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Geoff Sawers "geoffsawers"

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Marianne In Chains: In Search of the German Occupation 1940-45
Marianne In Chains: In Search of the German Occupation 1940-45
by Robert Gildea
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Astonishingly balanced and thorough., 5 April 2011
Years ago, I read a very moving book about the German occupation of the Channel Islands in the Second World War; it really brought home to me the moral dilemmas that people faced. Just what would you actually do in that situation? There are several conflicting accounts of the French in the occupation period. The `Good French,' pluckily resisting; the `Bad French,' denouncing each other and handing over Jews; the `Poor French,' starving and desperate. The 'Heroic Resistance', or the irresponsible one, ignoring the reality of civilian reprisals. Gildea's aim in this massive book is to tell all of these stories, or at least, to show that there is some truth in each, but none is complete. Most of all, he shows that the situation was a constantly changing one, and that those who survived were those who could adapt. For instance: almost no one who joined the resistance early in the war lived through it - the casualty rate was immense. But thousands joined just as the war was ending, in some cases for questionable motives, and these are the ones who got to tell the story.

The occupying Germans at first - the officers, certainly - surprised their hosts by being remarkably cultured and polite. They "respected the combatants of the last war, who defeated us" in the words of one of them, even if they "despised the rabbits of 1940." This is not just the older officers; the younger men too appreciated the comforts of France and were desperate not to blot their copybooks and be posted to the Russian Front. Gildea sketches vividly the economic pressures that forced many French women (since 1.5 million Frenchmen were Prisoners-of-War in Germany ) to the fringes of prostitution. As the war drew on, he shows that it was only Germany's war economy that lifted France out of recession, and coins the term `survival collaboration' to describe the experience of most ordinary people, finding themselves working for the occupiers out of necessity. For those occupiers this was a dream; the chance to enjoy French life (food, wine and women) without the tiresome presence of French men to spoil it all. The not-even-subliminally sexist subtext to the occupation - that the French, in not defending their country, had relinquished the right to their womenfolk - goes a long way to explain the rage and atrocities that accompanied the Liberation in 1944, and that have been described elsewhere as "France's shame."

Until that day came, tiny acts of defiance were the order the order of the day rather than any concrete resistance; wearing a tricolour buttonhole, or painting a V-sign in secret. Many of these may have had little real effect upon either Vichy or the Germans, but they allowed ordinary people to maintain some treasured dignity and belief. Petain's Vichy regime believed that France had brought defeat upon itself through its own degeneracy, and the country needed to purify itself in mourning - an attitude not exactly conducive to self-belief.

When the anti-Jewish purges began in 1942, French people in many cases showed themselves more anti-semitic than their occupiers; sometimes out of indifference, in other cases out of opportunism, as the chance to take over rival Jewish-run business became too much of a temptation. Indeed, everything took on a much darker tone after `42. The Gestapo had arrived in the country, and retaliation executions began in response to resistance activity. The French Secret Police too were keen to prove their own effectiveness in order to gain autonomy form the Germans; in effect they often ended up just doing the Gestapo's dirty work for them, and in the process, driving a wedge between themselves and the civilian population. Gildea makes some telling comparisons between the deportation of the Jews - scattered, atomised and largely without public support, they were easily rounded up - and the requisitioning of French labour for German factories, where a massive German programme ran up against constant prevarication and solidarity strikes from a militant proletariat on one side and an unco-operative French adminstration on the other.

Mayors who had leant too close to the Germans were purged after 1944; all suddenly became keen to show that they had sheltered their citizens, in however small a way. Similarly, once the Germans were in retreat, the resistance became a refuge for both criminals on the run and collaborators seeking to recycle themselves as patriots. Among the summary executions of the Liberation, it is certain that quite a few were carried out by men with something to hide. Even so, the handover of power at the Liberation was surprisingly peaceful in most places, with a strong continuity of power between Vichy and the new Republic, largely because both shared the same fear of communism and were keen not to give the communist-led resistance too much sway.

