Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion


I read this book on the recommendation of Brain Pickings, where Joan Didion is a frequent feature. It doesn't disappoint.

"Slouching towards Bethelehem" is a collection of essays on diverse topics: an unsolved murder, meetings with John Wayne and Joan Baez, the 1960's at Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the troubles and joys of living in New York. The writing is quite exquisite at times, such as this in the discussion of keeping a notebook:

I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of what I supposed to do, which is write – on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.

(I feel the same way about my research notebooks: surely, eventually, I'll get some benefit from them?) As a whole, the book is pitched as a meditation on the atomisation of society and life, but I think it can be read in a more positive light, as an exploration of diversity and the survival of the past into the present. Well worth taking time over.

Finished on Mon, 22 Sep 2014 14:10:33 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My SS Grandfather's Secret Past and How Hitler Seduced a Generation

Martin Davidson


What happens when someone discovers that his German grandfather had been an officer in the SS?

This is an important investigation, painting a very small-scale and personal portrait of National Socialism through the career of a man who had been one of its earliest converts. Bruno Langbehn never achieved any kind of status within the Third Reich, but still managed to be associated with some of its great events through his membership of the Berlin SA and later the SS security service, the Sicherheitsdienst or SD -- and through the SD, with the Holocaust, the Stauffenberg attempt on Hitler's life, and the end of the war in the east.

It would take a brave person to write a book like this so close to their own family, and the author makes an altogether workmanlike and accessible attempt at it. Sometimes it verges a little away from history and towards dramatic reconstruction -- we can't be sure how Bruno felt at key moments, absent any documents or testimony -- but in the main the conclusions drawn are rigourously supported and closely argued. The man who emerges is an ambitious, rather incompetent, petty follower of Nazism, who manages to rationalise his experiences in later life. It's a great addition to the literature.

Finished on Sun, 31 Aug 2014 10:04:22 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Jerusalem: The Biography

Simon Sebag Montefiore


A real page-turner of a "biography", as much of religion as of the city of Jerusalem: the two are essentially inseparable.

The author has done an amazing job covering so much history in a consistently interesting and engaging style, from the earliest occurrences of Jerusalem in the historical record up to (nearly) the present day. And in all that time Jerusalem has been at the central nexus of history, as empires have flowed past it despite its inconvenient location.

What makes this book most fascinating to me is the cast of familiar characters who turn up, but out of the place in history you generally associate them with. There are Franz von Papen, Rudolf Hess, and Rudolf Hoess there during the First World War, before their rise to power in Nazi Germany; Charles Warren, who later achieved notoriety hunting Jack the Ripper; Rasputin, on leave from the Tsar's court. (There's also a walk-on part by a man called Fulk the Repulsive, who I wanted to hear more about just for his name.) The same is also true to some extent of the architecture, where each new building is constructed from the spolia of a previous age, re-used and re-purposed in a way that lets the alert scholar find Crusader inscriptions hidden on Muslim walls. A book like this illuminates sides of the city that no ordinary visitor, even one with a detailed knowledge of some historical period, could ever extract for themselves. It's enough to make one want to visit, with this biography as a guidebook.

Finished on Sat, 23 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Lords of Finance: 1929, The Great Depression, and the Bankers Who Broke the World

Liaquat Ahamed


A biography-led treatment of the Great Depression, differing substantially from the more traditional histories led by events.

The biographies are indeed fascinating, both those of the four protagonists (central bankers in the US, Germany, France, and the UK), but also of some of the bit-players. Of the main characters, I was only previously aware of Hjalmar Schact, and then only of his involvement with the Nazis: his pivotal role in the Depression really sets the scene for his later mischief-making.

I think it probably helps that the author is a former banker: he locks-in on the financially significant events whose importance might elude a less specialised historian. This wouldn't be my first choice as a financial history, but it certainly complements other better-known versions like JK Galbraith's The Great Crash of 1929.

Finished on Sat, 09 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Look Who's Back

Timur Vermes


A man wakes up in the centre of Berlin, with no recollection of how he got there. He stumbles around looking for clues, and eventually falls in with the proprietor of a newspaper kiosk.

So far so ordinary. Except that the man is Adolf Hitler.

