Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke

nicholson baker human smoke

Shocking title, shocking book.  I actually chose it only because it promised 'controversy' on the cover and well - it delivered.  I can't imagine any politician reading Human Smoke with pleasure...   But let me start at the beginning.

Human Smoke is a World War II book.  It describes years leading to the conflict and the actual war time up to the end of 1941.  Yet, it is not a historical narrative, not as most people understand the term.  It's a collection of press releases, diplomatic documents and diary excerpts.  Baker doesn't add any commentary with his own words, he allows historical sources to speak for themselves.  I'm sure he chose his material in order to create the particular picture, so his objectivity may be questioned, but nevertheless the picture is striking.  I presume his sources are authentic (check some 80 pages of detailed bibliography at the end of the book if in doubt) and if it depended on me, every child would be made to read the book at school. 

Popular image of the World War II tends to be rather shallow, distorted - Allies, the good guys, won the just war against evil Nazis.  Hooray for our heroes, for our brave war leaders, our excellent war effort...  Yet, the more I learn about the war, the less clear-cut the picture becomes.  Human Smoke added a handful of new doubts to my already subversive image of the war activities.  Let me share some things I've learnt:

- Germany wanted to get rid of Jews from German territory - true, and ugly too.  Few people know that their first plan to achieve this was to force them to emigration.  None of the 'good guys' agreed to take them in. 

- the war was preceded by multiple peace initiatives, demonstrations, manifestos, publications - none of them was taken into consideration

- when people of Europe were dying from starvation by the million, war leaders (including Churchill and Roosevelt) were being driven around in private trains, fed with sirloin steaks and brandy

- speaking of brandy, Churchill did not abhor a drink during the course of his duty.  Actually, he was proverbial for his love of strong liquor.  It surely helped him contain aggression...

There's more, but I don't feel qualified to make public judgement based on one book (plus, I don't want to ruin your pleasure of reading it).  

One thought can't leave my head after reading Human Smoke:  everyone who shouts 'war!' should be sent to the front.  Cheerleading a nation to a military conflict and watching it from a safe office/mansion/headquarters many miles away while unwilling children die on battlefields is not right.  Whether you are a politician, a writer, a philosopher - if you vote for war, go and experience war with your own precious self instead of jailing draft resisters.  Ok?

I was going to write a book review, and it turned into a political manifesto.  THAT'S now good the book is.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Asne Seierstad, The Bookseller of Kabul

asne seierstad the bookseller of kabul

I seemed to have made better decisions when book picking last time and The Bookseller of Kabul proves it.  Truth to be told, I'm probably late by a few years with reading it - I'm dimly aware that it was a hot title during the top of Afghanistan frenzy.  Nevermind, I still enjoyed it.

Books like this one inevitably make you think.  I won't even start on the issue of the last Afghan war, whether it was justified or not, whether it brought more damage or benefit to the country and The Bookseller of Kabul doesn't either, not really, although it does portray wartime reality of Afghan citizens.  Seierstad's novel/report (call it what you like) focuses mainly on patriarchy in Afghan society, criticising it without actually pointing the finger. 

I find it an interesting literary trick - the bookseller in question is introduced as a gracious host who allowed the author into his own house etc.  Nevertheless, to the western eyes the man appears rather ghastly.  Nowhere in the book can you find any direct criticism, all you get is are descriptions of some day-to-day events, ranging from mundane to tragic.  Still, the portrait is scary (and it didn't appeal to the man either - after the book was published, he sued the author for defamation).

If you ask me, it's not the man, but the whole society that is frightening.  If the book is to be believed, women are no better than men when it comes to judging and punishing whoever happens to be of lower social status.  It's the jungle law in the purest form - whoever happens to be the most powerful, issues orders and woe be to you if you dare to disobey.  Victimisation of those without power is the obvious consequence, and there aren't many shelters available if you decide to rebel. 

Or so it seems, because judging a society on the basis of one book seems a bit irresponsible.

Whatever the truth, the book IS gripping, thought provoking and very well written.  It is an eye opening experience to read about a culture so different to ours.  What I'm going to say next may not be the most sympathetic or politically correct thing in the world, but hell, let me say it - if you are a western woman unhappy with your life, do read it, if only to see that it could have been so, so much worse...

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century

jules verne paris in the twentieth century

Jules Verne has a reputation for predicting the future.  You surely know at least some of his books, which tend to hang somewhere between science fiction and children stories.  I've read a few and quite enjoyed them, so when I saw Paris in the Twentieth Century on my library shelf I didn't hesitate too long before grabbing it.

The book remained unknown until 1989, when it was accidentally discovered by one of Verne's heirs.  It became a small-scale publishing sensation some years ago, marketed as 'the lost book' of the great writer.  Is it worth the fuss?

There will be no suspense building.  If you ask me, Paris in the Twentieth Century is no big deal.  Easy to put down - it took me some days to get through it, because after a few pages my attention inevitably drifted somewhere else.  I believe it was written sometime at the beginning of Verne's career, and that sort of redeems him...  But in this case he definitely does not land on my list of the best books of all times. 

One thing, though, remains typically, impressively Verne-ish - his ability to predict the future.  His Paris of the future is a grim place.  It is also strikingly similar to some aspects of today's reality:  money is the absolute ruler of the universe. 

If you want to see how joyless life is when money-making becomes priority of human kind, do read the book.  As a warning.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Anonymous, A Woman in Berlin

anonymous a woman in berlin

I wonder how heavy a review should I write now.  A Woman in Berlin certainly is a heavy book.  It provides excellent food for thought.  It is beautifully written.  It is not for a sensitive (or underage, for that matter) reader.

