Book review: To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 -1949, Ian Kershaw (2015)

This review by Grant is included here because it is about a book that will be in the next Book Chat.

The centenary of World War One has seen an avalanche of books revisiting the Great War. Seen in isolation it is a somewhat mysterious catastrophe. No one really needed it and its ostensible cause – the assassination of an unpopular crown prince in an obscure province of the Austro Hungarian Empire –  hardly seemed to justify four years of industrialised carnage. But historians such as Eric Hobsbawm have long argued (his The Age of Extremes – the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 was published in 1994) that the “short” twentieth century – the period between 1914 and the collapse of the soviet Union in 1991) needed to be considered as a coherent whole.

In To Hell and Back Ian Kershaw attempts a single volume history of the first half of this period -1914 to 1949. If the reason we read history is to understand and learn from the past then it is essential that the unit of analysis used– what historians call periodisation –  be capable of yielding meaningful conclusions.  In Kershaw’s analysis the reason Europe rebounded from what Hobsbawm calls the Age of Catastrophe and embarked on the Golden Age of prosperity (up until about 1974) lies in the following: the end of Germany’s great power ambitions; the purging of war criminals; the formal division between the West (under American protection) and the Soviet bloc; economic growth; and the threat of nuclear war. Together these factors militated against a revival of the unchecked nationalism of the inter war period and ushered in a period of stability.

In To Hell and Back Kershaw gives what could be described as the liberal version of the first half of the short twentieth history. In contrast to Hobsbawm, (who was a Marxist) he downplays the contest between Capitalism and Soviet Communism and sees a much more contingent series of events driven ultimately by the interaction between Germany’s drive for European dominance and the various structural instabilities arising from the aftermath of the fall of multi–ethnic empires in Eastern Europe.

The book has the problems of any single volume overview of complex multiple subjects. Readers familiar with Richard Evans’ two volume history of the Third Reich for example will not be overly impressed by Kershaw’s necessarily abbreviated treatment of this subject.  In particular, his treatment of the amazingly rapid consolidation of Nazi power following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933 (which, when one thinks about it, is at the root cause of a whole series of consequences which made the 20th century so uniquely terrible) begs more questions than it answers.

Nevertheless, Kershaw’s knowledge of the period is detailed (his two volume biography of Hitler puts that beyond doubt); his command of economic statistics is impressive; and his conclusions are all eminently defensible. Essential reading for those interested in Modern History but follow it up by revisiting Hobsbawm.

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Book review: To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 -1949, Ian Kershaw (2015)

Book review: Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe (2015)

death-by-water-kenzaburo-oe-kindle-iconThis review by Matthew is included here because this book will be dealt with in the next Book Chat on this site.

In a really simple sense this is a novel about the writing of the novel. It’s another one of Oe’s autobiographical novels, so we again meet Kogito Choko, his alter ego. This time, Kogito becomes enmeshed in the lives of a group of avantgarde actors in Shikoku, after he revisits the place of his birth (he grew up in Shikoku) when planning to write a novel based on the story of his father. His father had died by drowning during a fierce storm when he set out on the wild river in a small wooden boat.

When he first gets to Shikoku he finds that the papers his mother had decided to leave him after her death as raw material for such a novel are greatly lacking as his mother – who had died ten years before the novel starts – had burned most of them. His father’s relations with noted far-right personages, and his father’s plot to stage a protest suicide strike against the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, had gone up in smoke. All that was left, in the end, were three volumes of a multi-volume English translation of The Golden Bough, an early 20th century work of popular non-fiction that deals with myths and deities.

During that fist visit to Shikoku Kogito also meets with the members of an acting troupe who had planned to stage a performance based on their favourite writer’s works. When the plan falls through they are chagrined but what happens to Kogito himself – upon his return to his home in Tokyo – is much worse. The poor man verbally lashes out at his disabled son on two occasions and also suffers a kind of severe vertigo that makes sleeping impossible when it strikes. The disappointment of failing to write his “last novel” cuts deeply into the writer’s psyche.

One of the members of the acting troupe is a young woman named Unaiko. Unaiko manages to befriend Kogito’s sister, Asa, a person who had also been against the drowning novel, but who now enters the story in a more serious role. What happens is that Kogito’s wife, Chikashi, develops uterine cancer that requires surgery. Asa makes the suggestion that she – Asa – shoud go to Tokyo to look after her sister-in-law and that Kogito and his son Akari should go to Shikoku to try to repair their broken relations. Following Kogito’s lashing out at the poor man – Akari is now a middle-aged man although he still lives at home – he becomes morose and withdrawn, and goes out of his way to avoid his father.

