The Zone of Interest by Martin AmisSeveral years ago, in the late 1990s, an acquaintance I met at a conference suggested we each read a favorite book recommended by the other. For him, I proposed Francisco Goldman’s debut novel The Long Night of White Chickens, published in 1992. It came to mind immediately — a story that captivated me with its plot about a woman who runs an orphanage in Guatemala and the mystery of her murder. For me, he proposed The Information by Martin Amis. I hadn’t read anything by this acclaimed British author, who had by then published many novels, including the Booker short-listed Time’s Arrow, so I looked forward to this new book and its comedic approach to two novelists at odds with one another.

The Information turned out to be so far from what I would call a favorite in my reading world that I promptly turned to another Amis novel, thinking it was just a wrong fit. But Amis’s Other People, about a woman who’s lost her identity and, after that, London Fields and Night Train didn’t resonate with me either, although I recognized the brilliance of Martin Amis, universally lauded for his linguistic dexterity and mind-twisting inventiveness. Still, I recall trudging through the complexity of London Fields, which Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times described as: “A comic murder mystery, an apocalyptic satire, a scatological meditation on love and death and nuclear winter…by turns lyrical and obscene, colloquial and rhapsodic.”

The Long Night of White Chickens didn’t go over well, either.

Other People by Martin AmisI haven’t read Martin Amis since that time, until now, with the release of his new book The Zone of Interest igniting a desire to jump in and try again. The novel is described by the publisher as a love story, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s heart-sinking romance. It’s more sexual desire that becomes an obsession that then becomes love never physically requited between a Nazi liaison officer, who is Angelus Thomsen, a self-proclaimed stud, and Hannah Doll. The setting is a German concentration camp called the Zone of Interest (Auschwitz otherwise named), and Hannah is the kommandant’s wife.

Similar to Time’s Arrow, about a Holocaust doctor/war criminal, The Zone of Interest takes the Nazi viewpoint. Chapters alternate between Thomsen, Kommandant Paul Doll and a Sonderkommando named Szmul, who parries with Doll to keep his life steady under the horrific circumstances. Szmul persists in his grotesque Sonder role for three reasons: to bear witness, exact mortal vengeance and save or prolong a life. He’s engaged by Doll to spy on Hannah, whom Doll suspects is having an affair first with Thomsen, and then with the man she loved prior to marrying Doll. Meanwhile, there are mishaps with arriving transports, the selection process and an overload of cremated bodies. Also going on: Thomsen, who is cast as the fictional nephew of Hitler’s secretary, oversees the construction of the Buna-Werke, a nearby synthetic rubber and fuel factory that has its own challenges. Doll and Thomsen wrestle with the politics of “the Deliverer” (you know who, with that silly mustache)

London Fields by Martin AmisIt goes without saying that the Holocaust is grim subject matter, but keep in mind this is Martin Amis, whose signature narrative brilliance and wit is very much in play here, as is the “lyrical and obscene.” Bottom line, The Zone of Interest is a satire, and you have to go into reading it knowing Amis is using humor, exaggeration and ridicule to illustrate, in the extreme, the Nazi crime of the Final Solution. Otherwise, the novel comes across as hugely offensive.

In the beginning, I couldn’t bear it — the sexual banter between Thomsen and his friend Boris, a Waffen-SS colonel, mixed with blithe commentary about transports to the camp, as if they’re in casual, friendly conversation over coffee; the comedic perspective of events surrounding the selection ramp; and Paul Doll ridiculously prancing among his lackeys, as if in scenes from a sitcom. And then the thoughts of the characters, which are hard to take, designed to showcase their idiocy and lack of self-awareness, such as Doll thinking about Szmul and the Sonderkommandos: “You know, I never cease to marvel at the abyss of moral destitution to which certain human beings are willing to descend…” The comment is suppose to make us smile because it’s a reverse onto himself, but the smiling just doesn’t feel good.

Time's Arrow by Martin AmisNot all is sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Hannah stands firm in her horror of the surrounding reality, and Thomsen attempts to sabotage the progress of the Buna-Werke factory; however, their anti-sympathy is too little to make a narrative impact. And it’s here I think satirizing the Final Solution is an un-winning endeavor, unless it’s so wickedly profound we come away shattered with new insight, which doesn’t happen with The Zone of Interest. It’s not really that great of a love story, either, which prevails, carrying through to the end of the war and the book, with Thomsen’s continued desire for Hannah. But Hannah cannot see Thomsen outside the framework of the inhumanity in which he participated. Their relationship rings true, but it still feels more like a misguided story of desire and not love.

Should I read Martin Amis’s acclaimed Time’s Arrow? Maybe I’ll connect with his fiction in that novel. Why am I not falling down the rabbit hole of that which creates a Martin Amis cult follower? The fellow reader I met at the conference kept a framed photo of Amis and himself on his office desk that was taken at a book signing.

I eventually settled into The Zone of Interest, employing emotional distance and embracing the satire. I understood and marveled at the literary skill, but that one-of-a-kind Amis talent — experienced also in his other aforementioned novels – doesn’t drive me to want to read his books. I don’t get involved in them. Instead, I seem only to experience the brilliant work. I also seem to be chasing Martin Amis, thinking the one Martin Amis book for me is the next one. (Perhaps The Rachel Papers?) At this rate, I’ll get Martin Amis under my reading belt, despite myself.

