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Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

August 1, 2016

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Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X are two of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. With decades of hindsight, they’re both celebrated as heroes of civil and human rights, though when they first emerged as public figures in the early 1960s, they more often roused fear, ire and hatred. In 1963, Ali was still going by the name of Cassius Clay. He was a brash young newcomer who declared to all who would lend an ear that he would soon upset Sonny Liston and become the heavyweight champ. He was seen by boxing purists as unpolished in style and disrespectful in demeanor. At the same time, Malcolm X was one of the most influential members of the Nation of Islam, the black separatist group that many whites viewed with suspicion and trepidation. Their stories intertwined during the most pivotal time in both men’s lives, indeed a volatile moment in the history of the United States. Blood Brothers is about the influence the men had on each other.

When Clay was on the rise, few gave him any shot of living up to the hype that flowed from his own lips. As the title fight with Sonny Liston approached in February of 1964, Cassius was a seven to one Vegas underdog. Boxing reporters wrote him off (leading to Clay’s famous “eat your words!” tirade when Liston failed to meet the bell in the seventh). But Clay did have an inner circle who believed in him. One of those people was Malcolm X. The two had met after Clay saw Malcolm speak at a rally in 1962. They had become fast friends, although the relationship and Clay’s growing affiliation with the NOI was kept under wraps to protect the boxer from bad PR. Malcolm may not have known a lot about boxing, but he recognized an indomitable character when he saw one. He believed everything Cassius predicted about his future. He believed Cassius was destined for greatness. Surrounded by doubters, this meant a lot to Clay.

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But Malcolm’s motivations weren’t selfless. He knew that a personality like Clay, a heavyweight champion, could bring legitimacy to the Nation. Clay’s membership alone would be a recruiting tool. The Nation knew it too. Even though they had decried boxing as a dirty sport, as soon as Clay won the championship, they changed their tune. Led by the fraudulent Elijah Muhammad, the Nation persuaded Clay to go public with his membership. In 1965, amid a storm of controversy, the famous boxer changed his name to Cassius X.

As Cassius was growing closer to the Nation, Malcolm was having an increasingly public falling out. His own beliefs were evolving as his understanding of true Islam grew, and he was becoming increasingly aware of Elijah Muhammad’s hypocrisies. He and the NOI developed a very public feud and, forced to choose, Cassius sided with the NOI, abandoning Malcolm. There was an especially poignant moment when the two meet later in Ghana. Malcolm approached Cassius like old friends, but Cassius turned away, rebuffing Malcolm for leaving the NOI.

As the rift between Malcolm and the NOI grew, it then grew more and more caustic, then turned deadly. On February 21, 1965, before giving a speech at the Audobon Ballroom in New York, Malcolm was assassinated. Cassius, of course, would go on to live a long and celebrated life, the only three-time heavyweight champion and one of the greatest sports figures of the century. In his later years, he would follow a similar path as Malcolm, leaving the NOI and becoming an orthodox Sunni Muslim.  He passed away just two months ago, June 2, 2016, at the age of 74. But he had said publicly and in his autobiography that never patching things up with Malcolm was one of his greatest regrets.

While the intertwining of the two men’s stories is interesting, I didn’t find much new here. David Remnick’s King of the World and Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention tell essentially the same stories. I wanted more of Ali’s private thoughts after decades of hindsight. Ali had a long time to think about his relationship with Malcolm and that period in his life. I wanted to know a little more about what the older, wiser Ali thought of his younger self.

That said, Ali is always entertaining to read about. His first fight with Liston is a classic, with his Louisville Lip clowning against Liston’s ex-con steeliness. One of my favorite moments is when, as the two are out promoting the fight, Liston says to Clay as Cassius is finishing a chicken dinner, “You eat like you headed to the electric chair.” Clay saw himself as an entertainer (“Where do you think I would be next week if I didn’t know how to shout and holler?”), but he claimed to be genuinely scared of Liston.

There are other moments when the poetry of the sport is captured beautifully in the lines. Although from a newspaper report, the book contains this wonderful analogy during the Clay vs Cooper fight in England. While Clay circled Cooper, popping him with jabs, one of his gloves began to rip. “As Clay threw punches, small tufts of horse hair spit out of the tear in his glove like spent cartridges…”

Or when the author describes Clay’s pauses mid-combination as if he were a master painter, “…stepping back to admire his work before adding a final dab of color.”