Gildea steadily undermines all the myths of the occupation, occasionally by confirming them. He present s an incredibly detailed tapestry in which, Department by Department and Commune by Commune, every single cliché is actually true at some point but not at another, as people manoeuvred constantly simply to stay alive, let alone in power. The overall impression of this is exhausting, and this is the way the book feels at times, although to be fair, it only gets bogged down in detail in a couple of chapters (`Trimmers,' notably). There is some slight repetition too; indeed one anecdote about a bishop who kept a portrait of Petain in his office well after the Liberation actually appears three times! (pp. 333, 346, 394). But these are minor quibbles, and the finely balanced and nuanced final chapters even include a story of an heroic German. A rare sighting in a book like this! A wonderful book.


Night Fighter (Fighter pilots)
Night Fighter (Fighter pilots)
by C.F. Rawnsley
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly convincing story, compellingly told., 5 April 2011
Going through some boxes the other day, I pulled out this book that I'd loved as a teenager, sat down and read nearly half of it in one sitting. There seem to be endless books extolling the heroics of "the few," piloting Hurricanes and Spitfires through Britain's open sunny skies in the summer of 1940. But what about their poor benighted night-time counterparts, flying old and under-gunned Bristol Blenheims in an attempt to intercept the Luftwaffe's bombing raids on Britain's industrial cities? As a grown-up in 2010, I struggle slightly with the forties'-era bravado and the slang - enemy aircraft are `customers' coming into the `shop' to be `served' - but this contrasts sharply with passages of real power and poetry describing the actual experience of flying at night; and also with the evident fact that for most of the time, it was frustrating, cold and bloody frightening.


Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
by Jonathan Coe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Possibly better than reading B S Johnson..., 4 April 2011
My friend J unwittingly recommended this book to me about a year ago: he told me he'd borrowed a book from the library by Jonathan Coe (two of whose novels I love) all about some obscure, tormented, experimental poet. Obscure, tormented, I thought? Let me at it! Who's the poet? I asked. I'm not telling you, J replied. The thing is, he went on, you might know them, and what I'm enjoying most is that I still can't work out whether this person ever really existed or not.

B. S. Johnson (it was partly the initials that had led J to think the book might be a spoof) was certainly both of those things; but also both self-pitying and compellingly entertaining; a kind of cross between Samuel Beckett and Tony Hancock. Irascible, pedantic and demanding - much of the book describes his frustrating dealings with a variety of agents (all of which end in tears of course) and film projects that never come to fruition. In fact, Coe does talk about the problem here: since what writers DO is write, their lives may not actually be all that interesting - and B S Johnson was a writer whose life was everything to his art. Since he doesn't generate any particularly salacious gossip in his life, it is the parade of frustrations and his increasingly embattled character that really make the book. And it is an engaging and enjoyable book.

Coe is perhaps an indulgent biographer; he stays with Johnson through his increasingly boorish and erratic behaviour because he is clearly a fan of the writing. I'm not, personally; the book is liberally peppered with quotes and extracts from Johnson: I feel not the slightest inclination to read anything else by him. But I'd recommend this book to anyone.


Robert Crumb's Book of Genesis
Robert Crumb's Book of Genesis
by Robert Crumb
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not for the faint-hearted - like the original!, 4 April 2011
Robert Crumb's illustrated edition of the first book of the bible is a huge work, the product of several years' work, and may just be his masterpiece. I have frequently been dumbstruck in the past by his technical skill, but I have also occasionally wondered that he has never really tackled an extended narrative; even the best of his books, like 'Robert Crumb draws the Blues' are effectively compilations.

His 'Genesis' is pretty visceral, as you might expect; but the rawness,the sex and the violence are all there in the original. In fact, as Crumb himself points out in his introduction, though there have been 'comic book bibles' before, they have all edited, compressed or elided the text: his is the first version to follow exactly and only the words. So what is he going to do now? Complete the Pentateuch? The Old Testament? The whole Bible? Unfortunately, I don't imagine he could live long enough for even the least of these. But we can hope!


