Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

 The problem that faces Alice Sebold's debut novel The Lovely Bones is that, as you all know, Peter Jackson adapted it to film......and made a complete bollocks up of it! With so many people the film adaptation has in many ways come to overshadow the novel. Because the first thing that springs to mind when The Lovely Bones is mentioned is Jackson's interpretation. Well I find it has. as there are still many out there who haven't read the novel. But even myself who has read it find when my thoughts drift Bones'  way, it is the film I usually think of first.

 It is of course then that I think of the novel and ask myself ' How could Peter Jackson have got it so wrong? ' Suffice to say the majority of those I have spoken to who have read the novel, and seen the film, ask the same question. In fact most agree it was a poor adaptation that Jackson turned into a CGI show case at the expense of the novel's tale of grief.

 Now since this is meant to be a book review I won't go too deeply into the films failings. Suffice to say I thought the CGI way overdone. The novel really has nothing in it that warrants its use. Secondly it isn't an overly complex novel and a decent script writer could have adapted it well. Jackson for me played around with the novels chronology too much. He even changed very basic things that annoyed me as well. But worse, the feeling of the family's grief is just so obviously void onscreen. Grief is a central part of the novel.

 So film criticism out of the way what about he novel? Well first of all it has divided opinions as much as the film!! On several book review pages on the net I frequent opinions vary markedly. It seems to be a novel you are either going to like or dislike There doesn't appear to be very much middle ground. I found this interesting because even before Jackson announced his decision to adapt the novel it was fairly well known. But what got me was how could this be so when so many people genuinely didn't think much of it. Regardless it became a best seller.

 Well if you don't know what it is about then read on! Susie Salmon is a 14 year old who, on her way home from school, is raped and murdered by a serial killer after he lures her into a makeshift underground den. The murderer is no less than her neighbour who she knew as Mr. Harvey. The novel unfolds with Susie watching the subsequent events surrounding her murder from heaven. She narrates as she watches over her grieving family, her murderer, and the police. As she does so she struggles to accept her death, all the while trying to cling to the world of the living.

 She follows her family's struggles with grief and how each deals with it in their individual ways. Her father becomes obsessed with finding her killer, her mother leaving the family and moving to the west coast of the US, her sister's growth from teenager to adult hood, and her younger brother trying to make sense of the hole in his family. All the while the murderer is feeling the so called itch to kill again. It is somewhat unsettling to think that she knows where her body is hidden. Even more so when her sister stands next to the safe the body is hidden in inside the murderer's basement. So close and yet so far away.

  If you have seen the film, and yet not read the novel, there is still much of the novel that is recognisable. But the film is chronologically out from the novel. But what the film utter fails to convey is the grief of the novel. The Lovely Bones is a moving exploration of loss and mourning. But it is almost a novel of two halves, and the sadness I felt didn't really kick in until the last third of the novel. It wasn't through lack of build up because the novel opens with Susie's murder. But even though we see Susie looking over her old world from heaven the sense of grief and loss isn't there for some time. But believe me when it kicks in it is emotionally draining stuff and very, very sad stuff.

 I can't believe such a novel could come from the human mind, and yet grief is an inescapable part of life. I think the first 2/3 of the novel, whilst a reasonable story, rather bland. But the last third are well worth sticking around for as Sebold opens up the grief stakes...and they become a flood! I found myself  profoundly moved by the last third of the novel and couldn't put it down.

 Yes I can see both sides of the equation when it comes to this novel. The first 2/3 confounded me and I wondered if I would bother finishing it. It is not that it is poorly written or un-engaging, but I felt a flatness to it. But when the last 100 pages come along it really becomes something else. Even though a novel it could almost be a text book on grief and grieving. The novel winds up with Susie's family slowly but surely coming out of the blackness and moving forward. It has taken many years but they manage. One thing I do like, which adds to the heinousness of the crime and impact on the family, is that Susie's body is never found. I think this added to her family's breakdown as they didn't have closure. That is so much a part of their grieving.

 Amazon has this with 4/5 stars from a staggering 3,212 reviews! For me I would give the first 200 pages a 3/5, and the last 100 odd, 5/5. It is here where it really picks up and destroys your emotions. Honestly I've never read anything that just so portrayed sadness as Alice Sebold did in the last pages of this her debut novel. Hard to genuinely recommend because it has so divided opinions. As such it is hard to gauge what an individual would make of it. From over-rated to excellent ultimately the reader must, and will, decide for themselves.

 I for one feel ambiguous to it except for those last 100 pages, which are superb. But I'll say this. Even though a bit flawed it far surpasses the film!

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Dirty Dozen - E. M. Nathanson

 I first read E. M. Nathanson's classic novel The Dirty Dozen way back in 1989 as a snot nosed 18-19 year old. The same copy then sat among my prodigious amount of books with me intending to read it again. Well I managed to do so recently. I read it at work instead of listening to the banal smoko talk of my colleagues involved in the slave trade called employment. It took me a month just reading a few pages each break. It was a real pleasure to revisit this great novel even though much of it had been forgotten in the mist of time.