Sounds a bit precious, but it works remarkably well. Hitler finds himself in Berlin wearing his uniform (a bit scuffed) and a coat smelling strongly of petrol (a nice touch, that). He's still the same man he ever was, with the result that everyone takes him to be a Hitler impersonator. Over the course of the book he becomes a novelty television comedy act before being given his own show; gets beaten up by neo-Nazis for not being sufficiently respectful of their cause; and is courted by politicians and media personalities keen to be associated with the new phenomenon.

This a satire of quite epic proportions, working on different levels. On the one level it's a confident portrayal of modern Germany where Hitler can express the same views as ever and be taken ironically, his words misunderstood and misinterpreted by everyone in a variety of ways. On another level it's a critique of celebrity and the tendency of some people to want to be associated with anyone who happens to have caught mass attention, no matter how strange or distasteful his views.

What makes the book work is that Vermes writes in away that really does capture Hitler's style. Anyone who's ever read Mein Kampf can easily imagine Hitler writing a line like: "How can the poor reader, who during the years - nay, decades - of my absence has been drowning in the Marxist broth of history from the soup kettle of democracy, be capable of peering over the edge of his own bowl?". The irony flows thick and fast, many of the misinterpretations that happen along the way are sheer genius and do indeed lead to lines one can imagine a comedian using to great effect.

Finished on Sun, 03 Aug 2014 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Les Fleurs du Mal

Charles Baudelaire


The best known of the decadent poets and a delight to generations of self-obsessed undergraduates, Baudelaire still has plenty of power.

Reviewing a book of poetry is different to reviewing prose or non-fiction, I think, in the sense that there's much more sense of reviewing whether the poetry speaks to you in that particular moment. There was a time when I would have given Baudelaire five stars without question, for poems like "Meditation" or "Autumn song" alone - and those are still two of my favourites. Or perhaps he has to be read by candlelight or an open fire, and not on a sunny summer day. Nonetheless, as a poet of melancholy he still has no equal: an antidote to the constant pressure to be happy.

Finished on Fri, 01 Aug 2014 02:46:23 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

Six Days: How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East

Jeremy Bowen


A rounded, balanced, and well-paced description of the lead-up, conduct, and aftermath of what was probably the most significant conflict between the end of the Second World War and the Second Gulf War.

Jeremy Bowen brings a journalist's eye to his history, sprinkling the writing with interviews and comments from those who were there without getting distracted from the main flow of the narrative. Each day of the war gets a chapter -- something that must surely be unique in military histories -- with ample attention being given both to the military and civilian aspects of the conflict.

"America fell in love with its tough young friend," Bowen comments, and while it's not hard to see why, it's hard not to be infuriated by the consequences. No-one comes out of the story well. The Israelis fail to capitalise on the size of their victory to use magnanimity to gain a lasting peace. The Arab countries lie to themselves in the run-up and then try to hide from the fall-out by blaming others. The US and Britain fail to push for a just resolution, when they could have demanded a similar outcome to that which followed the Suez crisis. I'd certainly recommend this as a one-volume overview of the medium-term causes of the Middle-East situation, as well as a warning from history for future conflicts.

Finished on Thu, 03 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Kursk: The Greatest Battle

Lloyd Clark


An excellent example of military history, this book deals with one of the most formative, but least known, battles of the Second World War, that raged for weeks around Kursk in Ukraine. Churchill said that, if Stalingrad was the end of the beginning, then Kursk marked the beginning of the end, and it's easy to see why.

Clark wisely spend the first half of the book on prequel: the build-up to the battle, the progress of the war in Russia, and the rationale for the battle choices on both sides. He peppers the story with quotes, both from survivors' accounts and from his own interviews -- one of which results in two old soldiers from opposite sides coming together for coffee and reminiscences after a slightly tense start. He manages to cover the broad structure of the battle while being exceptionally vivid on the detail experienced by individual soldiers.

I have to say that books like this are the best argument I've ever seen for interactive e-books. The order of battle, the changing front lines, and the ebb and flow of battle would really benefit from some interactive mapping that could show the impact of topography alongside the text. Clark manages not to get too lost in the names of units and their movements, but it's sometimes hard to keep them straight.

Finished on Sun, 29 Jun 2014 13:58:44 -0700.   Rating 4/5.