Once he is back in Shikoku Kogito gets to meet more often with Unaiko and other members of the acting troupe – named the Caveman Group – and eventually she draws him into working together on a new project. This new project is to do with a famed account in the region of a woman who lived during the Meiji period (late 19th century) who led a successful insurrection against the authorities. But Unaiko has other plans as well, and she eventually ignites some relatively violent passions within the right-wing community in Shikoku. Happy that his son is starting to come back to reestablishing relations with him, Kogito goes along with Unaiko and her ambitious theatrical plans, and is deeply involved in work on the script when things take on a truly disturbing tone. We are suddenly back in the heart of rural Japan and the shade of Kogito’s father reemerges in dramatic form.

The novel is quite long and takes an accustomed form for those who enjoy Oe’s later works. I very much enjoyed reading this novel, although some might find it prosaic and long-drawn-out. For me, it is always a great pleasure to accompany Oe in his careful and meandering voyages into the lives of his familiars, so I can recommend this novel highly.

Book review: Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe (2015)

Book review: Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver (2012)

flight-behaviour-barbara-kingsolver-kindle-icon.jpgThis review by Matthew is placed here because this book will be treated in the next Book Chat.

While this stunning novel is a down-to-earth realist novel of the type that has been published since the middle of the 19th century, when Romanticism held sway, its language is rich in metaphors and allusiveness. The action hinges on the fortunes of a young mother named rather romantically Dellarobia whose world is literally turned upside down one day when she discovers that the hills at the back of her house, which is situated near a small town in Tennessee, are uncharacteristically and strangely filled with migrating butterflies.

On one level the book is a kind of romance. Because a lot of the drama turns on the difference between the haves and the have-nots in the United States – where the former are the metropolitan elites and the latter are the religious rural folk in the red states – the prize in the end turns out to be something different from marriage. Marriage for Dellarobia having always signified failure and compromise. One of the agents of change that comes into Dellarobia’s life is a scientist, Ovid Byron, who has arrived at her doorstep to research the butterflies. His presence turns out to have other implications as well.

Another strange agent of change for Dellarobia – who has a dutiful and sensitive young son, Preston, and a rowdy infant daughter, Cordelia – is Hester, her mother-in-law. At the beginning of the book Hester is the face of censure and disapproval in Dellarobia’s life, a source of danger, and someone who she has to navigate around, like a reef for a frequent sailor. It is later in the book, when Dellarobia has had chances to deeply interrogate Hester’s life – she finds out the older woman had had a child given up for adoption before Cub, Dellarobia’s husband, was born – that things start to get out of control.

But out of control can be a good thing when your life is stuck in a rut and you don’t love your husband, although you may respect him regardless. Dellarobia is an intelligent woman who never had many opportunities given to her, and she is in the habit of asking “why” at times when other people might take home truths for gospel truths.

The book is filled with small events and is peopled by strange characters the author handles with complete aplomb. Kingsolver is clearly a writer who is used to being in control of her material.

Book review: Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver (2012)

Book review: Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe (2015)

This book review by Grant is included here because this book will be reviewed later on Book Chat.

Oe is arguably Japan’s greatest living author. Born in 1935 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1994. Death by Water is said to be his last novel but given the longevity of pre-war Japanese one would be wise not to bet on it.

In Death by Water Oe has gives us another iteration of his alter ego Kogito Choko. Like Oe himself, Kogito Choko is from rural Shikoku, had a father who died in a flood at the end of the war, attended the elite Tokyo University, and has spent his entire career as a novelist. Those who have read The Changeling which was published in 2014 will be familiar with the context. Apparently there are at least another six novels which deal with this same character, most of which are not available in English.

The novel is about Kogito Choko’s attempt to write a novel about his father who drowned in a flooded river towards the end of the Second World War.  The novel is to be a kind of summation of his life’s work.  To this end he revisits his old home in Shikoku where his mother has kept a suitcase full of documents about his father. While there, his sister organises a series of is interviews by a theatre director who wishes to write a play about Kogito Choko’s final novel. The director is accompanied by his theatre collective including his spunky assistant Unaiko and they workshop the play as Choko is interviewed. The interviews and play become a device to interrogate Choko’s and by extension, Oe’s  obsessions and recurrent themes. It’s a bit like Oe, or is it Choko, is getting in first with the ultimate primer to understanding Oe or is it Choko’s oeuvre.

