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Antonio (Bogotá, Colombia)
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Red Plenty
Red Plenty
by Francis Spufford
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No ten word phrase would do justice, 25 Sept. 2010
This review is from: Red Plenty (Hardcover)
May one write a memorable novel about Soviet macroeconomic policies in the Kruschev years? Yes, one may. This novel is a page turner. It's not lightweight either in the number of pages or the themes, but the reading flies! The characters are also memorable. Kruschev in his heyday and after his downfall. A fixer who can procure anything for a price and help plant managers beat the system. A mathematical genius who believes he has the magic key that will unlock the coming Red Plenty: prices that work, something capitalism provides automatically and for free. Young apparatchicks on the make, and failures. Great summer parties. In the end, familiarly even out here in the west, pragmatism prevails and brilliant schemes are abandoned. It also has a memorable description of the onset of cancer, something I had never seen before. The book is brilliant.


Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar
by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Edition: Hardcover

29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sebag Montefiore truly is the Vozhd, 26 Aug. 2003
This is the most enjoyable book I've read about Stalin so far. It is more readable than Volkogonov and Ulam, not as speculative as Radzinski, more detailed than Conquest and Bullock. For the nonacademic reader it distills all the knowledge about the Vozhd, and adds to this store by judicious use of newly released archives and interviews with a few survivors from the Stalinist era, and with the descendants of key member's of the red court. It also condenses (sometimes not as successfully as one would have hoped) recent books about some of these key members, such as Taubman's on Stalin, Knight's on Beria and Kirov, Jansen's on Yezhov, Sergo Beria's on his father, Molotov's conversation with Chuev, inter alia. So, if you want to know all that's key about the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era, this is the book to read. This is not just a book about personalities, but also a real history book, Just because it's fun doesn't mean it's not history.
Sebag Montefiore's contention is that leadership in the Soviet Union was fairly collegiate up to the time of the suicide of Stalin's second wife in 1932, and that all the key drivers for the Great Purge in 1937-1938 were already in place before Kirov's assassination in 1934. After that, Stalin's power grew absolute, never more so than a few days after operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union (22 June 1941), and in fact he decided virtually everything, squirreling away in his vast memory all key facts that would allow him, years or even decades earlier, to launch yet another purge or send yet another apparatchick to meet the firing squad. But even at the very end, Stalin had to think carefully before demoting his powerful barons, such as Zhdanov, Malenkov, Bulganin, Khruschev or Beria.
This is was easy for him to do because he had a powerful intellect, boundless energy and a remarkable talent for mischief. He wasn't a gambler like Hitler or Mussolini, but rather a chess player who wasn't above oportunism when it suited him.
Sebag Montefiore's Stalin is truly awe inspiring in the catholicity of his interests. He decides everything, from the titles and sizes of Pravda articles, to the poems and novels that can be published, to the movies that may be shown, to the operas and plays that may be played, to the names of towns, factories and streets, to all construction projects, large and small, to the names of those that would perish on the various Terrors that he and his minions unleashed, under his orders. I don't believe I know anyone, not even famed King Philip II, who was able to run a huge empire spanning many time zones, while intervening in such detail. His hunger for acknowledgement was seemengly bottomless. He wanted to be the country's first intellectual, its first military leader, its first political chief, its chief aesthete and its only real free man. However, he was never truly free, because his immense gifts were overshadowed by a suspicious nature bordering on the paranoid, and an inability to love anyone. For him, people were really abstractions, who only became real because of their interactions with him. The entire Soviet Union, and indeed the entire world, were, in his mind, mere extras to a colourful pageant that he ran all by himself. He might have launched a second holocaust against the Jews if he had lived a few years longer, as might have easily happened. He was on the verge of purging the entire leadership. The jury is still out on whether he would have launched a nuclear attack. At the end of his life, when he was scarcely rational, he might have done if there had been an excuse in Europe to do so. Yet he also had all sorts of peculiar preferences. Who knew that he had a good singing voice, and that he particularly liked religious hymns, which he enjoyed singing with Malenkov, a former choir boy? Who knew that he favoured a certain politician from the Caucasus, simply because he had the same name as a priest that he had befriended in the early twentieth century? Come to think of it, who knew that Beria loved westerns, that everyone loved Pauker's imitations of Kamenev and Zinoviev, that Zhdanov was a prude and that Kalinin was a ladies' man?
The key test here is Samuel Johnson's on Paradise Lost: Does one wish Red Tsar were longer. Well, I did. So will you, perhaps.
Although Sebag's coverage of Stalin is matchless, he was not so successful with a few of the barons of his Court. Some of them, like Beria, Ordzhonikidze, Voroshilov, Kirov or Molotov do come alive, surprisingly in the latter's case (who knew old "iron arse" was actually a tender husband to Polina Zemzushina? Who knew of his romantic, and even sensual letters to her?). Other, like Malenkov or Khruschev or Bulganin or Zhukov could have had more air time. Khruschev is particularly shortchanged, given Taubman's excellent biography, which Sebag quotes here. He was surely not just a glutton and a vulgarian as he appears in this book. A few virtual unknowns (to me), such as Mekhlis (the "shark" or "gloomy demon") and Andreyev, would have borne greater detail. Especially the former's almost animal voracity is horrifying to witness, providing the frisson that one looks for in this type of literature (it is surely not wrong to admit it?). Perhaps another book, with sketches about key members of Stalin's Court, and especially interesting episodes or transcripts of Mr Sebag Montefiore's best interviews used in the bookis in the works? Mr Sebag Montefiore: I would buy such a book and am sure there is a market for it. Stalin and his men deserve the same sort of detail that we have about Hitler and his.
Most of the good stories one has read, or heard about Stalin are here, which will also make this an excellent reference book. The real test is Samuel Johnson's concerning Paradise Lost. Do I wish Sebag Montefiore's book had been longer? I do. That is the hallmark of a memorable book.


