Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Old Curiosity Shop - Charles Dickens

 Well so far I have looked at fourteen novels of varying eras and styles. And so far I have found it relatively easy going to put into words my thoughts on each. But after finishing Dickens' forth novel I find myself somewhat stumped as The Old Curiosity shop is not a particularly easy novel to critique. I flew through it in a small matter of four days and thoroughly enjoyed it, but all the while I had a nagging voice taunting me in the back of mind going, 'how are you going to write this one up sonny boy'!!

 Firstly I read literature as an escape from the world of non-fiction. I do get bored with reading of the real world and love to delve into the world of straight out literature. It is my escape, and since starting this blog I have found myself out of my depth perception wise when coming to reviewing the said material. I'm not trained literature wise as I am historically from too much university. Non-fiction? ha! a breeze! But novels, and such famous works as Dickens wrote, isn't such a proverbial 'breeze'. The Old Curiosity Shop has me somewhat confused as I read wikipedia's short synopsis page on it. I'm stuck with Oscar Wilde's comment, ' One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears....of laughter'. Poet Algernon Swinburne stated Nell was ' a monster as inhuman as a baby with two heads'. What the..?? Nell a monster?! Who can't be moved by her fate with a few tears??!

 Am I stupid or something because I can't figure out either comment!!! Apparently Wilde's comment coloured for many Dickens' novel. It is said to have given the novel a feeling of morbid sentimentality. I just can't get to grips with this at all! The death of Nell is only a fraction of the novel, and really, only a way of winding the novel up. Dickens for me in the death of Nell mirrored life in that not all things have happy endings. Oliver Twist this is not. And as to Nell being a monster I  say,  ' what the..??' Where do some of these 'artists' come up with stuff?  Either I'm very stupid or I completely mis-read Nell as a character, and she wasn't the timid girl of mis-fortune I thought she was.

 Several things about the novel were intriguing. Firstly Nell's grandfather is never named right throughout. He is either 'the old man' or 'grandfather'. Secondly, unlike Oliver Twist Dickens in Curiosity Shop numbers his chapters like so, Chapter the first, Chapter the sixty-seventh, but without a short synopsis of what the chapter contained. And thirdly although Victorian in flavour, and unlike Oliver Twist, Curiosity Shop isn't so much a social dis-course as Twist was but more a look at human character, in particular, of the unwholesome type. I was also reminded of how Jack Higgins introduces many of his novels by writing in the first person. Curiosity Shop opens the same way in the first three chapters after which the narrator disappears completely. It isn't Dickens, as the said person but a man unknown to the reader.

 As a novel it isn't all about the dis-likable characters we find it society, for the novel has the good as a back drop and comparison. Of the good we have have Nell, her grandfather, Kit and his employer, the Brass's abused servant girl, and several others. What Dickens produces in Curiosity Shop is how the low thinking characters affect the life's of those above them in nature with their malice. Whilst Nell is the central character the novel is more about the shady side of those opposites to her. Daniel Quilp is the main protagonist here. He is a thoroughly dis-likable character, and vividly realised prose wise, ( he is so well written that the reader can be forgiven for almost feeling him in the room with them!! ). I personally believe only Shakespeare was a better writer of the so called 'human condition' than Dickens.

 I liked Quilp as a character even though he is so loathsome. Dickens has given him an intentionally despicable nature as he is too true to life for comfort. He reminds me of several people who I have actually met. History is riddled with the 'type'. Quilp is a dwarf who is exceedingly ugly. He knows he is on the outer and goes out of his way to be repulsive, nasty, and malicious as he knows he will never be accepted as anything else. He becomes what others think he is anyway. Even though repulsive, Dickens gives him a comedic air. A black air to be sure. Quilp at times is cynically polite and even more loathsome for it. Those on the receiving end know it ( particularly his own down trodden wife and mother in law who he gives no end of his cynical bite ). It is brilliant writing. I looked forward to the scenes involving Quilp. He isn't a pleasant person, but that doesn't make him less of an engaging or interesting character.

 The study of personality is certainly the novels core theme. Dickens is quite perceptive in capturing into words the good, bad, or both, within each individual. Throughout we get Nell, who is timid and yet good hearted. Her grandfather, who loves Nell but has a gambling addiction from which he is mis-guidedly trying to win a better future for his grand daughter. Kit, an honest boy. Quilp, nasty and malicious. Quilp's lawyer Sampson Brass, who is weak willed and able to be manipulated. His sister Sarah, who is a real fire breather and distainful of her brother, and in heart similar to Quilp. On Nell's journeys she meets professional gamblers, snobs, a school master who is kind but broken spirited, a wax works owner, and so on. It is a masterful novel of characterisation, and any reader can identify people from their lives. I believe that this is what Curiosity Shop is best known for outside of the death of Nell.

 Nell is interesting because Dickens has her age as just shy of fourteen. She is apparently a very small girl for her age. It is instructive because I have read that girls of the 19th century 'developed' physically slower than girls of the late 20th, into 21st, Centuries. Dickens refers to Nell as 'the child' and that is what she was. Today's thirteen year old girls are still technically children but they are more 'developed' than Nell, and also some what more worldly in their knowledge. Nell is rather sheltered, but even so she is a very interesting look at a nineteenth century teenaged girl. Look at the cover I have posted above as that is a very fair representation of Nell from Dickens' own words. On the said cover she looks no more than nine or ten, and certainly not pushing fourteen as we would expect a fourteen year old to look like. She is a child, and girls of the same age today are far bigger and less child like in appearance.

 It is somewhat difficult not to juxtapose Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop as they are the two most recent Dickens novels I have read. They are completely different. Oliver Twist sees a happy ending whereas Curiosity shop does not. It is incredible to imagine that Curiosity Shop was initially printed in many parts with readers on both sides of the Atlantic eager to read of Nell and her eventual fate. I like both novels, a lot. But I have a penchance for Curiosity Shop because of Dickens' superb look into the human condition, particularly that of the un-desirables of society. Dwarf Daniel Quilp is the highlight of the novel, and as abhorrent as he is, he is a thoroughly interesting character, ( and don't they always make for such good reading even though we don't actually like them?!! ).

  I absolutely enjoyed this novel. Unlike Westward Ho! Dickens didn't go off on wild tangents of writing that had nothing to do with the plot. He keeps his dis-courses short and to the point. They are also very interesting as they are a look into a different centuries thinking and attitudes. It may be fiction but there is still much that can be garnered from the writing of Dickens. In short The Old Curiosity Shop is an extremely enjoyable read with a cast of repugnant, but colourful characters, with some good folks thrown in for good measure! Read, and enjoy it, is my advice.

Wikipedia is a useful tool. I find the information is well researched, and concisely put. It provides enough of a summary of a topic as to be easily and quickly digested, and then used. Click below for a summary of the novel in question with some other interesting information and links:

Can anyone give me a simple and educated answer as to Oscar Wilde's 'tears....of laughter' statement?? I'm seriously missing the 'why' as to what he means by it.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Westward Ho! - Charles Kingslake

 Ah Easter!! Four days off from the mind numbing drudgery of slavery...oops, I mean my wonderful, pleasing job, full of excitement and opportunity...NOT!! I intentionally picked up Westward Ho! to read over the four days of Easter because it is a book I have started in the past but couldn't get into. I read the first few chapters but as work, and life in general interfered, its complexity became too much and I put it down for another day. That day arrived on Friday, and I picked it up again, and read its 694 pages in two days!!

 It is interesting to note that wikipedia has Charles Kingslake down as a children's author. I was quite staggered to read this because Westward Ho! is certainly not a children's book, and would be a challenge for many adults to read. The Water Babies is regarded by many as exclusively a children's book, but I have read differing views on that point as well. If Westward Ho! is a children's book then all I can say is the children of 1855 were far superior readers than the children or adults alike of our modern era!

