Wednesday, December 21, 2011

30 Under 30-An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers

The title alone tells me that I may be too old for this by about a decade, but I jumped into it eagerly.  And discovered I'm a lot dumber and decidedly less hip than I had hoped.

Edited by Blake Butler and Lily Hoang
The key is "innovative" and it really delivers on that end...the short stories that make up this collection bend all the rules, if not shattering them entirely.  Metaphysical thought mixes with concrete metaphors, and the result feels inspired and youthful, even if it all doesn't make sense.  Much of it went over my head, like hearing only the punch line of a joke and nodding amiably but cluelessly while everyone shrieks with laughter.

However, there is some dazzling writing here, and three I specifically want to mention, because they all lie outside the typical expectations about "good writing" may be.  For one thing, the iconic story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men gets an experimental twist in "When Robin Hood Fell with An Arrow Through His Heart" by Todd Seabrook.  The gang falls apart after Robin's death, not able to even kill themselves with their own arrows, despite trying.  "The form starts to go when it hasn't been used," warns Seabrook.  Having reached nearly the half-way point in the anthology, I couldn't help but think Seabrook was commenting on the very lack of variety and inventiveness in other forms of writing today, suggesting its "form" has already started to go from lack of innovation.

Joshua Cohen proves himself the master of killer lines in his part of the anthology, with seven short pieces all made visual and distinct with tight and compact wording.  "On Location" delivers the line "It is a common problem in our cities today -- When you don't know you're in a movie that you're in." After the unknown director repeatedly coaches the good-natured resident, not an actor, on how he wants the scene played, he finally tells him "Just do what you did.  You were so much better before."  This idea of playing along with a different reality and having the simple images of role-playing and direction juxtaposed, Cohen has created an amazing sense of truth to an unreal scene in just a few sentences, and concludes with the image of "a woman so vain she wants to look good even for the surveillance cameras."

My favorite of the anthology isn't even narrative;  it's a instructional/inspirational piece by Adam Good, entitled "Guided Walks".  In this he describes what can be taken from meta-guided walks, and how the randomness of phrases and word blends can create a new direction or seed of thought.  With supporting charts as documentation, he shows how reading, walking, or visiting with another person (or all combined) can create a new vocabulary that feels more real and vibrant than one expects.  Something along the lines of what Amazon used to call "statistically improbable" phrases that become a signature of a work. Mixing and musing become an exercise in creativity, but giving a starting point for a potential writer rather than an empty prompt.

The entire collection is quirky and bold, but it's in no way childish or immature.  From it's elementary-school picture day cover to the variety of ways text is manipulated, the collection offers a valid and respectable perspective of creative writing that is likely hidden from mainstream writing venues.  Margins, backgrounds, formatting:  all are subject to experimentation, with one entry by Zach Dobson actually looking exactly like a Mead Composition book that he filled in during homeroom.  While I admit much of it was outside my realm of imagination, I loved the concept of changing or questioning the status quo of what can be considered creative writing, and making something solid and real that can endure as well something more traditional and mainstream.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Circle, fiction by Manolis

This is actually the second time recently that I've read a fiction novel written by someone I'd only known as a poet, and this departure for Manolis proves that a poet's eye  may add detail a novelist may initially miss.  The Circle is about the lives of many affected after 9/11 and how their actions are changed due to the event.  Yet, the narrative takes this outside the typical American perspective and looks at it from the viewpoint of Iraqis whose lives were altered by the bombings and warfare that followed.

Often, the poignant storyline becomes uncomfortable, because it's so different from how our media and Western mindset portrays the events.  Introspection seems inevitable, as characters, both from Iraq and the US, behave in ways that the reader has to question.  The underlying current of the novel looks at the CIA's involvement in Iraq pre-9/11, and how innocent citizens were affected so dramatically. 

Hakim is the protagonist, a student saved from the rubble and now a succesful American businessman.  He's a curious sort, because despite his wealth and success, he's categorically unemotional and distant.  The author intends for us to examine why that is the case.  The most fascinating character to me was that of his similarly wealthy uncle Ibrahim, who adopts him as a son when his parents were killed.  Throughout the story, I was debating with myself if Ibrahim was villain or hero, and of course, the answers are never that easy.

One thing that annoyed me a little was that both of the female characters that had significant roles in this novel were incredibly shallow and, shall we say, dumb as paint.  Given their own histories, their interaction with political circles, and being eyewitness to some of the horrors, it would seem they'd have more to say, or at least engage in some sort of meaningful interpretation.  To describe them as blindingly ignorant is not an exaggeration!  After giving it some thought, I suspect that was intentional  on the part of Manolis, and a way to subtly assert that many Americans may have a similar thought process when it comes to the more difficult questions and situations in life. 

In places, parts of the story are rough going as they demand the reader to consider the future in view of past history, and this can be disturbing to acknowledge.  Overall, however, I think this is a viable subject and angle to look at the post-9/11 world and disrupt any prejudices one may unwittingly hold.

Special thanks to Libros Libertad for the Advance Review Copy.

Dahlov Ipcar-two new heirloom children's books-One Horse Farm and Wild Animal Alphabet

I've raved about Islandport Press before, and fair warning, I'm going to do it again.  I found them a few years ago when a now-defunct children's magazine (called Cookie) had a rave review from author Dave Eggers for The Cat at Night, a lovely and unusual children's story book by an unknown-to-me artist, Dahlov Ipcar.  I ordered it immediately from an online retailer, and was delighted with the story about what the family cat actually does at night while everyone sleeps.  My little guy liked it too, but above the storyline, the art work is tremendous.  Ipcar creates an unusual world of colors and shapes that is all the more rare for children's books:  this is serious art. 

Ipcar uses bold colors in opaque "milk" tones with heavy lines and rough outlines.  What's more surprising is the use of black (until recently, practically never seen in children's books).  The result is a retro/vintage look that isn't a trend but the life art of an amazing and gifted artist.

So I was excited to get two of her newer titles:  One Horse Farm and Wild Animal Alphabet.

One Horse Farm is a simple story with a theme of loyalty that is woven around the childhood life of a boy on a country farm. Daily activities repeat as the child grows up and his perspective on the "small" farm changes.  Modern technology comes to the farm and changes things, but the sweet story is that some things can never become obsolete or tossed aside in favor of progress.  That the book says all this without being preachy is an art in itself....

The story itself is engaging for a three-year-old and up to understand;  younger than that, a toddler would likely love the photos and unique colors.  As always, this is a hardcover with pages printed on heavy stock with a quality look to it that makes it a likely heirloom in our family...seriously, there is a difference in quality among publishers of children's books.

