewer from many different levels. The artist sees the compilation of lines, colors and textures that the aging process produces. The historian has that special sense that can hear the voices of the people who lived and maybe died there. The traveler may see it as a destination or merely a point of interest along the way to where he really wants to go. As always, we interpret life through our own lens and usually see what we’re searching for at that point in time.
Jess Walter has taken this process to a new level by weaving stories, locations, and people both real and fictional to produce a novel where the Beautiful Ruins could be any of the above. It is a fascinating story of how the serendipity and the randomness of life events can coalesce into a unified whole, if you but know what to look for. I marvel at the planning alone it must have required to take events from the early 60’s and relate them so exquisitely into a setting in the current time to create a unified whole. His characters are each unique and so very, very human; even Richard Burton. I’ve always believed that most of us are mainly bumbling along through life most of the time. Walter proves this point in his book in such a way that, unless you’re looking carefully and closely, you don’t see the intricate infrastructure he’s built in such a seemingly effortless manner to present this sense that life in its consummate unpredictability eventually prevails. Some elements of the story are patently absurd, and yet they fit in perfectly with the story and the point the author is trying to make.
I listened to the Audible version narrated so expertly by Edoardo Ballerini. It was a delicious experience hearing his beautiful Italian interspersed with the American English of most of the characters. He portrayed flawlessly men, women, the arrogance and self-centeredness of Hollywood and the naive but practical inhabitants of a miniscule Italian village cut off from the rest of the world. I highly recommend it for a remarkable adventure through Italy, Hollywood, and along multiple paths through people’s lives who each, in their own special way, may constitute a beautiful ruin.
Three sisters. Coming from three direction. For three days. October 19-21. Cape Cod.
It was our annual outing together to recapture for a brief time that sense of family when it was only us children. Since losing our brother not long after losing both parents, the bonds of family have grown even stronger between us three, even though we’re surrounded by a loving extended family. How unfair it is, in a way, that we never appreciate them for what they are–those fragile tendrils of family bonding that comes from the shared meals, road trips, and bedrooms of our youth—at the time we’re growing them. Too soon we head our separate ways as adults and, only if we’re lucky, do we recognize that these bonds have to be tended and cultivated, because they can be lost in an instant, as with our brother.
Cape Cod called to us this year. As the gods of the open air would have it, we convened within moments of planes landing and car arriving at Logan Airport from Grand Rapids, MI, Richmond, VA and Maynard, MA. We headed to a Hampton Inn in South Yarmouth, only discovering on the last day that we were but a mile from downtown Hyannis and the Harbor where the Kennedys sailed and the church they attended in their heyday. For three days, we explored Provincetown (clam chowder and kale soup), Hyannis (oyster shooters and lobster tacos), and Sandwich (beef barley soup). Marconi’s site on the Cape Cod National Seashore where the first wireless signal was sent to Europe in 1903 (a message from President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII), watching glass blown as it was during the narrow window of time (from the 1820’s to the 1880’s) that the Sandwich Glass Factory was operative, and touring the Hyannis Port Harbor where the Kennedy compound came in and out of focus through the morning fog—all events we’ll treasure with that special overlay of it being a joint experience.
Sisters are remarkable things. They get better with age—we’re all much more tolerant and appreciative of each other as the years go on—and sisters offer the only opportunity we really have to do reality checks on what we remember of our past and also to draw from that past as we collectively interpret the future. As we jointly perused the Cape Cod Museum of Art, I found it remarkable that, at the end, we had all chosen the same painting as a favorite, even while we walked through and resonated with many different paintings with comments from our own life experience gained from other museums we’ve individually perused.
My sisters are a richness in my life that, even when we’re not in touch or together, still add an overlay of joy just by the fact they exist and have been a part of me ever since those small tendrils began to bind us together.