I could read about boxing all day, and in that, Blood Brothers delivers. But overall, while this book does bind the stories of Malcolm X and Cassius Clay together into one narrative, it doesn’t add much to what we already knew about that story.

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

August 1, 2016

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During final evaluations with one of my scriptwriting students (an advertising scriptwriting class), I asked him what kind of writing he admired. He mentioned the Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh. I’d never heard of McDonagh, so I asked him to recommend a play. He recommended The Pillowman. I read it and was blown away.

Act I opens with a classic prisoner’s dilemma. Two police officers are interrogating a man, a writer, Kataurian for his alleged role in a crime. His brother, they say, is in an adjoining room, also being interrogated. As they interrogate Katurian, their questions focus on a handful of his short stories, of which he has written hundreds. Katurian recounts stories for the officers, unsure of what they’re after. The stories are delightfully cruel and unsettling, like modern Grimm’s fairy tales. Katurian is obviously proud of the stories, though the literary nuances are over the heads of his audience. The officers are more concerned with plot points. During the interrogation, we begin to hear the screams of Katurian’s brother through the wall. In Act II, the two brothers are now together in a cell. Katurian is horrified to learn the truth of his brother’s confession.

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I won’t give any more away, because part of the delight is the way in which McDonagh metes out pertinent information little by little, orienting us then reorienting us. We feel we are in the hands of a master manipulator. And as the story grows darker and darker, we feel like we’re somehow being implicated in the crime. Because as the story unfolds, we learn that it’s not just the writer and his brother on trial for a crime. The writer is on trial for his unrelentingly cruel imagination. The stories are on trial—the morality of bringing such darkness from one’s imagination into the world.

The Pillowman leaves one equally dazzled and unsettled. The sparseness of the form is remarkable, as is the quality of each of Katurian’s stories nested throughout the play. They get progressively darker and progressively better, ensuring that we can’t look away. There is a lot to pull us along. The Pillowman is a psychological thriller of the highest order.

Gun Guys: A Road Trip by Dan Baum

August 1, 2016

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I was moving from California to Texas. As part of my immersion, I thought I’d listen to a book about gun culture during my three-day drive. I will say upfront that I am not a fan of guns. I understand that the Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment to mean that civilians can own guns with an idiotic amount of killing power. But I also like to consider the views of rational, well-informed and passionate people with whom I disagree. Unfortunately, with a topic like guns, those voices are usually heavy on the passion, sometimes well-informed but rarely rational. This goes for both sides of the debate. The people most energized to speak out tend to be the people at the far ends of the bell curve. And while two of them going at it on cable news is entertaining (some would say), the result is that we rarely find any middle ground. It’s rare that it’s even sincerely sought. Had this book been written by an anti-gun lefty or a pro-gun right-winger, I would have passed. What attracted me to Gun Guys was that Dan Baum’s views are incongruent with his political identity: he’s a liberal Democrat who lives in Boulder, but happens to really like guns.

In this book, he travels the country and dives into the gun culture of America. Gun shows, gun shops, hunting clubs, antique gun collectors, thrill-seeking machine gun shooters, even someone in charge of guns on Hollywood movie sets. A women’s “run-and-gun” champ (it’s a sport). A concealed-carry instructor in Detroit. The head of a group called Jews For the Preservation of Firearm Ownership. His goal is to really understand gun culture, to understand why other people are passionate about guns. He attempts to engage in conversations with all of them and finds them to be a varied lot (not surprising, since roughly one in three adults in the U.S. is a gun owner).

Although Baum is a gun-lover, he takes it one step further by getting licensed for concealed carry. He wants to see how a gun under his shirt affects his psyche. Beyond a little physical discomfort, he describes how it changes the way he processes his environment. Maintaining “Condition Yellow,” is what the gun training courses call it; “Hyper-vigilant” is how I might describe it—always on the lookout for potential threats. Baum grapples with the notion that anyone carrying a gun around on their hip holds, at some level, a fantasy of taking out a bad guy in a gun fight. We’re conditioned to be this way, by years of cartoons and video games and action figures and shooting friends with anything from a squirt gun to a whiffle bat. As a former boy, I can conservatively estimate that guns occupy about 65% of our fantasy lives, only to be replaced by boobs (for most of us) when we reach puberty. So is condition yellow a good or bad thing? It’s hard to say.

