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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 32)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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.

4/5. Finished 22 September 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

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.

4/5. Finished 31 August 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Jerusalem: The Biography

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.

5/5. Finished 23 August 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)