THE CASTLE OF KINGS by Oliver Potzsch

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(The Trifels castle)

In a July 20, 2016 interview with the New York Times, author Oliver Potzsch remarked that in his latest book, THE CASTLE OF KINGS his goal was to write a “German Ken Follett” type novel.  The story is set in the Holy Roman Empire during the 16th century.  At the time Germany was made up of a large number of principalities whose princes owed fealty to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.  The period described in the novel is in the midst of the 1524-1525 Peasant Wars between the German princes and their peasants who revolted against the high rents they were charged to work the land.  The situation was also exacerbated by the continued religious struggle that was launched by Martin Luther that would lead to the Protestant Reformation.

The novel begins in the Palatinate, a small German principality that the Rhine River navigates.  Mathis a sixteen year old boy is returning from an errand delivering horseshoes for his father who is the blacksmith for the castle of Trifels.  On his route through the small town of Annweiler he passes a large gathering of people who are about to witness the hanging of three individuals, one of which is Mathis’ own age.  Due to the socio-economic catastrophe caused by the plight of the peasants, families were starving and the therefore resorted to poaching, a crime punishable by death.

The novel itself meanders with a Folletesque tinge.  We find a developing love story between Agnes, a falconer, and daughter of a knight who is the castellan of the Castle at Trifels, and Mathis, who is the son of a blacksmith.  As Agnes and Mathis are confronted by the mores and social norms of the time period one is reminded of the love story between Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald in Follett’s latest novel, PILLAR’S OF FIRE.

The novel presents two worlds that are on a collision course.  Agnes’ father Philipp Schluchteren von Efernstein represents the feudal code of knights and the courtesies that men offered each other even on the battlefield.  There are a number of scenes, both peaceful and violent whereby this plays out.  Efernstein’s beliefs are confronted by modernity, particularly when it came to the battlefield.  The development of gun powder and artillery is replacing courtly combat that relied on broad swords.  Efernstein has difficulty accepting this and the kinds of agreements one must make with other Dukes, Counts, and former knights in order to survive.  This generational gap is also seen in the relationship between Mathis and his blacksmith father, Hans Weilenbach who has casted swords and armor for decades and now must deal with a son who has become an explosive expert.

Potzsch has created a number of story lines which all seem to intersect.  Mathis’ development as an expert in the deployment of artillery and his relationship with Agnes who must deal with a stubborn father.  The presence of robber knights like Hans von Wertingen and their impact on the local economy and the lives of everyone, Dukes and peasants included.  Agnes’ obsession with her dreams which present a 13th century figure named Johannes of Brunswick  and his alleged conspiracy haunts her – what do they mean and what is his relationship to her contemporary world?  The relationship between Erfenstein and a young Count, Frederick von Lowenstein-Scharfeneck who enter into an alliance which has a major impact on all the major characters, the machinations pf Mayor Bernwart Gessler of Annweiler, the role of the Peasants Revolt and the rebels who live in the forest who organize to deal with the high burden of taxes and the demands not only by secular leaders, but the Catholic Church itself.  Lastly, and most importantly is Agnes’ quest to learn the history and significance behind a ring that belonged to Frederick Barbarossa that falls into her hands leading Agnes to a monastery where the secrets are hidden.

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Potzsch has woven an intricate and complex plot that makes excellent use of German history.  The conflict between Luther and the Church, the peasants and the princes, and princes against princes dominates.  What emerges is a series of flawed characters that Potzsch develops with remarkable detail.  Efenstein, Agnes, Mathis, and von Lowenstein-Scharfeneck have already been mentioned.  But individuals like Father Tristan, Agnes’ confessor and medical healer, Shepherd Jockel, a peasant leader, and Melchoir von Tanningen, a traveling minstral and swordsman, in addition to the brotherhood of 12 whose secrets can alter the course of European history contribute greatly to plot development.