The Death of King Arthur (Penguin Classics)
The Death of King Arthur (Penguin Classics)
by James Cable
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The end of chivalry, 4 April 2011
By contrast to `Lancelot of the Lake' and `The Quest of the Holy Grail,' this concluding part of the great 13th century Lancelot-Grail cycle is a simple and direct tale. The supernatural elements have all but been stripped away, and it proceeds quite logically to describe the decline and fall, not just of King Arthur himself, but of the whole world that he had attempted to build. The worm in the flower is of course Lancelot and Guinevere's love affair; it is the harvest of a tragedy sown many years before.

Some years ago, a man called Jean Frappier came up with the idea that, whilst the Lancelot-Grail cycle could clearly not have been written by one man, it did however have an architect; someone who planned the whole thing out, before allowing different people to complete the various sections. It's an attractive idea. There are many threads that run throughout the work, and yet the differences of style are startling. The `Quest' was clearly written by a deeply religious author (someone with a Cistercian background has been suggested, though other people finger the Knights Templar) and has a strongly devotional feel, and yet the `Death' abounds in references to God that border on the flippant. It also has more conversation, and more psychological insight than the previous sections; the melancholy tone of the closing chapters particularly give it an astonishingly modern feel. At the very end, Sir Bors - one of the only survivors of the calamitous final battle - invites the people left behind to CHOOSE whomever they would like as king; the days of chivalry are over for good.


Lancelot of the Lake (Oxford World's Classics)
Lancelot of the Lake (Oxford World's Classics)
by Corin Corley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The 13th Century as it would have liked itself to be, 4 April 2011
There's always something exciting about reading an original of something, and throughout this book I kept finding myself thinking, ah, so that's where THAT story comes from.

It's a beautiful and fascinating book; a picture of the 13th Century as it would have liked itself to be, rather than as it ever really was. Shining armour, bright pennants flying from the battlements in the sunshine. There is blood aplenty here, but it is all noble; no mud, no rain. No peasants. Who supports this glorious cadre of privileged knights as they trot about the countryside on their quests, hacking enemies to pieces and then fainting with emotion at the mention of their lady's name? No one, of course. In fact, there is an element of the Boys' Own to a lot of this; the characters are so civilised and sporting, they might be playing cricket. Their brotherly passions for each other involve a lot of swooning and declaring undying love. Galehot, Arthur's enemy, even tries to arrange a transfer of one knight to another side at one point, like it was all a game of football.

And yet, in among all this Edwardian red-lipped manliness, we get glimpses of the old folk traditions: Gawain's strength waxing and waning with the sun, for instance; enchanted castles. `Lancelot' is just one part of the vast medieval `Vulgate Cycle' of Arthurian Myth. I read the middle part - `Quest of the Holy Grail' - at college in 1988. I shall confidently pencil in finishing the cycle with `The Death of Arthur' in about 2030.


Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children
Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children
by Michael Newton
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A deeply affecting book., 30 Mar. 2011
When 13 year-old `Genie' was rescued in 1970 from the single room in which she had spent her whole life, she had never spoken, nor been spoken to. Her case sparked an immediate storm of interest from both the media, and from scientific researchers. It was seen as an unique opportunity to test theories that there is a crucial developmental period for learning language, beyond which it cannot be done. Some of these researchers saw her too as a child in need of love and care; others saw those who thought this way as insufficiently objective to conduct proper studies. The result was a miserable period of time in which she was shunted and pulled from person to person, from care-home to research-lab to foster-family. Her story is utterly compelling, but we have to ask ourselves, why?

After a slightly rambling, butterfly-brained introduction, Newton settles to his most crucial questions: How is it that we can recognise another human being as human? What essential quality unites us all? This book is not exactly, despite the subtitle, a history of feral children. Instead, it is a study of four or five cases in particular, and as much as it studies the children themselves found wandering wild in the woods, or living among dogs, it studies our attitudes towards them. Are they pitiful primitives in need of civilisation, or noble savages from whom we should all learn? This latter idea, popularised first by Rousseau, and later through figures like Tarzan and Mowgli, tends to be a minority view, albeit a dominant literary one. More often, confronted with the reality of a drooling, hunched figure without language or any apparent ability to relate to others, it is the former attitude that predominates.

