Friday 27 June 2014

Ostland - David Thomas

If what you are looking for is a historic police procedural that blossoms into an indictment of the horrific actions of the Einsatzgruppen in and around Minsk, then this is simply perfect. The book divides into almost three distinct sections. The first follows the historic war-crimes trial of Dr. Georg Heuser and his cronies in the early 1960's using actual court transcripts at times and following proceedings through the eyes of Dr Paula Siebert, a young lawyer investigating the crimes that took place in Minsk during the early 1940's. The second and third parts of the story are seen as almost a memoir written by Heuser; first charting how he came to be a rising star in the Brelin Kripo, helping to catch an infamous serial killer - The S-Bahn killer - a man who had an almost Ripperesque grip on Berlin during the late 1930's and up until his capture and execution in 1941. The second part of the memoir shows Heuser's descent into criminality as a SS Hauptsturmfuehrer in Ostland. The 'memoir' sections are quite brilliant in their convincing blend of horror at the atrocities going on around the young officer, and repeated insistence that he was 'only obeying orders'. This section manages, without lifting the onus of responsibility, to show how ordinary men are able to be twisted into committing the most atrocious acts of inhumanity; and how their warped sense of morality can lead them to see the most banal acts of kindness as great humane gestures. At times when reading this I couldn't help but think of the wonderful, but terrifying scene in the film Schindler's List when Amon Goeth shows 'mercy' for the failure of his slave to properly clean his bathtub. The moment when Goeth loses interest in this act of 'generosity' is portrayed with such chilling skill by Fiennes, as instead of offering a blessing to his own reflection he becomes caught up in his own need for a manicure. This same consummate skill was shown here in the duality of Heuser as he thinks to seduce a young woman he has just rescued from the death pits; as well as the way in which his lawyer's mind attempts to reconcile the criminality of what he is doing with his own moral code. At one point Heuser describes the hideousness of realising that the men he is now charged with killing are not 'less than fully human' as the propaganda states, but are in fact members of the Reich, men who have loved and served their homeland..

      'It was as though the who grotesque business were a gigantic experiment, conducted by a mad, all-powerful psychiatrist who sought to establish just what terrible sins once-decent men might be capable of if correctly manipulated. 'We have established that you can bring yourself to kill people who look and sound alien. Very well then, what if they look and sound just like you? what if they come from the same cities, even the same neighbourhoods - how will you manage then?''

It is a fact that the majority of the Einsatzgruppen in particular were ordinary men, often policemen used to upholding law and order, and that even the harshest amongst them found themselves reacting physically and mentally when confronted with the horrors or the Latvian and Belorussian campaigns. These men became inured to the horrors, certainly but they also became alcoholics; insomniac drunks haunted by the atrocities they had seen and done. It was due in part to the potential break down of moral and the mental state of the men taking these 'actions' that the idea of gas chambers was posed. Not only did the solution of gassing the victims meet with the approval of Heydrich on grounds of efficiency (quicker, higher volume mass murder possible and no expended bullets) but also it spared the men from having to witness the brutality of mass murder at close range. Even Heydrich recognised that 'good German men' would not be able to stand up to the strain of repeatedly shooting men, women and children in the back of the head for any extended period of time. This is the paradox that this novel explored quite brilliantly; that of the legal framework for mass murder, and of using men born to uphold justice to commit the worst offences. This book handles the issues involved wonderfully. If you are interested in any further reading on the subject, then like the author does in his afterword to Ostland, I have to recommend both Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher Browning, and The Field Men: The SS Officers Who Led the Einsatzgruppen by French Maclean, both are fascinating studies of a truly horrific piece of recent history.