 Charles Kingslake was an interesting character. His diverse life and attitudes are mirrored in his novels, as was the custom of the day. During his life he was a clergyman, professor, historian, and novelist. In Westward Ho! he uses all four of his vocations to write an historically based novel. It is based in the Sixteenth Century between the the mid-1570's until the Spanish Armada of 1588. In several reviews I have read of this novel it came to my attention that Kingslake wrote this during the Crimean War as a piece of patriotism at a time when things in the Crimea were not going well, ( see his reference on page 432 as an example).

 The whole novel smacks of patriotism and is very England, England, oi, oi, oi! There is nothing wrong with patriotism to be sure, but combine it with virulent anti-Catholicism, and anti-Spanish sentiment, it just becomes a bit of a drag. Westward Ho! isn't just patriotic it is nothing but down right propaganda parading as a novel. I'm pleased that I read up on this novel before reading it because to know something of Kingslake, and the compunctions behind his writing of the novel, is understand it more, and to take it on its face value.

It is an historically based novel and Kingslake refers to many works he has read on Sixteenth Century English history. Throughout the novel he describes the Caribbean Islands, and South American jungle from reading such works of those who ventured there. He names them as books the characters themselves have read to give credence to his own writings. Kingslake has been praised for his vividness of his descriptions of those said lands even though he never saw them himself. I must admit they are quite good and mirror those of Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe.

 Kingslake also shows, or maybe shows off about, his knowledge of history by constant references to events of the past. Salamis, Marathon, are mentioned as examples, as are historical, and mythical figures such as Saul and Hercules. He inter-twines them as examples of what is happening within the novel. He was certainly a well read man, but at times I felt he patronised the reader to the extent of not knowing any basic history. This again shows how Kingslake infused so much of his own thinking and prejudices into the whole novel.

 As it is the late 1500's then the enemy is Spain, and with it Catholicism. Kingslake himself was a church minister and Westward Ho! is virulently anti-Catholic. The text smacks of Kingslake's own feelings on Catholicism, and doesn't just mirror the feelings of the time the novel is based in. He goes in to several very harangues of the religion under the guise of one of the books characters. The whole novel is riddled with the evils of Papacy and the cruelty of the Spanish and the Inquisition. They are seen as heretics who plundered the Indians of gold, and subjugated them in the process. Such may be the case, but Kingslake isn't shy in coming forward in his condemnation. I honestly started to get sick and tired of his Catholic bashing as that is all it resorted to by the end. This isn't patriotism, it is his private views on a religion he dis-agrees with, and shows his inability to accept that others have the right to worship under which ever religion they choose to.

 He even goes as far to say that Catholics see woman as nothing more than trophies, and for nothing less than re-procreation!! This is an educated man who is writing this stuff!! It is quite despicable really and laughable now as to how he honestly be lived his own nonsense. The novel is riddled with such finger pointing and fault finding of other nations and their people, that the reader can't help but fail to see that this is not a novel per se, but a 700 page work of propaganda. All it does is praise the heroics of England's sea heroes Drake, Raleigh, etc, that one would think no other nation ever produced a mariner of any note.

 Kingslake was also a believer of Darwin. Westward Ho! was published before The Origins of Species but Kingslake does have two of his characters hold a dis-course on evolution and their belief in it. This coming from two Sixteenth Century characters!! That would have been seen as heresy to say the least, and is again Kingslake putting into the novel his own private views, without regard to historical accuracy for his own ends.

 Ireland also does not escape his roving pen! I'm not up on Irish history of the period but Kingslake is not shy on describing the Irish as, 'the children of wrath'. They are 'wild', 'untamed, 'unlawful', Papal heretics of little worth, and the English are there to provide law and order. Again Kingslake delves into his own opinions and justifications, ( he does attempt some smoothing of the waters later on by referring to the fact that Irish and English soldiers were fighting together in the Crimea).

 Over all Westward Ho! must be read in the context of the time and manner in which it was written. It is pure propaganda to make the English feel good about themselves during a war that wasn't going well. It is riddled with the greatness of England. It unfortunately delves off into some unpleasant territory as far as Spain, Ireland, and Catholicism is concerned, and has nothing to do with patriotism but is the ramblings of a religious bigot, and all but racist. Kingslake has written a great piece of feel good propaganda, but its manner galled me and by the end I was relieved to have finished because his opinions are severely out dated, and nothing but tiresome, mis-guided rhetoric. I admire his sentiments, and desires in writing this novel to lift flagging English spirits, but he could have written a more rousing novel without infusing his private prejudices into it under the mis-guided belief it was patriotic to be bigoted.

 I did like Westward Ho! believe it or not. It is deeply flawed by today's standard as far as many issues go. It must be seen in the light it was written in though. It does get a bit tedious after a while but it can be skipped if you wish. Kingslake makes a point of this at one stage when a long winded dis-course is about to begin writing to the reader, 'turn the leaf to find pasturage more to liking'. There are many long winded dis-courses throughout the book. I must admit to having read EVERY word even though so much was just waffle and totally unrelated to the story line. They were some tangentical I was going, 'what the...?' as I read them. They are indicative of the era and something that irritates me no end .

 Throughout the novel, for all the long windednes,s there are some great lines that only writers of the era could deliver. As examples:

'Grumbled like Etna', to denote anger. Etna of course being the well known volcano.

'Nether tackle', and 'throat tackle', to denote bum, and throat.

'The authority of her mirror', to denote a beautiful woman who knows she is by what she sees in her mirror.

'Fleshed my maiden sword', to denote having killed with a sword for the first time.

'The father of lies', to denote the Devil.

'One long kiss', to denote sex.

 And others like 'saucy fellow, and 'ogling the maidens'. They are all good literature and something I particularly enjoy from books of the era. Writers then used words and terms in away modern authors just cannot even begin to emulate. For all that I enjoyed it, but that enjoyment is tempered by the long dis-courses of tediousness and pedantry that were something of a curse. In War and Peace I was able to edit out Tolstoy's ramblings, but in Westward Ho! Kingslake inter-twined the ramblings with the narrative so I had to read them to find where one finished, and the other started. I found my mind wandering through out the waffle, but once the story started again it was fun and interesting reading. It is a great story of England and her mariners during the Sixteenth Century. It would be more enjoyable if it could have been skillfully edited and the waffle cut out. The propaganda angle would remain, but that isn't what degrades the novel. It is the author's views. If you read it in the light of the times and are able to ignore Kingslake's inherent bigotry, then Westward Ho! is a enjoyable and worth while read.

 Click here for Wikipedia's short biography of Charles Kingslake. It has links to Westward Ho! and his other novels. The link to Westward Ho! is worth looking at as it provides some interesting facts on the novel and its influences, such as on the naming of an English town, and the use of the phrase by the settlers of the American western frontier.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Man In The Iron Mask - Alexandre Dumas

 I've finally done it!! Yes I've finally finished The Man in the Iron Mask!! It has taken me almost a fortnight but last night I polished off the last seventy pages. I have either read big chunks of it in the order of one hundred and fifty pages at a time, or else nothing at all. Now the issue of writing a review rears its head,  it will be more difficult to achieve than actually reading the novel!

 In many respects reading this novel has been a mistake. It is the last of the musketeer books Dumas wrote, and it is thirty five years between The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask. These two titles are the best known of the five musketeer books Dumas wrote but I wish I had the other volumes to have read them in their correct order. To jump from Musketeers to Mask I found prejudiced my initial view of the last novel. When I started these two books I did not realise they were a continuation and had always regarded them as stand alone novels. To read them as such is the wrong way to approach them as I found to my dismay.