Magda Goebbels
Magda Goebbels
by Anja Klabunde
Edition: Hardcover

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but rather superficial, 24 Oct. 2002
This review is from: Magda Goebbels (Hardcover)
Ms Klabunde's book is, as far as I know, the only full length biography of Magda Goebbels currently available in English. As such, it is a required reading for those of us with an interest in key personalities of the Third Reich. Having seen David Irving's vast "Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich" (which Ms Klabunde doesn't include in her biography, surely mistakenly for it is very well researched in spite of some well-known biases which are fairly easy to factor out) I was aware of many of the basics. Magda was born an illegitimate child, although her rich father would figure more or less prominently in her life. Interestingly, her mother would marry a Jew who would care for young Magda as a father, only to disappear during the Third Reich, probably at Joseph Goebbel's behest). Magda herself was good-looking (although the pictures included in the book don't seem to do her justice, probably because most of them date from her final years, when she was reckoned to have aged disproportionately), very smart (she was a good pupil, good with languages and a competent pianist) and unusually open to new sensations. She had a romance with Victor Chaim Arlosoroff, an important Zionist figure who would be a key figure in the creation of what would become the state of Israel, and later married a rich industrialist (Guenther Quandt) with whom he had a son. She divorced Quandt because she was bored with the life of an haute-bourgeoise hausfrau and eventually fell in with the Nazis. She was struck by the remarkably rodent-like Joseph Goebbels (there's no accounting for sexual attraction, of course) and eventually married him and bore him 6 children, whose names all started with the letter "H". She was victimised by his relentless philandering and eventually had to submit to being an official mother figure for the State rather than her husband's lawful wife. Hitler was very fond of her, which gave her a status not shared by the wives of other Nazi bigwigs. As the end approached she decided to commit suicide with the Fuehrer and her husband and to kill her children as well (with the exception of Harold Quandt, her son with Guenther, who was a prisoner of war of the British, fortunately enough), in spite of offers by Speer and others to spirit them away from Berlin in Reich's twilight.
The book succeeds specially in its earlier chapters, perhaps because the reader is less familiar with the story. When she becomes Goebbels' wife and especially after 30 January 1933 when Hitler comes to power the story travels on well-trod tracks, and it is obviously more difficult to convey new information (also comparisons are likely to be more denigrating to what after all is a volume of popular biography). But I was nonetheless annoyed to see references to a nephew of US President Herbert Hoover who supposedly proposed marriage to Magda. However, a name is not given in the text, and I assume it would not have been difficult to find for the biographer (this person appears in the Index as "Hoover, nephew of" which is just shoddy). Further, given the prominence of the Quandt family in the post-war period (according to Forbes, in 2002 Johanna Quandt and family were worth about $18.4 Billion, making them the second richest family in Germany) it would have been useful if Ms Klabunde had given a brief description of Herbert and Harold Quandt's lives after 1945. So, not a bad read, but not a brilliant one, either.