Forbidden Fruit; Letters from Abelard and Heloise

Reading this little book took far longer than I expected, not due to any issues with the book itself; it is a lovely addition to the 'Penguin Great Loves' collection. My problem came largely in the character of Abelard himself. I thought I knew and understood the tragedy of this story of love denied, and was really looking forward to reading the letters between the two lovers for the first time. However I had to put this one down for extended periods of time as I am getting too annoyed with the way in which Pierre Abelard presents himself. I am not sure that I didn't prefer the romantic illusions I had previously had about this 'great lover'. Reading his actual letters he come across as a deeply unpleasant, arrogant prat largely; he seems to have spent his early life making enemies mainly by humiliating as many learned men as he possibly could. It also seems that he set out to seduce Heloise, in order to prove that he could have the wisest woman in Christendom, not due to any grand overwhelming passion but just 'coz'. If I'm honest the more I read of this self satisfied idiot the more understanding I have of Fulbert's decision to castrate Abelard! 
In the end I struggled through the destruction of my romantic illusions about the pair and ended up giving the book a three star review. These three stars were for Penguin's lovely little edition of these letters and for the contribution of Heloise to the canon of medieval female literature. Abelard is the reason why this book could only get three stars.
Ever since I first heard the story of Abelard and Heloise as a romantic early teen I have wanted to read more than just extracts from the letters of these two. Usually when you come across extracts you will find that they come from letters written by Heloise, and I had always assumed that in order to inspire such devotion and such adoration Abelard must have had something pretty damn special to say too. How wrong I was, and how glad I am that I waited this long to be disillusioned about the 'romance' which evidently was Heloise adoring Abelard and Abelard adoring Abelard.
Judging from his written record Pierre Abelard was an egotistical and arrogant pr**k who spent his who time rushing around Paris pissing people off with his absolute and total disregard for the learning of anyone other than himself. If his letters are to be believed he decided, much like a medieval Valmont, to worm his way into Canon Fulbert's household simply so he could seduce Heloise, not due to any great passion for her (he decided on the seduction prior to having met her her it would seem) but simply because she was a young woman who was known for her learning and her virtue. Basically he wanted to prove that not only was he this 'great' philosopher but also a bit of a proto Casanova. Having read Abelard's letters I am suddenly left feeling a whole lot more sympathetic of Fulbert's revenge of a beating and castration. I have the feeling that many father's and guardians would feel the same way even today towards an arrogant creature like this having his way with a family member. So thanks Abelard, you have shattered one of my early romantic ideals :P!! Incidentally Heloise is now believed to have been around 27 years old at the time she met Abelard, not 15 as the biography given at the start of this edition would have us believe. The idea of her youth seems to have been introduced many centuries after the events and are not supported either by accounts of her age at death or by her being renowned as a great mind in medieval Paris, this change in understanding of her age is the one thing here that works in Abelard's favour, he may have been a prat, but at least when he decided to seduce someone it was a grown woman and not essentially a child.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Kindred - Octavia E.Butler

Having just finished this book I am left feeling rather conflicted. I really wanted to love it. I wanted it to be perfect, and now that I've finished it and, in my opinion, found it to be pretty flawed I am feeling bad. This may well be good old 'white liberal guilt' kicking in but there it is.
The concept sounded great, a contemporary (the book is set in 1976 and was first published in 1979) black woman, married to a white man in modern California is suddenly transported back through time and space to Antebellum Maryland, a slave state. Here she has to face the myriad dangers of being seen as a probable slave, only hoping that she will be able to get home to her own time. Unfortunately it didn't stand up as well as I had hoped it would. The writing seemed to be aimed at a young teen market, and if it wasn't for the frequent references to rape I would even go so far as to suggest it as suitable for mature pre-teens. There was little sophistication to the story, with no attempt at explaining why Dana should be drawn back into the past time after time beyond it being made clear that this happened to her when one of her 1819 ancestor's was in danger. No explanation was given about why she should be so totally linked to this particular individual, there were moments when other ancestors were in danger to a greater or lesser extent, and yet the bond between Dana and Rufus was the one that counted. The sections when Dana found herself stuck in the past were often heart felt and moving, but did feel slightly cliched at times, character development was minimal in most instances; with the few characters who were given stronger back stories still feeling rather stereotypical. Again this gave the effect that the book was aimed at the top end of the 9-12 market rather than the adult readers that it will be given. For the most part This could be a fabulous way to introduce pre and young teens to the themes and issues surrounding the slave trade and the civil rights movement. The setting is far enough removed from the period of the civil war to avoid the discussions about the morality of war itself, allowing the issue of slavery to be given the reader's full focus. The writing contains several instructive passages where prominent individuals are mentioned, as well as providing a well written section set in the contemporary world of 1976 showing that prejudice didn't simply disappear with the abolition of slavery, however I think the repeated discussions of rape gear this towards an older readership which is potentially a shame.
Having criticised the book, and despite a few moments where I seriously considered giving up and reading something a little more adult in style, this did manage to keep me reading until the end. I am sure for young teens this is a fantastic and interesting way to look at American history.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting - Kevin Powers

