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10.09.10

Great New Reads

In our new books column, three takes on history: a lampshade's path from Buchenwald to New Orleans, a memoir of complicated grandfathers from Joseph O'Neill, and Bernhard Schlink’s novel on a terrorist grown-old.

In our new books column, three takes on history: a lampshade's path from Buchenwald to New Orleans, a memoir of complicated grandfathers from Joseph O'Neill, and Bernhard Schlink's novel on a terrorist grown old.

The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans
by Mark Jacobson

Mark Jacobson, a contributing editor to New York magazine, has spent his career excavating rotten places. In the 1980s, he was the guy Rolling Stone asked to reveal Times Square's sicko soul. His writings from the new, squeaky-clean Manhattan often feel like he's gone searching for the city's haunted past: see his great story The Return of Superfly, about a fallen Harlem heroin magnate, or his piece on the highs and lows of the Bowery.

Here, in The Lampshade, is the ultimate blast of old evil: a lampshade made of human skin, possibly from prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp, turns up in New Orleans. Jacobson goes in search of its provenance. I'm not spoiling anything by revealing that science doesn't quite allow him to nail it down. The book is really about the notions of history and human wretchedness the lampshade shakes loose, and, in a trippy way, about Jacobson's kinship with the item: "the warmth of its touch, the strange, greasy smoothness…the way the stretched panels looked to be marks with striations similar to the ones I saw on my own skin."

Part of what amazes me about Jacobson's writing is that it's both gonzo and fiercely, fiercely smart. He resists cheap titillation, whether he's talking to Holocaust deniers, the actress who played a Nazi commandant in the porny Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, or David Duke. (Duke, the psychic connection between the Third Reich and Louisiana, is hanging out in Austria, of all places.) Not every tangent Jacobson follows is particularly illuminating, as he is the first to admit. But he's working like mad to do right by the lampshade, or, at least, to discover its untold story. The Lampshade is an awfully good book and it's exceptionally heartfelt.

—Bryan Curtis, Senior Editor, The Daily Beast

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Blood-Dark Track By Joseph O'Neill 352 pages. Vintage. $15.95. ()

Blood-Dark Track
By Joseph O’Neill

In his bestselling 2008 novel, Netherland, writer Joseph O'Neill described the life of a Dutchman living in New York who becomes embroiled in a Brooklyn cricket team of immigrant players. In Blood-Dark Track, a memoir first published in 2001, he similarly examines the way cultures meet unexpectedly—but this time the field of convergence is himself, the product of two very different worlds. His mother's family, we learn, were a threatened Christian minority in Turkey; his father's family were Irish farmers, many of whom were active members of the IRA. The two families share a secret: both of O'Neill's grandfathers, Joseph Dakak and Jim O'Neill, were incarcerated during the Second World War, for reasons rarely discussed.

This carefully constructed memoir is held taut between the opposing forces of these two men and their respective worlds—the busy streets of Mersin, a Turkish seaside town, and the banks of the salmon-filled rivers of Cork. Joseph Dakak, a man accused of being an Axis spy, was an hotelier and " courant" (skirt-chaser), with a penchant for reading the papers in bed, and ripe watermelon. Jim O'Neill, imprisoned in "Tintown" in 1940 and suspected of the murder of a British admiral, was by contrast honest but " hard"—a word that applied to "his work, his times, his life, his luck".

As one might expect from a writer who worked for years as a lawyer, the motivation behind O'Neill's detective work combines the instinctive—the desire for "a shiver" of explanation, "a tingle" of understanding—and the analytical. He does not spare himself; following an argument with his Irish uncle, once himself a member of the IRA, about the purposes of terrorism, O'Neill realizes that his own English accent is "a voice that packs into its drawling vowels centuries of racial condescension and seemingly eradicable and wilful misconceptions." Ultimately, this is a memoir driven by a desire to pick apart and challenge whatever is personal, and to gently insist on its political implications.

In his new prologue, O'Neill calls Blood-Dark Track, rather than Netherland, his "9/11 book"—which might seem an odd claim for a narrative that eschews grand statements and drama (he devotes just three sentences to a bomb that nearly misses him while visiting Jerusalem). But O'Neill's casually beautiful descriptions, worthy of the best travel writing, serve a real purpose in this book, which explores the ways our cultures become us, and the implications of national pride. Even as O'Neill's narrative releases his grandfathers from the silence and shame of their families, he reminds us that we are never really as free from geopolitical concerns as we would like to think.

—Emily Stokes, Contributor, The Daily Beast

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The Weekend By Bernhard Schlink 224 pages. Pantheon. $24.95. ()

The Weekend
By Bernhard Schlink

A former terrorist is released from prison and spends his first free weekend at a crumbling country house surrounded by former lovers, disenchanted friends, and one impassioned young revolutionary who won't stop believing in the fight. In this tense, spare novel, the bestselling author of The Reader, Bernhard Schlink, explores another dark chapter in Germany's complicated 20th-century history when the Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorized industrialists and attacked the state in the 1970s and '80s. Read together, The Reader and The Weekend are twin meditations on the immense power that the past holds on us, and how generations must reconcile themselves with what their parents have done. Like an Ibsen play in its tight focus on the domestic and its constrained setting, Schlink's novel centers around this one man, a former member of the RAF, as he is confronted, accused, mocked, and exhorted by these people from his past. His infatuated sister, a hesitant pastor, a wary lawyer, and others experience spiraling tensions as they feel first superior (none of them murdered anyone) and then confused as they relive through their own youths—some were fellow revolutionaries, others have grown heavy with bourgeois success.

Read The Weekend over, well, a weekend and you'll feel uneasy realizing that the past is just as treacherous territory for former terrorists—and Schlink is not shy about acknowledging our present struggles with terrorism—as it is for us. But this fine novel is not a heavy-handed wrestling with terrorism, domestic and otherwise, but a deftly written and spry look at how we deal with others. If hell was other people for Sartre, then redemption is the same in Schink's novel. As this novel and its predecessors make clear, German history is its own form of a claustrophobic country house that Jörg and his family and friends cannot truly escape.

—Lucas Wittmann, Books Editor, The Daily Beast

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