Book Review – Every Man Dies Alone

Hans Fallada might not be a name many people know. Even less likely know the name Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen. Fallada (the nom de plume of Ditzen) died in Berlin in 1947, shortly after he finished writing his final novel, Every Man Dies Alone. The book was published after his death. It was not translated into English until 2009, which is about when I became aware of it, while working in a bookstore. I heard only a little about it and had no great urge to read it but when I was able to pick up a cheap copy at a library book sale I thought I’d give it a try.

It can be hard to critique a book like Every Man Dies Alone. Fallada wrote it in 24 days after spending time in a Nazi insane asylum. If even a small part of the book is based on his own experiences with the Nazi regime, then he suffered. However, I don’t want to avoid pointing out the books flaws; Fallada was more than a victim, he was a writer and he wrote a book intended to be read. In many ways, it’s clear that the novel is an early draft. The novel edges on sentimentality at times. There is some repetitive language (though it’s hard to say how much of that has to do with translation) and the story frequently shifts from past to present tense and back again. Tense shifts are a fault I suffer from in my own writing so I’m extra attuned to them. I think one more good edit would do this novel wonders.

Yet, while I believe all of those things are important, the story here is much bigger than any editing issue. This is a story about individual resistance, about people standing up against injustice, even in the tiniest of ways.

It isn’t an inspiring story, it’s an honest one. Nothing anyone does in this novel causes the Third Reich to falter. As Geoff Wilkes points out in the excellent Afterword, Hitler and his Nazis were ultimately defeated by outside forces, not internal rebellion. But, and this really is the point of the novel, that internal rebellion is still important. Here’s what Wilkes says:

The fact that they achieve very little material success against the Nazi regime is portrayed as secondary to the idea that they defeat the regime in ideal and even metaphysical terms, by preserving their moral integrity both as individuals, and as representatives of a better Germany who justify the nation’s survival.

The action of the novel follows several characters, all revolving around Otto and Anna Quangel. They are an elderly, working class couple in Berlin in 1940 (the timeline of the novel spans about 1940-1942). The novel opens on a Germany that has just charged into France. The people are celebrating, either because they are genuinely pleased or because they know they will be punished if they appear unhappy with the regime and its victories. The Quangels live a quiet, isolated life, keeping their heads down and worrying about themselves. They receive word that their only son has been killed in service for the Nazi army. They are told that they should be happy that he died a glorious death for the Fuhrer. But they remember their quiet son and his reluctance to join the army and they know that his death is not glorious, that it serves no higher purpose. They begin to launch a two-man campaign against Hitler and the Nazis. Much of this campaign that they follow is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel.

Fallada clearly paints the world of Berlin in the early 1940s and it isn’t a pretty sight. It is an environment where everyone must be on their guard, knowing that anyone, at any time could betray you. It’s an environment where innocence means little once you get on the wrong side of someone powerful, a fact that many of the characters don’t realize until too late. There is an excellent scene between two long-term friends. One man discovers anti-Nazi propaganda and shows it to his friend. As they discuss what to do with it, they begin to distrust each other, to wonder if their friend is attempting to trick them, to turn them over to the Gestapo. “Pale-faced, they stared at each other. They were old friends, going back to school days, but now fear had come between them, and fear had brought mistrust with it.” This, the novel tells us, is the power of the Third Reich, to instill such fear into the common people that they will do anything, betray anyone, let anything slide, only to protect themselves.

It’s easy to look back on Germany in the ‘30s and ‘40s and blame the German people. From our present-day perspective we like to think we could never let that happen, that we are people who would stand up to evil and injustice. Fallada shows us that Germany was full of people much like us, people concerned with taking care of themselves and their loved ones. People who hope that if they keep their mouths shut and don’t draw attention to themselves, they might escape unscathed. In a chapter near the end a young, married couple argue over whether or not they should do something to stand up to the Nazis, some small act of rebellion. They discuss the lives that their future children might live and the wife says, “What have we done to secure a better future? Nothing at all!”

This, I believe, is the argument at the centre of the book. What have we done to change the future? What can we do to ensure that ourselves and our souls are not overcome by the evil of the world? Fallada doesn’t offer excuses for the people in Berlin in the early ’40s. Instead he spreads life out before us, tells us, “This is what it was like. Some of us tried to do something. Some of it was too late. Some of it was very small. But we tried.”