 The main problem with jumping from Musketeers to Mask is the vast gap in the ages of the characters. They go from twenty year old boys in Musketeers to mid-fifties in Mask. That is a huge age gap and when I started to read Mask it was not what I was expecting. It took me some time to adjust from the youthfulness of Musketeers to the almost elder-statesmanship of the four protagonists. This is what I mean by wishing I had read the intervening novels to see the four grow and develop. If I had then Mask would have made more sense, and I could have approached it differently. Differently meaning in taking it in its proper context.
 What I'm saying is the leap from the first to last book in the series will inevitably prejudice the impression of the last book. If you expect a continuation of the musketeers youthful adventures you will be sadly let down. After finishing Mask I appreciated more how Dumas had written five books showing the development of the four over thirty five years and I garnished a lot of respect for him in doing so. Again it lead me to regret not having the middle books to read and follow the four as they grew from youthful exuberance to thoughtful adulthood. To say Mask is no Musketeers is in many respects comparing apples with oranges. The characters may be the same but their positions in society have changed as has their age.

 Dumas has shown his skill as a writer with the musketeer books. The first novel is the more enjoyable read, but Dumas has cleverly captured the essence of youth, care free, exuberant, and with plenty of life to come. In the last novel he shows these same four as elder men who have reaped the rewards of life from their youth. Clever stuff and if you see that in Mask then I think you have got Dumas' aim of the novel. He could have written a whole series of novels of youthful adventures of the four but somehow detailing the rise and then death of the four was more skillful. Mask isn't the enjoyable romp of Musketeers but it isn't meant to be.

 I actually liked this growth of the characters even though Mask hasn't the youthful zeal of Musketeers. Dumas has written superbly the trials and tribulations of the four as elder men in higher society, with the political plots and intrigues of the French Court . As young musketeers the four had not risen to that station in life but in Mask they had and this is the key to its understanding. They aren't the young men of old any more and the book mirrors their age and where they are in life.

 One problem though arises from the all the plots and intrigues as Mask is somewhat overly complex. Musketeers had plots and intrigues but was much easier to read and follow. I found Mask difficult to follow at times as far too much was going on, and it made it hard to follow each intrigue. Sometimes a particular plot would drop out of the narrative only to re-appear later, which made it difficult to pick up again and fit into what was being read at the time. Also Dumas is much more long winded in Mask than Musketeers. It may be to show how as the four have risen they have to use luggage skills better within politics, but it made for some frustrating reading as Dumas went on and on about things seemingly in tangent to the plot.

 Long windedness is certainly indicative of the era. At times it is a real pain, but it also took great skill as a writer to achieve, and whilst it doesn't make sense at times the reading of it only emphasizes the skill needed to write it. This highlights the major difference between modern writers and those of old, namely their abilities. As an example in one part of Mask Aramis is telling Fouquet how he switched the king with his brother. A modern writer would have it told in two paragraphs. Dumas has it told in four pages!! It is beautiful writing and very skillful but sometimes you feel yourself saying' get on with it'!! It is a symptom of being from a modern era of things being quick, easy, and with no time to waste. Dumas' long writing style doesn't fit our modern sensibilities. I find I have to be in the right mood for this type of writing for if I'm not then I find it quite unreadable.

 So did I enjoy this novel? Well yes, and of course no. No because I went into under the false impression of it being in tone of The Three Musketeers. When I clicked to it all I was at the point of dis-liking it. Luckily when I realised the mistake of not having read the previous three books I was able to see Mask in its light as a life long continuation of the four protagonist. In some ways I wish I had known more about what to expect as I would have approached it in a different way. If you want the Three Musketeers then you won't find it in Mask as that era of the four is well and truly over. What did I enjoy? The writing style even though too long at times and how the four have all grown in to latter life with all the rewards of service. The whole book is intrigue heavy and at times difficult to follow so it isn't a 'fun ' novel like Musketeers. It is no wonder then my favorite part is towards the end where Aramis and Porthos are in the grotto and fighting the king's men on Belle-isle.

 Actually the best part of the book is the last quarter as Dumas slowly kills off the four. Their deaths were a result of the plotting and intriguing, and when that is out of the way the novel becomes more interesting as it leads to the deaths of our heroes. It is unusual to have the heroes of a series killed off but Dumas done it well in bringing the life of the four to an end. He could have had them all die graceful in old age but he didn't. Porthos is crushed by a rock, Athos dies in bed a broken man due to the death of his beloved son, and d'Artagnan dies on the battlefield just as he receives his field marshals baton. Aramis' fate is unknown. I liked the ending as it defied all expectations of the fours fate. No happy endings here and Dumas must be commended for the un-conventional ending of the four.

 In conclusion The Man in the Iron Mask is no Three Musketeers, but it isn't meant to be. The Three Musketeers as a novel is the start of a series and as a stand alone novel can be read by itself without prejudice from the following books. If you jump from Musketeers to Mask then you have missed out a huge chunk of the four characters lives and the novel will be a disappointment. If you expect more sword play then you won't get because the characters are into their mid-fifties and well beyond that point in life. If you do make the jump them prepare yourself for the difference and approach this, the last novel, as a finale, because ultimately that is what it is. If you can read the three middle novels. I believe they aren't of the quality of the first and last but Mask will make more sense if you do. I personally would liked to have read them but just didn't have copies immediately available. They may not be as renowned as their more famous brothers but Dumas is a fine writer and they would still have been well worth reading.

 My advice then is too either forgo The Man in the Iron Mask and just bask in the glow of The Three Musketeers. If you do read The Man in the Iron Mask then be prepared for the fact it isn't a direct follow on from Musketeers. If you can read the three middle novels, after all it is a series and I'm a believer in reading all the books in a series to understand the plot developments of the writer. Dumas developed the four characters over thirty five years of their lives and to read all five novels is to see them grow from youthful exuberance to elder men of high station, and their subsequent demise. Whatever your feelings of the last novel Dumas has created some of the great characters of literature, and in particular in The Three Musketeers, one of the truly great, memorable, and fun, swashbuckling novels ever.

 I believe there was actually a man in prison with a mask but it wasn't iron but of velvet. I can't find out much more I'm afraid, like when, and who he was, etc, but it is from this prisoner that Dumas reportedly got the idea  for the king's incarcerated twin brother in The Man in the Iron Mask.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Boat - Lothar-Gunther Buchheim

 Of the 41,000 German submariners who served in World War II , 26,000 never returned.

 It seems appropriate to follow up the Twentieth Century's greatest anti-war novel with another. The Boat is undoubtedly an anti-war novel even though it is a vivid description of life on board a German u-boat during World War Two. It is of course better known in it's German name, Das Boot, and also as the quite brilliant film of the same name. You of those who have watched the film will have a fair idea of what to expect from the novel. But where the film is superb the novel goes beyond.

Is this really literature you may ask? Well to me it is. Not all novels are Dickens, Tolstoy, Defoe, Austen, etc, etc, etc. And not all the great novels, and literature, were written exclusively in the 18th and 19th centuries. The writer of The Boat, Lothar-Gunther Buchheim actually served on a u-boat patrol as a war correspondent. He is loosely portrayed in the film. Where Buchheim's novel is so good is that he is also a very accomplished writer. He has published numerous non-fictional works on the u-boat war that are as highly acknowledged as this novel. So he is in a position of authority, backed with writing skills that he uses to great effect in The Boat.

 Also where I regard The Boat as true literature is Buchheim's use of words to describe life on board a u-boat, albeit in fictionalised form. The most vivid memory I took away from this novel is the sea. I have read many a novel of the sea but Buchheim has the reader standing on the conning tower being covered in spray, and with the smell of salt in their nostrils. But even better for me it was how he has the ability to describe the colour of the sea, and the sounds the water makes against the boat. Translucent, trandescent, etc,etc, as the sea changes colour each day as if in a new mood. I could hear and see the prow of the boat smoothly slicing through the water, and the wake. The colour and sluicing sound as the boat then passed through it. The Boat may be essential a war novel but there is incredible beauty inter-posed with the horror of combat.