Paris Between Empires, 1814-1852
Paris Between Empires, 1814-1852
by Philip Mansel
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cossacks camped out on the Champs Elysees, 8 July 2002
This book is a story of Paris between the two Napoleonic Empires (1814-1852). It starts with Napoleon's initial defeat, the first occupation of Paris, the Hundred Days and the second occupation. It is indeed extraordinary that Paris was not treated by the Russians in 1815 like Berlin was in 1945. Of course, Napoleon was no Hitler and Alexander I was no Stalin (although the French occupation of Russia was also quite violent, although less protracted than the German one), but then again Paris was no Berlin, and one doesn't treat the most beautiful city in the world like any other place. The story picks up its pace during the restoration. Building on his successful biography of Louis XVIII, Mansel shows that the familiar dismissal of the Bourbons (who supposedly had neither learnt nor forgotten anything) was unfair, at least during the reign of Louis XVIII, the former Count of Provence and younger brother of the slain Louis XVI. Louis XVIII went out of his way to reconcile the people with the monarchy, and he was genuinely popular during his short reign. The author brings to life the verve with which the Parisians enjoyed their lives after nearly thirty years of revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (according to Mansel, the Restoration's most reliable supporters were women, who did not want their children, husbands or lovers to be sent out to war). He brings to life the literary, philosophical and political salons, which were not just gathering points for like-minded flaneurs, but essential to the city's political life. In many cases, political decisions were made not in government offices, but in the salons themselves. The murder at the opera of the Duc de Berry, Louis XVIII's nephew is brilliantly described. Mansel conveys the shortsightedness of Charles X (Louis XVIII's brother) and his advisors (including the brilliant poet and diarist Chateaubriand) which managed to alienate the Parisians in six short years and produce the mercenary and unloved bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philippe, who was always suffering attempts on his life. The end, when it came, was swift and epical, as 1848 unfolded, the dress rehearsal for the Commune of 1870. The book is full of loving detail that only someone with several books about the main people of the era could achieve. I was fascinated to read about the most influential man in Paris, during the restoration, Count Pozzo di Borgo, a brilliant and cynical Corsican general who hated Napoleon and threw in his lot with the Russians. It's not the Belle Epoque, but it's not far off.