The other title was a board book from Ipcar, Wild Animal Alphabet. This is the second Ipcar board book Islandport was produced with Ipcar's work (the previous was Farm Animal Alphabet).
The cover shows the kind of artwork Ipcar is famous for: cute but not overly sweet.  Bold colors and lots of interplay with shadows and light make each page interesting, even if it is "just" the alphabet.  I enjoy this difference from other children's book styles because when we read 4-5 stories before bed each night, I get really sick of cutesy pastels and pages that are over-saturated with random graphics.  Ipcar's work is easy on the eyes, simple, and unique.  Am I raving again?  Of course!  I only wish I could have decorated the baby's room around her artwork. 

Special thanks to Melissa Kim of Islandport Press for the review copies. 
Disclosure:  I loved this publisher and bought their books before I ever reviewed for them!

After reading Barbara's comment, I went to her website...her Ipcar work is stunning so the link is here if you are interested.  More heirlooms to collect (an obsession of mine since my only inherited treasures
consist of an icky old Avon bottle and an unfinished quilt)!!!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Call for Cash: year-end fundraisers at Rain Taxi, Three Percent (Open Letter)

Three Percent - Open Letter is the face of  translated literature right now, and as a nonprofit publisher, they could use some $$$$.  When planning year-end giving, consider going to the link to contribute to their annual fundraising.  They sometimes send out nifty little things like a car air freshener, just to remind you how generous you are!

Additionally, Rain Taxi literary magazine is hosting a series of Ebay auctions to raise money (they're a nonprofit too!).  Signed books and other literary stuff is on auction now:

Copper Canyon Press is also finishing out the year attempting to raise funds at  Yep, they're a nonprofit.

Forgetting for a moment books in favor of children, the Jack and Abby Neonatal Foundation is working on getting a $25, 000 grant from Pepsi to provide a guest room for parents of critically-ill babies.  The details are at  Having spent several weeks away from home when my baby was in the NICU, having a place to crash nearby the hospital meant I could be with him at almost all times. The place I stayed was a block from the hospital, the guest room that Pepsi would provide would be right in the hospital!  More times for hugs and kisses!

Or, if you are more of an animal lover and would rather help them, consider the Pacific Wildlife Care Center's fundraising drive at  This nonprofit is amazing:  they tried to save a poor hawk that was injured near our home. Several volunteers contributed funds and their time to try and get him back on his wings, but he didn't make it.  Yet, they tried and many are saved.  This last year from Jan through Nov, they treated over 1800 animals on the Central Coast, reintroducing them to the wild as soon as possible.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My Choices, top 2011 reads!

It's just the first week in December, but everyone's putting up their "best-of" posts so I guess I had better get busy!

This year was really fun for me.  Because I've been fairly insistent on maintaining my niche of Eastern European or Russian titles, these have arrived in abundance and there's so many treasures! 

Top 7 Fiction ---too many great titles to pare down any more:  5 of 7 were translations!

The Devil's Share by Kris Farmen, McRoy and Blackburn.  Unusual protagonist, Alaskan wilderness, rapid-fire pace and a plot full of twists with nothing routine in it. 

Bandit Love by Massimo Carlotto and Europa Editions:  Italian crime, goodhearted criminals, and a dry wit that keeps it all moving forward

Frozen Time by Anna Kim, Ariadne Press:  Heartbreaking vision of the after-effects of the Balkan war, with unbelievable detail and real, flawed characters.

Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Steffanson, MacLehose Press 

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, MacLehose in UK, will release from Tin House in 2012 in US

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Waterline by Ross Raisin, Penguin UK

Top 5 Poetry 3 of 5 were translations!

Before the Troubadour Exits by Jeffrey Alfier

A Fireproof Box by Gleb Shulpyakov, Canarium Books (Russian bilingual)

Signs & Wonders by Charles Martin, Johns Hopkins U P

These Hands by Per Aage Brandt, Host Publications (Danish Bilingual)

Yannis Ritsos-Poems by Manolis

Other categories:

Nonfiction Memoir:

Tramp by Tomas Espedal, The Art of Living a Wild and Poetic  Life, Seagull Books translation

Maman's Homesick Pie by Donja Bijan, Algonquin


Tashkent, Forging a Soviet City by Paul Stronski U of Pitt Press

Shadows Walking by Doug Skopp (physician ethics, Holocaust) Technically a fiction novel but enough detail that I'm calling it history.

Favorite Publishers:  too many to list, but MacLehose, U of Pitt, New Directions, Archipelago, and Peirene are lovely to work with....

Favorite literary magazine:  Rain Taxi, of course!  But the PEN America journal is tied with Words without Borders for most fascinating coverage of unusual authors and themes.  World Lit Today and Tin House for their poetry coverage.

Favorite online book coverage:  HTML Giant, Galley Cat, and the Los Angeles Times Book Section (what's left of it).

My favorite blogs: for Zohar's intense analysis, Bernadette's Reactions to Reading, Lisa Hayden's, Mary Whipple's thorough coverage, Daisy's where she streams through and posts the best lines of current novels, and the blogs for Open Letter, The Millions, and Conversational Reading.

Favorite Classic (Rediscovered):  Beowulf.  The Seamus Heaney version.  It finally makes sense, so maybe I've matured!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Great Russian Short Stories, edited by Paul Negri

Remember Dover Publications?  They run anywhere from $1.50 to $4.00 for a paperback, and I remember depending on them in high school for English assignments.  So, while a Penguin or Norton edition looks more elegant, there's nothing like a collection of cheap reads to keep in the car or to collect old classics.

So this title was one I purchased online at Powell's, just to get to know a few of the more obscure Russian authors.  This was surprisingly delightful!

It features Dostoevsky's "White Nights", "The District Doctor" by Ivan Turgenev, "Lady with Lap Dog" by Anton Chekhov (my favorite), and the timeless "How Much Land Does a Man Need" by Tolstoy.  These are short enough to complete one in a sitting comfortably--I've kept my copy in the car when I wait on someone and when I'm not in the mood to deal with my Kindle (which sadly is way too often!).  Gogol's "The Overcoat" is in it as well, and while the stories seem rather simple and harmless, they are actually amazing at analyzing human nature and all the nuances of greed, shame, and embarrassment. 

A cheap read, great background for Russian literature, and a great start for year two of the Eastern European Reading Challenge.

Disclosure:  I bought this.

Continuing--The Eastern European Reading Challenge 2012

Due to popular demand, 2012 will continue the Eastern European Reading Challenge from 2011.  We've ended up with 72 participants in 22 nations for the 2011 READ EAST. 

Since BEA this year will be focused on Russia, it seems only appropriate to continue with the Challenge.  Many literary magazines are continuing to focus on Eastern European themes.  This month's World Literature Today was focused on modern Russian poetry (!!!!!).

If you've already entered, there's no need to sign up again unless you want to.  The previous years entrants are listed on this link;

If you are new to the Challenge, here's the deal:

Leave a comment to this post with your name and your country of residence.  You can shoot for 4, 8, or 12 titles.  Report back to the links below with links to your own website reviews, or titles you enjoyed and want to share with others.