 In one section the Atlantic throws a week long gale, and again the vividness is remarkable. When the boat surfaces those inside are tossed around like rag dolls, and everything loose with them. You can just hear the clangs of metal hitting metal, the grunts as men are tossed and injured, and above all the roar of the angry ocean against the side of the boat ,and the whistle of the wind through the hatch. Those on the conning tower can't hear each other shouting but Buchheim certainly lets it be known what it was like to stand up top in such conditions. Harrowing, terrifying, and yet strangely magnificent as mother nature vented her anger. Buchheim writes of the crews fear, awe and utter respect of the sea.

Whilst the sea dominates their lives, and is only half of their enemy besides the allied navies, the living conditions on board are equalled in description. Live on board a u-boat wasn't pleasant. The almost putrid conditions and smell are almost smellable by the reader. Thirty plus men in a confined place who can't wash or shave for weeks on end was pretty disgusting. They themselves lost the ability to smell the stench as they lived with, but when they returned to base the onshore work crews were appalled by the smell and extremely reluctant to go on board. Not only was there unwashed bodies but the smell of diesel, spoiling rations, the toilet, and any number of oils, grease etc, needed for the machinery. In short it was a close, confined hell.

 It was a hell that got worse when the depth charges started to rain down. Again the close confined space is extenuated as Buchheim lets the reader see the sweat of fear on the men's faces. The attacks could take hours and the air grew stale and again the reader is all but breathing it themselves. It is an amazing reading experience, and one of the very few where I have all but found myself involved physically in its pages. We have all seen submarine movies, and heard the depth charges, but Buchheim can describe the whole ordeal in ways the site and sound of film can't. He places you in there, and you hear, feel, and smell the whole works.

 A mis-conception of many submarine movies in particular is the impression of constant combat and action. Nothing could be further from the truth, as much of the time spent on patrol was mundane and boring. The crews had to have incredible discipline to stand each other in such a confined space for weeks on end. Boredom was a huge problem and many crew members wanted the chance to go up top and be on watch just to get out of the submarine. Watch duty was extremely boring but critical to the safety of the submarine. Buchheim vividly describes the duty and how the crew members held their binoculars in a certain so to mirror the movement of the boat. Those on watch duty were only allowed two hours on so as to avoid complacency, and in bad weather to give the men the chance to get warm and dry again. The routine was the same, and very rarely inter-posed with moments of action.

 When they came though it was quick and brutal. The depth-charging is a known fact in submarine actions. They generally followed an action where the u-boat had sunk a ship or ships. The book superbly illustrates for the reader the lead up to a sinking. It is like reading the hunter and the prey. It is slow and tense reading, but incredibly gripping. Sometimes the u-boats were discovered before able to let off a torpedo and the action had to be abandoned. Again the realism is startling and the reader can only marvel at Buchheim's ability to portray it so realistically  without involving too much technical jargon. It is certainly a book that is never dull even when he is describing the routine details of daily life. You would imagine that a handful of men in a small u-boat would make for limited scope in a novel but The Boat confounds this thinking.

 This is certainly one of the great war novels. It is also one of the great anti-war novels. But it is also a unique snapshot into the lives of a handful of men fighting in an odious cause for an odious leader. The Kriegsmarine was well known even within Nazi Germany to be relatively Nazi free in sentiment ( Hitler never really understood naval matters and generally left the Kriegsmarine alone. He always thought though that it was too 'Christian' in sentiment, a throw back to its earlier days, and would take many years to be properly 'national socialised'. ). Buchheim at no time attempts any political angle in the novel. He lets the feeling of the crew towards the regime be known through their own words. In most parts of Germany such freedom of speech was immediately dealt with by a visit from the Gestapo. U-boat crews almost unconsciously exempted themselves from this as most members shared the same views, putting their duty, and comrades first, over their individual political affiliations or views. Tale telling was not a common practise. The Boat if anything is more than just another submarine book. It is about men and the horrors of the war they fought in.

 I recommend this novel over any other I have read about naval combat. The Cruel Sea and H.M.S Ulysses were very good novels, and well deserving of praise. But The Boat out-shines them in every way. You don't have to be a military afficianado to appreciate the novel,  just a reader who wishes to know and understand life on board a German U-boat during World War Two. The descriptions are vivid, and at times very palpable. They put you as a reader into the u-boat and all its trials and tribulations. Also it will put you into the minds of the crew and their feelings of duty over politics. This is important to understand with the backdrop of Nazism. At the end you understand more the anti-war sentient and also realise that not all Germans during the last war supported the regime but still done their duty.

 A truly great read, and one I recommend to all whether it is your genre or not. Leon Uris is in my opinion the best writer of historical fiction ever. The Boat is in this realm of superb historicalness within a fictionalised form. Uris of course wrote more fictional novels than Buchheim, and is acknowledged for his research and realism. Where Buchheim has the solitary edge over him in just this one novel is the fact he was there. The over-all difference being Uris described events of a bigger historical nature, whereas Buchheim has described a solitary u-boat patrol within the bigger context of The Battle of the Atlantic.

Click here for my review on the brilliant film adaptation:

  Read the book and watch the movie, as both are equally brilliant and un-forgettable.
This is a blog about fiction, but if any of you are interested in reading some more on the u-boats then a reasonable book to start with is David Westwood - The U-boat War. It is just above layman's ability but is still quite authoritative without being too complex. There are many, many good non-fictional works on the u-boats and The Battle of the Atlantic it comes down to being selective as it is a huge subject alone within the vastness that is the Second World War.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Blackboard Jungle - Evan Hunter

 It is interesting to follow up one novel of brevity with another. This novel is another example of an economy of words that can so much which so little. When I was younger I never truly 'got' short novels like this, but as I have gotten older, and learnt to write myself, my appreciation of them has increased dramatically. The Blackboard Jungle is certainly a classic novel but certainly not in the league of The Great Gatsby as a literary masterpiece though.

 This doesn't mean it should be dismissed out of hand. I picked this up at the second hand book shop from where I got The Great Gatsby. And like The Great Gatsby I started and finished it the same day. That was three years ago and yet it feels like only yesterday my eyes perused its pages. I suppose when class is met then class it stays, no matter how long ago you struck it. I can't remember why I know this novel though. I suppose haven't been a book worm since very young famous titles are referred to in other books and keep cropping up time and time again, and become ingrained on your mind .

 I think I have seen the movie adaptation as well. When I read the novel many of the events were very familiar and I knew that it had been cinematically adapted. I just can't absolutely say yes or no. Of course there have been many famous school based films, with probably the best, and well known, being To Sir With Love, which I have seen. It may be fair to say that The Blackboard Jungle is the most well known school based novel ever written. I can think of a wealth of school movies I have seen over the years but struggle to think of any other literary equivalents besides this.

 The novel was written in 1955 and has dated very well. I'm not up to speed on the current American education system but I believe that what Jungle has to say about education within poorer communities is as relevant today as back then. In fact this novel reflects much about poor communities worldwide because poverty is poverty, and breeds the same social ills. In so many respects this novel is the complete opposite of the Great Gatsby. This is about the the poverty trap, its never ending cycle, and how those caught in it dis-trust those who aren't a part of it. Just like the moneyed of Gatsby who have a disdain of those below them, the poor have to those who are above them. Between Gatsby and Jungle we see two sides of the same coin, but from differing social points of view.

