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Dr. R. Brandon (England)
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The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919
The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919
by Mark Thompson
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A Comprehensive History of All Aspects of the WWI Italian Campaign, 22 Feb. 2015
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This excellent comprehensive history of the Italian Front from 1915 to 1919 in the First World War covers not only the campaign itself but much background detail as well. The book follows a strict chronological narrative for the actual campaign but devotes intermediate sections to other aspects of Italian history including the background and causes of the war, the personalities of the key leaders, the geography of the area and the distinctive role played by Italian Futurist artists and the unique war poetry that emerged from the battles. Also included at the end of the book is an important appendix on the Third War of Italian Independence, 1866, that perhaps would have been better placed at the beginning.
The author, Mark Thompson, has clearly carried out copious research of secondary, mainly Italian, sources to construct this impressive book. Thompson shows that the very vocal Irredentists (those who wanted to ‘redeem’ lands to Italy) wanted to ‘complete’ the unification of Italy as they saw it by capturing Austrian territory all the way to the Alps, the city of Trieste, and lands in Dalmatia and even parts of Albania to convert the Adriatic into an Italian Sea. The fact that the overwhelming number of inhabitants of these areas were not Italian was no impediment to the Irredentist polemic. Thompson shows that these views were held by a small educated ruling clique at the top of Italian society and supported by the Prime Minister Antonio Salandra and his successor Vittorio Orlando, Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino and the disaster prone head of the army General Raffaele Cadorna as well as hotheads such as Gabriele D’Annunzio and Mussolini. These aggressive views formed no part of the thinking of the vast bulk of the Italian population for whom the concept of a unified Italy was still a novelty. As a result most of those drafted into the armed forces had no idea why they were at war.
The author provides excellent passages describing the arid rock strewn lands of the Carso, scene of the repetitive battles of the campaign, and the mountainous and seemingly impossible fighting terrain of the Trento. It was nevertheless over this unpromising countryside that the courageous Italian soldiers were thrown at well armed Austro-Hungarian Empire troops by that most inept of generals, Cadorna, who seemingly felt that a great blood sacrifice was a necessary precursor to the final appropriate ‘redemption’ of the country. Cadorna was the only military leader in modern times to have recourse to the Roman practice of ‘decimation’ to enforce discipline.
This is not a ‘battle’ book and the author does not burden the reader with maps of manoeuvre or detailed divisional movement but describes the general sweep of conflict. That being said one or two extra maps would have been welcome as those provided as endpapers lacked many of the place names mentioned in the text.
The author revisits the Italian and Austro-Hungarian headquarters, and keeps us abreast of the crucial role played by the conduct of the war on the Russian Front, and surprisingly for me, the role of British and French commanders who actually sent troops and guns to Italy at key stages of the campaign. The brief intervention of German troops (who were not at war with Italy) and the swashbuckling performance of Erwin Rommel in the early stages of the monumental Italian defeat of Caporetto also make fascinating reading. I was also surprised by the ability of Italian industry to quickly ramp up during the war from very small beginnings to produce prodigious numbers of weapons, equipment and aircraft thereby laying the foundation for the future Italian industrial base. The Austro-Hungarian Empire by comparison remained moribund and never made such progress, relying solely upon the quality of its troops, and thereby guaranteeing eventual defeat.
As mentioned earlier, this is an all encompassing book that touches on many aspects of the war, its associated politics and the aftermath. The author convincingly shows how the betrayal of the troops by the government and the foolish and unsuccessful claims for territory made at the peace negotiations sowed the seeds for the future collapse of Italian democracy and the rise of Fascism.
This is an excellent product of extensive research but two minor criticisms are perhaps warranted, the absence of a couple of appropriate maps as described above, and the fact that at times the book is really quite dense and heavy to read although perseverance does pay good dividends.


The World of Yesterday
The World of Yesterday
by Stefan Zweig
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