Agequake: Riding the Demographic Rollercoaster Shaking Markets, Business and the World
Agequake: Riding the Demographic Rollercoaster Shaking Markets, Business and the World
by Paul Wallace
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Demographics won't be beat!, 31 Jan. 2002
When I moved into France from mi native Colombia, I was astounded at the large number of old ladies with dogs and the paucity of mothers with babies and teenagers. Agequake confirms that this perception is just another aspect of the huge changes that new demographics will bring on within the next 20 years. The good news is that people are living longer. The bad news is that they are retiring at a younger age. And that, the longer they live, the more medical care they will require.
Wallace shows that the dependency ratios (the ratio of non-working "dependents" to working folk) will lead to a point where each worker will need to support not only himself, but a pensioner as well, and his own children, if any (and there will be very few). As the number of young working people, usually the more creative of all age-groups, continue to shrink, innovation will also came to a halt, and ultimately economic growth will vanish and then reverse the secular growing trend. While some environmentalists may feel overjoyed by this implosion of capitalism, most of us who rather liked material comforts and hoped that they would continue to grow endlessly will be less satisfied. The impact of the "agequake" will be felt in every sphere. Corporate hierarchies will make less sense when there are more middle-aged managers than young newcomers. The relationship between youthful and aggressive Third World Countries and rich older OECD countries (where elderly women will be the most influential constituency) will be fraught with dangers. Share prices will tend to collapse as the "Baby Boomers" start to retire and prefer to liquidate some of their assets. The housing market will be altered beyond recognition.
What can be done to avoid this future? Unsurprisingly, not much. Government policies cannot permanently improve fertility in rich countries, immigration in the scale required to make up for the shortfall of young workers will be politically indefensible, and the growing importance of older voters makes it virtually impossible for politicians to effect changes in fields such as retirement ages, pensioners' rights
or public health.
All in all, a sobering read. When these things happen, those of us who read it will have at least a headstart on everyone else. Not bad for £, eh?


Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals
Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals
by D Lieven
Edition: Hardcover

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rambling, but not interesting, 9 Jan. 2002
Dominic Lieven, the historian of Imperial Russia has written a long book on a big subject. In spite of the broad title ("Empire"), the book, as suggested by the sub-title, is really a comparison between modern continental European empires (Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Soviet) and a modern Atlantic Empire (British). He also makes a couple of stabs at the Chinese empire, although wisely steers away from making many points about this subject, which is likely to suck in the unwary. He does not attempt a definition of empire as such, and while acknowledging the socio-geographical school of thought (pioneered by Montesquieu and currently incarnated in Huntington), largely steers clear of "German-philosophy-type-First-Principles" and such. This is a relief, because he has much to say just looking at actual facts. Although he concludes that, after the (probably terminal) eclipse of France as a continental great power after the First Empire, the real competition is between Germany and Russia, and that when one is in the ascendant (as was Germany in 1871-1945 and since 1990) the other one is in the relapse (Russia was ascendant between the Vienna Congress and the creation of the German Reich). While intuitively appealing, Lieven does not say enough about Germany proper (the "Drang Nach Osten", for example) to support this contention, given that his focus is on the Southern part of cultural Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire.
As a historian of Ukraine, Lieven observes that the Russian heartland is Ukraine and that Russia may not be a great power separated from Ukraine, which raises the ugly likelihood of a future anexation of Ukraine and other neighbouring territories of historical, cultural or military significance by the extant Russia, not unlike what Germany did with the Saarland, the Sudetenland and other regions, prior to invading Poland and precipitating we-know-what. What is clear is that Russia is not likely to remain within its current borders, which have stripped out virtually all territorial gains made by the successive Russian and Soviet Regimes since Peter the Great at least. He points out that Russia has experienced three modernization waves: one, starting with Peter the Great and probably "petering" out with the disappointments of Alexander I and the regression of Nicholas I, the second one starting with the liberation of the serfs by Alexander II and extending to the Soviet times, winding down with the ossification of the regime with Breznev and Andropov after a failure by Kruschev to re-ignite the revolutionary fires, and a third one started by Gorbachov and still apparently in full swing. Given that each renewal was accompanied by a period or Russian Hegemony (the first one culminated during the second half of the XVIII century, under Catherine the Great and the second one in the 1940s and 1950s, under Stalin and Kruschev), it is clear that Lieven believes that a Russian comeback is waiting around the corner, hard is it may be to believe this now.
Very perceptively, Lieven notes that growing unrest with Islamic nations can only lead to a rapprochement between the USA and Russia. This was published in 2000, well before S-11 and the current entente cordiale between the 2 great nations.
He also has a few things to say concerning current multi-lingual "empires", such as Malaysia, Indonesia and (surprise, surpise) the European Union. As may be expected with an author writing on this subject, he has antipathy towards nationalism and thinks that such "empires" may yet make a comeback. But he acknowledges that they are not sustainable absent an over-arching ideology powerful to overcome nationalism, such as counter-reformation in the Habsburg Empire in XVI and XVII centuries or Communism in the Soviet Union (or Nazism in the Third Reich, or Islam in the Ottoman Empire). Whether contemporary multinational "empires" have such ideologies is not obvious.
Although Lieven is erudite and writes engagingly, and in spite of the interest of his mildly revisionist views on the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, I missed some of the other empires that competed with the Russians in their quest for continental mastery. A small chapter dealing with the Baltics (Polish, Swedish and Lithuanians) would have been useful. A major rival empire that fought Russia not once but twice within the XX century, Japan, is barely mentioned. And British rivalry with Russia in the context of the "Big Game" (over Afghanistan) also is mentioned only in passing.
Still, it's difficult not to like such a sane writer, who clearly sees that apparatchik kleptocrats such as those lording it over most of the former Soviet Union (and some of its satellites) are probably preferable to gaunt, angry cultural nationalists who are still waiting on the wings and sometimes getting their licks in (when the two groups merge, as in Milosevic's Serbia, the results are scary indeed). He sees very clearly that the Soviet Union was just a nastier version of the Russian empire and faced some of the same problems, such as dealing with large, rich, culturally distinct "colonies" (such as Poland). He clearly misses the multi-cultural empires such as the Austro-Hungarian empire (a short detour on the Spanish Hungarian empire would not have been amiss either), which he believes looks positively dazzling when compared with the hellishness of Hitler's Ostmark and the colonization of Soviet times. Whether his domesticated empires (of which the European Union is the most recent version) will survive is anybody's guess.


