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Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry
Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry
by Maya Angelou
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

5.0 out of 5 stars And Still She Rose, 15 May 2016
On the final page of her penultimate volume of autobiography, "A Song Flung Up To Heaven", published in 2002, Maya Angelou wrote:

"I thought about black women and wondered how we got to be the way we were. In our country, white men were always in superior positions; after them came white women, then black men, then black women, who were historically on the bottom stratum.
How did it happen that we could nurse a nation of strangers, be maids to multitudes of people who scorned us, and still walk with some majesty and stand with a degree of pride?"

As a white man (and not American, either), I wouldn't even pretend to know the answer to that question and probably shouldn't speculate, but I'm going to: I strongly suspect that the pride of black American womanhood owes an enormous debt to Maya Angelou personally, and to people like her.

As I said, it's not really my place to speculate, so don't just believe me. When you've finished reading this review (and ordered the book because, well, why wouldn't you?) go to Youtube, type in "Maya Angelou memorial service" and listen to what the First Lady, Michelle Obama, had to say. As a personal tribute from one unapologetically glorious black woman to another, her remarks explain, with the authority of her own experience, just how important Maya Angelou was. I warn you, though: if you've a shred of humanity in you, you'll cry. (You may also find yourself hoping, as I did, that Mrs Obama follows Mrs Clinton's lead and seeks office herself.)

Though her poetry and other writings must resonate most strongly with black women, Maya Angelou's wisdom and humanity carries a message for everyone. Everybody needs to be lifted up sometimes, and everybody who reads this book will find themselves lifted. Her poems are often deeply spiritual, sometimes heartstoppingly sensual. She could rage with indignation at the circumstances forced upon her because of her colour and gender, and she could write, with almost childlike wonder, about the beauty and diversity of her world and the people in it.

Her overwhelming message was one of hope. To Maya Angelou, hope didn't mean sitting and wishing: hope meant getting up and trying - and, when she was knocked down, getting up again and trying harder. Is there anyone - regardless of their gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, age, whatever - who could fail to be inspired and empowered by that? I hope not.

Read this book. Maya Angelou wrote these poems for YOU - whoever you are.


Byrne (Vintage Classics)
Byrne (Vintage Classics)
by Anthony Burgess
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Work Of Genius, 8 May 2016
Mention the name of Anthony Burgess to most readers - even those who consider themselves well-read - and the response is likely to be "Oh yes - that's him who wrote 'A Clockwork Orange', isn't it?" Possibly only Nabokov compares as a serious author of many novels who's known almost exclusively for one: and for the same reason - a celebrated film adaptation.

Burgess wrote thirty-three novels, two volumes of autobiography, literary criticism and guides, countless reviews, articles, essays and other journalism (many of which have been anthologised), translations from at least a dozen languages and, as if all that wasn't enough, composed many musical works (in fact, I often wonder if Burgess would rather have been a composer but was, perhaps, too aware of his limitations). The first time I knew about any of his work (though I didn't know it was his at the time) was when he wrote the screenplay for Franco Zeffirelli's adaptation of the gospels - "Jesus Of Nazareth" - which was shown on TV when I was nine or ten (and, to this day, when I think about Jesus (which, as I'm an atheist, isn't often), I imagine him looking like a young Robert Powell - a small burden for me and, I'd imagine, a pretty large burden for him).

Like Nabokov's "Lolita", "A Clockwork Orange" isn't Burgess's finest work - for that accolade, I'd go for "Earthly Powers", the "Enderby" novels, or his autobiographies (which are deliciously waspish). But, when he died in 1993, he left behind the work I'm currently reviewing: a completed novel in verse form and, without, hopefully, resorting to unhelpful hyperbole, it's an extraordinary achievement.

It's written in, primarily, the same ottova rima stanzas Lord Byron used in "Don Juan" (to briefly explain: ottova rima consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming in the a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c pattern) and the "hero", Michael Byrne, has a name that's an obvious hibernisation of Byron. Like Don Juan, Byrne is a hellraiser on an epic scale; fighting, fornicating and drinking his way through life, leaving illegitimate offspring with their abandoned mothers. He's an artist and composer who leaves his wife and twin sons, fleeing first to Germany in the Third Reich era, thence to Switzerland, through America to Africa: he disappears and is thought to be dead. His sons, Tim and Tom, leading superficially very different (though fundamentally very similar) lives are summoned to London for a final meeting with their father and the reading of his will.