 First of it has, as you are probably aware, been adapted to film. It was done so in 1967 a year after the novel's best selling release. Sadly though the adaptation is well....just total crap. It is another instance of a fine novel being butchered by its film counterpart. The film's biggest failing is that it has taken a novel that is probably 10% war novel and turned it into 90% war movie. In the process everything that made the novel so great was lost.

 The novel is called a 'war' novel and yet I think that too simplistic. Sure it is based in 1944 Britain on the eve of D-Day, but it is more a psychological drama within a military setting. The plot involves a tough American soldier, Major John Reisman who has undertaken behind enemy lines missions, given another. But this is one with a real difference. This time he has to train twelve men from within American military prisons awaiting trial for various misdemeanors, from theft, to rape, and murder. What follows is an extraordinary novel of his attempts to meld this disparate bunch, full of hatred and prejudices, into a fully fit, functioning military unit.

 As stated the novel is not a war novel per se. 90% of it is involved in the training of this so called 'dirty dozen' and the trials and tribulation the Major faces. But whilst the training is one huge part of the novel it really is the twelve individual characters and personalities of the men that is the central focus. It is almost part crime novel wrapped around a military setting. The dozen are all from different back grounds and situations. But they are not all former civilian world criminals. Each has their own story to tell as to how they ended up in the stockade. Nathanson tells each man's story through out the narrative. His characterisations are superbly realised with each becoming all too real for the reader.

 Some of them are straight out repulsive. Others we have a shred of sympathy for. And one the reader feels sure is innocent, until the finale reveals he isn't. As their training for their suicide mission starts the reader is instantly thrown into how difficult a task it is going to be. To make the mission a success the dozen must work as team and trust one another. All good military units must do this to be successful. What happens is the twelve splinter off into groups that snipe and grizzle about each other. God they behaved like little children!!

 We swing from a red-neck, an intelligent and educated negro who is there after a race fueled man slaughter, a sex offender, a young boy like man who is up on a charge of rape and murder ( he is seemingly innocent but finds out during the mission he isn't, as his own flash backs are revealed under the stress of combat ). A quiet but hugely built Red Indian, and several compulsive thieves and liars. But the two main protagonists out of the group are the red-neck and the negro. The red neck attempts to alienate him, all the while the Major tries to induce him into a leadership role. Suffice to say whilst the dozen hate and despise each other they hate and despise the authority of the Major!!

 The psychological battles are superbly written. This battle of wills is the reason behind the name 'dirty dozen' . At one stage the group all agree not to shave in response to one of Reisman's orders. He lets it go and the twelve quickly become dirty and smelly. But they finally do shave just on the eve of the mission. The dozen during training overall swing between individuals wanting to fit in, do the mission and gain their pardons. Whilst others just have no social skills or understanding and are real pains in the arse. Sounds just like real life and what we all face in the work force doesn't it?!! The Major has his work cut out and the way he coerces , threatens, conjoles and kicks the twelve into shape is brilliant. But he has his doubts as to their final abilities to do the job. After all he has been given a very short period of time in which to lick the twelve into shape.

 The most interesting parts for me was when Major Reisman finally teaches the men hand to hand combat. These ruffians take to it like a bull to a red flag. Their almost animal instincts come the fore and they excel at beating each up using martial arts!! The funny thing is that as they get more proficient at it they don't start on each other after training is over. They realise they have been well taught and are fairly evenly matched. This is the slight turning of the corner and the next test is actually being given real weapons. The Major teaches them how to use various firearms such as pistols and sub-machine guns. But due to the fear they will  turn on him and the guards, they are strictly monitored, and carry around the weapons unloaded on exercises. They are only issued personal live ammunition for the mission!

 Yes if they all weren't such dubious, to repulsive characters, it would be funny. But these are grown men behaving like little children. Even though this is a novel I found my temper rising as did Major Reisamn's!! How he didn't kill any of those shits is beyond me! But this is the novel's core. He uses psychology to win them over whilst trying to get through to them that it is either, see out their individual sentences, or pull together and do the assigned mission. It is incredible that even with such a simple fact hanging over their heads some of them just wouldn't let it penetrate.

 Suffice to say the dozen with Reisamn are packed off to France on the eve of D-Day. Here the mission is played out. And yet it isn't narrative driven as such, more in the form of an after action report. It isn't particularly long taking up only about 40 out of the novel's 600 pages. As stated this isn't a war novel, and if you have seen the film and not read the novel, it will give you a false impression as to what the novel is about. This is a novel that is very much psychology based. it is an unsettling look into the disparate minds of those who fall to the bottom of societies rung, where they have delved into theft, murder, rape and other unsavoury ways.

 I highly recommend this novel. If you don't read war novels as such don't be put off by this a because it isn't strictly speaking a war novel. Just as the recently reviewed The Crusader wasn't strictly speaking just a novel about the Crusades The Dirty Dozen uses the back drop of WW II for this masterful novel. At 607 pages it is good, satisfying, meaty, read. I just wonder why it is that more modern novelists can't seem to write novels of such breadth and epicness like this anymore.