A collection of poems from Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds. Powers has clearly been deeply effected by his time in the military and by his tour of Iraq during the most recent US involvement in the region. If the effectiveness of a body of poetry can be gauged by how much they make you feel the raw emotion behind them, then these are highly effective. I found these poems to be raw, shocking and highly charged; and was moved to tears while reading several of these. I'll admit that literature of the most recent conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have a certain increased resonance with me generally, and at the moment in particular but even without this I think these are some potentially very important works. I am afraid that when it comes to poetry I am rather old fashioned in my tastes. I am not a massive fan of free verse, preferring a more structured stanzaic form, so I have to say that some of the longer, less structured pieces were a little difficult for me to fully appreciate; however for anyone with less fogyish tastes this has the makings of a five star collection.

“If this poem had wires coming out of it,
 you wouldn’t read it.
 If these words were made of metal
 they could kill us all. But these
 are only words. Go on,
 they are safe to fold and put into your pocket.
 Even better, they are safe
 to be forgotten.”

Monday 23 June 2014

Our Happy Time - Ji-young Gong

What a beautiful book this really is. The premise sounds unremittingly depressing; a wealthy suicidal woman, still struggling to come to terms with the abuse she suffered as a teenager is made to visit a death row inmate convicted of murder and rape. How bleak and awful does that sound eh? However this is not a bleak book, it is delicate, fragile and beautiful. About finding and giving forgiveness, about the idiocy of claiming that death penalty executions are anything other than state sponsored murder, and about how inner peace can be found by accepting the unacceptable and learning to appreciate the little beauties around us. Yujeung is a profoundly damaged young woman, abused by a family member as a teenager and brutally rejected by her mother, she has become hedonistic and an embarrassment to her family. The only member of her family who treats her with respect is her aunt, a nun, who insists that Yujeung accompanies her on her charitable visits to the local state prison. The prisoner they visit, Yunsu is utterly hopeless, angry at the world and resistant to any attempts to change this. As Yujeung and Yunsu open up to one another, each finds a way of reconciling themselves to their own pasts.
The story is told through alternating chapters focusing on the prison visits and Yunsu's childhood. The 'Blue Note' sections that follow the childhood and youth of Yunsu are particularly painful to read. These contrast with the growing warmth that is found in the prison visits, between Yujeung, Yunsu and the unwilling third party in the relationship, the prison guard Officer Yi.
This is a deeply moving book; beautiful spare writing and well crafted characters combine to create a wonderful novel that is disarmingly easy to read despite the subject matter.

Friday 20 June 2014

Harry's Last Stand, The Last Boat Home and Doomed Love.


Three rather different books here. Doomed Love is the first book in the Penguin Great Loves series that I am currently working my way through. Doomed Love is the first four books of Virgil's Aeneid, for those who are not aware the first section focuses on the flight from Troy of Aeneas and his fellow survivors. Having been attacked by the jealous gods they seek refuge in the kingdom of Dido. Dido falls in love with Aeneas and tries to beguile him into remaining with him, but he is compelled to fulfil his destiny of founding the Roman republic and rejects her. This translation is a nuanced and well conceived retelling of a well known story, I would suggest that some familiarity with the story of the fall of Troy would make this an easier read as characters and events are mentioned briefly so a little foreknowledge would go a long way. This is a nice little introduction though and enough to whet your appetite for the Aeneid proper. 

Moving on to Dea Brovig's Last Boat Home, this is a highly atmospheric Norwegian novel. This is a beautiful and very moving book that conjures up the harshness of mid twentieth century rural Norwegian life with a beauty of language and depth of feeling that is quite wonderful. The novel reminded me of Burial Rites in many ways both in the writing style and simply the harsh and restricted life described. The Last Boat is split into two sections one set during the mid 1970's and the other in 2009. It was both fascinating and slightly terrible to read about the restricted, misogynistic and brutal life of a period as recent as the 1970's. With life and family ruled with a rod of iron by the strictures of the church and paternal society. The story focuses on relationships between mothers and their daughters, relationships that are presented as being deeply flawed here. If we were to take our understanding of Scandinavia only from the literature that is translated into English then we would think that the qhole place is populated by delinquent geriatrics and women hating brutes. This book would only add weight to that understanding of the region. Much of the abuse that Else suffers in this novel is reminiscent of storylines from Larsson's Millennium trilogy and from novels like Tom Rob Smith's The Farm. The Scandinavia presented here is brutal, unforgiving and a million miles away from the idea presented of the region being so much a perfect society. 