The Blackboard Jungle is based in a under-privileged, inner-city ghetto, of an un-named American city. New York instantly comes to mind, but it could as easily be Chicago or Detroit. The community is made up of Port Ricoeans, Mexicans, Irish, Negroes, and the likes. The school is like a polytechnic and attempts to teach poor students a trade. It is somewhat condescending to think that the poor are the only ones good enough for a trade, but in all reality the social cycle of these people sees them good for little else. The school  in all its sad reality is, by the powers that be, nothing more than a showcase attempt to look as if something is being done. The sad fact is they are failing and little can be done about it.

 The story follows a teacher in his first assignment, Richard Dadier. He is optimistic about his career choice and is keen on teaching. What he finds is a school under siege from its pupils. On his first day the head master tells him,' This is the garbage can of the educational system'. It gets worse as one teacher then says, 'Don't be a hero, and never turn your back on the class'. Good advice, as Dadier quickly learns that these are not empty words. As far as an educational facility goes then it doesn't get any worse than this. Most of the teachers have given up trying and are there only to get their pay cheques.

Dadier though does try and finds he is facing an uphill battle. Some of the young men are quite bright, but the communities dis-trust rubs off on them and they present a unified front against Dadier, even at the expense of an education for themselves. At one stage a female teacher is sexually assaulted and Dadier intervenes. He is then targeted for hitting the attacker and beaten up himself. Dadier cannot believe that these boys can't accept the wrongness of the potential rapists actions. No matter what they will all stick together. What we see is a bunch of delinquents who don't want to learn and are nothing more than future gang members. The concept of lifting themselves out of the poverty cycle is entirely foreign to them.

 On teacher believes in teaching and gives it a real shot. But the boys break him along with his record collection and he leaves, never to return to the profession. The novel may be forty six years old but the attitudes of the students is no different from those of today. Lack of pride, respect and direction see them become nothing more than hoodlums. It is very hard not to be angry at their actions, but the reader must step back and look at the world around them. It is dirt poor and will always remain so. There is little to no hope things will improve, and the communities suffer prejudices from the outside. Banding together is all they know and letting anyone in is almost impossible. For all Dadier's efforts, especially with the bright Miller, (who opens up to Dadier and explains the way things are and why ), he realises it is a battle lost before it is started. He comes to realise why so many teachers have left or have just become resigned to the inevitable.

 I liked this novel. It has spawned any number of movies on teachers in poor schools over coming the odds and prevailing. The Black Board Jungle sees no prevailing though. This isn't feel good material. It is true to life and a brutally honest look at what goes on in the schools of ghetto America. There is little hope for the students, who know it and don't bother to try. It will make you feel angry at their apathy and lack of respect, but conversely it opens your eyes to the whys. This is what poverty breeds and as a novel The Black Board Jungle is a short and powerful representation of what many of us can only take for granted.

A recommended read that won't take up a lot of your time, and yet say so very much.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

 I initially read The Great Gatsby last October when I took a week off slavery, oops, I mean work. I re-read it again yesterday as I have been struggling through The Man in the Iron Mask. I had become somewhat bogged down and wanted something to read until I could get back into it. Also it recently came to my attention that there is going to be yet another film made and this time in 3-d of all things ( go the 'girl on film' link on my The Silver Screen blog for the link ). It reinvigorated in me a desire to read the novel again.

 Well I did, and like my initial reading it only took me a matter of a few hours to do so. I first became aware of this most famous of novels last year when reading a now forgotten non-fictional work on American history. The novel kept popping up in the narrative so I decided I had to read it. I went into a second book shop with a small list of what I hoped to find and Great Gatsby was one. I also wanted Uncle's Tom Cabin, which I found, and Lolita which I didn't.

 The first thing that struck me about The Great Gatsby was its size. It is a very short novel encompassing only 170 pages. I was surprised as I expected a huge tome of a thing, and yet what I got was almost a novella rather than a novel. I found a local cafe and started it right away. It was interesting because the first two pages are quite complex in writing style , but from there on in it becomes less so and easier and quicker to read.

 I was really struck by this brevity of the novel by the time I was finished. Fitzgerald has shown immense literary skill in giving the world a short and yet detailed novel of 1920's America. It reminded me of a non- fiction book on the Great War by Michael Howard. He compressed that world wide conflict into the space of just 120 pages. In effect it was a long essay. This brevity is a writing skill I admire immensely, and believe it takes a lot of skill to achieve. Fitzgerald compresses several months of his narrators experiences and observations into just 170 pages.

 For me personally The Great Gatsby presents to the reader everything I dislike about money and the monied. As a novel it has gathered a reputation of the 'roaring twenties' with an affluent America swinging to jazz, and of the glitz and glamour of the decade. Fitzgerald could not have shown money any other way than through the eyes of those able to afford the then lifestyle. But this isn't what the novel is about as such. The glitz is a front to Fitzgerald's bald indictment on the uber-rich and their attitudes to those poorer than them and the neuve-riche like Gatsby.

 It is all quite repugnant as Fitzgerald's narrator, Nick, moves amongst a couple he knows. Daisy is a distant cousin. She is young, beautiful, totally pampered, and ignorantly unaware of what poverty is. Her husband Tom, is an arrogant white supremacist bore, who has so much money that he doesn't really have do much of anything. They are 'old-money' and every inch of it in thought and behaviour. Nick may move among their circle but he is never comfortable with them, and slowly comes to realise they aren't nice people. In short the novel shows what too much money does to the sole of those who have it.

 Jay Gatsby is their neighbour and 'new-money'. He is initially a shadowy figure who no-one really knows anything about. He throws lavish parties which the rich and famous are not shy in inviting themselves to. They are shown as drunks with no respect for property, whether their own or not. In short they are nothing but spoilt brats. Nick is be-friended by Gatsby and likes him. He is likable because he has never forgotten his roots as poor white trash. At first we don't know where his money comes from, but it is later revealed he made it from selling boot-legged liquor. When this is found out Gatsby's so-called friends all disappear as he is seen, and looked down on by the 'old-monied', as 'new monied', and viewed as worse than scum.

 It is this attitude of money that is the central theme to the novel. Daisy's husband finds out about her having met and loved Gatsby in the past. He digs around and finds out how he made his money and uses it against him when Gatsby and he are fighting over Daisy. Daisy knows her husband is having an affair and is a detestable man, but she goes with him in the end for money, and out of pure snobbery. She knows old money is more secure than new and won't risk her 'place' in society. She herself isn't a particularly nice person and nor are those around her. This is all borne out when she hits Tom's mistress and lets Gatsby take the blame as it was his car. She runs and hides behind her husband and their money instead of showing some moral courage.

 Tom and Daisy are quite despicable people. As things fall apart for Gatsby Nick tells him that he is better than them and worth two times the people they are. In one sentence Fitzgerald sums up the super wealthy and what shits they are. The reader can only be appalled at how Tom and Daisy retreat behind their money to save themselves out of pure snobbery and distain for the new kid on the block. They are shown to be the revolting human beings they are. Gatsby, the innocent, is murdered by the killed woman's husband in the mistaken belief he was driving his own car. Not once do Tom or Daisy say anything to the contrary. The book ends with Gatsby being buried and all of the socialites who attended his parties being notable for their snobby absence. Again wealth is shown to be nothing but usury when it suits itself.

 Nick meets Tom weeks later in town. He tries to justify his and Daisy's actions and shows no remorse for them. He is wealthy so why should he be the one to pay? Nick is disgusted and leaves New York. He cannot forget or forgive what they, and others like them, had done to Gatsby in the end.

 As stated earlier this most famous of American novels shows to the world in quite blunt terms what the super wealthy are like in attitude to those with less. Money corrupts the sole and Tom and Daisy are superb examples of this. It may be something of a love story but again it shows how the attitude of either having money or true love is irrelevant as there is no substitute to wealth . In essence they are all hollow shells of people with no real redeeming features. Not once does the reader like the rich and powerful, and sees them for the users they are. Gatsby throws great parties, but when it is time for him to be acknowledged they all act like ostriches and treat his memory as that of a leper.