A single journalist in her thirties describes her life in Berlin, spring 1945 - first besieged, then conquered by the Red Army.  The diary is full of ugly details of war existence - bombardments, air raid shelters, hunger, rape, despair, uncertainty... 

A Women in Berlin may provoke harsh judgements - after all it's so easy to condemn a woman, who sleeps with the enemy in exchange for food and protection.  This is probably the reason why the author chose to remain anonymous and agreed to the second edition only after her death. 

Germans being the official 'bad guys' of the World War II, it is rare to find the war's description through the eyes of the vanquished.  It inevitably brings up questions - was this a 'rightful' punishment for the hell they unleashed upon Europe?  Or a proof that the innocent suffer on both sides of any conflict? 

A Woman in Berlin was turned into a movie in 2008.  I haven't seen it, just letting you know it's out there.

I've consumed the book during one afternoon.  Whatever else you want to say about it, it surely is unputdownable.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Lucien Romier, A History of France

lucien romier a history of france

I am very much tempted to leave you with a shortest review in the world today (i.e. 'don't read'), but a verdict so crushing as this surely requires some explanation.  Here it is.

I've been through my share of boring academical textbooks, and yes, I have seen worse that Romier's, but not many.  I'm not that sure if the book is meant for college students either.  Most of the secondary-education titles I've known tend to be more polemical in nature, as in 'here's the most likely theory, here's the evidence, it's your job to confirm or disprove it'.  A History of France is very dogmatic.  This and this happened, in such and such way, with so and so involved, over.  No space for discussion or varying theories. 

As if history ever was so simple.

Another feature I didn't much like (although you may, especially if you happen to be a Frenchman):  A History of France was written by a Frenchman, for Frenchmen.  Which is fine by me, theoretically, but practically - a foreigner might find all this patriotism a tad tiring.  I'm not particularly attached to my own nationality and the 'proud history of my country', I'm even less likely to be moved by a proud history of a country that is not my own.  I suspect I'm not the only one.

I just wonder if all this patriotism doesn't colour Romier's facts a bit.  I don't know enough of French history to judge it, but A History of France reads very much like 'the official history' - oops, we did some nasty things in the past, and while we obviously don't make excuses, it was the best possible course of action in circumstances, and if only other nations followed our enlightened lead, etc. etc.  I'm exaggerating, obviously, Romier doesn't use exactly those words, but the trend is there. 

A History of France is quite digestible at the beginning, but the further you go, the worse it gets.  Somewhere after The Great Revolution the text turns into strings of names (that mean nothing to an uninitiated reader) and political programs of all the fractions fighting for power over the course of last two centuries.  If political history of France happens to be your hobby, you will surely love it, otherwise - run like hell.  I'm not tempted to quit the book before the end too often, but in this case I had to struggle with myself.  The last hundred pages were pure torture and let me say this officially - this is not what I'm looking for in a book. 

The only thing I can say in Romier's defence is the book's age:  A History of France was originally published in 1953.  Those were totally different times, with propaganda being a popular mind-shaping tool.  That excuses him.  Sort of.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

William Manchester, A World Lit Only By Fire

william manchester a world lit only by fire

History books are my latest fixation.  I have this little fantasy of reading through the history shelf in my library, from A to Z.  No, I don't honestly expect to ever make it happen - which, I guess is a compliment to the library - but hey, wouldn't that be something to be proud of?   

Anyway, I've been reading a lot of history books lately, with medieval history spontaneously becoming my main focus for now.  Hence William Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire.

What an attention grabbing title, wouldn't you agree?  The same can be said of the book, and it's up to you whether you want to treat it as a good or a bad thing.  Let me explain.

I'm all for readable history books (Norman Davis being the prime example here) but A World Lit Only By Fire does make me think of a tabloid and somehow it didn't agree with me very much.  The basic facts seem to be generally correct, but whenever there's a good story to be found, expect Manchester to present it as a fact, regardless of any doubts voiced by historians.  After all, claiming Robin Hood and King Arthur as real historical characters makes a much better tale than explaining all the pros and contras.  

This approach can be seen throughout the book - quick judgement in favour of a good story, especially when it comes to describing people.  I don't know my friends so well as Manchester seems to know people like Magellan.  He's surely very knowledgeable when it comes to 'what should have been done' - for example, he seems to be quite certain who to blame for Reformation and I dare say most historians would argue with him on many points.  In short, facts are served in a thick sauce of opinions. 

Sure, even historians are entitled to opinions, but they tend to mark them as such.  'It is my belief...', 'all sources seem to point to...', 'my theory is...' are only some examples of useful phrases that could be employed here and I would have enjoyed A World Lit Only By Fire much more if they were. 

What else does a good story need?  Sex and death are another safe (and tabloid-ish) bets, and Manchester knows it well.  Immoral behaviour of medieval popes?  In detail.  'Bathroom language' in Martin Luther's writings?  Quoted at length.  You notice the trend. 

Having said all that, it IS a damn well written story.  While I would hesitate before adding hi- to the word, as long as stories go, this one is brilliant.  A good position to recommend to someone who wants a taste of medieval ages but has no academical training to get angry by the inconvenient details.  I imagine teenagers would love it and who knows, they might even grow to like their history lessons this bit more (unless you're of puritanical persuasion and teach your children that babies and storks come together). 

Manchester is not a historian and he clearly says so in the preface, so I guess only my library is to blame for placing his book in the 'History' section and ultimately, for my disappointment.  You have been warned, so you may just as well give the book a chance.