Regions: Choose titles about or by an author from any of the following regions: Croatia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary, Belarus, Estonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Czech Rep., Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Romania, Moldova, and Kosovo.

Titles: Can be any genre: crime, poetry, literary fiction, history, historical fiction, memoirs, etc.  If possible, try to select titles that are translated works to help support the continuing exposure of Eastern works to Western readers.

Open Letter Books, Archipelago Books, Peirene Press, Melville House, and Ugly Duckling Presse are all small publishers that focus on a wide variety of translated titles of fiction and poetry.  Check them out! 

Links to reviews of Eastern European or Russian titles are in the comments box here:

Suggested titles by participants are here:

Several new titles have come out since last year's challenge:

Poetry:  Into the Snow by Gennady Aygi; On the Border of Snow and Melt by Georgy Ivanov

Literary Fiction: the Penguin series by Kurkov, Dukla by Stasiuk, Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni

Nonfiction: On the Road to Badabag by Stasiuk, Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic

Feel free to share details on your own blog and link to this page.  On February first, a trivia question regarding Eastern European lit will be posted with a Amazon UK or US gift certificate as prize.  It's going to be tough!
Just to be clear, yes...I have two Challenges running this year. Enter either or both!   My focus on accepting review copies will again by as closely limited to the Mediterranean and Eastern European regions as possible. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Announcing...the 2012 Mediterranean Reading Challenge!

This year's Eastern European Reading Challenge hasn't yet ended, but it's time to think of next year's reading challenge.  I chose to go with the Mediterranean region because not only is it topical, it's also an area where translated works are flourishing.  And it's supposed to be healthier too!

The 2012 Mediterranean Reading Challenge!

So, start planning what level you'd like to try for if you decide to enter.  The last two years of reading challenges had over 70 people from more than 20 countries participating. 

2012 Mediterranean Reading Challenge Map

 The following countries are included: Algeria, Albania, Tunisia, Spain, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Bosnia, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Monaco, Slovenia, Crete, Cyprus, and Malta.

Need ideas to start?  You can explore at Archipelago Books (, Peirene Press ( or Open Letter ( to find translated fiction and poetry, as they are the preeminent publishers of translated works.


To enter, leave a comment on this post with your name and home country and reading goal.  Another post will be created for you to leave links to your reviews or to post titles you may want to share.  To keep things relevant, I'll add occasional news topic posts to the blog that deal with this region and may be of interest to participants.  You'll soon find a tab on the home page that will control information for the Mediterranean challenge details.  If I'm really ambitious, I may throw in a recipe or two.

Additionally, the Eastern European Reading Challenge is going to continue...there's been enough interest to keep that in play for the next year.  You'll find a new post that allows you to enter if you haven't already.
According to the World Atlas site, the Mediterranean "is bordered on the north by Europe, the east by Asia, and in the south by Africa. This 969,100 sq. mile body of water is approximately 2,300 miles in length, and has a maximum depth of 16,896 ft. Major subdivisions include the Adriatic Sea, Aegean Sea, Balearic Sea, Tyrrhenian Sea, Ionian Sea and Ligurian Sea."

For purposes of Spain, the Catalonian region is included. Extra points if you can find works from the islands of Cyprus, Sardinia, Malta, or Sicily!

Some ideas:

A Mind at Peace                                                                   Death in Spring
by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar                                                      by Mercè Rodoreda
translated from the Turkish by Erdag Göknar                          (

Open Letter Books

White Masks
by Elias Khoury
translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet                                    

grab a button for your

Please join this year's challenge and see if we can discover new regions and cultures, while helping support the efforts of small presses and translators to make global literature accessible to all.
Sign up now and share your finds!

Monday, November 21, 2011

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, new Giveaway!

Algonquin has generously provided me with an extra copy of When She Woke, the latest from Hillary Jordan.  This futuristic novel plays on concepts found in Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic, The Scarlet Letter.

So far, everyone I know that has read it says it's amazing! My review will coincide with the week of the giveaway and appear then.

To enter, you must be a blog follower and leave a comment below.  PLEASE include contact info (email) in your comment so I can let you know if you win.  US only, ends Dec 15, 2011. 

Winning! Three giveaway winners listed here!

Three giveaways have ended, so the winners are listed below. I'm contacting them via email...

Shadows Walking:  Bev

Child Wonder:  The Dawson Family

11 x 14 Canvas Print :  Kristin Lucille!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Show Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski (novel)

"...I'd need to begin and finish before anything worthwhile came of what a woman like me could do with a cheap paintbrush, four signature colors, and a decision to live with nerve."

This decision to live with nerve comes pretty quickly when Michele decides to leave her cheating fiance in Kankakee and move to New York.  Specifically, Manhattan.  To become an artist.  Something she's never done before.  Art.

I know!  You're thinking, "I know where this one is headed!" Too many Country Mouse, City Mouse stories have made the small-town-girl-goes-to-the-city seem like a sad, predictable genre of its own.  Or maybe it was Crocodile Dundee II that did us in.  In any case, hearing the basic layout makes one think this young woman is going to end up as a serial killer's victim or a suddenly-discovered genius who ends up in a penthouse with a view, buying Jimmy Choos and designing a fragrance collection.  You just know beige leather sofas and clear glass vases of tulips are on their way.

So... you'd be wrong.  I was wrong.  There is nothing predictable or routine in this story of starting somewhere new and trying to reinvent yourself.  (Geez:  Just that previous line sounds as corny as the genre!)  First off, Michele is smart, and she's not expecting much.  She knows everyone back home is expecting her to fail, which propels her to succeed.  She's not looking for glamour; she's looking for a parking spot for her crappy Renault.  Her time is spent looking for an apartment, then a room, possibly a closet: anywhere to live and remain in the city.  That she's willing to bathe her new old lady landlord to instill "trust" shows her desperate need to stay.  The city means that much to her.

Making rent money is an issue, and she starts an innovative street business that has something to do with David Letterman.  She sells the Renault in a scene where you can't be sure if the perspective buyers want a test drive or just free use of the car.  Significantly, she meets an elderly man, an ex-Yankee, who gives her some guidance and life advice although he can't speak.

Between a fire, an audition for Stupid Human Tricks, and a job as a clerk in the world's most disgusting grocery store, she manages to survive.  She even survives a side trip to Astoria with a creepy new age couple who seem to be overly helpful--that she considers walking away from them an 'escape' is telling.

It's not all fun, and just when you are reading along and giggling, a transition takes place that smacks you down.  Wait!  What happened?  Could she be the subtle and evil villain known as the 'unreliable narrator'?  Things change, and now the story takes on a different aspect.  Same people, same places, but with a bit more information.  It's not as funny, but that doesn't mean it's diminished.  It's manipulative! It makes you reassess what has been happening so far.

