Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review of THE SLEEPWALKERS by Paul Grossman

One of my favorite periods in 20th century history is pre-Nazi Berlin; a fragile time before the rise of an era of unspeakable darkness, when the city was a fabled cosmopolitan smorgasbord full of vibrancy- an international magnet for artists, bohemians, eccentrics, and the curious. The Berlin we know today is very different from the Berlin of before World War II and Paul Grossman’s THE SLEEPWALKERS offers us a superb evocation of that city’s pathos and tragic hedonism in the weeks leading up to Hitler’s ascendancy, even as a resolute Jewish detective hunts for a killer.

As the title suggests, this is more than a novel about a series of bizarre murders that Grossman’s hero, Detective Willi Krauss, is trying to solve. All of Berlin appears to be sleep-walking, seemingly oblivious to the endemic violence lurking under the surface, epitomized by Nazi thugs and opportunistic politicians scheming to rescue Germany from decades of penury and shame. Krauss, however, senses these fearsome undercurrents, even as he is swept up in a labyrinthine quest to discover why a young woman pulled from the river was subjected to horrific medical experiments. Revered for his recent capture of an infamous serial killer yet haunted by personal loss, Krauss is now beginning to experience a subtle but pervasive fraying of his impermeability. His keen observations of the shifting world around him anchor the novel’s dark, fascinating trajectory into both the high-ranking offices of a crumbling government and Berlin's seamy underworld.

The supporting cast of characters includes an enigmatic prostitute, an extravagant hypnotist, an earnest cadet, a jaded aristocrat, and a street hustler. While some of the characters conform to established cliches, Grossman handles them with sensitivity and style, while his villains— including a terrifying, buck-toothed Josef Mengele—display the sociopathic tendencies which became a Nazi blueprint and are all the more unsettling because they are not fictional. Fast-paced action sequences interspersed with Krauss’s uneasy awareness that the life he’s always believed in is turning to quicksand under his feet give the novel a brooding, unstoppable feel that kept me reading far into the night. Though Krauss fights with every part of his being to halt the shadow sweeping over him, and everyone he loves, we know the inevitable outcome; it is a testament to Mr Grossman's talent that despite this, we still find ourselves rooting for his idealistic, damaged hero, caught up in circumstances far beyond his control, like so many thousands of Germany's inhabitants.

THE SLEEPWALKERS is now available in paperback from St Martin's Press.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Guest post from Mark Mustian, author of THE GENDARME

I'm delighted to welcome Mark Mustian, author of THE GENDARME. Highly praised and reviewed, this is a haunting, elegant novel about how the ghosts of our unresolved past return to us, as told through the eyes of an old, ailing man who suddenly re-visits his World War I experiences as a gendarme, escorting Armenian women and children from war-torn Turkey. Among the refugees is a young woman whose mismatched gaze captivates him but they are separated by the conflict; decades later, he finds himself embarking on a journey of forgiveness. Now available in paperback, this is a remarkable and unforgettable novel. Please join me in welcoming Mark Mustian.

Guest post by Mark Mustian:

I’ve never met anyone with mismatched eyes. I mean, I know they exist, and I’ve seen pictures and heard tell of them, but I haven’t met them. And yet the woman at the center of my novel The Gendarme, and whose picture adorns the cover, has one eye darker, the other lighter. At book signings and book club events and even by e-mail, people ask me, “Why did you do this?” And I reply, in typical author fashion, that they’ll have to read the book.

Actually, there are several reasons. The Gendarme is the story of 92 year-old Emmett Conn (then Ahmet Khan), who fought for the Turks in World War I, was injured during the war and lost much of his memory, and only later in life, and after emigrating to the U.S., begins to recall things from the beginning of the war, including his serving as a gendarme and escorting Armenian women and children out of Turkey into Syria. Among his charges is a young woman, hidden under cap and billowy clothing, whose beauty astonishes him when he sets sight upon her. She is young, maybe early teens. She has mismatched eyes.

Most Americans, I’ve discovered, know very little about the Turks and Armenians. The Armenians were a large Christian sect living in eastern Turkey, Iran and the areas near the Black Sea, descendants of an earlier Armenian kingdom, and one of the oldest of Christian peoples. There is an Armenian quarter in Jerusalem, an Armenian Orthodox Church. A small country of Armenia exists today, sandwiched between Turkey and some of the other former Soviet states in the Caucasus. At the beginning of World War I, the Turks were at war with, among others, the (Christian) Russians. Fearing collusion among their large Armenian minority, they rounded up and killed most of the Armenian men, and sent the women and children and old people on an overland trek across the desert to Syria.

When I first started researching the book, I found myself trying to understand how this could have happened. What were the Turks thinking? What circumstances led to this horror? I decided to try and write the book from the point of view of a Turk—a gendarme—escorting these people away from their homeland. In my novel Ahmet first views these deportees as having sewn the seeds of their fate, what with their clannishness and divided loyalty, but as the march goes on, and after he meets the young woman, Araxie, he begins to view the group with greater compassion, to actually see them as displaced, suffering, sympathetic people.

The mismatched eyes are part of the exotica that attracts him to her, but they also reflect the duality lying at the book’s heart—the capacity of everyone to do good and evil. As one character says at the end, there is no blood test that defines us as either bad or good, saint or sinner, Turk or Armenian. The other side of love is hate, and what greater hate is there than apathy? Turkey today, one of the most modern countries in the Middle East, denies responsibility for what happened, turning a blind eye (if you will) to the past. One can only hope that one day things will be different, that wrongs will be righted or, at the very least, acknowledged. A difference as great as, say, light eyes and dark, and all of the combinations that can be evidenced in between.

