Monday, November 28, 2011

Guest Post: Doug Skopp, author of Shadows Walking

 I am extremely excited to have a guest post from Douglas R. Skopp, author of Shadows Walking (which I reviewed last week).  So, without further ado, please welcome Doug Skopp...

“Why I wrote Shadows Walking”
by 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.)

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.

Thank you so much Doug!

For more information on the book and the blog tour check out:
My review
The tour schedule
Douglas R. Skopp's website
Twitter Event Hashtag: #ShadowsWalkingVirtualBookTour

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Shadows Walking - Douglas R. Skopp

Shadows Walking
By Douglas R. Skopp

The story opens up with Johann in his “current” time of 1946, during the Nuremburg Trials. After the first chapter, every chapter opens with a portion of a letter that Johann in writing to his wife to try and explain the things he has done. After that, the chapter continues with a combination of current time, and flashbacks to Johann’s past as well as the past of his Jewish friend Philipp. At times these transitions were a bit confusing but as the story moved I got used to it.

The unspeakable things that Johann did as a Nazi doctor are hinted at but for most of the story you don’t really know the details. Because of this, Skopp sets up a story that allows you to forget, for moments, who he actually turns into. Skopp is careful to show Johann’s compassion and humanity before he gives the details of the terrible things Johann did. I think this makes the book even more haunting because it almost unexpected. Skopp really dives into the mindset at the time and tries to look at what would make someone commit those awful acts. He also attempts to get to the heart of how someone begins to justify their actions and beliefs.

“Philipp paused again to empty his glass. ‘But Johann, I have to ask—even though I am not eager to hear your answer—what do you mean, ‘act Jewish’?’

It was Johann’s turn to stiffen. He tightened his grip on his wine glass. ‘Ach, you know. The usual description of Jews. Money grubbing. Deceptive. Clannish. As you said, an outsider. Jewish,’ he said, his voice trailing off. ‘Not you, as I said. I mean no offense, Philipp.’”
Pg. 163

The story is heartfelt and of course heartbreaking. It is also, at times, very graphic because it doesn’t just hint at the terrible things Nazi doctors did in the name of science. It definitely made me think and I am glad I had the opportunity to read it. But, I do also have to say that the end was completely aggravating with its open-ending…but that’s life.

SYNOPSIS: Johann Brenner, an idealistic physician and ardent German nationalist, has joined the Nazi Party and willingly participated in its "crimes against humanity." His Jewish childhood friend, Philipp Stein, has also become a doctor. Their lives inevitably intersect until their last, fateful meeting.

After the war, Brenner, with stolen papers and a new name, has become a janitor in the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials are being held. Hoping to "heal himself" and wishing to begin a new life with his estranged wife, he decides that he must write her a letter telling what he has done and why.

Brenner's letter sets the theme for each chapter of Shadows Walking. Through his letter, we see him admit his choices and their consequences as he slips deeper and deeper into the brutality of the Third Reich.

**Thank you to Amy at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours and Douglas R Skopp for providing me with a copy for review.

Come back Monday Nov. 28 when I will have a guest post from Douglas R Skopp!!

For more information on the book and the blog tour check out:
Link to tour schedule:
Link to Douglas R. Skopp's WEBSITE:
Twitter Event Hashtag: #ShadowsWalkingVirtualBookTour

Monday, November 21, 2011

Summer in the South - Cathy Holton

Summer in the South
By Cathy Holton

Summer in the South was a perfect transition book. You would think it would be best as a Summer read, (it is in the title after all) but as the weather turned to Fall I found this book to be the perfect companion.

Ava didn’t exactly have the “perfect” childhood and she tries to sort the messier parts of it out while writing her first novel. An old college friend invites her to a small town in Tennessee, where she can stay with his family on their huge estate. There she finds more of a story than she was expecting. I think this line is actually a wonderful summarization of the story:

“She could imagine herself holed up in a little cabin like his mother’s, overlooking a wide sweep of rolling hills, churning out novels about people who understood the joys of living in a place where nothing ever happened. If you didn’t count murder, tragedy, undying love, and familial revenge.”
-page 314

I have to say, my favorite part of the story was where she really got into the writing. I loved reading about her process and wondering if it at all mirrored Holton’s. Of course, I’ll admit it was fun to imagine getting away to a mansion with so much history, a love interest and all you had to do was write.