3.0 out of 5 stars Overly Long, Some Excellent Passages, But Irritating, 31 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The World of Yesterday (Paperback)
A quote on the cover of this book suggests that it is one of the greatest memoirs of the twentieth century, it is not. This book is patchy and could have been much improved with some substantial pruning down from its 462 pages. There are passages, particularly when Zweig has some major historical changes to relate, that soar and flow with the speed and elegance one often finds in his works of fiction. However, there are other passages particularly relating to his early life and education that are just plain tedious. Zweig also has a tendency to produce lists of literary figures he was aquainted with, and these become rather repetitive as the book progresses. Some of the thumbnail sketches of his friends and acquaintances such as Theodor Herzl or Richard Strauss are interesting but are never fully developed.
The other major problem with this ‘memoir’ is that it is entirely egocentric to quote a term from one of Zweig’s acquaintances and heroes, Freud. The book contains virtually no mention of Zweig’s first wife, Friderika, or her two children, we have no idea whether or not they accompanied the author on his numerous trips abroad, I suspect not. Nor do we learn of his divorce, or his secretary, Lotte Altmann, who became his second wife and who later joined Zweig in their joint suicide in Petropolis, Brazil, just after this book was completed. This overbearing absence gives the work a very odd and unsatisfactory feel. Yes, other commentators have said this is not an autobiography but a memoir, but that is semantics, the single dimension is a major flaw and points to a serious character fault in its creator.
It is true that this is an important work in terms of illustrating the complete destruction of civilised intellectual life by the Nazis, but it also completely fails to give the slightest hint that exactly the same thing was taking place in the Soviet Union. Surely Zweig who had contacts all over the world and was aquainted with a number of Russian refugees must have been aware of the Soviet intellectual repression that was well under way in the 1930s. Perhaps the absence arises from the fact that it did not inconvenience him or he was unwilling to criticise left-wing governments.
I frankly found the book irritating and did not warm to the intensely self-regarding Zweig who could have put over the same message in considerably fewer pages.


Dollfuss
Dollfuss
by Gordon Brook-Shepherd
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Piece of Pre-Anschluss Austrian History, 20 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Dollfuss (Hardcover)
Like other Gordon Brook-Shepherd books this straightforward biography is well written and demonstrates that, as always, Brook-Shepherd is on top of his subject and well informed. The author was in the British Intelligence Staff in Vienna in the late 1940s and has written several good books on the post First World War period.
This biography of the Chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss, takes us from his early peasant upbringing where he gained a deep respect for the Catholic Church, to his experience as a soldier in the First World War, and then his series of rapid government appointments as an agrarian reformer and then President of the Austrian Federal Railways. Always he initially faced ridicule for his diminutive height, being barely five feet tall, but always silenced his critics by force of personality and administrative ability. After this rapid rise he quickly became Chancellor of Austria in May 1932. From then on the book tells of his struggles against the Austrian Marxists and the growing threat of `anschluss' from Germany following Hitler's accession to power. Dollfuss was engaged in a frantic search for allies and actively sought protection from a very responsive Mussolini. This dramatic two year period of his chancellorship saw the collapse of parliamentary democracy in Austria (yet another warning of the dangers of proportional representation and parliamentary stalemate, if one were needed), a brief civil war against the Marxists in February 1934 when worker's tenements were shelled, and the abortive Nazi putsch of July 1934 that resulted in the murder of Dollfuss and the failure of Hitler's first foreign adventure.
Throughout, Brook-Shepherd is forthright in his views and dismisses many of the myths and obfuscations that have been invented by the Left to blacken the name of Dollfuss and excuse their own failures.
My one minor criticism of this otherwise excellent book is that the author has clearly researched all the many diplomatic exchanges between Rome, Berlin (and Munich) and Vienna and is somewhat loath to omit any detail. This may be good from an academic point of view but can lead to the occasional `languor' in an otherwise very interesting history. The book contains a number of interesting photographs of the key characters.


Pereira Maintains
Pereira Maintains
by Antonio Tabucchi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderfully Satisfying and Complete Novel, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Pereira Maintains (Paperback)
Do not be put off by the odd title of this book, it is an excellent, entertaining, and wonderfully satisfying and complete novel. The story is set in Lisbon in 1938 under the rule of the right wing dictator Salazar and the ongoing civil war in adjoining Spain. Dr Pereira, the central character, is the cultural columnist for a small evening newspaper and it is the unexpected and increasingly alarming sequence of events that upset his previously quiet and non-committal routine that provide the essence of the tale. Whilst this book does have a political theme, it is handled very lightly and with dry humour. The unusual way in which the narrative is constructed, and I rush to assure potential readers that this is a straightforward novel and not some Modernist experiment, draws in the reader and continuously and incrementally builds the tension. I felt compelled to read the book from cover to cover in an afternoon, I simply had to know what was going to happen.
This book is a little gem, the translation is transparent, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to all, one of the best works of fiction I have read in some time. I now feel compelled to read something else by the late Antonio Tabucchi.


The Post Office Girl
The Post Office Girl
by Stefan Zweig
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.18