"Then there's the reality very few people care to face: unless you have majestic beauty or power, your secrets rarely matter to anyone but yourself."   She said this in the beginning, but I didn't catch the ominous tone.  With the shift, though, comes even more suspense.  Who is Michele?  The breathless voice she's used to describe her adventures...was she holding back?  What secrets did we need to know?

This is a great read that went too fast.  I loved that it didn't play to type and that Michele never becomes that celebrity-wannabe that appears on every other reality show.  The only thing I don't understand is, what's so bad about Astoria? 

Special thanks to Gival Press for the Advance Review Copy.
The author, Mark Wisniewski, is not just an ace writer; he
writes some of the most amazing poetry you're likely to read!

Monday, November 14, 2011

THREE Giveaways, ending soon! Enter now....

Just to recap, there are three giveaways going on right now.  To enter any or all, leave a comment at each link. 

Open to US only, blog followers:

Child Wonder, new paperback by Roy Jacobsen, from Graywolf Press.  A translated fiction novel set in Norway  ENDS NOV 15, 2011 at 9:00 pm PAC time. 

Shadows Walking, new paperback by Doug Skopp, from CreateSpace.  Historical fiction circa WWII.  ENDS NOV 20, 2011 at 9:00 PM PAC time.

CANVAS PRINT OF YOUR CHOICE (UPLOAD YOUR OWN!), 11 x 14, by EASY CANVAS PRINTS.  LIKE them on Facebook and leave a comment to enter. Even if you don't win, you can get 50% off and free shipping by liking them on FB and referring to TBSD.  ENDS NOV 20, 2011 at 9:00 PM PAC time.
An example of a canvas print from EASY CANVAS PRINTS.

Review: Shadows Walking by Doug Skopp

...The conclusion of the week devoted to the new novel, Shadows Walking.

"More people thinking everything is stupid or corrupt or evil than people who think things are good. More people hating.  Wanting to do someone or something harm.  Anti-Semites, Anti-Communists, Anti-Women, Anti-modern art, music...Hating everything and everyone different from them.  We're all in trouble if this doesn't stop."

Philipp's prophetic words appear in an early chapter of the book, Shadows Walking, by Douglas Skopp.  I've noted already that I think highly of the novel, which is considered historical fiction but based on detailed and thorough study of historical documents from the time period prior to and through the Holocaust. 

Philipp is a friend of the protagonist, Johann Brenner, and they lead nearly parallel lives as the novel begins just after WWI.  Both are medical students, eager to make a positive impact in their community despite the troubled times that Germany is experiencing.  Their friendship becomes strained as an underlying current in their social class begins blaming the Jews for the problems. 

Thus begins a study, not so much of the Holocaust exactly, but more precisely a study of the how studies in eugenics and the desire to rid Germany of "undesirables" was used to justify the killing of millions.  Author Skopp analyzes how both men felt about eugenics and how it conflicted with their code as physicians.  In Brenner's case, it becomes a question of status. As a trained physician he feels that he's due more distinction in his life, while Philipp as a Jew faces questions about how his beliefs in ending unnecessary suffering are twisted into a vindication of the evil the Nazi's perpetrate.

"Johann felt unable to dissect Hitler's categorical statements, to think of opposing arguments, to consider the implications of what he was reading.  He had never been taught to think critically, to ask why and how an author might be trying to grab his mind and shape his convictions.  His whole generation had assumed that if a statement appeared on the printed page, it must be true."

The novel is grim, but it displays significant restraint in not trying to exploit the subject for gratuitous horror.  Two features especially stood out to me as noteworthy.  One was that it provides especially detailed insight in the period between WWI and WWII and the context of pre-Holocaust years.  Few books go back that far to find the links; they only start with WWII.  I can only think of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief as one that lays the groundwork for the events, and even it doesn't go back as far as this novel.  To me, this information was both new and critical to understanding how people were manipulated so thoroughly.

The other key to this novel is the rendering of the character of Johann Brenner.  While we know from the start he's a villain (for lack of a better word), the story goes backward to explain how he came to that end.  He's never a sympathetic character;  as a reader there's never a point where he is especially appealing.  Yet, rather than portray him as a stereotypical mad scientist, the novel proceeds to show how his flawed reasoning came to be.  Additionally, a sense of suspense and tension is created because he's hanging around the Nuremberg Trials, incognito, while his peers are being tried for war crimes.  As a reader, I wanted to know why.

Special thanks to CreateSpace for the Advance Review Copy.
Thanks too, to author Doug Skopp for his input this week.

To enter to win a copy of the book, leave a comment below.  US only, ends Nov 20.
Tomorrow, a lighter side of reading will appear, with a review of the new book,
Show Up, Look Good.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Conclusion: Author Interview--Doug Skopp "Shadows Walking" and the Nuremberg Trials

....the last of a series of a questions I was able to ask Doug Skopp, author of Shadows Walking.
Enter to win a copy by leaving a comment on any of this weeks' posts or at

Amy: Could you explain how the Nuremberg Trials ended and the long-term impact of their judgment?

Doug:  There were many trials at Nuremberg. The one most people know about is the first one, the International Military Tribunal, which focused on the highest ranking or most influential, captured Nazis, most notably, Hermann Goering (and on one Nazi, Martin Bormann, head of the Chancellery and Hitler’s private secretary, tried in absentia.) My novel refers to this trial, but I am most interested in the “Doctors’ Trial,” the first of twelve more trials at Nuremberg against significant Nazis or supporters. Allow me, please, to summarize the little essay on this trial that I have written on my website,

The “Doctors’ Trial” was officially called the United States of America v. Karl Brandt, et al. Karl Brandt, an actual character in my novel, was the highest ranking medical officer captured by the Allies at the end of the war and brought to trial; therefore, his name precedes all the other defendants in this trial.