I was intrigued from the beginning in a calm and steady way that was refreshing. There were moments when Holton seemed to be trying to be vague and it just made the story a bit confusing but there was so much more that grabbed me and kept me interested. There was also some hilarious insight and I will leave you with one of my favorite lines…

“’You reach a point in your life where you have to make a decision. Do you stay with the wild and sexy boyfriend, the one who makes your pulse race and your heart pound, or do you settle for the guy who will always pay the mortgage?’ Her eyes were wide, tragic. ‘Do you settle for regular orgasms or money in the bank?’”
-page 181

**Source: From author for review

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hunger Games Movie Trailer!

My first reaction when I saw the trailer for Hunger Games was released today was "holy crap yay!"  But while I watched it I just kept thinking "oh crap, oh crap, oh crap" and also "don't cry Jess, you're so stupid it is just the trailer."  I am so excited for next year, this movie is going to be incredible.  The trailer was better than I ever expected! Check out the link.

Movie Trailer: The Hunger Games

Thursday, November 10, 2011

33 Days - Bill See

33 Days: Touring In A Van, Sleeping On Floors, Chasing A Dream
By Bill See

In 1987, Bill See and his band Divine Weeks set out on a 33 day tour. The book follows the band, showing their ups and downs while also giving a bit of their history through flashbacks. It was interesting to see the different circumstances each person came from and the way music brought them together. The time jumps in the flashbacks didn’t always flow well but they did portray the way our minds wander while serving the purpose of telling the back-story.

I loved seeing the other side of a tour when they have to get out there and play because they love the music so much. See gave great insight and started off really strong. I connected with his story right away but it did slow around the middle of the book. It became a bit repetitive and at times seemed too cliché but I reconnected with it towards the end.

I think I would have connected even more with the story if I was a bit older and actually aware of music while this was all happening but I was still able to relate it to my experiences at shows and the music I love and that was the best part of the story for me.

If  you are curious about the music of Divine Weeks, check out Bill's website.

**Source: from author for review

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods (audiobook)
By Bill Bryson

A walk in the Woods is about simple that, a walk in the woods. Bill Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz take a long…very long…walk on the Appalachian Trail. While Bryson recounts his preparation for his long walk as well as the walk itself, he also scatters facts that are both fun and freaky throughout the story. Facts that will make you want to hop on the AT bandwagon and at the same time run screaming.

I took listening to this book as a long and slow process and I loved that about it. I dabbled in it while I cleaned and trudged along with him on my longer drives and let me tell you, I was fully entertained the entire time. I was constantly pausing it and turning to my husband with an “oh my God you have to hear this” story.

Listening to an audiobook narrated by the author can be a very hit or miss thing but I am happy to say that Bill Bryson stepped up. He had a remarkable way of bringing the characters to life, probably because he not only wrote them but actually knew them. I loved Katz and all his faults. He brought the story to life and also made it relatable. This is definitely a story that I would recommend listening to when you really need to get a taste of nature.

**Source: courtesy of my lovely local library

Friday, November 4, 2011

Catching up on awesome stuff!

I meant to write this post a while ago but I was out of town and then I got
disgustingly sick.  Don't you just hate that!

I'm blurry with excitement!
Last Friday I went to a book signing for Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (watch for my review).  I met up with the awesome Stephanie D of Misfit Salon and we had a blast listening to Laini talk about the book.  She even read the piece that included my favorite line from the book but she said it was the most quoted line so I guess I'm not as unique as I thought.  Or maybe it is just that good.  Read it and find out! is.

Anyway...I talked to another local blogger named Stephanie who just got an agent for her freaking awesome right!!!  Then went for some hot chocolate and chit chat.  It was the start of an awesome weekend.

Also, congratulations to the winner of my Blogiversary Giveaway!!