In The Footsteps Of Mr Kurtz. Living On The Brink Of Disaster In The Congo
In The Footsteps Of Mr Kurtz. Living On The Brink Of Disaster In The Congo
by Michela Wrong
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ditto with Mr. Brokesley, 19 Sept. 2000
I was goig to write a review of this most amusing book, but found that Mr. Brokesley had beaten me to it. Following his cogent and penetrating review I find there isn't much left to say. However, in the best tradition of reviewers everywhere, I would like to refer to other parts of the book, which I found to be very entertaining. In the Constitution of a region of Zaire that wanted to secede from Mobutu's Kinshasa government there was an article (article 15) suggesting to anyone who wanted the government's protection or support to "take care of your own business" ("debrouillez-vous"), which essentially the legal form of Mobutu's dictum that corruption was OK so long as it wasn't excessive (President Turbay of Colombia said the same thing in 1978, although he didn't manage to hang around as long as Mobutu did). There is an operating nuclear reactor in Zaire. An enriched uranium core disappeared recently, only to resurface in the hands of the Sicilian mafia. A profet jailed by the Belgians who believed himself to be the incarnation of the Holy Ghost created a church complete with hierarchy and miracles and Holy Writ. Mobutu kept twins as lovers, to ward off malignant influences from his defunct first wife's spirit. I agree with Mr. Brokesley that the soul of the story is Mr. Mobutu. A cunning man, he had that rare combination of shamelessness and grandeur. One would need to go back to Mussolini or Napoleon III to find a similar European mindset. He wasn't a psycopath like other African leaders (such as Francisco Macias NGuema, Idi Amin Dada or Jean-Bedel Bokassa), and while he robbed the country of its lifeblood, bringing it back into the middle ages, he did it much more amusingly than other leaders ever did (who ever heard of a good anecdote about Robert Mugabe or Daniel Arap Moi, who are just as big crooks as Mobutu ever was?). Mobutu shared in the spoils of corruption, and allowed even non-family members to take part in the feast. This is much more than other tyrants (such as Somoza, Trujillo, Khadaffi, Saddam Husseim or Suharto) ever did. So, if you ever want to see what happens when the rule of law is absent and all social constraints implode, this is the book for you.


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