 This is a true classic that is crying out for a decent film adaptation. The film is OK as a war film but I object to it being called The Dirty Dozen. It takes the premise of twelve condemned prisoners and butchers the best part of the novel. I found Lee Marvin mis-cast as Major Reisman because the novel's Reisamn, whilst hard in front of the prisoners, was actually an articulate man with doubts, anxieties and lingering memories from his behind enemy lines missions.

 The last word here is that the novel is very loosely based on an American soldier and his unit which served in the famed 101st Airborne, the famous Screaming Eagles. He was involved in numerous scrapes with authority even though having a distinguished fighting record. Click below for a link to him, his unit, and how he came to be the basis of  E.M. Nathanson's fine, commendable, classic novel.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart - Jesse Bullington

 It is said ' never judge a book by it's cover '. And yet for once I disagree, because the cover to The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart  is quite simply the best, coolest, most original cover to a book I've ever seen. The puny little picture I've posted here doesn't do it justice. To be honest you have to pick the book up and move it about to get the full effect.

 Like all novels in a library I just pulled it out of the shelf on a whim. And yet as soon as I saw that cover I instantly knew it was going home with me. This is Jesse Bullington's debut novel and just on the strength of this cover I also brought home his second novel The Enterprise of Death. Now be warned neither novel is for the faint hearted, easily offended or the squeamish!! Seriously these two novels are bawdy, gross, graphic, blasphemous, bloodthirsty and just sheer straight out fun!!

 If you cross Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro with the Brothers Grimm then this is what you would get. What Jesse Bullington has done is re-imagined the Middle Ages with its inherent mythology and ignorance and turned it into a Grimm's Fairy Tale for adults. T. H .White done a similar re-imagining of the Middle ages and the Tale of King Arthur in his magisterial masterpiece The Once and Future King. But Bullington's vision is much darker and plays heavily on the ignorance of the times.

 So what's it about? In essence it is about two brothers from the region of West Germany in the mid-13th century. They are a couple of ignorant, illiterate, uneducated, uncouth, bawdy murderous swine who can't see what low lifes they are!! After they murder a young family at the start of the novel, these two grave robbers by profession decide to go south and attempt to get to Egypt, where they have grand designs on the tombs there. On the way, and in between their internecine bickering, the two brothers encounter all manner of vile creatures. All lifted straight from Middle Age ignorance and mythology of which the Brothers Grimm immortalised so well.

 There are witches, demons, fallen priests, a mermaid and that demon again! Included is copious amounts of vomiting, cursing, killing, grossness and other goings on. The first creature they met confounds the brothers and the reader isn't quite sure what it is. Suffice to say the brothers kill it but nor before one is infected by touching the creature's fur. The healthy brother carries him to a near by house which is inhabited by a witch. Well from here on the novel really opens up and throws out all stops in it gross and lewdness! The witch says to the healthy brother she will cure the sick brother only if he 'services' her! The brother confesses to being a good catholic and doesn't believe in sex before marriage. He is too embarased to admit he is a virgin in other words!

 The dumb Grossbart actually believes he and his brother are good men who have been done wrong. The witch seemingly accepts this, but tricks him into drinking a potion that makes her appear sexually desirable to him, even though her appearance is the same. What follows is a hilarious sexscapade as the brother ' services ' the ugly old hag in all sorts of ways. No orifice is left untouched and no position  untried!. At once stage he ' services ' her with his tongue and as he is doing so the potion wears off! Imagine the vomiting that occurred!! When she then offers him some food that he rejects she quite tells him he had just ' eaten ' worse!! Well if this scene puts you off then this novel is not for you and you should stay clear of it!!

 From here the dastardly brothers encounter a shape changing demon which they nearly kill. In the process it harbours a grudge against the two. It, and the father of the young murdered family, join forces and pursue the brothers all the way to Egypt, and a final confrontation. But before that the brothers pick up a fallen priest who debates theology with them. These two numb nuts honestly believe they are the height of religious fervour and consider themselves holier than the Pope! It is hilarious as the two squabble among themselves as to who is holier than the other. On the way they pick up an unusual female passenger who has a mysterious voice that lures men to the nearest water.

 Of course she is a mermaid and her ' owner ' is going south as well. On the way several men die mysteriously in very small pools of water. Later the brothers are rid of her mid-Mediterranean and eat her tail!! But before this bawdy sea faring expedition the book hits a palpable flat spot. It is my only criticism of the novel. Once the brothers hit Italy and find lodgings the book slows right down for about 5 or 6 chapters. When in Italy almost nothing happens except for a few fights and an encounter with an Arab who can't speak his own language. I slogged my way through these chapters and it really brought the otherwise swift narrative to a screaming halt. Unfortunately once the Brothers leave Italy it takes the reader a while to get back into the swing of the novel and its bawdiness. This is unfortunate because the ship bound scene is quite good but as the reader is just getting their swing back it ends.