Twenty-two men and one woman were indicted on October 25, 1946: twenty, including the one female, were physicians; the other three were Nazi officers involved in some aspect of medical administration. All twenty-three were accused of being significantly involved with Nazi initiatives to kill those held to be “living lives not worth living” and for experiments on human beings. The trial opened on December 9, 1946 and concluded on August 20, 1947. The defendants were charged with “conspiracy to commit war crimes” and with “crimes against humanity,” which meant plans for mass murder in phases of the “euthanasia” programs, and for medical experimentation on prisoners and civilians without their consent. The Tribunal determined that the charge of “conspiracy to commit war crimes” was “beyond its jurisdiction” but found incontrovertible evidence linking the defendants found guilty to “crimes against humanity.” Many were also charged with membership in the SS, a criminal organization. Of the twenty-three defendants, seven, including Brandt, were sentenced to death, and hanged on June 2, 1948. Seven more were acquitted of all changes. The remaining nine received prison sentences of ten years to life; but none—eight men and the one woman defendant—served the full term of his or her sentence. Excerpts from the transcript of the Doctors’ Trial can be found through the link provided by the University of Missouri-Kansas City at

The most important result of the Doctor’s Trial is the Nuremberg Code, which establishes a foundation for an ethical research protocol involving human beings. Elements of the Nuremberg Code first were articulated by Dr. Leo Alexander, a prominent psychiatrist and medical educator who had emigrated to the United States from Austria in 1933. His six principles, plus four more added by the judges at Nuremberg, are now widely recognized as a standard in the United States and beyond. The first principle is “voluntary consent of the human subject, based upon his or her full freedom of choice and awareness of the nature, extent, purpose and duration of the experiment, as well as any hazards and effects it might cause to the subject’s health; obtaining this consent is the duty of the experimenter.” The Nuremberg Code provides an anchor for all subsequent medical ethics. Its wisdom, if followed, should prevent such atrocities from occurring again—but we already know that they did occur after it was established, and that it is entirely possible that they will continue to occur, given the high stakes of prestige and material gain that dangle above unprincipled medical researchers and those who encourage them. (To see the other Nuremberg Code principles and sources for further reading, please go to my essay on “Nazi doctors” on website.)

Amy:  Do you see any parallels between post-1989 Eastern Europe racial wars/genocide and the Holocaust?

Doug:  Unfortunately, wars and genocides all now resemble each other in that they seek total commitment from the combating societies. As a result, governments and radical groups generate propaganda and develop ideologies that deliberately undermine rational thinking. We are encouraged to think in terms of “us” versus “them.” To suspect “the other,” whoever the “other du jour” may be. To simply stereotype the enemy as the devil incarnate and set in motion the instruments of his destruction. Modern instruments of destruction are particularly brutal, as in Bosnia and in Eastern Europe. But machetes achieved the same end in Rwanda. We are a violent species. Our propensity for violence is evident now in the hostility in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians and their supporters, and in the conflicts between the Sunni and the Shias. Biological, chemical and nuclear weaponry makes such confrontations all the more fearful. Until we learn how to see every human being as a reflection of ourselves, we are destined, I fear, to see more genocides.

Amy:  Finally, was it difficult to write such a complicated protagonist as Brenner without resorting to stereotype?

Doug:  Yes, I didn’t just want to write a simplistic story of a “bad guy,” like a GI-Joe comic book or a caricature like “Hogan’s Heroes.” It was painfully difficult to write about someone like Brenner—far more difficult than I ever imagined. The worst part was having to “become” Brenner, in the same way any author must enter into the persona that he or she is trying to describe and make real for the reader. From 1990 until 2006, when I retired, I only allowed myself to write on the novel during summer vacations. Each summer, I forced myself to begin by re-reading portions of the transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials, and each time I did, I experienced anew the horror of what happened because of Nazi brutality. It took me nine years before I could actually write the first sentence which describes Brenner’s initial vicious act. I remember weeping after I wrote it.

But then I began to experience another kind of problem. The deeper Brenner got into his Nazi mentality, the more I began to mirror his attitude towards his victims. I found that I, too, was becoming indifferent. Each time I felt this, I returned to my copies of archival materials and to the trial transcripts, in order to remind myself that I was not Brenner. I must tell you, I didn’t enjoy writing Shadows Walking whatsoever. I know it is not an enjoyable book. It was painful to write, and it is painful to read. I tried to not let my writing affect my health and outlook on life, but I can’t be sure that it didn’t. As much as possible, I tried to keep the brutality and violence in the story to a minimum; to keep it off-stage, so to speak—but since it is about Nazi atrocities, I did not know how to leave that all unsaid.  In short, I didn’t write this novel to entertain anyone, least of all to provide a voyeur what has been called the “pornography” of violence. I wrote Shadows Walking out of my deep conviction that we must try to understand what each of us is capable of doing. Learning that about myself was indeed painful, especially given my Jewish heritage. I can only hope that it is worthwhile for others to learn, too.

Special thanks again to Professor Skopp for his help in providing this week's backstory to the novel Shadows Walking and his insight on the Holocaust and keeping the topic relevant in our forgetful society.

To lighten things up quite a bit, stay tuned for a review next week of Show Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski, possibly the most amusing book I've read this year....

Friday, November 11, 2011

Author Interview Pt. 1: Doug Skopp, Background to Shadows Walking

Doug Skopp, author of Shadows Walking, has generously provided an intensive focus this week for TBSD regarding the Holocaust.  I felt his book brought up issues worthwhile to consider, which is why I've devoted so much time to it.  I had a few additional questions that he's answered below, which I'll continue with tomorrow.

Amy:  When WWI devastated most of Europe, most of the nations were impoverished and confused. Your book depicts the hyperinflation that plagued Germany that created a severe financial crisis. Given that other nations were in a similar position, why was Hitler so successful in Germany? Was it the situation that created the monster or could a similar dictator have risen up in another part of Europe? Why him, and why Germany?

Doug:  Before I answer these and the other powerful and challenging questions below, if anyone is interested, my novel’s website— —has six thematic bibliographies listing works in English about these topics. There I also provide links to seventy little essays I have written about the actual persons, places, incidents and circumstances (e.g., Hitler, Versailles Peace Treaty, hyper-inflation, etc.) around which Shadows Walking is woven. Please go to the website and click on ‘Further Reading,’ then scroll down to the bibliographies and below that, to the alphabetical listing of the little essays.

Now, to the first group of questions. World War I was a “total war.” It demanded every speck of material from a war-time economy and enormous sacrifice for all the warring nations. As a result, everyone in those nations, both those in uniform and all civilians behind the lines, was at war. Even before the war ended in 1918, economic crises became evident. The weakest state—Imperial Russia—dissolved into a civil war in 1917 that lasted until 1923, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks solidified their power. Imperial Germany held out as long as it could but finally had to agree to an armistice in November 1918. It teetered on the brink of revolution until 1920, when a new government, the Weimar Republic—Germany’s first democracy, based on a remarkably progressive constitution—was formed.

The victorious Allies were not much better off. They held Germany responsible for all their losses in men and material, and were determined to make a vindictive peace. The reparations payments they demanded would have indebted Germany to them for generations. When Italy wasn’t able to negotiate what it thought was its fair share at the peace table, it disintegrated into fascism, with Mussolini in control of the government in 1922—another victim of the costs of the war.

At first, the new German government refused to pay, leading the French and Belgians to occupy Germany’s coal mining region and attempt to extract coal as payment for some of their losses. Britain attempted to reconcile with Germany, fearing a communist revolution there and a continent that would be dominated by France. Finally, the German government began to pay by printing money—staggering sums of money. This lead to hyper-inflation—one German mark was eventually worth about a billionth of its pre-war value; it was cheaper to burn the paper for fuel than to try to buy anything with it. As a result, Germany’s payments to its war widows and orphans, its public servants and others on fixed incomes and pensioners were rendered meaningless. Those with savings, large sections of the working and middle-classes, were ruined. Revolution was a real possibility.