Advertisements

A Trip to the City

It looks something like this:

…and this

We ate an amazing restaurant at a restaurant called Fable. It’s located on W. 4th Avenue. The service was awesome; the food was incredible. When it comes to appetizers – try the Canned Tuna. Trust me.

We also ate poutine at a literal hole-in-the-wall called Mean Poutine. I love poutine – french fries, gravy, and cheese curd, what’s not to love? And when you think of Canadian cuisine, what else do you think of?

We found a random place to sit in the middle of the street.

I always enjoy re-visiting my hometown and exploring new corners or old favourites.

I’ve been to a number of beautiful and interesting cities in the world, but Vancouver will always be the most beautiful and interesting to me.

And then I get to come home to this:

Two Years

Two years ago today I woke up early in the morning and rushed to the window to check the weather. It was my wedding day and all week there had been warnings of rain. Our reception was outdoors; we had no back-up plan. The sky was clear and calm and a beautiful blue.

It’s hard to believe it’s been two years already since that day. At my brother-in-law’s wedding, just a few months before ours, lots of people had advice for Peter and I. A few couples – couples who had been married for years – told us that it only gets better. Admittedly, I found that hard to believe. How could it get better when it was so good already?

But it does.

Or maybe it’s that it gets deeper. In two years, Peter and I know each other more than we ever did before. We know each other’s quirks and insecurities and strengths. When we say, “I love you” now, it includes all of those things. All of the goodness and weirdness and difficulty of the past two years. It’s amazing to be loved by someone who knows me this well. It has given me a glimpse of how God loves me. And loving my husband has taught me a lot too. I am hugely blessed.

Looking through wedding photos this morning I noticed for the first time that Peter is giving a thumbs up in this picture, taken shortly after I came up the aisle.

Salmon at Work, People at Play

This weekend:

Lunch on the deck after a kayak and a swim. Friday morning was gorgeous out and the water was calm. We kayaked over to a nearby sandbar where we hopped out for a swim. While getting back into our kayaks we spotted a group of seals a little ways out so we paddled over to them. Paddling as silently as I could, I was trying to get closer when I heard a “huff” to my left, turned and saw a seal about five feet away staring at me. Awesome!

Robert Creek Daze. Market, parade, hippies.

The Higgledy Piggledy Parade. (I told you there were hippies.)

As part of Roberts Creek Daze there is a Mr. Roberts Creek contest, or so I’ve heard. I didn’t witness any part of this contest and I don’t believe that I spotted Mr. Roberts Creek in the parade. Instead, I choose to believe that this dog is Mr. Roberts Creek. Congratulations Dog!

We had lunch in Davis Bay at the Lighthouse truck – a goal I’ve been working toward all summer long. Not a grand goal, mind you, but a goal nonetheless. For those of you wondering, they do not stay open until dusk and watching them drive away as you arrive is a sad experience. Great place for lunch though!

Did some Davis Bay exploring.

This sign made me laugh. I know salmon spawning and migration is serious (I think everyone who’s gone to elementary school in B.C. knows about this) but this is cheesy and funny.

Not pictured: Getting to hear writers Wayson Choy and Jane Urquhart at the Festival of the Written Arts and hearing jazz singer Rebecca Jenkins perform.

A Solitary Activity

Writing is a solitary exercise. I may write with people around, I may enlist their help in reading and editing and giving feedback. I may talk over story ideas, but when it comes to putting the words down, I’m on my own.

For the most part, I’m okay with that. I’m not the kind of person who’s bothered by being alone. I’m more bothered by the days when I don’t go outside at all, but fortunately that hasn’t happened once this summer. In fact, living on the beach means I want to be outside all the time. I hate being inside with my computer many days.

We’re on another house-sitting gig, this time in Davis Bay, so yesterday morning I took myself, my notebook, and my pen to the beach by the Davis Bay Pier. This was my view as I wrote.

Wednesday morning, the beach was quiet. A few walkers. A few fishermen at the end of the pier. The bobbing head of a seal, stealing fish from their lines as they checked their crab traps. A change of scenery can be the most productive thing to do some days.

Yes, I write most of my first drafts on paper. Paper that blows around on a breezy beach.

A chunk of driftwood came in handy. I always have done my first drafts with pen and paper and it seems to be the way I write best. From there I’ll type it up, editing as I go (my first drafts on paper are very rough and – at times – illegible to anyone but me). I add to the story, take things out, flesh out details and characters. I like that typing it up forces a second draft. I’ll edit it on the computer and then I’ll often print it out and edit it again by hand, making notes and crossing bits out on paper. Sometimes from there I’ll go back and type it all up again as a new document. Generally, this is around the time that I’m ready to show it to a trusted reader. After that, more editing. I spend more time editing than I do writing, but I enjoy both processes.