 The brothers are now in Egypt and create all sorts of blasphemes against Islam as they seemingly mount there own two man Crusade( ably helped by their warped priest friend who has now deified the pair!! ). The novel ends with them vanquishing the disgruntled demon and father who have been pursuing them. But not before one final grave robbery which goes wrong and the brothers are entombed, but still bickering!!

 This is one of the most astonishingly original novels I have ever read! It is NOT for all tastes though! I kid you not. If you are easily offended then steer well clear of this, Jesse Bullington's debut novel. But if you are extremely open  minded and want something totally original then I recommend this no end. You will grossed out and yet laugh about it at the same time. The only let down is the way the novel comes to a screeching halt about half way through and goes off the boil. It comes back on later, but reading the chapters in between was a real chore.

 Stunning just stunning in its originality, bawdiness, and general slap in the face to political correctness. If you are open minded enough then you just cannot pass up the chance to read this novel. Bullington's next novel is just as gross and bawdy, and if anything even stronger.

 Amazon has this with 4/5 stars from 42 customer reviews. I'd agree with that and would have given it a perfect 5, if it wasn't for the slack part in the middle, which slowed the novel down.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Crusader - Michael Eisner

 Ah The Crusades. Just how controversial are they even today, 1000 years after the last Crusaders were booted out off their last enclave, Acre, in 1291?! But that aside they are a period of history that cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. Like all dubious historical events they happened and must be dealt with. As a history lover the Crusades hold a real interest. Not all the major Holy Land Crusades, but certainly the initial 1098 Crusade, and then Richard the Lionheart's attempt to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims between 1189-1192. And to a certain degree the Fourth and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

 I will state now I'm not an expert!! I did do several papers that had Crusades content for uni and have read a few books, but I'm more a buff than a serious aficionado. Anyway I'm not averse to reading a novel that is based during those times. In fact any decent look through your public library will undoubtedly unearth a plethora of Crusade based novels ( certainly the two Holy Orders of the Hospitallers and Templars alone are juicy ground for a novelist ). My own  public library has many but you know the old proverb..too many books and not enough time.Honestly I would need 20 lifetimes to read even half of what I would want too!

 I read Michael Eisner's 2003 novel The Crusader when I brought it new several years ago. I have actually gone back to reading non-fiction for the time being. And yet this is such a light easy read I whipped through it in between the non-fiction stuff. Over the last few years I have read a few reviews on this novel and opinions vary widely. I suppose that can be said about any novel. But I have taken an interest in this because I like  the novel and don't consider it as dull as so many do.

 The story revolves around the experiences of a Spanish Knight's Crusade in the Holy Land.  It is based in the later half of the 13th century and is a well imagined, clearly writen novel. After his brother Sergio drowns on his way to the Holy Land with 500 other knights, main protagonist Francisco de Montcada dedicates himself to the Cross. Reported dead after the siege and loss of the great crusader castle Krak de Chevaliers, Montcada returns to Spain a wreck and shadow of his former self. Seemingly possessed  he is chained in a Cistercian monastery's dungeon. There Monk Brother Lucas attempts to get Montcada to speak of his experiences. In the process he hopes to earn the reward Montcada's wealthy father has offered for his son's recovery.

 When he starts to speak he begins with his brother, his strong, confident cousin Andres, and his sister Isabel. Montcada tells of slowly falling in love in her before he goes off to train in Catatrava to become a knight before departing for the Holy Land. The novel artfully balances Montcada's reminisces and a sub-plot involving Brother Lucas and his dreams of glory within the Church. What transpires is a tale of salvation that not only concerns the mind of Montcada but of Brother Lucas as well. Montcada's tale involves an encounter at the Krak with Don Fernando who has subsequently risen to high authority with the church. It transpires Fernando conspired to keep Montcada imprisoned by the Muslims and keep his secrets safe.

 Suffice to say good conquers the evil hypocrisy of Don Fernando with Brother Lucas gets his reward and desires in the process. I liked this as an historical novel and especially its structure. The way Eisner bounces back and forth through history and the lives of his characters is fantastic. Whilst not strictly speaking a Crusades novel it uses it as a backdrop to what transpires between Don Fernando and Brother Lucas. There are only two somewhat short battle scenes of which the first involves Montcada and his cousin Andres storming a Muslim held castle. It is well realised and very vividly written The second is a great scene of the Muslim investment and subsequent capture of Krak de Chevalier, which is based on real events.

 The scenes where Montcada is imprisoned in a Muslim dungeon are excellent and the reader can feel his fear and despair. This is especially so as one by one his fellow prisoners either die, or are taken out of the pit because their ransoms have been paid by rich relatives. But for me the highlight of the novel is the broken spirit of Montcada. Eisner has graphically written of a man who is completely broken and seemingly possessed. It is a novel that shows how historically mental health and well being were unknown in the Middle Ages. Any sign of brokenness was mis-construed as possession. Of course today Montcada's condition would be identified as untreated post traumatic stress ( or in old parlance shell shock ).

