“Transcription” Is The Dullest WW II Novel I’ve Read In Years

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When I started reviewing crime fiction and other genres for the Detroit Free Press back in the 90s, I made an odd discovery.  Reviewers, friends, acquaintances would be raving about a book or an author.  I’d get a review copy and think, “Huh?  What am I missing?”  I remember one book that was hailed across the country in almost ridiculous terms, with one major reviewer gushing that it wasn’t just a book, it was an experience.

Well, isn’t reading every book an experience of some kind?

The second part of this discovery was that when I’d be out on tour for one of my own books, when it came time for Q&A, eventually someone would ask about one of these books the whole world seemed to worship and adore.  The questions always came a bit tentatively, as if it was heretical to even raise them.  I would be honest but focus on something technical.  For instance, with one wild best seller, I said I just didn’t believe the voice was the voice of a teenager.

I’ve been observing the love fest for Kate Atkinson for awhile. Friends have urged me to read Life After Life or Case Histories, and I just couldn’t get into them.  Then a best friend sent me three of her books as holiday gifts.  I picked Transcription because it was the shortest, and I was determined to finish it so we could discuss it.  This is the story of a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, drawn into the fringes of England intelligence in 1940. Her job is typing up transcriptions of bugged conversations of British Nazi sympathizers.  If it sounds dull, it is.

Nothing dramatic happens until halfway, and even then, the drama is relative. Eventually something more exciting does take place, but as WW II books go, this is a sleeper.  I have nothing against war novels that are literary fiction: One of my favorites is Helen Humphreys’ Coventry, which is poetic and intensely dramatic.  But Transcription was annoying in a number of ways.  Apparently shifting decades is one of Atkinson’s “things.”  I found it frustrating.  A straightforward narrative would have ramped up the tension.

But the narrative itself was more awkward and off-putting than the structure.  Juliet is given to incessant thinking about her thinking and to making silly puns.  When told to keep an ear out, she notes that she has two.  Hah.  Hah.  The trivial focus on her mental commentary is relentless and her observations are sometimes ridiculously banal: “But then, what constituted real?  Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?”

There’s a plot twist at the end that doesn’t quite relieve the boredom of the previous 250+ pages. There’s also so much tea drinking that after awhile you begin to wonder if the book is meant to be some kind of spoof of British fiction.

After finishing, I found that a host of highly disappointed readers on Amazon found similar problems with the book.  Me, I read it out of loyalty to my friend, and finally out of morbid curiosity: could it really go on like this page after page?  It did.

With twenty years of university teaching behind him, Lev Raphael offers a range of creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com “Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael is like seeing ‘Blade Runner’ for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, Michigan

God Save the Nazi King?

The 19th century American Quaker abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier is best remembered for his refrain that the saddest words are “It might have been.” But  writers of alternative history fiction would disagree.  What could be more exciting than hijacking a major world event and upending what really happened?

SS-GB, Fatherland, Dominion, The Man in the High Castle are just some of the fascinating novels imagining a victorious Germany in World War II. Tony Schumacher’s debut thriller The Darkest Hour gives the story an exciting twist by making its hero an actual war hero.  John Henry Rossett, a former policeman, is known as “The British Lion” for his heroism against the Nazis, but a cop once again, now he’s been ordered into the German unit rounding up Jews for transportation to Poland.

darkestHe follows orders.  He knows what he’s doing is wrong and doesn’t want to know where the Jews are really going.  Like most other people in London and England, he wonders if the “stories” are rumors.

But he doesn’t really care.  Yet.  He’s a shattered man.  His wife and son were killed by a Resistance bomb, and though he’s ruthless in his work, he’s dead inside until something unexpected happens during what should be a routine roundup.

tony

(the author of The Darkest Hour)

Schumacher does a splendid job of showing how Rossett is unexpectedly brought back to life.  The author creates a London sunk in misery, despair, dankness, corruption, and fog while maintaining an almost breakneck speed through the course of the book. I really wanted to put everything else aside and just read, read, read.  The intense action scenes can sometimes be too choreographed, but they’re exciting and believable; Rossett’s stubbornness, strength, and fury always make sense.

london_fogChurchill and the King are in Canada in case you wondered, and there’s a “new King” we never see.  There’s also a resistance movement and the IRA is somewhere in the shadows, too.  America has left the war after FDR’s death, but we don’t get much more detail about the rest of the world or even Britain. And Schumacher’s German characters often seem more English than German at times–but those are minor flaws.

The Darkest Hour is wildly compelling and filled with surprises as well as a fascinating stream of slimy characters at all levels of society. The few decent people are candles in the wind.

How good is this book?  When I finished it, I picked up the sequel right away: The British Lion.  You probably will, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of The German Money and 24 other books in many genres.

Tracking a Quote To Its Surprising Source

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians or anyone he thought deserved his scathing wit. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

Clement Attlee 1945My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one. I seem to recall her also crediting Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” She may have been referring to Spiro Agnew.

I could be wrong about her target and even her crediting Churchill, but for years I’ve thought that the line was his.  I’m wrong.  When I recently looked for the source, the brilliant line didnt show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a highly tangential Churchill connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”  You’re wondering about the connection?  His opponent is played by an actor named Churchill.  I know, that’s a stretch.

But the line’s political lineage isn’t just fictional.  It goes a few decades further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit:

On one occasion, when a Democratic colleague “was rash enough to quote Henry Clay’s line about rather being right than president,” Speaker Reed shot back the assurance that, “The gentleman needn’t worry. He will never be either.” Harry Truman’s oft-quoted line that “A statesman is a politician who’s been dead 10 or 15 years,” is actually a direct steal from Reed’s earlier, more polished quip that “A statesman is a successful politician who is dead.” Reflecting on his chances of winning a long-shot bid for the presidential nomination in 1896, Reed said of his fellow Republicans, They can do worse. And they probably will.”

Reed did more than quip, though: he sped up action in the House by ending what was in effect an institutional filibuster (too bad he never made it to the Senate).

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz write that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. TR put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

So many of our current politicians fit that description, don’t they?  Too bad we don’t have more wits like Churchill, Reed, or Teddy Roosevelt around to put them in their place.

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers for its wit and one-liners. You can find them on Amazon.