Finally, Harry's Last Stand. This is an autobiography and political tract from 91 year old Harry Leslie Smith. Harry Smith made the news in 2013 when he declared that he would no longer wear a remembrance day poppy, as he was disgusted with seeing it debased on the lapels of our politicians. In Harry's Last Stand he uses his own experiences of life during the Great Depression to draw parallels between the depravation he experienced and the return to these pre welfare state values that he sees now under austerity. Following the gains by UKIP it is quite magnificent to have the message brought home that not all OAP's are far right loons. I recently listened to an item on BBC radio 4 that discussed how contemporary 18-25 year olds are turning more to the right politically, this is something that scares the bejeezus out of me. Harry Smith tries his hardest to provide a wake-up call about the road austerity measures are taking us down. This reads like Jilted Generation but from the other side of the baby-boom generation, the message is largely the same. 

' We had hoped that our children would keep the torch of civilisation burning while we moved into our senior years, but something happened and their resolve wasn't as strong as ours.'

The basic premise of the book is that the pre war generation fought long and hard in order to build a welfare state that was designed to protect and support the lowest of society. Benefits, a free health service and economic support were supposed to create a better society, and were to replace the Victorian values of reliance on charity, stigmatisation and shame of poor relief. These Victorian values are what Harry see's being returned to the UK. Today more and more working families are reliant of food banks in order to feed their families. Society has returned to a situation where renting is the norm, with the dream of owning your own property fading into the distance for most people. Not only that, but the quality of the property available is being pushed lower and lower as landlords feel able to push the boundaries of legality once again due to the desperation of those needing homes. Once again people on benefits are seen as at fault, the ideas of the 'deserving' and 'un-deserving poor' are once again taking over. This is driven largely by the popular media and it is these myths that Harry Smith is trying to debunk. I hope, I seriously hope that people read this book and take on board the emotional and heartfelt message that this elderly gentleman is trying to get across. To my mind this is a very important message that needs to be heard.

Friday 6 June 2014

The Complete Pin Ups of Gil Elvgren - Taschen

First of all I need to say thank you for my wonderful Other Half for getting me this gorgeous book, so 'Thank You Baby' :)
This is a typically beautiful art book from Taschen which charts the work and life of Gil Elvgren the pop artist and real life MadMen artist. His images were used to advertise everything that made up the mid 20th Century American world, everything from Cola, to war bonds to farming equipment could be found featuring one of his provocative little ladies. Usually these were painted from photographs with a model sometimes recreating the pose again and again in order to capture the correct feel, before essentially being photoshop-ed 1930's style. Everything was made perkier, and cheekier in the final image. What I hadn't noticed before is that often the same image was recreated just in a new outfit so that something very risque with sheer lingerie etc could be toned down and used to sell vacuum cleaners to 1950's housewives. I recognise that these images are probably deeply unPC and that in many ways the naughtier ones are essentially soft porn for the ad industry, but I still really really like the Pin Up image. Like a classic screen siren, they manage to be sexy as hell while usually revealing nothing more than a stretch of bare back, or a naked shoulder. The tops of stockings have never looked so good as they do in these images! I find the gentle titillation and Monroe-esque 'who me?' style of these pictures to be deeply charming and yet highly erotically charged. The fashions shown of the 1930's-1950's are brilliant also, and it is no wonder that the Rockabilly look is so very popular among such a large range of people.
Some of the later works from the 1960's and 70's start to get a bit of a 'Carry On' feel that removes some of the charm of the earlier images, but then both decades seem to have lost a lot of style of the past without gaining any of the equality of the modern world in my opinion anyway, so I was never going to find these later images quite as appealing.
The book contains a great biographical section discussing the life of Elvgren and his influences, which was fascinating to read.
If you like the all American Mid-West girl serving you apple pie with a cheeky pout, this is likely to appeal. Then again it will also appeal to students of advertising history, mid 20th Century popular art, Pin Ups, Burlesque and Vintage style. Pretty darn good! :)