 So yes if you like historical fiction and the Crusades in particular, then this is for you. It isn't a hack and slash Crusades novel as such, but uses them as a backdrop to a sub-plot involving corruption within the church. It isn't an overly long novel and is quickly read but there is enough meat to satisfy. I liked how Michael Eisner cleverly jumps between time frames, from the present, back to past, and back again. In the process he tells the tale of two men who serve the cross and how their lives have crossed with each having a different tale to tell.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rome & Jerusalem - Martin Goodman

 When I started this blog I fully intended to keep it as strictly fiction based. As a rule I read more non-fiction than fiction and I actually wanted to start yet another blog on the non-fiction I read. But as I have quickly learnt from this blog alone, and the running of two, it requires a lot of time and effort. Not to mention a considerable amount of work!! I'm sure you with a blog, or blogs, that you regularly update can testify and relate too this!

 So I have decided to forgo another blog and incorporate some of the non-fiction I read into this blog alone. I hope what I read and review is of interest to some of you and in the process of use. After all the world of the written word is immense and it is often interesting to know what others thought of something we ourselves may be contemplating reading. My hope is that others with an interest in history like myself will read, benefit and leave well reasoned comments along the way.

 So what is it about? The title should give an indication! In short Martin Goodman has written a quite thorough and exhaustive treatise on the Jewish revolt of 66AD which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70AD. Goodman starts the book off with a short prologue that quickly skims over the events of those 4 years. At the end he asks the question, was this inevitable? To answer his own question he juxtaposes life from both the Roman and Jewish point of views. What quickly becomes apparent is the fact that even though Rome was the dominant power it tolerated, and to a large degree, left the Jews alone to their own devices.

 Goodman does this by analyzing every conceivable aspect of life of these two ancient peoples. From food to religion to sex to parenthood to burial procedures etc etc etc. Everything thing possible about life is looked at. What Goodman is doing by this thoroughness is not only pushing forward his own obvious deep knowledge, but in the process showing the reader how the events of 66-70 AD were in no way inevitable. Even though both Romans and Jews were quite different in every aspect of life they did live together fairly harmoniously.

 So what happened to change all this?? In essence it was a small insignificant matter that ballooned out of all proportion. In many respects it mirrors the origins of WW 1 as the nations stumbled their way into a quite un-necessary, preventable war. Flours, Roman Governor of Judea in a fit of political folly and grandstanding ordered the Jewish population of Jerusalem to exit the city and acknowledge the entrance of some Roman troops. The Jews declined and hot heads prevailed, scuffles started, and the next thing a Legion from Syria was involved. But against all odds the Jews all but massacred the legion as it was poorly withdrawn from the city.

 This led to Emperor Nero in having to retaliate. This was mainly to stop other regions of the Empire rising up in imitation as the Jews had done. But before retribution could be extracted Nero died and in quick succession there erupted a civil war as three men tried to take the role of Emperor. Eventually Vespasian was made emperor and in 70 Ad he sent his son Titus to Judea with a huge force of 60,000 men including foreign auxiliaries. What ensued was the capture or Jerusalem and the inadvertent destruction of the Jew's most holy site. Incredibly its destruction was a mistake as Titus was under no orders to destroy it even though he let his troops loot the temple and Jerusalem.

 ( What happened was in the heat of the moment the Roman equivalent of the ' Molotov Cocktail ' was thrown by a Roman soldier into the Temple. Titus in fact tried valiantly to have the fire put out but failed. ) Emperor Hadrian actually rebuilt Jerusalem but renamed it Aelia Capitolina and forbid all Jews from ever worshipping there. ( Salt was rubbed in the wound by the introduction of a universal tax on all Jews in the Empire. Anti-semitism had started ). Is it no wonder we see modern Jews using The Wailing Wall because they are unable to use the actual spot where the temple used to be?? It is staggering when you realise how old Judaism is and how long its collective memory is with it. When I read this my eyes opened even further to the almost insoluable problems that permeate modern Jerusalem.

 The first half of the book is a look at life in Rome and Jerusalem . Whilst interesting the second half is the better because it goes into the hows and whys. It is absorbing reading and anyone who wishes to know more about the rise of anti-semitism should read this. I didn't realise that the destruction of the temple was a mistake that the Flavian era of Roman emperors turned into a myth. This was because they couldn't admit it was a mistake so they turned it around into a great victory against a dangerous enemy. It is from this that anti-semitism arose as the Romans painted the Jews in the most vilest light possible.

 Goodman then brings in the Christians and the influence they had on the rise of anti-semitism. Of course Christianity was born out of Judaism. But under the Romans Christians wanted to distance themselves from their Jewish roots and joined in the Roman campaign of hate against the Jews. One thing interested me in regards to Emperor Julian. He of course wanted to return the Empire back to its pagan ways. One of the ways he intended to do this was to discredit Christianity by re-building the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He of course died before he was able to do so. ( I recommend Gore Vidal's historical novel Julian which whilst fiction is a good place to start if contemplating reading this emperor ). All this is extremely interesting and I was absorbed by it all. It is incredible to think that the events of 2000 years ago are still resonating today. And what fascinated me was they were created by an empire that has long gone and yet the things it done are still with us.