Most writers, I think, have trouble knowing when a story is finished. We all want to write the perfect story and we all know that what we have written is not quite it. It might be very good, it might even come close, but it’s never perfect. That’s when you either have to leave it for a while, let it ferment, and come back to it later with a fresher eye. Or you have to simply let go, hope you’ve done the best you can right now, slip it into an envelope and send it away. I’ve come to like the distance that sending out a story gives me. I put it out in the world and I don’t think about it much. I let it fight its battle and I wait for the report. Then, if the story returns to me rejected, I look at it again. I can usually be more objective at this point. I can admit (sometimes) that that scene I truly love doesn’t really belong to this story. Or that piece of dialogue is cliched. And so I hack at it again and, hopefully, make it better.

A couple of weeks ago I was honestly excited to get a hand-written rejection letter from an editor. I think it’s the second-best thing after an acceptance. I re-edited that story with some of this editor’s suggestions and I sent it back into the world. We’ll see what happens.

I think this pier in Davis Bay might be the most photographed spot on the Sunshine Coast. At sunset in the summer you’ll see people stopped all along the water, taking pictures. They back up slowly, right into the road, trying to get the best angle. And by the road, I mean the highway.

Another great thing about Davis Bay…the free pile on the side of the road that  Peter and I drove by this morning. Obviously we pulled over to check it out. (Living in Victoria turned us into connoisseurs of the free pile). I plucked out a wooden coat hook to hang on the wall and another row of hooks that is probably for keys but I plan on using for jewellery. As I turned back to the car, Peter called out, “Unicorn mug! Unicorn mug!” The free pile also displayed a number of glass figurines, including a unicorn, and I thought this was what Peter was waving at. Hoping that he wasn’t becoming someone who collects glass figurines, I took a second look. We brought home this beauty:

I realize how entirely not a germaphobe I am when I have no problem drinking out of a mug we found in the street. (Yes, we will wash it first.)

Tonight I’m going to the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts. I’ve been wanting to go to this since I first heard about it, about five years ago. Very excited.

Coming tomorrow, my latest book review. Right now? I’m going to the beach.

Celebrations

This weekend my in-laws celebrated their retirement and their 35th wedding anniversary. Friends and family from near and far gathered to celebrate together on Saturday night. My own parents celebrated 37 years of marriage this year. I am constantly thankful that Peter and I both have parents with strong, long-lasting marriages. Our parents have shown us what a strong marriage and partnership looks like.

This weekend was the first time that Peter and his siblings have all been together since our wedding two years ago. Somehow, getting all of us “kids” together turns into this:

Friday night. Ostensibly, we were practicing our dance moves before Saturday. Peter is eating ice cream.

Saturday was a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky.

There are moments in life where time seems to stop. The seconds tick by a little more slowly and you can’t help but think, “I’ll remember this moment forever.” There were a couple of good moments Saturday night.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the party, as friends greeted each other and strangers met over a table laden with yummy food, Peter and I lay down on the grassy hill and watched for shooting stars. We celebrated our wedding reception in this same location on a similar August night. That night there wasn’t much opportunity to sneak away for a quiet moment together so we enjoyed Saturday night, side by side in the grass, Peter’s arm behind my head, a meteor shower above us.

As the party faded to a close, with just a few friends and family left, the music still going, those who remained kept dancing. “One more song”, we said and Peter started “Man on Fire” and we had one last dance to end the night. It was slow and happy and as Peter and I danced I thought, “I can’t wait to celebrate my own 35th anniversary.”

Pete and I, Saturday night. I didn’t realize until the next day that my camera lens had a smudge on it, unfortunately.

And at the end of the weekend, a beautiful sunset and a fire on the beach.

Tetelestai!

Lately I’ve been reading the gospel of Matthew during my personal prayer and quiet time. I try to read a chapter a day (I’m not always good about that) and, because I don’t always pay as much attention as I should, I jot notes in my journal as I read. Questions I have, observations I make, prayers or what have you. Sometimes, once I’ve finished reading, I’ll read from a Bible commentary. One commentator I like is William Barclay, who wrote an accompanying book for each book in the New Testament. Barclay offers background and historical information, compares the various gospels, and offers his own thoughts and translations. I often find him very helpful.

