20. The Postman

by David Brin

Men can be brilliant and strong, they whispered to one another. But men can be mad, as well. And the mad ones can ruin the world.

It is 2012, some sixteen years after all out war sends the world -certainly the United States- into total chaos. Nuclear war destroyed all U.S. cities and left a wake of radiation and fallout that killed off the vast majority of the population. But the U.S. may have recovered as a nation if large groups of violent "survivalists," or vicious, opportunistic pseudo-Darwinists, hadn't organized to plunder what was left... Damn those Holnists to hell!

The story is about the unlikely hero, Gordon Krantz, who changes things through a lie he initially starts telling in order to ensure his survival. He is a survivor, a wanderer, in search of some semblance of civilization in a land rife with separatist violence, starvation and... well, you get the idea. Just as he is finally about to meet his own end he happens upon an abandoned U.S. mail truck with the skeleton of it's driver still in the seat. He takes the deceased postman's uniform and two bags of 16 year old mail and sets out with a new scheme to trade the illusion of a restored postal system -and thereby the beginnings of a "Restored United States"- for food and shelter. He underestimates the old, worn out uniform's power as a symbol of hope.

I really enjoyed this book. It's an exciting plot. It also has some unique insights as a work of social commentary. If you are poring through the catalogue of good post apocalypse fiction, this one should be somewhere on your list.

I didn't want to mention the movie, which was lame, and I certainly didn't want to say the obvious "the book is better", but something needs to be said about how incredibly screwed up the movie is. It is an unprecedented butchering of an excellent novel.

Anyway, this is a pretty exciting novel. I recommend it.

19. My Name is Asher Lev

By Chaim Potok

Make even greater works to make up for the pain you will cause.

This one struck my heart. It’s about the becoming of an artist who must reconcile his own nature with that of his orthodox Jewish tradition and beliefs. Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn. Told by the painter himself, his story begins when he is five and runs well into his adult life as a successful artist. But his success did not come without causing great pain to his family and community… and therefore himself. It’s all necessary, though, in order for him to become an honest/great artist.

Millions of people can draw and paint well, but how many have an eye for the essence of things, and dare to make pictures that depict the world as they truly see and feel it? How many Chagalls are there? Picassos? Matisses? Levs?

I am a bit speechless, as I just finished the book and am somewhat blown away. I can't be objective. It’s a very beautiful novel, one that might usurp something on my top ten list.

David, have you read this one?

18. Survival in Auschwitz (or If This is a Man, it’s original title)

By Primo Levi

I am finally almost caught up on my book reviews!

Thanks, Walkerp, for recommending this one. What a remarkable account of this man’s survival during his ten-month imprisonment at the German death camp, Auschwitz. Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, was twenty-five when he was arrested by Italian fascists and transported to Auschwitz. His story is an extremely valuable document of the systematic cruelty and genocide engineered by Nazi Germany.

I can’t help but compare Levi’s accounts with that of Eli Weisel, having read them only a month apart. Both were at Auschwitz at the same time. In terms of fact, both tell the same story. But they are very different men. One thing that is remarkable about Levi’s account is the extent to which thinking contributed to his survival, the thinking of a practical, humane, scientific mind. Sure, like Weisel, Levi takes care to acknowledge biological strength and incredible luck, and the grace of many men who could have just as easily hoarded life for themselves. But it is his ability to think, to remain level-headed, that is key to remaining human, and ultimately to survival, in the chaos of random, unconscionable evil. His is a testimony of the indestructibility of the human spirit.

An example of Levi’s thinking (it’s a bit out of context, but…):

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both of these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief…

Thinking. He often felt he was thinking too much during those ten months, but the man who thinks too much is inseparable from the survivor.

Like so many survivors of genocide, Levi’s morality was challenged to the extreme. He argues that the ordinary world’s sense of morality (what’s right and wrong, or good and evil) don’t stand a chance at a place like Auschwitz. That sounds bleak… and yet some may survivors (and they weren’t many. Two thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered) returned with a deeper sense of humanity and purpose. Put simply,

There comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men – the saved and the drowned.

His question, our question, is one of responsibility for all those people.

Among the things that have been bothering me as a read through Holocaust literature this year is that we have no equal account from the other side, from a Nazi who desired to come clean. It’s one thing to talk in near-hyperbole of the evil Nazi Germany, but what of the individual giving or taking orders at a place like Auschwitz? The cruelty. The insanity. How can that be explained?

Another aspect of morality that I find profound is the discovery of how impossible it is for these survivors (Levi and Weisel) to think that their God had anything to do with either the atrocity or their survival. They come out very different believers, much more human believers. Just after a “selection,” a routine event whereby prisoners are selected for slaughter, Levi and others who survived yet another close call, have a moment of reprieve:

Now everyone is busy scraping the bottom of his bowl with his spoon so as not to waste the last drops of the soup; a confused, metallic clatter, signifying the end of the day. Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow [he’s been selected] and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that the next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.

This is a must read for those wanting to understand the Holocaust. I also recommend it to pretty much everyone else.

17. Blackwater

by Kerstin Ekman

My dad gave me this one by Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman. It’s a mystery/thriller with some conventions we Americans might be surprised by.

Set in the 1970s, in the mountains of Sweden, there is a murder. The protagonist is a 30-something mother who has decided to leave her life as a teacher in Stockholm and trek it up to live with her former student-turned-boyfriend on a commune in the mountains surrounding the very rural town of Blackwater. She arrives to encounter a cast of characters who are less friendly than she imagined they would be. The local store owner and his wife seem put off by her and her daughter’s presenence, despite the appearance of poverty. While at this local store she also encounters a group of crude mountain boys who are pissing, throwing their empties, etc., just as crude mountain boys might.

Ekman is a master at creating situations or encounters that are not quite what is reasonably expected. This style creates an often imperceptible stress or discomfort in the reader. That is even before the protagonist happens upon the aftermath of a brutal murder scene at a remote campsite.

Some things that make this novel interesting to an American reader:

- Taking her time. As a thriller, this novel plods along, taking its sweet time as we explore all facets of a strikingly unromantic Swedish mountain life.

The forest. I felt deep in the forest myself. It got under my skin. In this way, the novel is excellent writing.

- The clear distinctions between and biases among Swedes, Finns and Norwegians.

- Life among crude, brutish mountain men.

- The very frank language of sex and sexuality. This was great.

- A massive cast of characters. I’m not used to so many suspects, and characters with cross-purposes.

As the reader of a thriller, I got lost. She tries to accomplish too many things. A big, unstoppable conglomerate is leveling the mountainsides as folks try to establish a commune. Mixed into this small, problematic population are those trying to occupy the land only to protect it from the tree-killers. Then there are the hikers. And many, many the locals. Aside from placing a vast array of characters in proximity to each other, it’s never clear what most of them have to do with the murders. It is almost as if the novel is social commentary in the guise of a thrillers. Well, that’s not so bad.