 So Martin Goodman winds his superb book up with a final word on the evolution of anti-semitism. In the process he answers the question he asked in the prologue. Was it all inevitable??  Were Roman and Jew on an unpreventable course? The answer is an indefatigable no. Although tensions arose at times it really was the stupidity of a mediocre Roman administrator that precipitated what was to come.

 This is not a book for anyone less than above average reading ability. It is not that it is difficult to read it is just extremely, extremely detailed. I mean Goodman can take the reader from end of the Mediterranean to the other ....and back in just one page!! It is 585 pages long and it took me a week to read. I have read criticisms that it is too dry and boringly written. But I refute this because Goodman's target audience is obviously fellow scholars and anyone with a deep understanding of the period. I'm neither!! But even though my knowledge was somewhat limited the amount of information here is staggering and the whole book engaged me from cover to cover. As I read it I thought ' I'm not taking this in as it is too detailed '. But once I finished and thought about it I realised I had absorbed much of it. In fact as soon as I finished it I wanted to read it again!!

 So be warned this is not light reading! Believe me you won't read this one in a night! But if you are a competent enough reader with a love of history then this is a highly recommend book from me. I have been interested in anti-semitism for some time now and this book perfectly explained to me its origins. I found it uncontroversial considering its subject matter as Martin Goodman uses prodigious use of classical documents like The Dead Sea Scrolls to back up his ideas. In fact I was surprised that a book of such depth could be written out of a seemingly dearth of surviving original sources. But obviously there are enough!

  Maybe not the easiest of reads but it is extremely detailed and deeply fascinating. For me it expanded prodigiously on my initially limited knowledge of the period. The destruction of the Jews Temple is fascinating beyond words and it inspired a trip to wikipedia to see pictures of the site. In my ignorance I didn't realise that it is the same site that is Islam's third holiest site Dome of the Rock. I now know why it is so contentious!! But it all started in 66AD with a poor administrative decision and its effects are still felt in our world today.

 Fascinating stuff. In the process it shows how such simple events can can lead to bigger more cataclysmic ones. What it will also do is clarify the origins of the controveries etc involving modern day Jerusalem and why it is the centre of three religions. And it was all the Roman's fault!! But they are no longer here to point the finger at and demand recompense!!

 Click here for an interesting site devoted to the Second Temple:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Everything Flows - Vasily Grossman

' State terror was directed not against those who had committed crimes but against those who, according to the security organs, were more likely to commit crimes'. pg 96.

 ' But the evil committed by the honest people were no less than the evil committed by the bad people '. pg 126.

' Only one judgement is passed on the executioner. He ceases to be a human being. Though looking on his victims as less than humans, he becomes his own executioner. He executes the human being inside himself. But the victim no matter what the executioner does to kill him remains a human being forever'. pg 128.

 '....the mystique of the Russian soul is simply the result of a thousand years of slavery'. pg 198.

Vasily Grossman in Everything Flows.

Vasily Semyonovich Grossman was born in Berdychiv, Ukraine, in 1905. His parent were emancipated Jews and his name Yossya was turned into the Russian Vasya ( a diminutive of Vasily ) by a Russian nanny. It was while studying at the Moscow State University that he started to write short stories. He continued to write even when employed in the Donets Basin as an engineer. In the mid-1930's he left his job and turned his hand to full time writing. By 1936 he had published numerous short stories and a novel.

 When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 Grossman was exempt from front service but none the less became a war correspondent ( his mother was murdered by the Germans in the same year alongside 20-30,000 other Jews in the Berdychiv Ghetto ). During the next four years he was accredited with spending more than 1,000 days in the front lines reporting for the popular Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda ( Red Star ). He covered the major battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and finally Berlin. He was also one of the first to write about the German death camps as early as 1943, particularly Treblinka and Majdenak. His article The Hell of Treblinka was published in 1944 and used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.

Outside of Schwerin, Germany, 1945.
 During the war he managed to have a novel published The People are Immortal. His writings saw him become a national hero. After the war he was to publish a novel Stalingrad  in 1950 that was based on his own experiences during the battle. He participated in the Black Book, a project of the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee that documented the Holocaust. It was the post war suppression of this group and Stalin's growing anti-semitism that shook his faith in the State. He began to question his loyalty as the the Soviet censors ordered changes to the groups text to downplay the anti-Jewish character of the atrocities and the role of Ukrainians who worked for the Germans. In 1948 the the project was scrapped completely.

 It was after this that he began to openly criticise collectivisation and political repression by the regime. In 1959 he wrote his 'piece de resistance ' Life and Fate about the battle of Stalingrad. It heavily criticised Stalin, and whilst he was never arrested his apartment was searched by the KGB and his manuscripts were confiscated after he submitted it for publication. They were so thorough they even took the ribbon out of his typewriter!! The Politburo's ideology chief told Grossman the novel could be published for 2-300 years! It was his last major novel.