By 1923, Hitler and his supporters tried to overthrow the Weimar Republic, accusing it of spinelessness, and imagining conspiracies dominated by “the Jews” who either sought a communist revolution or who profited from the economic crisis. Wherever Hitler pointed, he saw “the Jews”. His Putsch failed. He was brought to trial for treason and sentenced to five years in prison. He served only nine months, during which he wrote Mein Kampf, and was released for good conduct. Meanwhile, in 1924, the United States agreed to subsidize the German government, which could now afford to pay the reparations payments to Britain, France and Belgium, which in turn could re-pay the United States for the money we had loaned them in the war. This stimulated post-war recovery. For five years, the 1920's roared along to new prosperity.

The Great Depression ended this euphoria. The stock market crash reverberated across Europe. Banks failed. Unemployment soared. Revolution again seemed likely. Especially in Germany. Hitler’s Nazi Party had lost leverage between 1924 and 1929, even though he profited from the national attention he received in his trial and became independently wealthy because of the sales of Mein Kampf. In 1929, the Party’s fortunes rose dramatically. From then until October 1932, the Nazi Party gained in seats in the Reichstag, the national assembly. But then they lost votes to the rival socialist and communist parties. Conservatives in the government feared a revolution from the left; they invited Hitler in to be chancellor, overcoming whatever distaste they had for his politics and appreciating his nationalistic fervor. When the Reichstag building is set on fire a month later, Hitler declares a national emergency, blames the socialists and communists, sends them to the first concentration camp built specifically for this purpose, and begins the systematic destruction of any opposition to his dictatorship.

Could this situation have happened anywhere else? Yes, I think so. It all hinges for me on the vindictive peace treaty, itself the product of the merciless viciousness of the war. The Allies wanted to punish Germany. If any other nation had lost, a fascist dictator might have come to power there (as was the case in Italy, and after 1936, in Spain). Fascism was an understandable strategy to deal with economic chaos and possible communist revolution. It was supported by capitalists, conservatives, and religious leaders who feared the alternative. A few warned at the time that a harsh peace, unless it could be enforced, would produce a monstrous tyranny in reaction. But the monstrous tyranny that most feared throughout the capitalistic, nationalistic world at the time was Bolshevism, not fascism. It turns out, alas, that both of these ‘isms’ allowed those who championed them to display the very worst traits we have as human beings.

Amy:  Regarding the medical experimentation: Did these Nazi doctors simply have free reign to do as they wished, or was there scientific methodology they were trying to adhere to? Were there any long-term benefits from their "research" or was the nature of it, as "fruit of the poisonous tree," rendered worthless?

Doug:  There were two general research agendas: to determine appropriate strategies to deal with combat conditions, wounds, deprivations, as well as methods to conduct more efficient warfare—chemical and biological weapons, for example; and to advance what was claimed to be scientific understanding of human biology, disease, and heredity. The government provided funding and material support for both of these endeavors. Concentration camp conditions permitted researchers great latitude in pursuing them. In all cases, this research was based on racist ideologies that were justified by Social Darwinism and eugenics. And there was no informed consent from the victims.

Nazi medical research did reach some significant conclusions. Before the war, for example, epidemiologists and laboratory researchers demonstrated the direct link between nicotine and lung cancer, and recognized the influence of specific environmental conditions on other cancers. Unfortunately, this research was discredited after the war, in great part by the tobacco industry, because it was conducted by Nazis in the Third Reich. See Robert N. Proctor, The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Obviously, medical research in the concentration camps is highly problematic. Victims were offered little to no accurate information about the treatments they were forced to endure—and even if they were, can we really imagine that they gave genuinely voluntary, informed consent? There is a strong argument that subjecting a human being to such treatments without voluntary, informed consent invalidates the research findings: the prisoner’s lack of autonomy quite possibly affects his or her body’s responses to the treatment. Who’s to say that our mental state doesn’t impact even our most fundamental biological activity? The more we learn about the mind-body connection, the more we realize how important it is.

Just the same, some Nazi research did produce valid information or at least led to further, more responsible research that has become significant. For example, in the field of cryogenics, we have come to understand the importance of lowering body temperature in order to treat specific traumatic conditions or increase success in some surgical settings; and improvements in designing prosthetic limbs can be traced back to some of this research.

In any case, all such research is unethical. It uses human beings as a means to an end, in violation of widely agreed upon, fundamental and responsible religious and ethical principles. The significant question remains: should we now use whatever is valid information that has been learned from such experimentation? Some say, yes, we should, in order that others may now benefit, and so the victims’ sacrifice will not be in vain. Others say, no, we should not, because of the sordid way in which the information was obtained, lest we rationalize that such ends will justify similar means, and in an attempt to honor the victims’ pain and sacrifice. It is a very controversial topic among medical ethicists and philosophers. At the least, discussing it heightens our awareness of potential abuses in medical science and practice.

You can still enter to win a copy of his book by leaving a comment below, US only, ending Nov 20. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Guest Post: Doug Skopp on "Holocaust Fatigue"

Guest post by Professor Doug Skopp----

When I was writing Shadows Walking—I think I had finished the ninth draft, sometime in 2006—I tried to find a literary agent who would help me find a publisher. I sent out letters and got back over thirty rejections, most with relatively curt, impersonal replies. One agent, though, sent back a more detailed explanation. Aside from her criticism of my characters’ development and my plot—both entirely valid observations that I hope I have dealt with—she wrote, “Nazi atrocities are passé.” Needless to say, I was stunned.

Aside from the fact that she turns out to have been wrong, based on the recent spate of successful books, films and plays on themes related to aspects of the Nazi regime’s rise and fall, what could she have meant? There were several possibilities, but each raised its own problem. Worst would have been that she thought Nazi atrocities were make-believe? As an historian who has spent uncountable hours in German archives looking at original documents, trying to unravel the labyrinthine dimensions of Hitlerism, and reading in the vast scholarship by dozens of responsible historians who have come to some understanding of the beast, to say nothing of my conversations, going back to 1960, when I first went to Germany, with men and women who were in a position to know what happened to them and to those who were, as a result of the regime’s predations, forever silent, I knew without question that a deliberate, state-sponsored genocide had happened. Arguments to the contrary are absurd. “Holocaust denial” is a centerpiece in the agenda of the age-old hatred we know as anti-Semitism.

If the Nazi state had only targeted one child—no matter what its ethnicity, nationality, gender, physical or mental abilities—it would have been a monstrous crime; adding up the Nazis’ victims to total this or that many millions does not make the genocide perpetrated on any of them proportionately worse. As John Donne wrote five hundred years ago, “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind…” And some fourteen hundred years before Donne, we read in the Mishnah, the codification and explication of the ancient Hebrews’ oral tradition, that “anyone who destroys one soul…is reckoned by Scripture as if he destroyed the whole world; and anyone who saves one soul…is reckoned by Scripture as if he had saved the whole world….”