Guest post from Elizabeth Chadwick, author of LADY OF THE ENGLISH

I'm delighted to welcome Elizabeth Chadwick, author of numerous marvelous historical novels. Her latest is LADY OF THE ENGLISH, the dramatic tale of Matilda, daughter of Henry I, and Adeliza, Henry's widowed queen. Both Adeliza and Matilda are strong women in a tumultous age, prepared to stand firm for what they know is right. But in a world where a man's word is law, how can Adeliza obey her husband while supporting Matilda, the rightful queen? And for Matilda, what price must she pay to win the crown she believes is hers?

Please join me in welcoming Elizabeth Chadwick!

Getting out the dressing up box, 12th-century style
by Elizabeth Chadwick.
Hello and thank you to the brilliant C.W. Gortner for inviting me to guest post on Historical Boys! I thought it might be interesting to answer the question. What did a 12th century woman wear? Let’s take a look at how a lady living at the time of Lady of the English would have dressed.

Underwear:The answer to this is that no one knows what mediaeval women wore under their dresses when it came to covering their most intimate areas. There is very little evidence and historians are still arguing among themselves. So with sensible speculation, what might a 12th century lady have worn? She might have used a similar arrangement to that employed by men, which basically consisted of a pair of very baggy underpants, a bit like very oversized boxer shorts, to which were attached hose by means of straps or ties. he might have worn some form of loincloth, or she might have worn nothing at all. We don't even know what kind of arrangements women made at certain times of the month because no one wrote about it at the time. Most chroniclers were men of a clerical persuasion and such subjects would have been totally inappropriate. Not even the medical treatises deal with the practicalities of menstruation. There are very vague hints about linen cloths that might have been used – presumably attached to a belt, but there is no full and concrete evidence.

Covering her from neck to toe, the lady would wear a chemise. This is a sort of petticoat come under-dress that would usually be made out of linen. In the 12th century very fine linen was made for chemises and wimples in Flanders and imported to Britain. The chemise was a garment loose on the body but was often tight on the sleeves from elbow to forearm. It was fastened with ties or a brooch at the neck, but never a drawstring in this period. Buttons were known, but used as decorations to be sewn on dresses. In the 12th century, they were not used as fasteners.

Legs: On her legs and feet the lady may have worn stockings made out of wool, linen or silk, held in place by pretty garters made out of ribbon or braid. She might also have worn in winter, thick woolly socks. Both socks and stockings could be made by a technique that the Vikings called naalbinding. It's a form of knitting done with one needle. You can see an archaeological find here.
And here is an example of a replica pair of socks.
Feet: Her shoes would have been made from leather – cowhide and goatskin usually, and came in a variety of styles, but without heels at this date, and frequently made by what is called the turn shoe method - where the shoe is stitched inside out and then turn the right way when it's done. This is a photo of a pair of my shoes. (add photo titled My medieval shoes). The vamp strips down the middle are made of silk and dyed with woad.

Dress: The dress in this period follow several styles, but generally speaking if one was high status, the gown would involve plenty of fabric to show you were rich enough to afford cloth which was labour intensive to make, and it would be made of a top quality wool, dyed in expensive colours such as dark red or dark blue. Deep colours cost more because the dying process was more involved – a garment might have to be dyed more than once to acquire the correct shade, and dyes such as woad involved lengthy preparation processes.
As well as having yards of material in the skirt, the high status gown might have extravagant hanging sleeves. This wasn't always the case, but it was a fashion option. Often the gown was decorated with jewels, jetons and embroidery. For the extremely wealthy there was silk, which was imported from the Middle and Far East. After the 12th century silk began to be manufactured in Europe in Italy and the price dropped slightly but it was still a luxury item and only the rich could afford to wear it. Only royalty and the highest magnates in the land could afford to wear purple silk. This dye was more expensive than gold and was made from Mediterranean sea snails.
The Treasury of Roger of Palermo in Sicily boasts a surviving purple silk gown from the empress’s period and you can see it here:

Dresses were often laced at the sides to enable them to cling to the figure. Back lacing, often seen in modern illustrations and dramas on TV appear to be a lot less likely. Dresses of ordinary people used less fabric and were of coarser cloth (usually wool), and cheaper dyes. In essence they were less sumptuous relations to the garments of the aristocracy.

Cloak: The aristocratic noble lady of the 12th century would usually wear a circular floorlength cloak fastened either with clasps or a brooch. Very high status ladies would have cloaks lined with animal fur such as Russian squirrels (vair), red squirrel and sable. Royalty would wear ermine, which was the winter fur of the stoat. Lesser folk made do with linings of cat and lambskin. There was also a garment called a mantle which was similar to a poncho in shape with a hole in the middle for the head and full sides to cover the body. Rectangular cloaks were known too.

Headdress: Generally, all married women wore head coverings. They would wear a linen cap, with a wimple over the top. The wimple was a large rectangular piece of linen that was draped over the head and pinned into place. There is a great deal of speculation and experimentation still ongoing among historians and practical archaeologists as to how wimples were arranged. Wimples tended to cover head and throat. When just the head was covered, then the garment is often called a veil. Sometimes for the high status lady, the wimples were made of silk.

Accessories: Accessories were used to accentuate certain aspects of the female body in attractive ways. Finger rings were popular at this period and a great show made the hands and hand gestures. Ornate and decorated belts drew the attention to the waistline and hips, and the side lacing is where the chemise might just poke through the gaps and give a man a thrill! The rich used magnificent brooches and clasps to pin cloaks and mantles. The poor use less ostentatious decoration but again of similar type.

So, there you have it. The everyday outfit of a 12th century woman at the time of the Empress Matilda. Would you like to dress like this?