 Everything Flows was written in 1961 and considered a threat to the regime as well. Like Life and Fate it was suppressed and Grossman became a virtual non-person. He died in 1964 of stomach cancer not knowing whether his two major novels would ever be read. But thanks to fellow dissidents his manuscripts were copied and smuggled out the USSR. The pages were photographed from surviving drafts and was retyped containing many spelling errors and mis-readings due to the poor quality of the photos.. But as it was Life and Fate was still published in Switzerland in 1980. It wasn't published in the USSR until 1989 under the Glasnost era of Mikhail Gorbachev. Then further original manuscripts were uncovered and the edition was revised and re-published in 1989. Like Life and Fate Everything Flows underwent similar treatment and was also published in the USSR in 1989.

 Life and Fate is considered by many to be semi-biographical in nature. The character Viktor Shtrum is according to Robert Chandler the novel's English translator '  a portrait of the author himself'. I have actually got a copy of the novel here to read, but at over 600 pages I thought I read Everything Flows first. At only 226 pages it is relatively short and I managed to finish it in two nights. But don't fool yourself into thinking that a short novel can have nothing to say, because this is one of the most devastating novels on inhumanity you will ever read.

 The novel is noted for its quiet, unforced, and quite horrifying condemnation of the Soviet totalitarian state. Funnily enough when you look at the era he wrote this in his banishment and non-person status enabled him to write such a work without fear of reprisal. Right throughout he writes with honesty on Soviet history. In 226 pages he encompasses life in the Gulags, the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932-33 in which scholars are still debating the number of deaths involved. Suffice to say they ran into the millions and many consider it as great a crime as the Holocaust.

 He looks at the life of Lenin and lays the blame of the Stalin era on his shoulders more so than on Stalin's. But he goes back even further pointing out Russia for 1000 years was a country that was all but a slave state. In essence he is saying that the then current climate was a situation of Russia's own making. The saddest thing was the so-called denunciations the population were encouraged to engage in. For no other reason than petty mindedness. Grossman looks at all the types of characters who denounced their families, friends, and neighbours. It is very similar in nature to what happened in Germany under the Nazi's. He quietly exposes that there wasn't one type of person involved, or anyone rational behind their actions. They lived in a climate of utter control and fear that drove them to such actions. It is just so sad that totally innocent people, in their millions, died under such a regime.

 And this is Grossman's point regarding the totalitarian state. Communism was meant to be the liberator of  the people. And yet the very people it was meant to help were the very ones who suffered the most. In one chapter Grossman writes of villages and peasants in the Ukraine who died in their millions simply because the state didn't believe that that years wheat crop had failed. The state went in and confiscated the next years wheat seeds and took anything else edible in the process. Apparently the dust clouds from all the wagons taking away this booty were huge and could be seen for miles around. What is even more appalling was those who came in quickly became aware that the crop had failed and yet were indifferent to the peasants fate as they had their orders. In other words if the Party said the peasants lied and were holding back grain then they were. So much for communism being for the workers or even ' the people '!!

 I liked this novel immensely. In only 200 + pages Grossman has written a quietly damning indictment on the Stalinist Soviet Union. The incredible power of the book is how so understated Grossman writes and describes the events. With so much horror around him one would think he would be full of hatred and venom. But the opposite is true. With incredible subtly Grossman conveys to the reader how the Party had crushed the life and will out of the people. They quite honestly couldn't resist. The sad thing is that millions went to their deaths completely innocent of any wrong doing. Their only crime was the State's mania for thinking that anyone at all was a potential criminal, and hence dangerous. It was absurd thinking.

 If you have an interest in 20th Century history, or in particular Soviet history, then Vasily Grossman's novel is required reading. It is quite simply a soul destroying read that quietly takes the reader into a very sad period of history. The deaths of the millions just boggles the mind. I found it almost beyond comprehension. I have read reviews that found this a depressing read. Personally if a reader feels this way then they fail to see Grossman's point. The point being one of indifference. Indifference to the unnecessary death and suffering of millions for a system that was touted as the saviour of the those suppressed for generations.

 For me this is one of the saddest most emotionally powerful novels I have ever read. It is beautifully translated and reads very well in English. At times though the translation felt a bit too clean and clinical. I would have liked to have felt some ' Russian-ness ' in the text. It is a slight thing really because overall this is a must read novel. Honestly, we of today's generation have just got no comprehension of what the 20th Century produced in Stalin. But Stalin's crimes were only a precursor of Hitler's to come.

 Highly, highly recommended. It is an easy read and one that will destroy your emotions in the process.

A Damsel In Distress - P. G. Wodehouse

 My goodness it has been a month since my last post! Never fear I haven't run away! In that time the amount of reading I have done has dropped off remarkably as other things have encroached on my time. In other words the real world crept in with its inherent worries, trials, and tribulations. Suffice to say when that happens I find sitting down and reading difficult as the mind is too busy and won't stop for me to concentrate on words in a book. But I did all the same manage to read six books in September. But compare that to the twenty five I read the month before!

 I'm now almost at the end of one of the few non-fiction works I have actually read this year. It is Cobra II - Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor. It details the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is fascinating reading as it starts with the political reasons for the invasion, then goes through the fighting to the post war insurrection within Iraq. It is certainly topical considering the results of the invasion are still being felt. So if recent history is of interest or you want to understand it all then this is a fine book to start with. Be warned though it may be a bit too detailed for the average reader.