Perhaps the literary agent meant that the Holocaust was over-emphasized as a calamity? That other, more recent genocides deserved to be studied and publicized at least as much, or more, since that bloodshed is still fresh? I agree, the Holocaust was not the first genocide—and certainly not the last. As a teacher, I tried to tell my students that every page of our history helps us understand who we are and what we could be. It’s hard for me to imagine that we would not want to know all we can about what we have come to call the Holocaust, or about any such chapter in human history, especially the most recent ones.

I finally decided the literary agent thought that we were becoming dulled and made indifferent through “over-exposure” in the media and in our schools to Nazi atrocities. In education, this is what has come to be called “Holocaust fatigue.” You’ll instantly get well over one-million “hits” if you “google” the term. I can understand that an obsession with anything can be counter-productive. But how much attention is “too much”? Or to put the question differently, is there such thing as being “over-exposed” to the truth?

In March 2008, the German Foreign Ministry issued a report about “Holocaust fatigue.” Dr. Benedikt Haller, a ministry official, described the efforts in Germany to integrate a more detailed study of the Holocaust into the public schools than was earlier the case. At work were a newer generation of teachers, a more engaged and aware student population—thanks to easy access to more information than had ever been available before—and a more methodical approach to the teaching Germany’s history in the twentieth century. He feared that instead of promoting greater sensitivities, so much energy and effort expended on learning about the Holocaust was becoming counter-productive and leading to indifference.

In the United States, too, there is a wide-spread determination to teach more details about the Nazi regime and all its activities, driven in part by mandated curricular reforms, in part by the need to provide guidance to youth who can so easily gain access to misinformation. Depending on how this teaching is done, there might well be “Holocaust fatigue”—or at least an overload that can lead to complacency.

I know many teachers and have taught many students who have entered the profession. I have read widely in the textbooks that are being used, here and in Germany; in fact, I have helped to write chapters on recent European history, including the Holocaust, and/or served as an editorial consultant “on European history” for nine textbooks currently in use in the United States. In my judgment, if there is a problem, it is in the burdens we have placed upon teaching as a profession, not in the topic we are asking teachers to teach.

Our schools are painfully vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy. They subject to political pressures that have little to do with sound educational practices. Teachers just the same are asked to perform miracles: deal with large numbers of unevenly, often inadequately prepared students; help them resist or avoid the temptations of our distracting, pixilated world; deal with peer pressure pumped at them in an unprecedented way through social networking technologies; be focused under time constraints on subject matter that requires patience and skills—especially reading and writing skills—to interpret and comprehend it ; and, through it all, be of good cheer. If our students are fatigued, our teachers are, too—and not just in trying to make sense about the Holocaust.

Nuremberg Trials
 It need not be this way, of course. There are proven strategies to avoid student boredom and teacher burn-out in teaching the Holocaust, or any historical topic. Making a good-faith effort to engage each student, based on his or her unique capacities—to become an active partner in the learning process—is, of course, the most important one. This means helping students imagine how life was in a different era, finding ways to help them tell stories about it, to make it a personal, fulfilling vision of what was, and why it was what it was. It means opening the student’s mind to raising questions that he or she wants to answer, rather than force-feeding answers to questions the student has no interest in exploring. It means acknowledging that names, dates and statistics are definitely not what history is about; instead, affirming that history is about real human beings, about all of us. It means that we must offer our students an opportunity to understand the context of the ideas we hope they will explore. We must be prepared to help them understand why perpetrators wanted to do what they did, and why victims behaved the way they did in the face of their tormentors. And we must be clear in what we expect to achieve in our teaching. In the case of the Nazi genocide, for example, I would want to help my students realize the consequences of choices and attitudes that foster arrogance and hatred. Then I would try to help them cultivate and express their compassion and empathy. A tall order for any teacher with any age-level of student. But the consequences of not doing all we could do in this cause, I believe, are terrifying.

Let me conclude with an excerpt from an unsolicited letter that I received from a 10th grade student who read Shadows Walking over the summer; I find it remarkable for the sensitivity and thoughtfulness it conveys (and I readily admit to envying this young woman’s writing skills). She writes,

“Thanks to the efforts of many who, like you, worked to keep the past in memory, the Holocaust is taught in school as part of the regular curriculum. I know that it has not always been this way, that some feel that history class should focus more on American victories than on such morbid subjects. Nonetheless, my classmates and I have studied the numbers, the statistics of the Holocaust. We have been taught the vocabulary, and have regarded the maps of German trains running from cities to concentration camps. But I could never understand the How. I envisioned Germany in the 1930’s as being full of skinhead-personalities: pre-occupied with war, and with questionable intelligence and no grasp of logic. How they managed to get control of an entire country, I could never figure out.

“Shadows Walking—leading me through the experiences of two men whose lives were eaten by the Holocaust—is the only thing that helped me understand, and reached me like no textbook ever could. I could too easily put myself in the shoes of every character, and see why they did what they did…. For the first time I see how a young person, just like me in every way except one, could see sense in such insanity. If I had not been raised in a culture valuing compassion and equality, I could have been one of the surly, mutilating nurses of the concentration camps.

“Your novel is in the genre of historical fiction. If I had never heard of the Holocaust, I would think it a ridiculous futuristic dystopia. I would have believed—I would still rather believe that you had made this all up. I would rather believe that the Nazis were not men but mannish machines. But I know that this happened in a country just like this one. That is why this book read like a horror story—not only because of the depraved individuals and inconceivable tortures, but because of the ominous message I found throughout the book. I don't know if you meant to write this between the lines, but your novel impressed it upon me deeply that this can happen again. That the Holocaust did not die, but is lying dormant in our society, in any and every society.

“With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming up, I am reminded less of that day than its effect on the world. Any person who looks vaguely Middle-Eastern is viewed with suspicion by many Americans. An anti-Middle-East and anti-Islam ideology has seeped far into our culture. Your novel has shown me that the ground is already laid for another movement powered by hate and racism. Though I do not think that anything of the magnitude of the Holocaust could happen today, now, I am uneasy. We speak of the Holocaust as if it is in the past, but the world is always changing. I wish I could be sure that my children, and grandchildren, and all of my descendants will never have to witness the horror you've written about, or feel like they are facing frontwards in a backwards society.”

I wrote Shadows Walking hoping for just such a response. Just imagine my joy in receiving this letter! I am deeply honored by this student’s—and by your—attention to my work. And I hope, like her, that you will find it worthwhile.