Thursday 5 June 2014

Sally Heathcoate Suffragette - Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Sally Heathcoate follows a Northern maid who is drawn into the Suffragette movement by her employer, and who comes into contact with all the major names of the movement at one point or another. It is a compelling telling of the historic facts surrounding the fight for female rights that took place during the early 20th century, and highlights the factions and rivalries that existed within the movement, in a way that isn't often seen. I would say that using the format of a Graphic Novel and a fictional character to tell this type of story is a stroke of genius and it should bring the historic facts home to a great number of people who would otherwise have been unaware of the facts of this period. The artwork flows nicely, and incorporates pieces of legislation, letters etc into the story to illustrate further details of the political and social situation faced by women at the time. The gradual transformation of Lloyd George into a cat was a great visual representation of the infamous 'Cat and Mouse' Act that saw Suffragettes returned to prison time and time again for example.
I hope to see more titles along similar lines and genuinely think that this could be a useful resource for teaching the history of Women's rights.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

The Boy That Never Was - Karen Perry

This was an interesting read that kept me keen throughout but that just missed a 4 star score from me. The story opens in Tangier with Harry trying to cook a birthday meal for his wife, getting it ready for when she gets in from work. He is also looking after their young son Dillon. In a shocking move he drugs the young boy, puts him to bed and realises that he has forgotten to collect the birthday gift, so he leaves the child along in the flat and rushes off to collect the gift. While he is gone a natural disaster destroys his home, presumably with Dillon inside.
The scene then shifts forward a number of years to Dublin, where Harry and his wife Robyn are still trying to come to terms with the loss of their son. Harry becomes convinced that he has seen the child in a crowd in the city and begins to behave erratically putting additional strain on the relationship.
The story contains a number of twists one that I had anticipated pretty much from reading the blurb, and one that I didn't see coming; the twisting plot line was well done and I think alternating the chapters between Robyn and Harry worked really well at adding layers to the story.
However I did still have a few issues and it is these that prevented me from ranking the book higher. Firstly I found the continuance of the relationship between the couple to be deeply unlikely. Over the course of the story it becomes clear that Robyn had discovered that her husband was drugging their son, and that she was unhappy enough about this to throw him out. Despite this she apparently took him back, and then continued to stay with him even after she believed that his negligence (and repetition of drugging of the child) led to Dillon dying alone in a horrific way. This seems to be unlikely in the extreme. If nothing else I thought that the relationship between Harry and his In-Laws would have been more strained, as they were portrayed as being much less accepting of the death of their grandchild that Robyn was. The judgements I was making about Robyn as a mother, somewhat coloured my acceptance of the final section of the novel. Which brings me onto my second issue, the ending.
The story comes to a climax with some pretty damn huge revelations, and in the interests of attempting to avoid spoilers as much as possible I will try to avoid discussing these in depth. Huge revelations followed by drastic and dramatic action; and yet the momentous nature of this climax seems to fizzle away to something of a damp squib. Things all work out reasonably well, Robyn returns to somewhere where Harry had been previously happy with her family, and although some issues are mentioned almost in passing; there certainly didn't seem to be as much of a reaction in terms of repercussions as I would have thought. As is the case sometimes with this style of thriller that twists and turns it's way to a BIG climax, it read a little as though the author (authorS in this case) had been told to provide a nice bit of summing up, but to get it done rather sharpish. I thought this let the rest of the story down, and it would have worked better it the climax had come and then left the reader to draw their own conclusions instead of giving this unsatisfying, by-rote ending. A real shame, as this was an enjoyable, if rather implausible story, up until that point. Despite the issues I had with it, I am sure that it will please Sophie Hannah fans and that it would make a great holiday read

Monday 2 June 2014

Strange Bodies - Marcel Theroux

Well I don't know if this was what I was expecting; but whatever, because this was damn good. From reading the back I think I was expecting Zombies.... and because of that I pretty much had to force myself to start this, thinking how much good it would do to my section if I read a few more zombie books, and how much I unexpectedly enjoyed the last zombie book I read, (The Girl With All The Gifts... track this book down and read it 'coz it is GREAT!). What I got though was something quite different, a cloning/bodyswap type story line drawing in Cold War espionage, vicious gangsters and Dr Samuel Johnson. Throw in a touch of uncertainty about the reliability of the narrator, he is a resident at a mental hospital after all, and you have a totally winning mixture.
The writing was proper page turning stuff, that reminded me of James Smythe quite a bit of the time. I really didn't want to put this down. As well as a twisting and very interesting plot there are some simply brilliant characters and scenes; the section where the Russian Mobster who thinks he is/or as we find is more likely actually does have the mind of Dr Johnson escapes and roams around central London looking for familiar landmarks is quite brilliant. In fact most of this comes pretty damn close to brilliance and should be read by fantasy and thriller fans alike.