 But to P. G. Wodehouse and his lovely, charming early comedy A Damsel in Distress!! Wodehouse is probably best known to his many fans, and those with a passing interest, for his Jeeves and Wooster novels. I know of them even though I have never read one. In fact this is the very first Wodehouse novel I have ever read. I was perusing the W's in the library when I came to Wodehouse. So a bit like P. Somerset Maugham's novel The Painted Veil that I read several months ago I thought it time to discover this famous author.

 Over a writing career that spanned more than fifty years Wodehouse wrote in excess of one hundred novels. I was surprised by this because my library had less than ten on its shelves. When I decided to read one of his novels I wanted to find one of his earlier works. But for some reason none of the books I looked at had a list of works, let alone a proper chronology. So I just picked out A Damsel in Distress because it was brand new ( !! ) and just looked like a lovely book. It certainly turned out to be! In the process after a bit of Internet searching I found out that the novel was in fact one of Wodehouse's earliest novels.

P. G. Wodehouse aged 23.
 Pelham Grenville Wodehouse ( 1881 - 1975 ) was born in Hong Kong to British parents. His family returned to England where he spent several years away from home at a boarding school. He was a passionate writer from an early age but was unable to pursue his university education due to family's tight budgetary constraints. Instead he was forced to take a job as a banker which, suffice to say, he did not enjoy. He left the position to write features for British newspapers where he found success as a columnist. He moved to New York and began writing for American magazines where his talents as a writer lead him into the entertainment industry. It was here he wrote scripts, screenplays, and lyrics for some of Broadway and Hollywood's most famous shows and films.

 As he began to publish his first short stories and novels he settled into a full time career as an author. He moved to France where during WW 2 he was arrested by the Germans and spent a year in an internment camp. After the wear he returned to New York where he remained for the rest of his life. His novels are beloved for their entertaining plots and characters. They were stories written in a light hearted manner that centered around the trials and tribulations of the well to do. This is very much seen in A Damsel in Distress in which Wodehouse reflects his birth, upbringing and early writing career in  English upper-class society.

 In A Damsel in Distress comedy reigns as the Earl of Marshmoreton's sister's plans for marrying off her relatives to landed gentry go awry. In the process a zany madcap adventure of comic twists and turns follow. The plot revolves around two main protagonists, Maud Marsh, daughter of the Earl, and American George Bevan, a music writer of some ability and fame. Bevan is minding his own business when in London Maud jumps into his taxi begging for his help. Recovering from his shock the somewhat lonely Bevan hears Maud's plight in regards to her pushy aunt's adamant way that she marry her step-cousin Reggie. Maud is however in love with another man who is the reason she had quietly sneaked off to London to see. George is moved by her tale and taken by her looks, offers to aid the hapless damsel of the title.

 But just as it seems he has found his true love she gives him the slip. She returns home where she faces the wrath of her aunt and meddlesome, repugnant, snobby, over weight brother. George meanwhile is unable to forget her. He finds out where she lives and decides to move near Belpher Castle.  He hopes for an  ' inadvertent ' meeting in which to spark a relationship. What follows is a case of mistaken identities, hilarious run ins with highly strung relatives, and all manner of shenanigans involving the Estate's servants and staff, before the end of this charming, wacky, romantic comedy.

 This novel is a good example of how Wodehouse melded into the situations, characters, etc, his own upbringing. For instance as stated Wodehouse wrote scripts and screenplays etc in America. In the novel the character of American George Bevan is almost Wodehouse himself. Also Wodehouse's upper class upbringing, and the trappings of too much wealth of the English gentry, is seen in the characters of the Earl,  and particularly his snooty sister. She is full of stuffy class perceptions and Wodehouse is subtly contemptuous of her. But what I liked was the lives of the servants. It is funny to read as they know all that is going on in the castle, especially in regards as to what their employers consider private information regarding themselves.

 It really is a wonderful, quietly charming look into upper class life in post WW 1 England. Wodehouse though cleverly shows both sides to those with the money. We have on the one hand the snobbery of  Marshmoreton's sister, who meddles in her families affairs, and in contrast Marshmoreton himself who is a quiet man who wants nothing else to be left in peace and work in his rose garden. My favorite character though is Reggie. He is just so quintessentially post war English in his speech. He is quietly eccentric as he goes about  ' I say ', ' what ho ', ' spiffing ', 'bravo'!! It is wonderful stuff and so subtle in its humour.

 Yes I really enjoyed this novel and found it a charming introduction to the works of P. G. Wodehouse. I shall certainly be reading many more of his prodigious novels whenever I get the chance. Unfortunately as I haven't read anything else of Wodehouse's I can't compare this against his other works. Suffice to say it is a lovely novel full of fun, charm, and quiet social commentary, that it is a well worth while novel. For me it is one of the most enjoyable novels I have read this year. If you like quintessential English novels, which is what Wodehouse wrote, then this is for you.