The ongoing giveaway for a copy of this novel is currently on through Nov 20, 2011.  Leave comment to enter.  US only please.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Guest Post: Doug Skopp "Why I Wrote Shadows Walking"

By Professor Doug Skopp

I am—rather, I was, before I retired in 2006—a teacher of history. The hardest part of my job was convincing my students that history can be fascinating, indeed exhilarating. For those who are willing to really look into the past—to realize it, that is, literally, to make it real—studying history is empowering and humbling at the same time.

I tried to teach my students that the past is done, irretrievable except through the stories we tell about it. It is not what happened, but what historians say happened that constitutes our understanding of history, of the past. This telling of stories about the past can awaken us, frighten us, empower us, energize us; cause us to tremble, weep, worry, and rejoice. At the least, if we look into the mirror of the past as closely as we can, if we honestly try to see who we were and who or what we might have become instead, given the revelations and dangers that are evident on every page of our history books, we can become empowered for the opportunities we have. Just as important if not more so, we can begin to find humility and compassion in the responsibilities we bear. Given the precariousness of our lives and the obvious dangers that are too real in lives of our children and grandchildren, it is more imperative than ever that we learn who we were, in order to prepare ourselves for who we might (again) become.

On April 14, 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke a warning in a “fireside chat” that was insightful then and still relevant now: “Democracy has disappeared in several great nations,” he said, “not because the people of those nations dislike democracy, but because they have grown tired of unemployment and insecurity, of seeing their children hungry while they sat helpless in the face of government confusion and government weakness…. Finally, in desperation, they chose to sacrifice liberty in the hope of getting something to eat.”

One of the nations where democracy disappeared was Germany. Until Hitler came to power, Germany represented the epitome of Western Civilization: brilliant, profound philosophers; inspiring, unequaled composers and authors; astounding insights in science, especially medical science; technological geniuses—all these and more were justifiably celebrated in their native Germany and throughout the world. Within the space of a few years, this legacy was betrayed by Nazism and replaced by unspeakable tyranny and atrocities. The perpetrators of Nazi ideology were highly educated. What went wrong? All of my scholarly research was directed at learning more about this question. I needed to try to understand how this had happened. And I wanted my students to join me in asking ourselves how it could have happened there, and what would prevent it from happening here.

I was fortunate to receive a Senior Fulbright Scholar/Teacher Award that allowed me to spend the 1985-1986 academic year in Germany as a guest professor at a university and to have time to research medical ethics and practices in Germany from 1880-1945. I envisioned a scholarly work detailing and analyzing this history. Before I could complete my research and produce a manuscript, however, several other excellent studies were published. All of them, I now see, are superior to anything I could have produced. And thanks to them, we know an incredible amount about the administration and practices of Nazi medicine, about its perverse experimentation on unwilling human beings, and about the sufferings of its victims. We especially know a great deal about the monstrous personalities and the highest ranking physicians and medical administrators who shaped the Nazis’ cruelties toward their victims.

Just the same, all of these studies, despite their merits, to my mind did not adequately explore the why or the how that a typical, well-intentioned, thoughtful, even idealistic young physician could decide to become a Nazi. How could such a person do what we know Nazi doctors did? What could lead a person, especially a person whose career is supposed to be one anchored on compassion, to choose this path? What would happen, I asked, if he came to realize what he had done? (Most Nazi doctors did not realize the extent of their crimes.) How would he try to explain himself? (Most would have shirked blame.) And what should happen to him, once he did? (Most died in their beds, having resumed their practices; some even achieved prominence and praise.)

Nuremberg Trial Defendants, from

The problem was, “ordinary” Nazi doctors did not leave a conspicuous paper trail. I began to imagine one’s life, a composite of the fragments of some actual careers I could trace. I wrote a “biography” of this imagined Nazi doctor. I put him into the context of the events he most likely would have experienced—the pre-World War I era of his childhood; World War I and the disappointment at Germany’s defeat; the hated, punitive Versailles Peace Treaty that demanded unimaginable reparations from Germany; the ensuing economic crises, especially the Great Depression; the euphoria in thinking that Adolf Hitler would solve all Germany’s problems. I knew that my typical Nazi physician would certainly be a strong nationalist throughout these events, rather than an internationalist, a socialist or a communist.

As the unavoidable backdrop to these events and the sentiments they evoked, I knew that my typical Nazi physician would have imbibed at least some of the pervasive, long-standing animosity toward Jews and the unspeakable racism that authenticated it. Anti-Semitism was by no means unique to Germany, or even at its zenith there; on the contrary, it was in minds and hearts wherever the sun shone down, in Europe, the Americas, even in places where there were hardly any Jews, such as Asia. Another, related ingredient in the values of those times was the sexism that held women in contempt; even while lip-service was given to them as mothers, they were seen as unfit and needed to be protected from the realities of a world they could not possibly understand or change.

My story would have to include the wide-spread enthusiasm for medical science as taught in all the major universities of the day. Leading the way was German medical science. It promised itself that it would eliminate all human ailments and cure every disease. Medical science at the time was animated in great part by eugenics—the pseudo- scientific belief that human health—some even argued, the survival of our species—depended upon having the will to cull and terminate those whose “lives were not worth living” and the “useless eaters.” At the same time, and more reasonably, there was enthusiasm for fresh air, good nutrition, exercise, and public hygiene as a way to transform the human race into noble specimens more like gods and goddesses than men and women.

By 1990, I had sketched out a version of Shadows Walking. I gave my typical physician, Johann Brenner, a family, friends, associates, and ultimately, victims. I created a plot. I invented a disguise for Brenner once he survived the war. I began to write my novel.

Over the next twenty years, I wrote fourteen drafts of my novel. I had six working titles and nine possible endings. I published it myself, not being willing to risk never seeing it on the shelf. I know it can be better. I wish I had included other characters, for one. I wish I were a more succinct writer. (The length of this piece shows I’m not.)

My students always came to life and had better insights when we were reading fiction from or about the era we were studying. I believe in fiction as a way to explore the past. It helps me discover others’ values and test my own, as a way to discover myself. Learning about others’ lives helps me learn about my own potential—my capacity to be whatever the historical record shows human beings have been—saints and sinners; beggars and royals; the powerful and the powerless; the wise and the foolish; the brilliant composers and the maniacal destroyers; a Mozart, a Mengele; the one who does good and the one who, like Camus’s protagonist in The Fall, who walks by someone in need of help. As best I can, I need to know what made a well-intentioned man willingly choose to become a Nazi doctor. I think we all need to know that, if we can. We might in the process become more humble. We might better appreciate the courage of his victims and regret their pain. And we might be more inspired to do the right thing when, as President Roosevelt warned, democracy can be sacrificed in the face of desperation.

Special thanks to Doug for this guest post.  His next post will discuss whether or not the concept of "Holocaust fatigue" is legitimate and what can be done to avoid that label.

The book can be purchased at the website above, at, or at
A Kindle version is available.