I’m overloaded reading fiction right now, while these three non-fiction books, released this summer, pull at me with a siren call. Here are brief summaries of what they’re about, so you, too, can hear the call.

"The Nixon Defense" by John W. DeanThe Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean
John Dean’s new book is here to divulge the full and complete story of President Richard Nixon’s role in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building — that nasty 1970′s scandal that riveted the nation, famously written about by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein. August 8 marks the 40 year anniversary of Nixon’s resignation due to the scandal.  From the publisher’s description: “In The Nixon Defense, former White House Counsel John W. Dean, one of the last major surviving figures of Watergate, draws on his own transcripts of almost a thousand conversations, a wealth of Nixon’s secretly recorded information and more than 150,000 pages of documents in the National Archives and the Nixon Library to provide the definitive answer to the question: What did President Nixon know and when did he know it?” Kirkus in its starred review tempts us with this statement: “And as for that missing tape, the one about which so much was made at the Watergate hearings? It would spoil the surprise to tell it here, but Dean has the answers.” Prepare to buckle down: The book’s page count is close to 800 pages. (Check out History.com for videos about the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s resignation speech.)

"The Most Dangerous Book"The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
Kevin Birmingham takes us inside the story of James Joyce the writer and the struggle he endured to get his now classic novel published. Granted, Ulysses may be a challenging read, but the story around it is fascinating. For years it was banned in the English-speaking world, “disguised and smuggled, pirated and burned in the United States and Britain,” according to the book’s dust jacket that also states: “The Most Dangerous Book tells the remarkable story surrounding Ulysses, from the first stirrings of Joyce’s inspiration in 1904 to its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933.”  Kirkus gives it a starred review. So does Publisher’s Weekly stating: “Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece.” If you haven’t read Ulysses, at least you could say you read about it in The Most Dangerous Book. The publisher says it’s “written for ardent Joyceans as well as novices who want to get to the heart of the greatest novel of the twentieth century.”

"The Interior Circuit" by Francisco GoldmanThe Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle by Francisco Goldman
I’ve loved Francisco Goldman’s novels since his first, The Long Night of White Chickens that’s a love story and murder mystery set in Boston and Guatemala. Then came The Ordinary Seaman and Say Her Name, not a full list of his novels but the ones I read. And so I’m drawn to read his new, non-fiction book. It bears knowing that in 2005, Goldman married Aura Estrada. Two years later, during a vacation on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Estrada died in a bodysurfing accident. The Interior Circuit, written after grieving for his wife in the fictionalized account of her tragic death in Say Her Name, explores the people, politics and communities of Estrada’s native city, “balancing personal memoir and reportage,” according to the book’s dust jacket. Publisher’s Weekly gives the book a star and describes Goldman as “a perceptive, funny and philosophical narrator.”

One of my long-standing favorite novels is Franciso Goldman’s 1992 debut, The Long Night of White Chickens. In dreamy, elegant prose, Goldman tells the story of Flor de Mayo Puac, a Wellesley College graduate who returns to her native Guatemala to run a private orphanage. There she is murdered. The plot pivots on the mystery of her violent death. Even though Goldman spends too much time dwelling on Guatemalan politics, it remains an impressive work.

Nineteen years and three books later, Goldman has written a new novel that takes into account the life of another Latin American woman, Aura Estrada, a promising PhD student at Columbia University. Only Aura isn’t a fictional character, despite the “novel” label given to the book. She’s Goldman’s recently deceased wife. Aura died four years ago from injuries sustained while body surfing in Mexico the summer of 2007. Say Her Name is a “memoir novel” about their four-year relationship, their marriage in the summer of 2005, the tragedy of Aura’s death and Goldman’s paralyzing grief.

From the very beginning of this heart-breaking story, we’re informed of Aura’s death at the age of 30 and the blame cast upon the 50-year-old Goldman (“this is your fault”) by Aura’s protective mother. But we’re not given the full details of the accident just yet. Those come in the end, although the narrative offers hints along the way as the couple’s life together in Brooklyn and Mexico City unfolds. Back and forth in time and place, the narrative wanders flawlessly, with Goldman taking us into scenes of Aura growing up in Mexico with her mother and stepfather and pursuing a scholarly life at a Mexican university and then universities in New York City. We also experience Aura as girlfriend and wife living with Goldman in Brooklyn and then visiting him in dreams and ghost-like illusions after her death.

We come to know a spirited, determined young woman filled with hope and also the talent to become a notable Latin American writer. Her infectious joy and child-like volubility radiate from the narrative, as does her energetic and fun-filled personality. But the narrative always loops back to Goldman’s overwhelming grief, scenes of his emptiness and dread, and a reader’s sadness hovers as we suffer with him knowing what’s to come. When I reached the final pages that would reveal the moments of the tragedy at the beach in Mexico, the month before their second wedding anniversary, a sickening feeling came over me, and I had to walk away from the book for a moment. All that had come before had brought me so close to the author and Aura, I couldn’t bear to live through those horrible last moments of her life, a feeling that testifies to the grip this deeply moving story had on me.

To put in perspective Goldman’s use of fiction and non-fiction, here’s what he said in the book’s press release:  “I’ve surrounded Aura and myself with a fictionalized family and friends for numerous reasons, including the duty to protect, to keep secrets, including our own secrets, while providing the space to write a true account of our lives — Aura’s and my own, with and without her.”

Say Her Name surely will stand among the great memoirs in grief literature for its powerful story of love, loss and mourning, next to C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

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