Potzsch’s creativity creates many twists and turns as the murders and disingenuous behavior on the part of a number of characters continue to mount.  Potzsch describes beautiful landscapes, dark castles, Rhine River rapids, information about arquebuses, falconets, mercenaries, and a wonderful summary of the Hohenstaufen and Habsburg monarchies.  This is a big book, but an engrossing and enchanting one at times that is well worth the read.  Again, if you enjoy Ken Follett, you most certainly will enjoy Oliver Potzsch.

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(The Trifels Castle)

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THE NIX by Nathan Hill

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(Police riot at 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago)

What does one look for in a first novel?  Perhaps an unusual beginning, then a scenario that immediately draws one in and makes you want to continue with great expectation as you are presented with a balance of sarcasm, humor, and seriousness.  These criteria are met in Nathan Hill’s thoughtful new novel THE NIX, which opens with an innovative approach by a woman who leaves her husband and son, followed by a scathing introduction to a Roy Moore type character, a former governor of Wyoming, whose evangelical conservative credentials are impeccable, one Sheldon Packer.  Packer seems to have been attacked in Grant Park in Chicago provoking a satirical YOU TUBE presentation as it shows a CNN type of approach to reporting about “Terror in Chicago.”

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(Poet, Allen Ginsberg)

This is the tip of the iceberg for Hill as he develops a series of fascinating characters ranging from Hill’s main protagonists, Professor of Literature Samuel Andersen-Anderson who is abandoned by his mother Faye Andersen-Anderson at the age of eleven.  It seems that Faye is the one who attacked former Governor Packer with a handful of gravel and is painted as a 1968 hippie type of radical who was being charged as a terrorist under the aegis of the post 9/11 Patriot Act.  Other characters include, Faye’s father, Frank, an intolerant factory worker, Bethany and Bishop Fall, twins, one of which is a violin progeny, and a brother who is abused by his school headmaster and winds up fighting in Iraq.  Laura Pottsdam represents America’s quintessential college student enrolled in Samuel’s literature class, but has difficulty carrying out the most basic assignment without cheating, but once caught she sees her duty to destroy her literature professor’s career.  Mrs. Schwingke is a Home Economics teacher that offers an interesting perspective on the role of women, particularly in light of the recent sex scandals that have emerged nationwide.  Pwange, divorced and lonely, and one of Samuel’s gaming partners.  Charles Brown, an undercover cop during the Chicago riots that witnessed the Democratic National Convention in 1968 who later becomes an embittered judge confined to a wheel chair.  Alice, a woman who settled along the banks of Lake Michigan who was close with Faye during the summer of 1968, and of course the poet Allen Ginsburg of 0mmmm fame.  Hall of Famer, Ernie Banks, and the famous journalist, Walter Cronkite make their appearances as do many others.

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(Chicago Mayor Richard Daley)

At times THE NIX reads like a John Irving novel with its irreverent approach to society, power, and politics.  Samuel Andersen-Anderson is very unhappy in his position at a university outside of Chicago.  It is here that Hill offers the first of a number of insightful views on America – academic life, administration of, and student participation in university life.  What we witness is the paper chase for tenure, administrators who bend to the will of students, who are not overly interested in education, but more of a free ride through the stepping stone to a successful career.  For Samuel, who had the potential of being a major literary figure earlier in his career, finds himself facing economic ruin if he does not deliver a manuscript that he has been paid for earlier.  The publisher, represented by his agent Guy Periwinkle, wants Samuel to write a book about his mother who in addition to attacking Governor Packer with gravel was supposedly a 60s radical who was arrested for prostitution.  The problem is that Samuel has not seen Faye for over twenty years and she refuses to cooperate with him to fill in the blanks in her life.

In addition to comments on academia Hill integrates views on the role of Hollywood memoirs, the publishing industry, Chicago traffic, high end suburban housing tracts with names like Venetian Hills, elementary school rules and regulations, life in a nursing home, the typical 1950s Home Economics education, life on convoy patrol in Iraq, and a wonderful critique of Disney world among other commentaries.  This approach apart from having a John Irving tinge, also has the feel of Kurt Vonnegut.