4.0 out of 5 stars A Well Written, Fast-Moving, Tragedy, 10 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: The Post Office Girl (Paperback)
The manuscript for this book was discovered some time after the suicide of Stefan Zweig in Brazil in 1942. With this in mind we do not know if the story as published is how the author intended it to be. Was it complete, we do not know, but it is significant that Zweig laboured hard and long to complete other works for publication before committing suicide?
The story is set in Austria in 1926 where many are suffering from the dramatic changes that resulted from the First World War; with rising inflation and widespread unemployment. Christine Hoflehner is a postmistress in a small town struggling to look after her ailing mother whose family has been impoverished by the war. Suddenly Christine is plucked from this depressing mundane environment by wealthy relatives and for a brief glorious period she is shown the high life and economic freedom in a Swiss resort, only to be very soon cast down again.
The superb writing style of Zweig propels the reader headlong through Part One of this story so that you cannot bare to stop turning the pages. The pace slows considerably in the Second Part but the excellent writing is maintained. Here Zweig dwells on the many difficulties visited on every aspect of the life of the poor and their bleak prospects. (The writing here is reminiscent of the novels of Hans Fallada.) But is escape at hand?
Zweig published an immense volume of work including many highly praised biographies, novellas and short stories, this being one of only two full length novels that he wrote, the other being, ‘Beware of Pity’ (1939). In his day he was one of the most widely read and highly regarded writers in Europe. This novel, although possibly not as he may have completed it, provides an excellent demonstration of his writing and spellbinding storytelling skills.


The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World
The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World
by George Prochnik
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

3.0 out of 5 stars Unsatisfactory Despite Some Lyrical and Interesting Sections, 5 Jan. 2015
I have to admit to being rather disappointed with this book after reading the very fulsome praise in the press. Perhaps there was a hint in the reviews when mention was made of the ‘unusual non-linear’ format.
It seems that neither of the two recently published biographies of Stefan Sweig has been entirely successful. The earlier, ‘Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Sweig’ by Oliver Matuschek has been criticised for failing to capture the essence of the man whilst dealing well with the facts of his life, whereas this present work deals with little more than the thought and philosophy of Sweig whilst omitting almost all the key biographical and literary details.
The book is divided into somewhat mysterious non-chronological chapter headings that often have little to do with their content, which possibly justifies the absence of a contents list, or even more serious, an index. The chapters vary greatly in relevance and interest with perhaps the best being that dealing with Viennese coffee house society. Others deal, somewhat repetitively, with Zweig’s feelings of alienation when in exile in England, the USA and finally Brazil; perversely always seeking peace and quiet and then when achieving it being totally dissatisfied with the absence of intellectual society. The book would, perhaps, have been better titled, ‘A Study in the Psychology of Exile’ as much of the content is given over to this question. Prochnik even indulges himself by bringing his own family history into the narrative although this has little relevance to the life of Zweig other than the shared experience of exile from Fascist Vienna.
The author omits any critical appraisal or timeframe of the literary work of Zweig other than to quote from his memoir, ‘The World of Yesterday’ and ‘Erasmus of Rotterdam’ the latter being invoked for its portrayal of character traits to be found in Zweig. Quite a serious omission when the vast and highly acclaimed literary output of Zweig is considered.
There is a troubling fault-line in the oft repeated portrayal of Zweig as a world humanist; promoting the mixing of peoples of different ethnicity and religion to forge a peaceful educated society. Zweig himself only sort the company of a very narrow intellectual, largely Jewish, section of society and was most uncomfortable when he found himself in less elite surroundings. Somewhat reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw who espoused the delights of the ‘working man’ but hated actually meeting them. Finally the author makes little of the fact that Zweig was determined in 1942 on suicide, probably as a result of depression, and in an act of supreme egotism was happy to take his secretary and much younger lover, Lotte Altmann, with him to the grave.
This is an altogether unsatisfactory book despite the widespread press acclaim. It does contain some very lyrical and interesting sections but these are far from constituting a serious biography.


Mahler (Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers)
Mahler (Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers)
by Edward Seckerson
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Introduction to the Life and Work of Mahler, 26 Dec. 2014
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This is one of an excellent series of books that are very helpful to those who want a brief overview of the life and work of the great composers and for whom a detailed biography would be too much.
This very well written volume by Edward Seckerson provides a good straightforward description of the life of Mahler. In addition the author explains the thinking and motivation behind each of Mahler’s most significant works including all his symphonies. He explains very well the almost continuous heightened emotional state that Mahler experienced whilst composing each major work and the elements of that emotion that appear to be manifest in his music.
For most of his short career Mahler earned his living from conducting. Despite his obsessive attention to detail and very great demands he made on his players, and indeed his undoubted success, Mahler did not find this a very fulfilling activity. The new and demanding interpretations that Mahler sought from the established repertoire generally attracted criticism and provided fertile ground for the increasingly anti-Semitic element particularly in Austrian society. Mahler constantly sought to return to composing.
The author touches on Mahler’s stormy relationship with his wife Alma and the support that she provided particularly towards the end of his life and early death at the age of just 51 in 1911.
The book contains many black and white printed illustrations, some of indifferent quality, but is nicely presented and also contains a, now rather outdated, discography. Within the limitations stated above this work is highly recommended.


