On Feb. 27, 1943, the final roundup of the Nazi capital’s remaining 10,000 Jews took place. Some 1,800 so-called “privileged” Jews—mostly males who had an Aryan parent, or were married to non-Jews or were decorated veterans of the Great War—were corralled in the Jewish welfare office. What followed next was one of the most astonishing spectacles of the Third Reich: arriving alone or in small groups came the men’s German wives, at times swelling the crowd to almost 1,000. For a week, in the words of a contemporary diary, the women “called for their husbands, screamed for their husbands, howled for their husbands, and stood like a wall, hour after hour, night after night.” The Gestapo threatened but in the end blinked, and released the prisoners. It was only a tiny wobble in the inexorable progress of the Holocaust—the other 8,000 Jews rounded up went straight to Auschwitz—but a striking moment in the life of a city that was at once the heart of Nazi power and the least Nazi-supportive part of Germany.
Moorhouse opens his engrossing story of life in Berlin during wartime with Hitler’s 50th birthday party in April 1939, an event marked for the 4.5 million Berliners by a public holiday, parties and a parade of military might that stretched for 100 km. It ends six years later with Stunde Null (zero hour), as survivors—including 1,400 Jews hiding in Berlin’s underground—emerged into a city reduced to rubble after relentless Western bombing, and now subject to the Red Army, which arrived in one of the most ferocious displays of fire and sword (and rape) ever recorded.
In between, Berlin at War offers tales from the black market and from the blackouts (including tales of serial murderers), and such vignettes as the air raid shelter encounter between William Shirer (the anti-Nazi American chronicler of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) and Lord Haw-Haw (the Irish pro-Nazi propaganda broadcaster). “An interesting and amusing fellow,” Shirer recorded, if you could get past him being a “scar-faced Fascist rabble-rouser.”
– BRIAN BETHUNE
Novelist Patrick McCabe gives us another so-called “Bog Gothic” set in Ireland, this time revolving around daily life in Cullymore, a small town full of characters from central casting: the pretentious banker’s wife, the affable barber, the level-headed policeman, the young man returning from England to claim his sweetheart’s hand in marriage. Cullymore has an equal number of Protestants and Catholics, but “we’re all the same,” everyone makes a point of saying. It’s 1958, and the violence of the Troubles is still 10 years away.
Yet something is amiss. The local priest, Father Hand, seethes with envy of an Irish-American priest who hobnobs with celebrities. The barber’s wife harbours homicidal fantasies, while a disgraced Latin teacher polishes his rifle and prepares revenge against an old colleague. As the town gears up to perform an Easter play, Tenebrae, cracks start to show in the Irish pastoral.
McCabe creates and sustains a sense of menace mostly by keeping readers off-kilter. We poke around inside the disquieted minds of the townsfolk, wondering who’s narrating this tale and how does he know so much.
The “inscrutable chronicler” is the devil himself, we finally learn, who steps into the story at will to brag about his evil machinations. These intrusions are a bit heavy-handed, but always worth the comic payoff. Working with his best tools—jealousy, greed, vanity—the devil makes decent people do terrible, funny things.
This is an anti-nostalgia book about Ireland’s past. McCabe expertly mocks the canon of Irish clichés: the Catholic priesthood is lampooned mercilessly, as are the paranoia and entitlement of the Protestant bourgeoisie. Nobody’s innocent and sanity is tenuous in this unsettling tale about human foibles.
McCabe is said to dislike the term Bog Gothic. Isn’t that rich? A successful author merits his own new literary genre, but takes issue with its name. Sounds like the devil at work in Cullymore.
– JOANNE LATIMER
Ephron is the most underrated of America’s overhyped writers. Her long-standing success as a journalist, novelist (and pioneer of the divorce-memoir genre), playwright, rom-com screenwriter and director has imbued the multi-tasker with near-institutional stature as a witty observer of life’s shallow end.
And certainly, her new essay collection bristles with trademark Ephron-esque breeziness—a cleverly mendacious title (she remembers plenty), quotable aphorisms (“the senior moment has become the Google moment”), candid disclosures (she loathes egg-white omelettes and big dessert spoons), and celebrity dish (she recalls her angst when Vanity Fair editor and restaurateur Graydon Carter named a meatloaf entree after her). Add to that a fondness for including recipes—among them egg salad (with extra yolks!)—and it’s obvious why Ephron’s not accorded the genuflection given, say, Jonathan Franzen.
Yet so stealthy is Ephron’s skill that it’s easy to overlook how masterfully she folds her life’s arc into a mere 135 pages. An early story about her mother ejecting New Yorker writer Lillian Ross from a dinner party is a minimalist masterpiece about growing up the child of an alcoholic, wishing her mother dead while she was alive—yet wanting to protect her even now. Ephron knows well the tragedy of fractured friendship, revealed in a sharp recounting of her doomed relationship with Lillian Hellman. And a piece that reduces New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to a “panellist” is a lesson in drive-by media criticism.
At age 69, Ephron writes with bracing humour about the rudeness of aging—her best friends dying, the hair on the back of her head shaping itself into “an Aruba.” She even provides lists of what she will and won’t miss when she’s dead. She won’t miss “email” and “washing my hair.” She will miss “my kids”—and ordering an extra dish “for the table.” The first choice is obvious, of course; the second is Ephron at her best, serving up small life details that pierce the heart.