I’m almost at the end of Matthew; today I read chapter 27, which is Jesus’ crucifixion. There is a passage there that I’ve always wondered about. It’s verse 46: And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As a Christian, this is a strange thing to read. I believe that Jesus was and is God. So how can He be forsaken by God? The thing is, Jesus was also a human man. He was unique in that He is the only person to ever live without sin. And in this moment, all the sin of the world, of every person who had ever lived, was alive, or would live, came down on Him. Sin separates us from God. It’s possible that in this verse we see the first time Jesus was ever separated from God the Father. (This is all part of the mystery that is the Trinity and that really needs a whole other post. Possibly from a trained theologian.)

Barclay offers this up as a possible explanation and it’s something that I’ve heard in various forms before. But he also offers another suggestion, which led me to write this post today. I’ll try and summarize it here: Part of what makes Christianity unique is that we believe in a God who is all powerful. At the same time, we also believe in a God who gave that up for a time to live a human life. This is Jesus, who was born on earth as a baby and lived as a man. He went through puberty, he had brothers and sisters, he had a job. He experienced all the ups and downs of human life. He also lived without sinning. Sometimes I find it hard to even imagine what a human life would look like without sin, but Jesus actually lived that. The Bible tells us that Jesus was tempted (Luke 4:1-12), just as we are tempted in our lives. Basically, whatever we may experience or feel, whatever joy or despair, Jesus knows it. He felt it too.

Barclay suggests that part of the human experience is feeling separated from God. He writes: It seems to me that Jesus would not be Jesus unless He had plumbed the uttermost and ultimate depths of human experience. Barclay tells us (and I believe this to be true from my own experience) that in life, often when tragedy comes, we will feel that God has forgotten us, forsaken us. I think that the majority of Christians, if they are being honest, will admit that they have experienced this at some point in their lives. As a man, Jesus also experienced this so that, as Barclay says, there might be no place where we have to go where He has not been before.

The really cool thing though, and the thing that got me excited, was that the story doesn’t end here. Jesus doesn’t cry out about being forsaken and then die. Matthew 27:50 says: And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. (Bold letters added by me.) I never paid much attention that that but Barclay taught me something. Each gospel mentions this second cry but it’s the gospel of John that gives us more information. He said, “It is finished,” and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. (John 19:30) Barclay explains that in Greek (the language of the New Testament) and in Aramaic (the language that Jesus spoke) “It is finished” would be one word – tetelestai. Let me just quote to you what Barclay has to say about that last word.

Tetelestai is the victor’s shout; it is the cry of the man who has completed his task; it is the cry of the man who has won through the struggle; it is the cry of the man who has come out of the dark into the glory of the light, and who has grasped the crown. So, then, Jesus died a victor and a conqueror with a shout of triumph on His lips.

I can’t tell you how that makes my heart feel. I already knew, and have known for a while, that Jesus was victorious. That His death was not final but instead He conquered death and rose again. Jesus died victorious and He rose victorious.

Jesus felt far away from God, just as any one of us might feel far away from God. Somedays, the presence of God is so powerful, like something I can taste on the air or feel in a room. Somedays, nothing. That says more about my circumstances and my heart than God Himself. I know that God is always present, but some days I have a hard time believing it. Knowing that Jesus too experienced that and overcame it gives me comfort. We have a God who knows that we will doubt Him, that we will feel alone and abandoned. We have a God who knows what that feels like. Through the Bible, He’s shared with us His own experience and we can take comfort in Him.

Book Review – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Finding a new author that I enjoy reading is a little like visiting a really cool city for the first time. You’re excited, you’re so happy you’ve come, you’re a little overwhelmed by all the exploration you have ahead of you.

You go home or you finish your book and you keep those fond memories. You tell your friends and family. You look over your photographs or you remember the best scenes and characters and you feel thankful for the experience. You start to think about going back. Or about reading another book by that author. But you wonder: Can the second time ever match up to the first?

All that preamble to say, I read a second book by Michael Chabon, who I recently read for the first time and realized why his wife loves him so much. I actually had a copy of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union out of the library before we left Chilliwack but ran out of time to read it. So imagine my delight when I saw a copy in a thrift store in Gibsons. $2 later, it was mine. It didn’t disappoint.