In the 18th Century some questioned whether these creatures without language or culture could be said to have a soul. But what did they think, that infants have none, until it is inculcated? If so, then why baptise them? Yet there is an important theme here, as Daniel Defoe points obliquely to in his discussion of `Peter the Wild Boy,' brought to London from Germany in the 1720s and a popular attraction - his lack of empathy with another person's suffering, that we see today among some autistic people, is seriously disconcerting for us. In a similar vein, a cold-hearted killer will frequently be described as `inhuman.' Or did Peter's silence bring him closer to God, Defoe wondered? Was he a kind of Adam-before-the-Fall? In fiction and myth feral children are often twins, or pairs; in real life we seem always only to encounter solitaries. Newton points out that Rousseau's idealised `Wild Child' is nightmarish, if examined; with no relation to others, he can have no love or friendship.

I read some sections of this book in tears: stories of abandonment and imprisonment are always affecting, but so too are the stories of (often-botched) attempts to rehabilitate and restore. It's no surprise that Kaspar Hauser was often portrayed as a Christ-figure; one who is without sin, but who, paradoxically, needs himself to be saved. Newton has a slightly annoying habit of displaying extensive research on the befrienders / educators of his subjects; perhaps because those subjects themselves are so shadowy and insubstantial. They do not speak for themselves, and we will probably never know what the world looks like to them.

Genie, that girl with whom we began, did learn in time to speak, although never in fully grammatical sentences. Her importance as a test-case for the theories diminished when it turned out that she might have suffered some form of brain-damage at some point; another reason perhaps why she was gradually abandoned by the scientific community. Newton speculates that all this, the research and its ending, could be seen as a further form of abuse to add to what her own family had put her through as a child. But, she survived, and still lives today, in some adult care-home somewhere in the USA. Tellingly, she always had problems with personal pronouns, with terms of relation. She could not express anger with another person, only with herself. Those linguists and speech therapists who had wanted to `save' her had seen what was really necessary: we learn these things through love and reciprocal attention. Feuerbach, discussing Kaspar Hauser, coined a term for what this kind of early deprivation had done to him, depriving him of his sense of self: he called it `soul murder.'


The Lady's Slipper (Macmillan New Writing)
The Lady's Slipper (Macmillan New Writing)
by Deborah Swift
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not perfect, but a lot of fun., 30 Mar. 2011
The combination of a naturalist interest (rare orchid) and a period one (17th century Quakerism) was too much to resist for me here. I often find myself reading these sorts of books mentally cataloguing all the mistakes / anachronisms, and in fact there are many to be found here (not addressing a nobleman correctly, drinking from a water butt, leaving cards, sterilising instruments, women's freedom of movement, a gentleman asking a maid her name - they turn up everywhere) yet I find that in this case I forgive them all happily, because it is a genuinely engrossing story, with characters you can get interested in. Is it not though perhaps something of a cliché, I wondered, to build around a tension between a skinny thoughtful middle-class heroine and her buxom, sexually-aggressive maid?

A more serious fault perhaps is the fuzzy, or shifting, focus: the woman who is the main character for the first third of the book (that skinny thoughtful lass I mentioned) promptly disappears for the middle section, which could be confusing. And then, for the final third, she reappears, but we leave the muddy fields and woods of Westmorland and the book suddenly turns into a swash-buckling, bodice-ripping, ship-board romance. Which is fine by me, I really enjoyed it, but I wonder whether some readers might get a little lost? Anyway, I sound critical, but actually, I liked this book a lot. A quiet, bitter-sweet finale rounds the whole thing off well, and though I think it should have had some more editing (well, some editing in the first place) I'd happily recommend it.