 All the way through I felt nothing but disgust and loathing for the wealthy. If this was Fitzgerald's aim then with me he exceeded extremely well! It is a superb novel and its brevity can only be marveled at because it says so much with an enviable economy of words. It is a sad but true indictment on the jazz era, the so called 'roaring twenties', and the moneyed facade it hid. It was an era for the rich alone, and anyone without was seen as trash. Nothing has changed really has it??

 It is regarded as one of the very best novels of the Twentieth Century. It is hard to disagree and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I will say this though, great novel that it is my disgust at what Fitzgerald's enlightenment of the wealthy does will never see me rate this as one of my favorite books. It is too true to life and for me isn't entertainment. I like escapism in fiction, but The Great Gatsby only reminds me of what I read for, to escape, not to be reminded of what I'm trying to escape from.

Click here for my review on the film adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

All Quiet On The Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque

 This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.

 What can I, a humble blog writer with only two degrees to his name, possibly add to what has already been written about this, the best anti-war novel ever? Well nothing really, except my own feeling and take on it. I have been interested in military history since I was seven, so that is now thirty four years. I did my degrees the hard hard way, extra-murally, and they took me quite a number of years and many sacrifices to achieve. So hopefully in amongst all that I have garnished something resembling knowledge, and an ability to critique this most famous of Twentieth Century war novels.

 I maintain that this novel is very much in the mold of the film The Hurt Locker. They are both anti-war and explore the experience of combat and the result on the human mind. Many people have watched The Hurt Locker and its core message has completely gone over their heads. This is meant to be a book review but I believe that a viewing of both makes of All Quiet on the Western Front and The Hurt locker are worth seeing as they push the same message. Essentially it is that once exposed to the horrors of war no-one is ever the same again. Remarque has the survivors mentally shattered and mere husks of their former selves, whilst The Hurt Locker has the main protagonist unable to fit back into normal society and re-enlisting. The very famous quote above says it all.

 All Quiet on the Western Front also has another claim to fame. It was deemed un-Germanic and copies were burnt at the infamous book burnings staged by Joseph Goebbels in Berlin. It obviously didn't fit with the 'master race's' vision of itself as supermen unafraid to die in combat. The problem being was that Remarque had told the truth and the Nazis thought they could conveniently erase it. Well sorry Herr Hitler your little escapades are now confined to the history books whilst All Quiet on the Western Front lives on.

 The novel was written in 1928 and is based on The Great War. It is told from the German point of view and it is very easy reading. Anyone with decent reading skills will be able to rattle through it in a matter of hours. Erich Maria Remarque served in the German army and gained great insight into the trench warfare of the Western Front. He is also blessed with being able to put them on to paper for all to read. He followed up this, his most famous novel, with two more pertaining to post-war Germany and the trials and tribulations of the returned soldiers attempt to reassimilate back into civilian life.

 This novel is about the war at the front and how a generation of young German boys, almost straight out of high school, were imbued with patriotism and how it was all glory to die for the Fatherland. They enlist in droves and quickly have their illusions of grandeur dispelled when they enter basic training. There are introduced to the discipline of the army through a sadistic trainer who, as they later find out, knows nothing about the realities of the front. Marching drills and crawling through mud see the boys turn up in France totally unprepared for combat.

 Luckily they are taken under the wing of an old hand who quickly tells them to forget everything they have been told and start listening to him. He tells them if they do then they have a better chance of surviving. These boys are quickly thrown into the deep end and endure hours of shelling, rats, water logged trenches and quarters, miles of rusty barbed wire, poor rations or next to none, the lingering smell of death, uncaring or incompetent officers, and combat. It is hell, and they quickly lose any innocence or thoughts of glory. They quickly see that what they have been told is nonsense and those who told them such things are out of touch with reality.

 Slowly the initial group is either killed or wounded. The first boy killed is a severe shock and  the rest find it hard to come to terms with it. They realise it could happen to them. The never ending shelling is vividly described as is the reactions of newer boys to it. Some go mad, some cry like babies, while most become fatalistic and accept it. Remarque has put into words some of the most descriptive combat scenes ever written .The reader can all but smell the cordite, the dead bodies, and hear the guns and explosions. It is a tour-de-force of descriptive writing that has never been beaten within a war novel.

 The narrator of the book gets stuck in no-man's land and kills a French man with his knife. He listens to him dying. When dead he searches his pockets and finds photos, money, etc, and realises that they are both the same, men, with only the uniform being different. He says to the dead man if it wasn't for the war they would have been friends. It is a brutal and searing scene and the reader can only sympathise with these young men of all nations, who really don't understand what they are fighting for, and in all reality didn't want to be killing each other.

 The scenes of the front and the ensuing combat show clearly how their young minds disintegrated. It isn't apparent to them until the narrator goes on leave back to Germany. What he encounters is a population full of propaganda and with no real knowledge of life at the front. Disillusioned, our narrator can't wait to get back as he now finds that this is his new reality, and that he has nothing in common with those back home. The front is now his home and that is where he belongs. Among the rats and the dead.

 As the war progresses our narrator finds the quality and age of the replacements dropping. They are mere school boys with no right to be at there. It is obvious that things aren't going Germany's way and the survivors of the initial group can only wonder why the war is continued. The book ends with the death of the narrator. In all only one boy from that which the book follows makes it back to Germany, and he is permanently maimed.

 All Quiet on the Western Front is quite simply a brilliantly written description of what the battlefields of the Great War were like. Even though it is German written and focused it applies to any of the soldiers who served in the trenches from any nation. None of them returned back to their respective nations the same as they had left. Many came back badly maimed, but it was the unseen maiming that the novel explores. The men saw terrible things, endured awful living conditions close to that of animals, and killed and maimed their fellow human beings. They came back to a population totally unaware of what they had seen and in many respects uncaring. They left as young men with no skills and came back with none. Also they faced civilian populations that wanted to quickly forget the war with its privations and rationing,  and were unequipped to take into the workforce so much unskilled labour.

 There is just nothing written that exposes the horror of war on and off the battlefield like this novel .Its results ran right throughout society and All Quiet on the Western Front is as good a reason as to use diplomacy over fighting. After reading this, the greatest, and clearest, anti-war novel ever written, no reader would want to pick up arms and experience the battlefield. There is no adventure or glory. Only death.

Click here for wikipedia's page on the novel. It provides plenty of additional information and useful links:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Armageddon - Leon Uris

 I have written these reviews in the order of which I read them, which coincidentally was the order in which Leon Uris wrote them. As stated in the Mila 18 review if you are to read these three novels, which are inter-related historically, then I would start with Mila 18, then move on to Exodus, and then finally Armageddon.

 The books are not carry ons from one another and are completely separate novels. For me these three novels are amazing in having been written so close to the events they portray, and of their accuracy. Exodus was published in 1958, Mila 18 in 1961, and Armageddon in 1963. They are still as accurate today as they were then. Again I can only be in awe of Uris' attention to detail and his painstaking research and the subsequent historical accuracy. Both of these strengths are why his novels are some of the greatest written of the Twentieth Century. Suffice to say if I could even have a fraction of Uris' talent as a historical fiction novelist then he would be my mentor and the writer who I would wish to most emulate!

 Armageddon is the somewhat forgotten novel of Uris' early writing career. Coming on the heels of both Exodus and Mila 18, Armageddon found itself in the unenviable position of having big boots to fill. Much like a film maker who makes a masterpiece, the public expects each subsequent film to be the same. Fortunately, Armageddon filled those big boots and is as good as both its better known predecessors.