At this point the solipsism of the whole exercise could become a bit hard to take.

But Oe is playing a long game and the novel gently drifts away from the writing project to focus on Choko’s relationships with his disabled adult son Akari, his wife Chikashi, her dead brother Goro (in real life – perhaps that should be in inverted commas – this was Juzo Itami, the director of Tampopo) and Unaiko, who has some dark secrets of her own. The narrative drive is provided by a new theatre project Unaiko persuades Choko to assist with; one that opens up old wounds.

The point is that the whole series of these Choko novels repeat and recombine and tinker with  more or less the same constellation of elements. The Changeling was also partly about Choko/Oe’s youth in Shikoku and his father’s untimely death but in that novel his father dies in a farcical right wing uprising against the occupation.

And remember, the protagonist of this novel is a novelist ie a professional liar so be careful whom you believe. In the end the novel is searingly honest about the way in which one man seeks to construct and reconstruct his identity, even as he faces his own mortality.

Book review: Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe (2015)

Book review: Conquerors, Roger Crowley (2015)

conquerors-how-portugal-siezed-the-indian-ocean-and-forged-the-first-global-empire-roger-crowley-kindle-iconThis review by Matthew is included here because the book will be talked about in the next Book Chat. First published on his blog.

Subtitled How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire, this brilliant account of colonial adventure is a gripping read, for although the Portuguese adventurers were not always blameless in their methods, you find yourself despite all the crimes against humanity they committed rooting hard for them. It’s strange. Although for me – whose grandfather grew up in Africa and who came from a family involved in colonial administration – possibly not entirely strange.

The grand adventure was driven from the top. Beginning with Henry the Navigator and continuing through John II and his son Manuel, royal support for the adventurers was essential because ships quickly wore out with worm, disease and battle thinned the ranks of the available adventurers, and organising new fleets took time. In fact you could say that building, equipping and directing ships was the main activity of the royal house of Portugal for over 100 years.

Getting access to markets in India was difficult, hence the violence. As Afonso de Albuquerque – Manuel’s foremost Governor of India – found, without force there was no doing business on the continent. Trade up to that point had been controlled by Hindu potentates and Muslim merchants, and they guarded their prerogatives jealously. In order to gain access to supply of spices – mainly spices but in other goods as well – it was usually necessary to bring force to coerce submission among the existing powers. Dislodging the Muslim merchants meant putting pressure on the Hindu rulers, and fighting battles against them.

Albuquerque was an interesting man who attempted to bring new ways of doing things to the colonial project. Instead of the traditional Portuguese method of fighting man-on-man with a two-handed sword, for example, he worked to train troops in the new methods pioneered by the Swiss, who used pikes and muskets in tight formations. He also encouraged miscegenation, probably initially as a way to domesticate and control his troops, and he did it against the advice of the Church. He furthermore tried to bring a more sophisticated notion of office to the colonial project, and to stamp out corruption. But because of his innovations he was not always popular. He was also mortal, as were the kings.

There are other men to focus on in Crowley’s book but Albuquerque is without doubt the most extraordinary among those the kings sent out to build an empire in a foreign ocean. His decision to take and keep Goa, for example, helped the Portuguese to maintain a trading station in India for 400 years, although others tried to bring scant forces to bear on different parts of the Indian coastline. Albuquerque also tried to fulfill Manuel’s messianic vision of eradicating Muslims from the Middle East and retaking Jerusalem, although he notably failed to do so. After Manuel’s death there was no king able to continue the colonial project with the same zeal and things began to fall apart. Eventually the Dutch and the English would take over where the Portuguese left off.

In many ways this is not a pleasant story. Third-world revisionists nowadays will have quite different takes to promote, but Crowley does not obscure what is not useful to the main thrust of his story, and is quite candid in his judgements of these often cruel men. What the story shows is that incredible things are possible even for small groups of men who are organised with single-minded focus on an overarching goal. Given the right people and enough resources they can achieve amazing things, as these adventurers most certainly did.