Baum covers many of the issues related to guns, including the history, the politics, the Constitutional arguments, the economics, the specifics of the AR-15. That’s a particularly interesting section, as the AR-15 is one of the most popular, most vilified yet least understood gun on the market. It’s not an automatic (which would require it to continually fire whenever the trigger is squeezed). It’s technically not an assault weapon. It’s even hard to say physically what an AR-15 is. One of its appeals is that it’s a modular weapon. The only truly common part of the AR-15 is something called the lower receiver. The rest of the weapon—the stock, the grip, the sight, even the caliber of the bullets—can be modified. It’s an adult “Lego set.” Which makes it difficult to even define, let along legislate or regulate.

In his conversations with the people he encounters, Baum grows frustrated with the stereotypical red-faced, red-state gun owners. The people with the racist Obama bumper stickers, who launch into “come and take it” rants whenever they catch a whiff of a gun law. To them, any restriction is an encroachment on the Second Amendment and leads immediately to “Obama wants to take all our guns away.” There is no room for discussion. It is arguing with a religious zealot.

On the other side, Baum finds the pro-gun-control politicians to be incompetently ignorant. They use gun control as a campaign tool. They preach intolerance for a machine they have little understanding of, much less appreciation for. He points to Diane Feinstein, a hardcore gun-control advocate, who sometimes doesn’t even use the correct terminology for the guns. Importantly, they are as at fault for degrading the conversation around gun control because they regularly attack responsible gun owners, or make it seem like responsible gun owners are to blame when a mass shooting happens. Their message, implicit or explicit, is, “We don’t trust you. You aren’t responsible enough to have that kind of gun. Or that kind of ammo clip.”

What Baum is searching for with Gun Guys is genuine empathy—something sorely lacking from our modern political discourse. To me, this goes beyond the gun debate. The gun debate is symptomatic of a larger problem: two sides with religiously fundamental positions, dug in and unwilling not just to compromise, but to even engage in true conversation. They might “debate,” but we don’t need a debate. A debate is something you try to win. What we need is a conversation, a genuine search for deeper understanding and appreciation. A conversation is what Baum is looking for here.

As he says in an interview with Mother Jones:

When something like Sandy Hook or Aurora happens, the knee-jerk reaction on the left is ban the guns! When you do that, you also alienate the very people who might help us reduce gun violence. They’re the people who know guns, who know how they function, who know how to train people to be around them. If we didn’t have this tribal instinct to vilify the other, we could be doing so much more good.

And who benefits from this tribalism? Who benefits when gun owners feel threatened and “gun up?” Like most of our political issues, behind the scenes someone is making a fortune. In this case, it’s the gun manufacturers. One of the biggest shifts that can happen with this issue is to recognize that the gun debate always benefits the gun industry. The NRA, once an organization for the expressed purpose of promoting gun safety, is now just a PR group for the gun industry. They advocate for making gun manufacturers rich. Having a rationally untenable position is fine as long as it keeps the debate burning hot. The biggest boon to gun sales is an angry, reactionary left. And every time a mass shooting happens, gun manufacturers hear the cha-ching of the cash register.

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This pro-carry gun supporter was asked to leave the reserved designated protest area of anti-carry gun protestors as they gathered on the West Mall of the University of Texas campus to oppose a new state law that expands the rights of concealed handgun license holders to carry their weapons on public college campuses. He was asked to leave by the Dean of Students, at bottom center, and then UT Police and when he refused he was arrested and removed and was charged with Criminal Trespass and Resisting Arrest. Starting August 1, 2016, permitted gun holders can carry in campus buildings although schools can however designate limited gun-free zones. RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

So how has my thinking evolved after Gun Guys? I have a greater understanding that “gun culture” doesn’t apply to a homogenous group. Sure, there are the Obama-hating, red-faced angry white dudes most associated with the NRA. But there are a lot of other sub-groups and varied motivations for owning guns—hunting and self-defense, sure, but also those who just enjoy the sport of shooting. Or the love of tinkering with small, powerful machines. Or have the collector mindset. I can empathize with a lot of those passions. For my birthday years ago, I half-jokingly suggested we go to a range and fire guns. I’d never shot anything other than a B.B. gun as a kid. It was a blast. I can see why people love it.