 Of the three I really struggle to find a favorite. Exodus is the obvious choice, and I would place Armageddon second. Mila 18 isn't quite as good as them and must rest in third spot. But ultimately it is a futile exercise because they are each superb novels and can't really be judged against one another.

 Armageddon is about post-war Germany. It spans the period from Germany's 1945 surrender to the end of the 1948 Berlin airlift. It must be remembered that while the events of this novel were going on the events of Exodus were coinciding in Israel. It is a good thing to keep this in mind as it gives a great depth to history and its vastness. In both novels we have two major world events happening at the same time.

 This novel starts with a young American officer who has a dislike for Germans sent to a town in Germany to start de-Nazification and the rebuilding of the town. The town has a small concentration camp on its outskirts and Uris cleverly uses the local German denials of it existence to mirror collectively those of Germans and Germany after the war. The usual 'we didn't know', 'we were just following orders', etc,  comes from the towns people even though the stink of death is wafting from the camp. The local high and all mighties show up denying all knowledge or culpability, and yet show no remorse to the death of the Jewish inmates. They even go as far as too say, with a seriously straight face, 'they were just Jews and got what they deserved'. So much for denials.

 They then have the temerity to think they are in a position to push the Americans around. Because they were in positions of authority before, and during, the war, they state they should carry on in those positions. Their membership of the Nazi party is of course conveniently forgotten as they try to deflect blame from themselves. All the time they are still Nazi at heart and feel no shame for their crimes. The Americans are hit hard with the realisation at how difficult the Nazi poison is going to be to expunge. What Uris writes is very true and it did happen. I have personally read much of post-war Germany and how the Germans tried to act like ostriches by burying their heads in the sand and pretending it didn't happen. They learnt very quickly that is was easier to be a perpetrator and not a victim. Deny, deny, deny, became the watch word of the times.

 The de-Nazification of Germany was a difficult task. Of course there were never any Nazis in Germany after the surrender!!!!.. or so the Germans would have led their conquerors to believe. The first part of the book is outstanding in portraying the initial reactions of the German people to their defeat and their denials of all the crimes committed in their name. Uris is the absolute master on condensing this country wide epidemic into a fictionalised town and setting that mirrors that of Germany as a whole.. He makes it understandable, and the reader, being all too familiar with the post war German reaction, cannot but feel disgust and revulsion at the Germans and their leadership.

 It is a brutal look at a very unsavory time in German history. It pulls no punches and nor should it. The Holocaust and all the other crimes against humanity committed by Germany can not be hidden and will never be erased from its history. Uris doesn't delve into finger pointing or straight out German bashing. He doesn't need to because the facts were clear for the world to see. Uris just paints them in an unblemished fashion.

 From there Uris moves to post-war Berlin and the lives of the Berliners themselves. And from them it is natural progression to the relationship between the American and Soviet occupiers. He describes the fall of Berlin from the view point of a German family. There is a wife and two daughters who are raped by Russians soldiers. It isn't pleasant reading but totally factual as the Russians were in no mood to be conciliatory towards the German people for the crimes committed against their own. The novel then moves from this important to understand period ( from the German point of view ), into the start of the Cold War. Berlin is where it all started and Uris again is on the ball.

 Berlin lies in ruins and it is quite ironic that a flattened city should be fought over in a battle of words and wits. The Soviets occupied a quarter of Berlin and entirely surrounded the rest. As time went by they felt that they should occupy all of Berlin and tried all sorts of sneaky under hand tricks to get the other three powers out. The novel goes through them all and the American reactions to defeat them. It is all but farce and today we can only shake our heads at it all. But in the post-war world the tensions were very real and got to the point of another shooting war.

 The Soviets finally realise that being sneaky isn't going to get them Berlin. So they blockade the only access road open to the western powers into Berlin. This is what set off the Berlin Airlift. Uris novelises it by introducing pilots and others who were involved in airlifting supplies to the Chinese during the war over the so called 'hump', the Himalayas. He accurately describes their war time experiences and how they applied them to a Berlin in the midst of a deep winter. They had to supply a population of two million people and what they accomplished was nothing short of a logistical miracle.

 There are a wealth of good and quite approachable books written on the airlift but Armageddon is a very good place to start in getting some background within an easily read, novelised form. The novel ends before the actual airlift but by that stage the Allies had perfected their system so much that the population was obviously not going to starve. It is illustrative that the Allies were not overly concerned about German lives ( after all, the war had just finished and the German crimes still fresh in the victors mind ), as it was a 'flick the birdie' to the Soviets and their bullying.

 Armageddon is so much like Exodus in its scale and sweep. It is a huge novel that compresses a large segment of history into a few easily read pages. Armageddon, Exodus, and Mila 18 are still relevant novels and have not dated in the slightest. History is recorded and dated and can't be changed after all.  I recommend anyone who wishes to understand the subject matters of these three novels, but who is a lay man on them, to read these first as they perfectly sum up the times and makes them approachable to all. Leon Uris is the best at the historical novel genre. He has never been topped and probably never will be. He is one of my most favorite novelists. I highly, highly recommend him and his fine works to all. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mila 18 - Leon Uris

 It seems fitting to follow Leon Uris with Leon Uris! Mila 18 is probably his third best novel. It isn't quite in the league of Exodus, but if Exodus was a ten then Mila 18 is a 9.5. It isn't as long either, but then the Warsaw Ghetto uprising isn't quite the historical event that the birth of a nation is either.

So Mila 18 isn't Exodus, but it is an unforgettable novel all the same. In many respects I have written my reviews the wrong way round as I should have written this first and followed it with Exodus to mirror the chronology of the events themselves. Whilst they are separate novels and no characters are carried over it would pay to read Mila 18 first as it is based during the war. To do so would clarify so much of Exodus for the uninitiated in this period of history.
 The Warsaw Ghetto and its destruction actually happened. Uris though takes the reader back in time to the start of the war in 1939 and the coming of the Germans. The novel moves from the initial anti-Semitic laws imposed on the Polish Jews, then onto their round up and placement into the Ghetto. It is all historically accurate, and again Uris must be commended for his research and accuracy. The fate of European Jewry is too important and tragic to be played around with, and Uris is extremely sensitive to the history of the Holocaust ( It must be remembered that Uris researched, and wrote this novel only 15 years after the actual Uprising. Many books and documents have since surfaced that only emphasise Uris's care on the subject within the material he had to work with that was available to him).

 A great visual aid to this story is the fine film The Pianist. What you see in that film is what Uris describes in Mila 18. The Germans crowded upwards of half a million Jews into an area of several city blocks and built a wall around it to keep them in. At the time this was done the Germans were still debating what to actually do with them. The death camps weren't an instant decision and the Ghettos became a simple way of keeping the Jews together. Unfortunately, as they were an administrative problem, genocide became the preferred option to deal with them. The Ghetto itself made it easier for the Germans to herd them together quickly, and onto trains, which 're-settled' them  the camps ( most of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews were were gassed at Treblinka ).

 All this historical fact Uris goes into, and like Exodus he tells it from both sides of the fence. He uses actual German figures like Stroop, Globocnik, etc, who were directly involved in deporting and eradicating the Ghetto. But he also adds fictional Germans to tell of decisions from Berlin and to mirror the reactions of those orders in Poland.

 We see the Polish underground visited by Jewish fighters who wanted weapons, and the Polish attitudes to the Jew's plight exposed. They had little sympathy and gave as little help as they could, even refusing to take Jews into the partisan movement. Uris shows the reader how the Warsaw Jews were left to their own fate. Very few Poles did ever lift a finger to help them. To be sure the Polish people themselves were under Nazi tyranny to, but many also blamed the Jews for the fact that Germany invaded their country, and felt they deserved their fate, ( This of course was a feeling mirrored by many right throughout Europe. See the film Sarah's Key for a French take on the Holocaust ). The Polish Jews thought of themselves as Poles but were never really accepted as such by the general Polish population Again a feeling mirrored right throughout Europe).