Hill offers a detailed description of Faye’s life and how it evolved, then turns to Samuel.  The pivoting point in their lives are clear, for Faye it is when she is eight years old and does not keep the secret of her father’s newly built bomb shelter from the neighbors.  For Samuel, it is when his mother, trapped in a conventional life that she never wanted, runs away from home, offering the advice that “the one you love the most is bound to cause you the worst pain.”  Samuel needs a crutch throughout his life and it becomes a “gaming habit” entitled, “Elfscape,” a vehicle to fill the time gaps in his life and maintain his anonymity at the same time.

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Hill creates numerous witty scenes that are quite entertaining, but some of those scenes could be left out reducing the bulk of this rather lengthy novel.  As far as Hill’s grasp of the history of the period he is quite accurate.  His portrayal of the 1968 Democratic Convention and the violence caused by Mayor Daley and the Chicago police is accurate in the confines of blending the history of what actually transpired, and Hill’s artistic license.  To get a true sense of what really occurred see Lawrence O’Donnell’s recent book, PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF POLITICS.*   Hill moves seamlessly between 1968 and 2011 throughout the novel even integrating the Occupy Wall Street movement, the lost idealism of “boomers,” and the emergence of millennials.  The multiple story lines are juggled nicely, and the author has the ability to write so effectively that there is not a boring scene or sentence in the entire book as he journeys back and forth from 1968 and 2011.

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One of the more interesting analogies that Hill proposes resonates today.  During the summer of 1968 Hill argues that protesters and the police need each other equally.  Both groups need an enemy, someone to hate, so they can validate their own actions and beliefs and gain further support.  This is much like today’s politics. Trump and his supporters constantly point to their opponents as un-American and crooks, while Trump’s liberal opposition sees the president as mad, a threat to the constitution, and the implementing the deconstruction of the government.  Each side needs the other to validate their own beliefs and behaviors.  Only when this cycle is broken can the American people move forward.

The question must be asked is THE NIX presenting a tragic-comedy of American contradictions that fostered the election of Donald Trump?  I am afraid the answer is yes, and through Hill’s dialogue and characters we can gain insight into a president who emerged from a career in New York real estate that brought his emotional baggage and personality flaws to the White House.  THE NIX is a wonderful book, so sit back in a relaxing chair, with gentle music in the background, and enjoy the ride.

*Recently reviewed in http://www.docs-books.com

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(Rioting outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago)

It’s Aaron F****** Boone as the new NYY manager

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NYY GM Brian Cashman has placed his own career on the line by investing in Aaron Boone, a great communicator and baseball lifer as his new manager.  Boone has the DNA and/or pedigree to accomplish the task, but will be be successful?  Things he might consider:

(1) Maintain Tony Pena as the experienced bench coach that is needed who can also continue the development of the “Sanchize.”  Or perhaps return him to a first coaching position and bring in an experienced pro like Eric Wedge.

(2) Allow Larry Rothstein full control of the pitching staff.  He has done a wonderful job since 2011 and I am certain with the relationships he has established he will continue to be successful.

(3) Carlos Beltran would make a strong hitting coach and it would bring him under the NYY fold for the future, particularly if Boone falters down the road.

(4) Hopefully the fact he does not speak Japanese will not hinder him with the quest to sign Ohtani.  I wonder does Boone hable espanol?  It would certainly help.

(5) I would try and sign Chris Woodward as the third base coach.  I realize that would create a staff of most of the people who interviewed for the managerial position, but they all bring different strengths to their perspective positions and could facilitate Boone’s growth.

All of this may become academic if the NYY do not start off fast next March, but they have too much talent not to.  If they add a returning C C Sabathia or an Alex Cobb, along with Shohei Ohtani things will take care of themselves.  Boone is not that far removed from the game since his switch to an analyst position with ESPN – his combnation of a strong baseball IQ and communication skills exhibited will stand him in good stead.  All the best of luck – but remember the division over the Boston Red Sox, at least a wild card, and possibly a World Series appearance will be the measure of success.  Bring on Gleyber Torres, Chance Adams, Justin Sheffield and the next wave of talent and see what it brings.  The bottom line is that the 2018 NYY baseball season will be one to watch carefully.

Boone celebrates game winning home run : News Photo