The premise of the novel is best described as kind of bizarre. The story takes place in an alternate universe where the nation of Israel fell apart in 1948 and a district was set up in Alaska for Jews. Now, 60 years later, this District of Sitka is set to revert to American rule and many of the Jews will be forced to relocate from the only home they’ve known. Who thinks up that kind of premise? It’s brilliant. Throughout the novel we are given hints as to other ways this world is different from our own. Those differences include everything from a nuclear bombing of Berlin, to the marriage of JFK and Marilyn Monroe.

I will admit that I’m not overly familiar with Judaism. Most of what I know about this religion comes from the Old Testament and/or Hollywood. While reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union I kept consulting Wikipedia to see if Chabon had just made things up or if they were true. I have a feeling that if you knew Jewish culture there would be some good jokes in this book. I did love the mixture of traditional Judaism (black hats and side curls) with Alaskan stereotypes of plaid shirts and work boots. Picture all that on one person – that’s the District of Sitka. Chabon’s descriptions were vivid and real, easy to imagine even while seeming absurd.

Our main character is Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic, chess-hating detective who lives in a dingy hotel and whose ex-wife just became his boss. Yep, throw some hard-boiled detective stereotypes in the mix too.

Which isn’t to say that the novel or its characters are stereotypes. Not at all. Landsman’s partner is Berko Shemets, a half-Jewish, half-Tlingit who looks Native American but has embraced his Jewish roots fully. Berko embodies all the tension that exists in the District of Sitka between the Tlingit and the Jewish populations. My personal favourite character was the boundary maven, a man who lives and works in the Orthodox community. Their religious precepts rely on him yet he remains an outsider. He knows every hidden corner and every telephone pole but he doesn’t know what he believes.

Over all of this ticks the countdown of Sitka’s status. Time is running out and everyone is preparing in a different way. Parts of the ending felt too neatly wrapped up. Other parts were a complete surprise, packing all the punch that such events would carry in real life. Chabon creates an ending that seems realistic, even in our world.

I’ll be reading my next Chabon book as soon as I can get my hands on one.

Responsible Plant Owners

Our view these days. (Also – the calm before the crazy storm last night!)

You know who’s thriving throughout all our moving around these days?

Vern the Asparagus Fern! Vern is a champ. He’s growing like crazy and we moved him to a bigger pot this week. Peter and I are very proud that we’ve kept Vern alive for well over a year. This means we might be ready to get a dog.

A B.C. Day Post

August!

August means apples! At least, for some reason, it does to me. I eat apples all year round but this is the time of year they start appearing on trees in this part of the world.

I have some big life news to share…

I took a big girl step this weekend and I got my learner’s driving license. Yep, I’m 26 and I don’t know how to drive. I figured that since I have already shared my love of The Bachelorette on this blog, this fact is not as embarrassing.

I don’t really have a good excuse as to why it’s taken me so long to do this. Sometimes I tell people it’s because I was born in another country. Which is true. Then I let them believe that I’m some sort of recent immigrant. Which is not true. The best reason I can come up with is that I’ve never needed to drive. I always lived in the city and there was always cheap, reliable public transit to get me around. Then we moved to Chilliwack.

In Victoria, I had a few friends that also didn’t drive. Lots of people who were my age didn’t own cars. In Chilliwack, when I told people I didn’t drive, I think they were secretly trying to figure out if I had some sort of disability. You really can’t live in Chilliwack without a car. Knowing this, Peter and I bought our first car last autumn. I did my best at getting around town on foot, on my bike, or on the bus. People who had lived their whole lives in Chilliwack had never taken the bus. It’s not a terrible service but it doesn’t run very frequently, it stops early on in the evening, and it doesn’t go to every part of the city. Also, the Chilliwack bus drivers I met were the unfriendliest I’ve ever come across. (That’s a generalization based on my small experience. If you are or you know a wonderful Chilliwack bus driver, I’m sure you or they are great.)

Now we live in a smaller town with a smaller bus service. My husband has put up with my lack of driving ability for the past five years that we’ve known each other. I bit the bullet. So I now have a license that allows me to learn how to drive. The next step is getting behind the wheel…

In other news, I tried a wee photo experiment the other night. As I sat down at the beach, I tried to take as many different photos as I could without moving. I stopped only because some people sat down nearby and I didn’t want them to think I was a creep taking pictures of them.
Here are some of my results.

And then the sun set.

To the British Columbians out there: Happy B.C. Day!

To the rest of the Canadians: Happy Civic Holiday!

Everybody else: Happy Monday!