The Underdogs, a Story of the Mexican Revolution by Mariano Azuela

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“The Underdogs: A Novel of the Mexican Revolution” is Mariano Azuela’s fictional account of the Mexican Revolution. Originally published as a newspaper serial in 1915, then as a complete novel in 1920, it was first translated into English in 1929 and was a critical and financial success. Based closely on Azuela’s own experiences, it is the story of Demetrio Macias, a peasant who is mistreated by government soldiers and must flee his home. He runs to the mountains and forms a group of revolutionaries to help overthrow the corrupt dictator, Porfirio Diaz. Macias and his comrades are a motley group of outcasts who are often unsure of what precisely they are fighting for and are sometimes no better than the cruel government they are rebelling against. Rather than a simple struggle of honorable peasants against an unjust government, Azuela’s tale is sophisticated and nuanced and captures in stunning detail the lives of the poor, the passion of the revolutionaries, and the heartbreaking disillusionment they must often face. In Azuela’s depiction of Demetrio Macias, he captures the complicated spirit of the Mexican people and his masterful telling of this conflict between the rebels and the federales helped to establish him as one of Mexico’s preeminent novelists.

The novel seems to offer a number of opportunities for writing responses. Compare the Mexico of Demetrio Macias with the Mexico or the United States of today. How is power or wealth allocated in societies? etc.

Cover showing Cossacks on horseback

The Cossacks and The Raid by Leo Tolstoy with Maps

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A brilliant short novel inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s experience as a soldier in the Caucasus, “The Cossacks” has all the energy and poetry of youth while also foreshadowing the great themes of Tolstoy’s later years. His naïve hero, Olenin, is a young nobleman who is disenchanted with his privileged and superficial existence in Moscow and hopes to find a simpler life in a Cossack village. As Olenin foolishly involves himself in their violent clashes with neighboring Chechen tribesmen and falls in love with a local girl, Tolstoy gives us a wider view than Olenin himself ever possesses of the brutal realities of the Cossack way of life and the wild, untamed beauty of the rugged landscape.

This novel of love, adventure, and male rivalry on the Russian frontier—completed in 1862, when the author was in his early thirties—has always surprised readers who know Tolstoy best through the vast, panoramic fictions of his middle years. Unlike those works, The Cossacks is lean and supple, economical in design and execution. But Tolstoy could never touch a subject without imbuing it with his magnificent many-sidedness, and so this book bears witness to his brilliant historical imagination, his passionately alive spiritual awareness, and his instinctive feeling for every level of human and natural life.

Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

Hitler and colleagues marching

The Mad Dog of Europe: A Novel about the Rise of Hitler by Albert Nesor

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From a review of the print edition on Amazon:
While I have read other books about Hitler and WWII, I was drawn to read “The Mad Dog of Europe” by Albert Nesor because of its publication date – 1939. The story drew heavily on first hand accounts of immigrants who had recently left Germany. I was curious to know how prescient the Germans were about Hitler’s intentions. While Nesor gives a detailed account of how and when Hitler took over the country, the main narrative focuses on a circle of friends in the small Bavarian town of Gronau. They had lost sons in WW1 and the ones that did return were disillusioned and struggling to find work. The names of the people and the town were changed because in 1939 it was, of course, very dangerous to make negative remarks about the Reich. There actually is a town in Germany named Gronau but it is way to the north of Bavaria.

Among the book I have read about Hitler, Nestor’s account was the most graphically negative. Hitler is shown to work toward his goal of saving Germany from “Jewish Communism” with obsessive intensity. In his tirades against communism Hitler made me think of Senator Joseph McCarthy on steroids. Both also targeted and persecuted homosexuals. Fortunately McCarthy’s means were more limited. Hitler had a private army during the 30’s of well over a million ruthless men that he used frequently in the streets. The Nazi’s anti-communism was generally supported not only by many Germans, but also by people in other countries and many people in the United States. It was a major platform for his rise to power. When Hitler became Chancellor his political opponents were sent to concentration camps. When I lived in Bavaria (1979 ) my somewhat older neighbor said she would never have anything to do with politics because her father died in a concentration camp for being a communist. With my limited German vocabulary of two thousand words, all I could say was “Hitler war ein Teufel”.

Nestor’s characters were not prescient about Hitler until it was too late. Like us they went about their daily lives even though they did not approve of what they read in the papers. After the Nazis took over everyone in Gronau was terrified. Even high ranking Nazi party officials had saved foreign currency, exit visas and money in American banks in case of a Teutonic armageddon which they vaguely felt might come but did not perceive when or how. In the end the main character of the novel holds off the Nazi storm troopers with a pistol while his brother tries to escape across the border. He has the sentimental hope that Germans will regroup in America and then save his beloved country from Hitler. As we now know it was Hitler’s declaration of War on the USA that forced a response. Not Germans but German-Americans – Dwight Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz, Carl Spaatz – led the troops against Hitler. German immigrants did provide valuable service as translators and as spies.