But we can’t have mentally unstable people shooting up night clubs with AR-15s. And as video after video shows, many police are unprepared to deal with gun laws as they exist (something both open-carry advocates and civil-rights advocates agree on). It’s hard to blame cops for this—a permitted “good guy” strolling down the street with an AR-15 over his shoulder looks remarkably similar to a “bad guy” doing the same. And as we saw in Dallas, if bullets start to fly in a crowd, it complicates the situation to have civilians running around with guns, permitted or not. Finally, it would obviously benefit everyone (save gun makers) for mass shootings to not be commonplace in our news. Better gun safety is something both sides should (and the majority of Americans do) agree on. The NRA of 40 years ago could broker that conversation, but it’s not going to happen with today’s cash-corrupted, politicized organization.

So who will it be? In my mind, Gun Guys is a good example that the discussion doesn’t need to break down along the tired left/right divide. Dan Baum, by the mere circumstance of his progressive politics and love of guns, is uniquely qualified to lead this kind of conversation. Although “sensible” is not an exciting word, in this conversation it is unique. Baum’s common sense coupled with his witty writing style (think Bill Bryson or Jon Ronson) makes Gun Guys an enjoyable, informative and sensible read on a white-hot topic.

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

July 31, 2016

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Erik Larson’s The Devil In the White City, about a serial killer during 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, was one of my favorite books from 2002. In the Garden of Beasts (2011), about an American diplomat in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, was decent but a little flat. Like these previous books, Dead Wake is historical fiction, this time about the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. I’ve been on a World War I kick lately and a friend recommended this book, so I thought I’d give it a try.

If and when the United States should engage in foreign wars has always been hotly debated. Our isolated geography, bordered as we are on two sides by vast oceans, affords us the relative security to have these debates and decide on our own terms. For the first century of our existence, the U.S. followed the isolationist path advocated by George Washington in his 1796 farewell address:

Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation…Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

This changed with World War I. Despite what most Americans wanted, we could no longer watch from the sidelines as Europe fought its battles. Technology was shrinking the oceans. Trade, treaties and moral obligations tied us to other nations like never before. World War I marked the moment that the far-flung British offshoot stepped onto the world stage, this time to come to the aid of its former imperial master. The U.S. would emerge from World War I as a top global power, but its entrance into the war was no foregone conclusion. As with many of our wars, it took an acute moment, a shocking event. For the World War I generation, that event was the sinking of the Lusitania.

In June of 1914, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand set off a series of events that quickly folded Europe in upon itself. By August, a tangle of treaties obliged country after country to dive into the conflict, which quickly escalated to a grinder of human lives unlike anything the world had ever seen. From afar, Americans debated if and when they might be compelled to join. After the atrocities committed by German soldiers in Belgium, public opinion was clearly on the side of the Allies. But it was not as clear if committing troops would be worth it. President Woodrow Wilson was an isolationist at heart, but by the end of the 1915, he would begin to change his mind.

The rapidly expanding war debt owed by the Allies to the U.S. (lost in the event of a Central Powers victory) and a possible German-Mexican alliance were growing pressures. But the greatest factor was that Germany was sinking a rapidly increasing number of ships in the Atlantic. Suddenly, those oceans that had always provided the U.S. with a natural line of defense represented a dire threat.

Likewise, Great Britain, the dominant naval power since the middle of the 18th Century, was used to the ocean providing a military advantage. But that advantage disappeared Germany’s fleet of 48 submarines began patrolling the seas in 1914. German U-boats (for the rough translation “underwater boat”) essentially neutralized the Royal Navy. Any ship venturing away from port could be sunk with one well-placed torpedo.

The North Atlantic was nonetheless a busy trade and travel route. International law protected non-military ships. But as Germany suspected the Allies were using passenger ships to transport military supplies and personnel, it began to cross that line. German subs sometimes warned their targets, allowing passengers and crew to abandon ship before sending the vessel to the bottom, but giving warning required the U-boat to surface, which put it at risk. Complicating matters further, the British introduced the Q-ship in 1915. These were ships disguised to look like merchant vessels to lure German subs close, but were actually heavily-fortified gunships. Thus, the Germans opted to keep a safe distance and fire upon pretty much any ship they desired. U-boat captains were measured by the tonnage of the ships they sank; military and non-military tonnage counted equally.

In short, the seas were treacherous for any ship. This was no secret. In fact, on April 22, 1915, the German embassy ran an ad explicitly warning of danger to any passenger ship crossing the sea near Great Britain. The warning ran next to an ad selling tickets on the RMS Lusitania.