Book review: Conquerors, Roger Crowley (2015)

Book review: The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are, Michael Pye (2015)

This is a review by Grant and it is included here because it relates to the episode of Book Chat that follows it. This was first published in Good Reading magazine.

In The Edge of the World Michael Pye gives us a brilliant rethinking of the way in which medieval Europe became modern Europe. This is the story of seafaring and trading people – the Frisians, the Norse, the Hanseatic league and all the peoples who engaged in the economy of the North sea.

His method reminds me very much of Inga Clendinnen’s close reading of the primary sources as evinced in Dancing with Strangers, or Philip Jones’ analysis of post contact Aboriginal artefacts in Ochre and Rust. Pye focuses on very specific historical detail – be that a known historical event, a clause in a contract, or a physical artefact – and  by interrogating them for meaning is able to draw plausible wider inferences.

Thus he focuses on the meaning of cash hoards as opposed to hack silver; silk trimming on shoes found in the ruins of an 11th century Norwegian town; the specifics of the construction of Norse buildings at Anse aux Meadows in New Foundland; the details of marriage contracts. Combined with the surviving literary sources this close reading of the sources yields rich insights.

Pye is particularly interested in the way in which the use of money as an abstract measure of value is related to the development of mathematics and science. In the world of the North Sea this dynamic had its most immediate application to trade, navigation and ship building and windmills. There were implications for politics, capital formation and the status of women.

Along the way he manages to recover innumerable fragments of past lives and by relating them to the larger patterns he infers give them a meaning beyond what the physical artefact or contractual clause alone could achieve.  An unusual work and highly recommended.

Book review: The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are, Michael Pye (2015)

Book review: A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball (2015)

a-cure-for-suicide-jesse-ball-kindle-iconThis review was first published on Matthew’s blog and is published here because this book will be included in the next Book Chat vlog.

This is a strange and beautiful novel by a young American author that depicts a kind of post-Apocalyptic future and a kind of dystopia at the time of what is known only as the republic. There has been a terrible war. There are cities and towns still but Progress has had a chance to operate on society and in one regard – the handling of the cases of people who have lost all desire to live – there has been some actual progress made.

The Process of Villages is handled by the Department of Failure in order to implement the ideas of a famed thinker named Emmanuel Groebden, and it is to this place that Clement Mayer makes his way on the day his beloved’s funeral is being held. They had never married, nor even been engaged, but the girl’s family had not invited Clement to the occasion despite the fact that they had known she was to die. There was an illness that was common in the family for generations. They had picked up her body from the hunting lodge she had taken Clement to in order that they might have some time alone, and left him on the outskirts of the city to make his way home by himself. The family was rich and famous and Clement was poor and obscure but that wasn’t the whole story, it was just that they couldn’t tolerate outsiders.

When Clement arrives at the office of the Department he tells his story to the Interlocutor. At the end of the recount, this man decides that there is a case for the Process of Villages and gives Clement an injection, which knocks him out. He will awake, but not for a while, and when he does he will need to relearn everything, from how to walk downstairs to how to talk to strangers.

The novel is curious because things appear out of order. In the novel, Clement’s story comes second, after the story of the recovery of the patient who has been delivered to the Kindest Village. This process itself is quite convoluted and long, and involves several “rebirths” (although they are not called this) and several renamings. But this place is a good place to start because, like the man in the story, we start from a position of unknowing and move to a position of wisdom. So in a real way we follow along his convalescence and reemergence into his full capacities. In one of these phases he meets a young woman, and falls in love. But it is love as experienced by someone who is not quite sure who he is and would never be able to say the word “love”. This first section of the book is full of such strangenesses. It is the part of the book where things are explained – by the examiners – as though you are showing a person who has lost a leg how – the claimants – to walk again using a prosthetic device attached to a healed stump. It takes time.

But time is merciful in this novel, which is full of ghostly lovelinesses that rise up from the page and wrap themselves around your imagination in a deep embrace. Like Rana Nousen, the strange girl in the second section who falls in love with Clement; a strong-willed young woman who knows her own desires and acts on them. It is good to spend time with such people, even in a world where the treatment of suicide has been thoroughly bureaucratised. Even in such a place there is care taken, there are offices scrupulously fulfilled, and there are promises kept. This is an exceptional piece of speculative fiction that deserves to be read and thought about, and I would recommend it to anyone, even those who are not looking for books written in that genre. There is something here for anyone.

Book review: A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball (2015)