Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Good German, by Joseph Kanon

The Good German takes place during the Potsdam Conference near the end of World War II. Jake Geismar is a reporter who's come to Berlin to write for Collier's magazine. He tags along with his photographer friend Liz as she visits the scene of the conference and he witnesses the discovery of a body floating in the lake nearby. Jake recognizes the dead man from his plane ride from Frankfurt to Berlin, and begins to investigate his murder. It turns out that the dead man (Tully) was operating on the black market, and had the equivalent of $10,000 on him.

Jake has another goal in Berlin: to track down his former lover, a German woman named Lena. Married to Emil, a brilliant scientist who has disappeared, she's been on her own for some time. Raped by one of the invading Russian soldiers, she's had an abortion and nearly died from an ensuing infection. Believing that Emil tried to come back for her, she convinces Jake to help her look for him. As Jake digs into the mystery of what happened to Emil, he realizes that Emil's story is intertwined with the murder that he's investigating.

The Good German is filled with fascinating characters who typify all of the competing interests that descended on Germany after the war. One man is gathering documentation to try Nazis for war crimes. Another is trying to identify scientists who can be exonerated of their crimes and brought to America to work for the government. Gunther is a former German policeman whose Jewish wife was betrayed and shipped off to her death. Sikorsky is a Russian military officer who's also looking for Emil. Dr. Rosen was held in a camp during the war and now serves as the doctor for a brothel. Erich is a young boy whom Jake promises to care for. As Jake investigates both of his mysteries, he unlocks a maelstrom of interlocking motives and interests that only come together at the end to reveal why Tully was killed.

Joseph Kanon has published seven historical mysteries, all set in the post-World War II period. All of his books were written after Mr. Kanon has devoted many years to a career in publishing, as both editor and president of publishing houses Houghton Mifflin and E.P. Dutton. His writing is excellent; there wasn't a dull moment in The Good German. This book was made into a 2006 film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. I remember enjoying the movie, but apparently it didn't do very well, getting only a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6/10 score on IMDB.

Joseph Kanon. The Good German. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. 482 pages. ISBN 0805064222.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton

The Camel Bookmobile describes a culture clash between a do-gooder librarian from the U.S. and a nomadic African tribe. Fiona Sweeney is a librarian who wants to do something worthwhile with her life. She signs on with an organization that brings books to Kenyan villages, some of them traditionally nomadic, on camels. Mr. Abasi is a librarian who was content with his stationary library and who resents being forced along on these daily excursions into the Kenyan countryside. This novel focuses on the village of Mididima, and shows how the incursion of Westerners and their values receives mixed responses from the villagers.

Some of the villagers welcome Fi and her books, in spite of the fact the some of the books are wildly inappropriate. Others are concerned that she's disrupting their way of life in ways that will bring harm to the community. When a boy in the village refuses to return the two books he borrowed, he threatens the whole village with both the loss of the camel bookmobile, and by bringing dishonor onto the village and villagers. Although this is the central drama of the book, there are many other conflicts in the village. The village schoolteacher Matani tries to bridge the emotional gap between him and his wife, Jwahir. She has become infatuated with Abayomi, an older man in the village whose son Taban was maimed by a hyena as a toddler. Taban is friends with Kanika, a girl who has been caught up in the spell of the books delivered by the camel bookmobile, and who dreams of going off to the Distant City (Nairobi). Taban, who refuses to return the two books, threatens all of Kanika's plans, which rely on the continuing visits of the bookmobile.

I enjoyed this exploration of the clash of two very different cultures. The book is written from many different perspectives, and each character's motivations are revealed over time. It is tender, kind, and not at all judgmental about any of the perspectives, but raises a lot of questions about what we value and why. Fi's relationships with each of the characters brings out show how she has grown and benefited from her adventure, and how they have changed and learned from her as well. This book would be good for anyone who enjoys thoughtful, contemporary fiction.

Masha Hamilton. The Camel Bookmobile. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. 308 pages. ISBN 9780061173486.