– ANNE KINGSTON
At first glance, a book about writers opining about their favourite books is about as interesting as the colour of chewed gum, but Bound to Last turns out to be a surprising gem. In fact, it is not so much an anthology of writers and their favourites as it is a delightful and cosy collection of short stories about the hold a book can have on a reader.
In some cases, the specific book itself is an afterthought in these literary digressions. Take this from Elissa Schappell: “The first thing I noticed when I spotted my future husband, standing under the departures and arrivals board in Penn Station, was that he appeared to cut his own hair. The second, he was drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book. The third, the book was Francis Steegmuller’s Cocteau.” How’s that for an opener to an essay on Naked Lunch?
Whether it’s Louis Ferrante recounting how he discovered Les Misérables while serving time in the slammer, or Joyce Maynard craving to be reunited with her late father’s copy of the Bible, or Anthony Swofford carrying Camus’ The Stranger with him into the Persian Gulf War, or Rabih Alameddine on why he burst into tears when someone gave him a copy of The Carpetbaggers as a joke, we aren’t simply given an appreciation of the selected titles.
We also get a sense of the magic dust that floats around a given book: its smell; the painful or happy personal memories attached to it; where it was purchased, found or given; the palpable comfort gained from the mere presence of a worn, tattered copy sitting on a desk; how the sight of a book can instantly summon up a meandering thread of memory about a surname or a dinner party conversation. And, as Philipp Meyer writes: “Your books, unlike your laptop, e-reader, or whatever magic device they think of 10 years from now, will always be there.”
– JANE CHRISTMAS
Peters, the Canadian stand-up star who has just been signed for his own NBC sitcom, wanted his book to be a little different from the usual comedian’s guide to life. In his introduction, Peters’s brother and co-writer Clayton explains that they originally thought of it as a collection of comedy bits, but eventually expanded it into “an honest, frank account of the son of immigrants.” In practice, this means that while the book assembles the familiar batch of autobiographical anecdotes, some of them aren’t trying to be funny.
So, although some sections are typical of his stand-up (“in India, grown-ass men hold hands with other men and walk down the street like everything’s okay”), others concern his awareness of being “the first stand-up who looks like me.” He talks in a mostly serious fashion about his parents’ arrival in Canada and his hatred of the insult “Paki,” which he considers “my N-word.” Peters also throws in the occasional cautionary tale about people who weren’t as lucky as he was, including a kid from his neighbourhood who clubbed his father to death after smoking too much marijuana: “When people say that weed doesn’t mess you up, I say, ‘I beg to differ.’ ”
Still, this is mostly the usual story of a comedian’s ascent: club dates, failed network deals, and his combination of pride and irritation about all the illegal YouTube clips of his work—they made him famous, but are still the work of “some downloading bastard” who lessens the value of Peters’s material.
Like many successful comedians, Peters is preoccupied with the criticism he’s received; he “never forgot” a Toronto critic who gave him a bad review, and sniffs that he doesn’t know what the critic is “doing now.” Proving that stand-ups may come from different backgrounds, but none of them ever forgets a slight.
– JAIME J. WEINMAN
In 1753, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the cocoa tree Theobroma cacao—Greek for “food of the gods.” Once used in Aztec religious rituals, cocoa developed more monotheistic affiliations in the mid-19th century. Men such as Joseph Storrs Fry, John Cadbury and Joseph Rowntree—all devout Quakers—established chocolate companies that evolved into such enduring brands as Dairy Milk, Fry’s Cocoa and Kit Kat. Each subscribed to the dutiful Quaker notion of spreading the wealth they generated.
To this end, John Cadbury’s sons George and Richard built a village in the country for their family enterprise, hoping that fresh air, affordable housing and ethical working conditions would lead their staff to the “celestial city.” Rowntree’s son Seebohm published groundbreaking research about poverty. Both families gave away the better part of their fortunes to numerous trusts. Across the Atlantic, Milton Hershey—whose Mennonite background was simpatico with Quaker values—turned $60 million worth of company stock into a fund for orphans. “Too much money is an evil influence,” he explained.
While Deborah Cadbury sometimes over-sings the praises of her ancestors, her portrayal of their “principled capitalism” is quite convincing. Similarly worthy is her account of the evolution of cocoa, which first arrived in Europe in the 1500s as a thick, oily beverage. It wasn’t consumed in solid form until the mid-19th century. In 1875, the Swiss figured out how to mix in condensed milk, a process that mystified Americans and Brits for another 30 years. And then came Forrest Mars, the Canadian-born confectioner who, in the 1920s, changed the game entirely by introducing the first mass-produced chocolate-coated bar, Milky Way. In swift succession, several of today’s best-loved snacks—from Snickers to Smarties—were born.
The appearance of the non-religious (and as Cadbury depicts him, greedy) Mars seems to foreshadow the ultimate splintering of chocolate and faith. In particular, Cadbury laments the recent takeover by Kraft of her forebears’ company, but takes consolation from the continued work of the Cadbury and Rowntree trusts—as well as from the brief era in which the Quakers gave profit the most humane of profiles.
– DAFNA IZENBERG