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As anyone who has heard of the Lusitania knows, the threat was not idle. On May 7, 1915, eleven miles south of Ireland, German U-boat U-20 torpedoed the Lusitania. Shortly after the initial strike, a second still-unexplained explosion ripped the ship open from the inside. A mere eighteen minutes later, it was on the bottom of the ocean. The attack killed 1,198, including 128 Americans. In death toll, in emotional impact, and in result, the Lusitania was the Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 of that generation. It was an act that enraged even the Americans most reluctant to go to war.

But there is a question that immediately comes to mind: What the hell were passengers thinking to board one of the world’s most luxurious ocean liners and attempt to cross waters known for submarine attacks? The Lusitania went down only three years after the RMS Titanic. With that famous shipwreck still fresh, everyone knew it was possible that an ocean liner of that size could be sunk. Yet, the Lusitania was sunk, in part, by the same hubris that sunk the Titanic. The ships carried an air of invincibility. And it was commonly believed that the Lusitania was too big and too fast to be caught by a German submarine.

How these beliefs, along with tactical blunders put the Lusitania in the periscope crosshairs of U-20 is a fascinating part of this story. Equally interesting are the stories of the people involved—U.S. captain William Turner and German Walther Schwieger. Larson develops other characters on board too—we’re introduced to mothers and fathers, children, artists and socialites, businessmen and politicians. Through them, we feel the spirit of the times. And when the ship goes down, that 1,198 is more than just a number. We watch from the deck through the eyes of a few witnesses, amazed by the tranquil beauty of the North Atlantic, then mesmerized by the haunting sight of a torpedo slicing through that tranquil water like a shark three meters below the surface. We are with passengers as they face the terrible truth that they are going into the water. We follow them as they frantically scramble to locate loved ones. We even get the story of a few people sucked into the massive smokestack funnels and then blown back out again in a blast of hot water (amazed to survive to tell the story).

The sinking of passenger ships by German U-boats was one of the Germany’s biggest strategic blunders of the war. With pressure mounting, the Lusitania provided the most successful propaganda imaginable. It helped ignite the American war machine, and once the American’s arrived, the end was not far off for the Central Powers. It is a pivotal moment in a pivotal war in world history, and Larson’s telling of the story is exciting, accessible and compelling, even if the end is a foregone conclusion.

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The wreckage of the RMS Lusitania, under 300 feet of water in the north Atlantic. 

The Interrogation

July 13, 2016

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Are you pooping? You’re pooping, aren’t you? Are you? Are you pooping? Do you need to go sit on the potty?

What’s going on in here?

I think she’s pooping. Are you pooping?

Hey! Hey! Are you pooping? You’re pooping. She sure is making a face like she’s pooping.

Are you pooping? You sure look like you’re pooping.

I know that face. We know that face. We know what is means. I know you know what it means. I know you know we know what it means.

Are you pooping? You are. Let’s go sit on the potty.

Nod if you’re pooping. Are you pooping? Just nod. Can you nod? We know you’re pooping.

No? You’re not pooping, or no you don’t need to go sit on the potty?

Look, we know you’re pooping. We can see it. This will be a lot easier if you just let us—

We’re going. Now. Let’s go to the potty.

What do you mean, no? Who do you think is in charge here?

Are you pooping? Are you pooping?

Do you need to sit on the potty?

Are you pooping?

Oh, no. Did you—

Did you poop? Why are you making that face?

You pooped, didn’t you?

Did you poop? Tell us if you pooped. Nod if you—

[sniff] Oh, God.

Great. Just great. Why didn’t you just say you were pooping?

 

Fade to black.

 

Death’s Head Chess Club by Jon Donoghue

July 4, 2016

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It was hard to read this novel following David Benioff’s City of Thieves and not compare the two. Aside from the World War II setting, chess games play a pivotal role in the plot of each novel. Which may seem trivial, were it not for the symbolic significance of the game of chess. Chess levels the playing field and sets even the power dynamic between the opponents. Regardless of rank, background, or whose holster carries a bigger weapon, when two men sit to play chess, they are agreeing that these outside circumstances are irrelevant. An honorable game of chess matches mind against mind, may the better mind win. There are no excuses. The results must be recognized as truth.