Mystic Rhythms: The Philosophical Vision of Rush
Mystic Rhythms: The Philosophical Vision of Rush
by Carol Selby Price
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A curate's egg - good in parts., 30 Mar. 2011
Even though I grew up with Rush and still know their first few albums by heart, I confess I felt a slight `eek!' when I was presented with this book (a father's day present), partly due the band's penchant for quoting far-right headbanger Ayn Rand in their early songs. Did I really want to explore all that much further? I'm not the only one to have thought this: I dimly remember an NME piece from '79 or so titled "Threat to the nation's youth: Rush are fascists!" or some such. It was clear to me as a 13 year-old that they weren't that, but I always enjoyed the way that music journalists used to struggle with their lyrics. `Neil Peart appears to be trying to say something in this song,' Kerrang writers used to say, clearly unused to the idea, `but I haven't quite worked it out yet...'

So what are Rush? Price's basic thesis in the slightly overlong and digressive book is this: they have picked up upon Rand's passionate individualism because they are actually Stoics. She begins by examining the existential notion of `authentic living,' and relating it to several 80's-era songs about suburbia / conformity. It's a fairly convincing argument, and fits well with the band's celebration of self-sufficiency. However, there is a naivety (or is it cynicism?) in this belief in individualism, in the value of the free-thinker, the artist. Specifically, it seems to me to require every one else to be a `common herd' so that he (it's always a he in Rush songs) can rise above them. Interestingly, in a late song (`Natural Science') Rush themselves seemed to start to look beyond this trap; it's a lyric I still find inspiring today. But there's nothing of this in Price's discussion of the song.

There are other omissions: how can you discuss `The Camera Eye' without even mentioning John Dos Passos, from whose ideas it is obviously derived? And I would have liked to read a little more about the embarrassingly Tolkieny early LPs than the slicker-but-samey later ones. But that's just my personal prejudice. Also, when Rush try to talk about what their free-thinking hero might do with his freedom, it can all get a little woolly. Driving a car, for instance (`Red Barchetta') is hardly an inspiring act of rebellion! Except perhaps, if you are a north American.


Log Across the Road: Wars within Wars
Log Across the Road: Wars within Wars
by Sheila Ross
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars A lost classic, 30 Mar. 2011
Despite the irrelevant bosomy cover pic, this is actually about the Malayan Communist insurgency in the 1950s. Who on earth chose that cover? Never mind; we'll never know now. Serendipity is a wonderful thing; I would never have even started this if I hadn't run out of books whilst on holiday, and I would have missed a powerful, haunting book. Written using Thornton Wilder's "Bridge of San Luis Rey" technique, it is, though less well-known, actually a much deeper and more substantial book. It begins with the `bridge' moment, of course: a truckful of disparate characters driving through the jungle one day in 1952, at the height of the Malayan Emergency, expecting to be ambushed at any moment. One asks another "what were you doing ten years ago?" and back we tumble through time to the Second World War, where we start to pick up the threads of these different lives, and follow them through. The variety of characters is bewildering at times, but stays just the right side of confusing - mind you, I am probably giving away how geeky I am here, but I found myself indexing the book, just to make sure I did keep track.
The landscapes are both lush and utterly convincing, as is much of the detail, in widely differing areas: Malayan life, the Northern Italian Resistance, what WAAFs do on leave. There is brutality and unhappiness in here along the way, but still over much of it a kind of sun-kissed glow. Is it 1940s idealism? The chipperness has an authentic ring - I recognise it from wartime memoirs - even Jocelyn Brooke, in his lighter moments - and her discussion of relationships in particular is searching and honest, in a way that reminds me of Wilson's "Memoirs of Hecate County," perhaps; a talismanic book for me. I find myself wondering what the author's life was like - this is a big, complex book (2 volumes in the paperback version) and she doesn't appear to have written very much else. Did it sink without trace when it came out (1971)? There are so many different stories in here that it would be dangerous to try and pin any particular thread to personal experience, but authors often `give themselves away,' and there are some extremely poignant passages. Perhaps it could be said that the European voices are generally a little more convincing than the east Asian ones - at least, that is what I noted early in the book, but those Asian characters grow through the book in a way that I think is quite unusual for books of this period, so that by the time we get to the vivid, chilling finale, they are far more than just supporting characters.
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