Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair*****

dragonsteethDragon’s Teeth is the third in the Pulitzer-winning Lanny Budd series. Set in 1942—the present, at the time it was written—it provides the reader with a fascinating, well-informed, hyper-literate view of Europe during the years before and during Hitler’s ascent to power. While it requires a fair amount of prior knowledge in order for the reader to keep up with the story, history lovers, political philosophers, and especially those fascinated by the period in question will find it riveting. Thank you Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for allowing me a DRC. This title is available for purchase digitally now.

Sinclair, himself a socialist of the Utopian variety, shows us the ideas of the “reds and pinks” that were plentiful and active—yet in the end, not active enough to prevent a Fascist takeover—during this period. Budd is the heir to a munitions-maker’s fortune, and so his is the life of the idle rich. He amuses himself by hosting salons, popular at the time, which were group discussions regarding alternative political ideas. His wife Irma is heir to an even greater fortune, and is uncomfortable hosting these odd people that speak of redistributing wealth, but in time she relaxes, understanding that this is just one of Lanny’s hobbies and is unlikely to ever affect her personal comfort level. And indeed, Lanny is never going to sully his hands by taking to the streets with working class militants; in fact, apart from buying and reselling artwork, he’s never going to even hold down a job, reasoning that it would be wrong of him to take a job he does not need when someone else really does need it. He is amused and comfortable in his role as armchair socialist and angel financier to a leftwing newspaper. Yet the idea of actually taking power…hmmm.

“It seemed to have begun with the Russian Revolution, which had been such an impolite affair.”

Nobody writes setting like Sinclair. The story begins in Italy following the First World War; Mussolini has risen to power, and we can almost hear the hard heels striking the cobblestones. Budd is somewhat concerned for Hansi, his brother-in-law who is Jewish, but he also believes that money talks, and any unpleasantness can probably be squared away with a donation here and a greased palm there. As long as the seas are safe, the family considers simply waiting out all the unpleasantness on the family yacht, hoping that things will be settled down by the time they want to dock somewhere.

Hitler is out and agitating, but no one really thinks he will take over the world; if he were going to do that, he surely wouldn’t stand in the streets and scream about it, now would he? And we feel, through Lanny and his family, the stark startled horror when his power increases and his Storm Troopers become an official government organization rather than simply a pack of street thugs. At the same time, we also experience his and others’ perplexity at the name chosen by the NSDAP, because it invokes the name of Socialism for a system that is actually far-flung from it, and it calls out to the working class even as it pounds their unions to dust and sends their leaders to concentration camps.

While the working class of Europe starves or stands on line at a soup kitchen, the Budd family has the traditional six meals daily; when they are not at home, they do the charitable thing, and instruct the servants to find some “worthy poor” to consume the unused meals. Well…not in the house, of course. Somewhere else.

At times, the tone is satirical, and in a few places made me laugh out loud, mostly in the beginning. Later the tone changes and is sharper, angrier. I found it deeply satisfying.

Particularly fascinating is the statement that “He who could get and hold the radio became God.” In one form or another, this has been true since the radio was introduced into first-world homes nearly 100 years ago. Major media sources had the monopoly on information, apart from the printed press. The radio, then television…only recently have ordinary people had the means to record and disseminate information on the phone they carry with them everywhere. And it’s interesting to see the changes that result.

Perhaps your thoughts will travel in different directions than mine did in reading this interesting nugget, but it is bound to make you think. If you are looking for some escapist material to take to the beach or curl up with by the fire, this isn’t it. This is fuel for the brain, fierce material that came from a time when all of Europe had to decide which side they were on.

For those that love history, literary fiction, or political science—or all three—highly recommended!

Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance, by Martin Goldsmith *****

alexs wakeHolocaust memoirs take on added urgency right now, between the revisionists who want to rewrite history and claim that the entire thing was either a hoax or dreadful exaggeration, and the fact that the eye witnesses and survivors are nearly all dead now. Martin Goldsmith retraces the journey, both academically and where possible, literally, to the places his Uncle Helmut and grandfather Alex were taken. It’s quite a story, and would be a fun read if it were not so horribly, terribly true. As it stands, Goldsmith’s narrative pulls his readers in one slim finger at a time, until we are held firmly to the text and must remain until it’s done.

The narrative starts out introspective and almost dreamlike. If I were not reading this free courtesy of Net Galley in exchange for my review, I think I might have set it aside about twenty percent of the way in and not returned, thinking to myself that of course, I know the Holocaust was real, but do I want to read about it again? It’s not an enjoyable topic, and what good can it do to revisit it? Furthermore, I started to believe that this particular narrative was not so different from other heartbreaking stories, and might be more of interest to the writer and his surviving kin than to strangers like me.

I am glad I kept reading, because just past this point is where we quit the runway and the story takes wing. The writer starts with the visits, first to the Holocaust museum, and then to Europe. He is greeted warmly in his family’s former homeland, and he makes speeches and accepts certificates and expresses appreciation to the family who now occupies what was once the family manse for their clumsy token gesture. The current owners clearly understand that circumstances have skewed things badly, and they want to make it up in some impossible way. They were wondering what he would think of a nice plaque on the building’s exterior noting its place in history and recognizing his family.

He understands these folks aren’t the ones who stole from him. He says and does the right things, but the edge is unmistakably there, as part of him longs to say that if they really want to make things right, to give him back his family’s home. Like many who lost wealth and/or family in the Holocaust, he waxes nostalgic, looking with poignancy at the beautiful place that should rightfully be his.

Here I squirm a bit. I don’t read rich people’s stories for a reason. I don’t believe anybody is entitled to vast wealth. It’s why the only memoirs I avoid are those of the ruling rich.

But another more important principle trumps my usual one: nobody, nobody, nobody should be disenfranchised of even a penny on account of their ethnicity or race. If anyone at all in Germany gets to have a big fancy house, then Goldsmith’s family should. His resentment is righteous; he has the moral high ground here. I think back to an old bumper sticker I once saw, courtesy of the American Indian Movement during the 1960’s that read, “AMERICA: love it or give it back.” And thus is the untenable yet irreparable theft of the Holocaust’s descendents. We can’t fix it, so here’s your framed letter, your trophy, your plaque, your award. His ambivalence runs deep and is clear and harsh. It should be.

From there, Goldsmith’s family saga telescopes out in a way that is so deft, I don’t even catch the transitions. This is rare. I spent years of my life teaching teenagers how to make transitions in their writing, and usually when it is well done in professional writing, I sit back and admire it, like the French paintings he describes. I love to watch good transitions happen, but the very best are noteworthy in that I am so deeply into the text that they float by unseen. It’s almost magical. And so, as the family’s tale is told, we see the larger picture of France and French fascism.

Many of us today want to believe that all of France and much of Germany was simply too afraid of the fascists to resist, but Goldsmith unflinchingly grabs us by the hair, makes us look. There are cheering throngs that are thrilled when the fascists take power. They aren’t trembling; they are overjoyed. This is how fascism works, in demonizing a sector of the population, others believe themselves lifted up.

In the end, I was glad to have joined Goldsmith on his journey. For anyone with a serious interest in World War II; the Holocaust; the face and effect of fascism; or contemporary European history, this gem is not to be missed.