Set in the realm of Nazi Germany, this significance is amplified. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens lifted the skirt on Hitler’s asinine claims of Aryan supremacy. No rhetoric or propaganda could obfuscate the fact that the greatest athlete in the world was a black man. Likewise, the chess games at the center of both City of Thieves and, to a greater extent, Death’s Head Chess Club set up a dynamic in which the powerless plays the all-powerful, the lesser mind (per Nazi doctrine) plays the supreme. The reader, of course, roots for and delights in the victory of the underdog.

The bifurcated narrative in Death’s Head Chess Club bounces back and forth between Auschwitz in the 1940s and Amsterdam in the 1960s. In Auschwitz, SS Obersturmführer Paul Meissner, charged with improving the morale of his men, orchestrates a chess tournament among Nazi soldiers. There is a rumor that one of the Jews in the camp, Emil Clément, also known as “The Watchmaker,” is an unbeatable chess master. Meissner, to goad Emil into playing against the SS officers, puts a price on the game—if Clément wins, his friend will be protected from going “up the chimney.” It is the same contrivance, the life-or-death stakes of the chess match, that Benioff uses in City of Thieves. Here, it is repeated time and again, as officer after officer competes against The Watchmaker and Clément is forced to bare the pressure of these games—each game determines the fate of a fellow Jew.

In the 1960s plot line, Meissner and Clément coincidentally meet again, this time when Clément is playing a chess tournament in the Netherlands. He is scheduled to play a man who is a former Nazi propagandist, and the impending match dregs up all the memories and emotions from Auschwitz. Meissner is a Catholic bishop now (after the war, he served time for war crimes, then became a priest). He is dying of Leukemia.

The plot of two men from opposing sides meeting decades after the concentration camp holds dramatic potential, but here the plot is too contrived. It stretches credulity too many times for the purpose of setting up a final moral reckoning. What are the bounds of repentance, of human forgiveness? It’s a worthy topic if the answers didn’t come so easily. Some of the online reviews are scathing on this point—bashing Donoghue for imagining happy endings in a story about Auschwitz (or even pretending that a Jew would be invited, or able to play chess after full days of back-breaking labor on a loaf of bread).

It’s tough to construct an alternative history when the actual history carries such weight. Elie Wiesel passed away Saturday after a life dedicated to shining a light on the true horrors of Nazi Germany. And Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, while Hollywood, was based on real-life Oskar Schindler. Death’s Head Chess Club does not make light of Auschwitz. The prose is actually self-consciously heavy at points. But it imagines an Auschwitz that fits an easy narrative, for the sake of narrative. Were it pushed more into satire (I thought it might be headed when a chess club was proposed as the solution to dwindling morale at the concentration camp) or into a dialectic examination of forgiveness, it would be in safer territory. Safe might not be something to shoot for, whether the topic is the Holocaust or something less flammable. Because of that, Donoghue might be applauded for taking a big swing, even if he doesn’t quite connect. And aside from the plot contrivances and the sometimes overly-weighty prose, The Death’s Head Chess Club is an engaging, provocative read.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

July 3, 2016

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During the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944), Lev, a young Jewish boy, is out after curfew to investigate a dead Luftwaffe pilot who has parachuted onto a nearby street. Lev is arrested by Soviet security forces and thrown into prison where he meets Koyla, a Cossack soldier imprisoned for desertion. There, the mismatched duo are brought before an intimidating NKVB colonel who makes them a deal: If they can retrieve a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding in five days, they will be set free (eggs are a rare luxury in destitute Leningrad). If they fail to deliver the eggs, they will be executed.

David Benioff (The 25th Hour, Game of Thrones) is a master storyteller. As the two young men set off on their fool’s errand, you can feel the mechanics of the narrative propelling the plot forward. Every character, every scene, every encounter has a purpose. The eggs are the MacGuffin, but also work as a nice symbol for the desperation of Leningrad at the time. They are meaningless in a land of oppression, violence and death. But they mean everything. They provide two narrative gears: a very clear objective and a ticking clock.

The boys face a gauntlet of obstacles that test their courage, cunning and inner strength. We see a world destroyed, chaos, absurdity, moral ambiguity and characters who run the gamut from heroic comrades to embodiments of human depravity. The eggs, of course, are only the driver of the plot. The real story is about Lev, his coming of age and his relationship with Koyla.

This is a good read, fast-paced and masterfully constructed. It has the same mix of shocking violence and gallows humor that makes Game of Thrones so enjoyable. I can’t find any information about a movie option yet, but it would make for a good film.

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