 As the wall shuts out the rest of the world they are left to their fate, Uris goes into how quickly things degenerated. Jewish women prostituted themselves, children were sent through sewers to the outside to get food, disease became rampant, as did collaboration with the Germans. Anything went just to survive and it is brutal reading in seeing how low humanity got just to survive. Of course the Germans actually used this as a pretext to show to the world that the Jews really were scum and needed to be dealt with.

 As the Germans systematically start to ship batches of Jews off eastward the rumours of their fate reach the rest. It is haunting as they realise they are left to their fate and will be eventually wiped out. The choice comes down to one of succumb and go meekly, or fight and die with dignity. This of course divides them all and many have their faiths tested. It must be remembered that the uprising was by only a small number of Jews and not the whole Ghetto. The fighters received word that the Germans were going to make one last major sweep and transport he last fifty thousand survivors to Treblinka. It was this news that triggered the uprising by the approximately thirteen thousand Jewish fighters.

 They were poorly armed with captured weapons of differing calibres and sometimes only a few bullets per gun. They manufactured home made weapons and used extensive use of Molotov cocktails. Knifes, bare fists, whatever, these Jews showed a courage that was unbearably futile, but extremely heroic. They died in their thousands but held off the Germans for many weeks even though the Ghetto was virtually destroyed. It was an incredible achievement. Doomed from the start it has gone down in history as a stunning statement of sacrifice against tyranny. Leon Uris has put into a novelised form, an unpolished, and uncompromising book, which no reader will ever be able to forget.

 This may be a novel with many events fictionalised, but Uris has provided the world with as close as possible look at the times and atmosphere of a people who knew their fate, and stood up to it. It is a brutal, searing read, and Leon Uris was the best in the business at putting such events onto paper. Mila 18 is an unforgettable, and extremely important novel. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising is a part of the Holocaust, and one of it's most horrific, and yet inspiring events. If you really want to know what it was like to live through it all then you can't go past this book.

 Absolutely brilliant, and still as relevant today as it was when written. I guarantee that this is a novel that once read will never be forgotten, and in fact will you probably read it again. It is like nothing else you can possibly imagine, and again Leon Uris shows us his mastery of the historical novel.

 Mila 18 was an actual address. The book states it was the last bastion of Jewish resistance in the Ghetto but Jurgen Stroop, the German commander designated to wiping out the ghetto, states in his after action report that over thirty points of resistance were destroyed after Mila 18 on May 12th 1943 alone. It has become myth that Mila 18 was the last and even today tour guides state this historical error. Below are some good links of interest pertaining to the uprising.

A link about the novel itself:

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Exodus - Leon Uris

 Oh writers block how I despise thee! So many books have mine eyes purveyed and yet the grey matter behind them fails and won't let my fingers do any keyboard waltzing!! I have so far only posted five reviews and yet by this stage I had hoped to have had at least thrice that. I have certainly done the reading but am stuck with an inability to put into words my thoughts and appraisals on said literature. Bugger!!

Exodus for me is one of the Twentieth Century's greatest novels. It is not literature in the sense of Dickens, Tolstoy, Dumas and company, because I believe that style of writing is now confined to history. In the last century writers became mere story tellers rather than actual writers. I do read modern novels but I'm very choosy and only read the classics, such as Bonfire of the Vanities, and the absolutely brilliant I, Claudius and Claudius the God, as examples. Massed produced, popular novels, I avoid because they are too blandly written, so no Da Vinci Code for me thank you very much!!  

 Leon Uris for me really brought the non-fictional historical novel into the mainstream audiences radar. There have been others before him, but Uris took the genre further than anyone before or since. His research and understanding of the subject matter are phenomenal, and I am in envy of his ability! Exodus came about because Uris was sent to Israel as a journalist to write articles about the events of 1948.

 His observations led to the writing of Exodus, and not only Exodus, but a raft of superb historical novels like Mila 18, Armageddon, The Haj, and Trinity. All great historical novels in their own right, but Exodus is the best of them all. I first read Exodus in high school when I was seventeen and again about six years later. I dug out my battered old copy last year and read it again after a very long hiatus. I had forgotten much, but when I finished I had a new appreciation for it. Many years of history based reading ( and a bit on middle eastern history ), helped me understand Exodus more than when I was younger.

 The great thing about historical novels is that are based around very real events, people, and places. Inadvertently then the reader can learn a lot of factual material, all with in an easier writing and reading style than a non fiction book would provide. Uris in Exodus goes into simple explanations of Jewish words, events, and their origins, such as kosher, the Jewish 'pale' in Russian cities, pogrom, diaspora, etc and also the origins and history of the Maccabees, and Haganah. All extremely interesting and a minor history lesson in novelised form.

 Leon Uris is the master of this type of writing and it is why I have always been drawn to his works. His attention to detail is staggering as is his plain desire to get the facts right. He doesn't play with history to suit the novel but fits his characters into the framework of historical events. For instance the bombing of the King David Hotel was and he uses his characters within the actual events. I like how he has two brothers live through a pogrom in Russia, after which they leave and trek to Palestine. There they fall out over how to gain independence for Israel, either through violence or diplomacy.

 There is also an extremely vivid and quite brilliant portion of the book written about the Holocaust. It describes the plight of a young Jewish girl who is hidden in Denmark. After the war ends she ends up in a displaced persons camp and learns about the death camps. Uris's descriptions are perfect and very much like Kunte Kinte's slave ship experiences in Roots, it is absolutely harrowing reading. It may be a novel but it reads exactly like any non-fiction work on the Holocaust. It is several chapters long and it is brutal stuff. It leaves you quite literally shaking with dis-belief and horror.

 The scale and sweep of the novel is outstanding. It is as good as Gone With the Wind or War and Peace. It is obviously about the birth of modern day Israel and all sides are written about. The British view point is looked at through the eyes of British officers involved. The British mandate is skillfully inter-woven into the narrative as to not be boring or out of place as a stand alone piece of information. The Palestinian reaction is looked at and for my little amount of knowledge seems correct. At the time they were fighting among themselves and didn't see the Jewish threat. They then basically handed Palestine over to the Jews without a fight, recognising their mistake far too late.

 It is a Jewish story so the book is prominent in their side of things. It goes into how they broke in the land, and it is quite clear this wasn't the land of milk and honey of the bible. The land was barren and it is incredible that the Jews who broke Israel in done so not for themselves, but for future generations of Jews. Quite amazing and inspirational stuff. The Kibbutz system is explained, and there are some great passages on how the Jews settled them and turned the land from desert into fertile country.

  Uris's eye for detail is staggering and I learnt so much about the birth of modern day Israel from this novel. Uris though doesn't fall into the trap of favoritism. He is on neither side, and as stated he explores each sides take on things and the problems they faced. After reading this the reader can fully understand the modern problems within Israel and sympathise with all the parties involved. I personally don't have a side I favour over the other. It is an historical problem and both sides have made mistakes. I'm interested in Jewish history, anti-Semitism, and especially the Holocaust. Exodus is an out standing novelisation of the three.

  Brilliant, quite brilliant. Leon Uris is the master writer of the historical novel and Exodus is his masterpiece. It is without question one of the greatest novels of the last century and once read it is never forgotten. It is a searing account of the Holocaust and the subsequent events leading to the establishment of modern day Israel in 1948. I believe this is the second biggest selling novel in the U.S after Gone With the Wind. I think that says it all about Exodus. It was also made into a film starring Paul Newman in 1960. I haven't seen it but I believe it isn't too bad. It is certainly an ambitious book to make a film from.

 This is an approachable, well written, must read. Put it on the list immediately.