A Victorian Obsession, the Perez Simon Collection at Leighton House Museum
A Victorian Obsession, the Perez Simon Collection at Leighton House Museum
by Veronique Gerard-Powell
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A Beautifully Produced and Exceptionally Well Written Art Book, 11 Dec. 2014
This is a beautifully produced and exceptionally well written book. This catalogue was produced to accompany the Perez Simon Collection of Victorian paintings exhibited at the Leighton House Museum in late 2014 and January 2015. The exhibition was previously exhibited in Paris, Rome and Madrid.
The catalogue contains three introductory essays on the Perez Simon Collection, the British art market and Frederic Leighton in whose magnificent house in Kensington the exhibition took place. These essays are short, very well written, and completely straightforward and factual and mercifully free of the gobbledegook beloved by contemporary art commentators. There follows reviews and short biographical notes on the nineteen artists and 52 works of art displayed at the exhibition. Many of the paintings were previously owned by northern industrialists and ship owners of the Victorian age before passing out of the country and have not been seen for many years. The collection contains some iconic images of the late Victorian age. The author of these very informative and factual notes is Veronique Gerard-Powell, a distinguished author of various books on art. This expertise is evident in the artistic commentary on the exhibits and the biographical notes which is some of the best writing I have read in any art catalogue in recent years. The commentary is accompanied by full page colour plates of excellent quality of all the paintings in the exhibition and also by full page photographs of almost all the artists.
This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue is a ‘must’ for all lovers of Victorian art. My one small criticism is that the catalogue, which is softbound, is quite expensive at the full price but you do get a lot for your money.


1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet
1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet
by David Hill
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating History of the First Fleet and the Establishment of Sydney, 1 Dec. 2014
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Unlike a number of the Australian reviewers of this book I live in England. My interest was sparked by seeing a play, ‘Our Country’s Good’ by T. Wertenbaker, based on a real life event that took place in Sydney colony in June 1789. Governor Phillip allowed convicts to stage a production of, ‘The Recruiting Officer’. The modern play portrays many of the key characters of the new penal settlement both from the military and the convicts themselves including the infamous Mary Bryant. The play examines the redeeming qualities of drama and examines the attitudes of many of the key characters mentioned in this book. (Governor Phillip comes off slightly less well in the book compared to the play.)
It is clear that David Hall has undertaken a good deal of research in order to produce this detailed and well written narrative of the journey of the First Fleet to establish a penal settlement in Sydney, Australia. Hill draws a very good picture of life aboard the ships and of the enlightened attitude of Captain (Governor) Phillip. He goes on to describe very clearly problems associated with trying to establish a settlement on the inhospitable shores of Sydney harbour and the Herculean efforts to provide an adequate supply of food. (The astonishingly inaccurate information supplied by Captain Cook’s botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who enjoyed a totally unblemished reputation, is quite shocking.)
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the book was to learn that sailing ships often had to make the most amazing and unexpected detours in order to find satisfactory winds to reach a given destination. Who would have expected ships to regularly sail to Brazil as a means of reaching South Africa in order to avoid the becalming breezes associated with the west African coastline? I was also shocked by the number of instances of ships being lost by breaking on reefs, hitting icebergs or losing most of their crew to disease or scurvy.
The author provides fascinating information on the private lives of many on this expedition and what happened to them in later years. The tale ends with the return of Phillip to England leaving the reader wanting to know more, especially about the rule of William Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) as Governor and the rebellion that took place in 1808. This is an interesting and well written book and is commended to all those interested in the establishment of the first settlement in Australia and the hardships of the First Fleet. A useful chronology of events is included. My one minor criticism is the absence of a map or two that would have facilitated following the voyages of the numerous ships involved in establishing and supplying the settlement.


The One From The Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel: A Bernie Gunther Mystery (Bernie Gunther Mystery 4)
The One From The Other: A Bernie Gunther Novel: A Bernie Gunther Mystery (Bernie Gunther Mystery 4)
by Philip Kerr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Another Excellent Bernie Gunther Novel Which Will Not Disappoint, 25 Nov. 2014
This excellent work, the fourth in the Bernie Gunther series of eponymous detective books by the novelist Philip Kerr takes place in the 1949 post-war Europe of the Four Great Occupying Powers. I do not wish to spoil this really well constructed and wholly credible story for readers but suffice to say the action starts in the American sector of Munich and gravitates towards Vienna and other Austrian towns. The background of frenetic reconstruction work in the Western occupied sectors, the approaching Cold war, de-Nazification and retribution is evoked very well by Kerr. Fans of the Bernie Gunther novels will enjoy the trademark detailed place descriptions and scene setting, the prevailing atmosphere of menace and intrigue and the recognition of real life historic characters who make an appearance in the story. Clear lucid text, fast moving and totally gripping.
For me, one of the best stories so far in this series, and a delight for all existing fans of Bernie Gunther and a real treat for new readers interested in superior detective stories set in the 1940s war-torn Europe.


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