That's a brief summary of the "plot", though it barely scratches the surface. Interspersed throughout are ribald jokes, puns, allusions to other works of literature and writers (and it would take someone far cleverer and more well-read than I am to "get" them all - though I "got" far more of them in my recent re-reading than I did when I first read the book, twenty-odd years ago) and references to 20th century history. Throughout, I found myself astonished by Burgess's intellect, knowledge, wisdom and (hyperbole notwithstanding) genius. Like Byron in "Don Juan", Burgess has to take tremendous liberties with words in order to ensure that his stanzas rhyme and scan; but rhyme and scan they do: only a wordsmith out of the very top drawer would be able to achieve this.

Burgess was a major writer who's been sadly neglected in the country of his birth. Had he been French, his birthday would be a national holiday; had he been Irish, they'd have elected him President if he'd wanted the job. As I feel I'm running the risk of sermonising, I think I'd better finish. Read this book: you may not impress your friends, but you'll certainly (as I did!) impress yourself.


Byrne
Byrne
by Anthony Burgess
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A Work Of Genius, 8 May 2016
This review is from: Byrne (Hardcover)
Mention the name of Anthony Burgess to most readers - even those who consider themselves well-read - and the response is likely to be "Oh yes - that's him who wrote 'A Clockwork Orange', isn't it?" Possibly only Nabokov compares as a serious author of many novels who's known almost exclusively for one: and for the same reason - a celebrated film adaptation.

Burgess wrote thirty-three novels, two volumes of autobiography, literary criticism and guides, countless reviews, articles, essays and other journalism (many of which have been anthologised), translations from at least a dozen languages and, as if all that wasn't enough, composed many musical works (in fact, I often wonder if Burgess would rather have been a composer but was, perhaps, too aware of his limitations). The first time I knew about any of his work (though I didn't know it was his at the time) was when he wrote the screenplay for Franco Zeffirelli's adaptation of the gospels - "Jesus Of Nazareth" - which was shown on TV when I was nine or ten (and, to this day, when I think about Jesus (which, as I'm an atheist, isn't often), I imagine him looking like a young Robert Powell - a small burden for me and, I'd imagine, a pretty large burden for him).

Like Nabokov's "Lolita", "A Clockwork Orange" isn't Burgess's finest work - for that accolade, I'd go for "Earthly Powers", the "Enderby" novels, or his autobiographies (which are deliciously waspish). But, when he died in 1993, he left behind the work I'm currently reviewing: a completed novel in verse form and, without, hopefully, resorting to unhelpful hyperbole, it's an extraordinary achievement.

It's written in, primarily, the same ottova rima stanzas Lord Byron used in "Don Juan" (to briefly explain: ottova rima consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming in the a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c pattern) and the "hero", Michael Byrne, has a name that's an obvious hibernisation of Byron. Like Don Juan, Byrne is a hellraiser on an epic scale; fighting, fornicating and drinking his way through life, leaving illegitimate offspring with their abandoned mothers. He's an artist and composer who leaves his wife and twin sons, fleeing first to Germany in the Third Reich era, thence to Switzerland, through America to Africa: he disappears and is thought to be dead. His sons, Tim and Tom, leading superficially very different (though fundamentally very similar) lives are summoned to London for a final meeting with their father and the reading of his will.

That's a brief summary of the "plot", though it barely scratches the surface. Interspersed throughout are ribald jokes, puns, allusions to other works of literature and writers (and it would take someone far cleverer and more well-read than I am to "get" them all - though I "got" far more of them in my recent re-reading than I did when I first read the book, twenty-odd years ago) and references to 20th century history. Throughout, I found myself astonished by Burgess's intellect, knowledge, wisdom and (hyperbole notwithstanding) genius. Like Byron in "Don Juan", Burgess has to take tremendous liberties with words in order to ensure that his stanzas rhyme and scan; but rhyme and scan they do: only a wordsmith out of the very top drawer would be able to achieve this.

Burgess was a major writer who's been sadly neglected in the country of his birth. Had he been French, his birthday would be a national holiday; had he been Irish, they'd have elected him President if he'd wanted the job. As I feel I'm running the risk of sermonising, I think I'd better finish. Read this book: you may not impress your friends, but you'll certainly (as I did!) impress yourself.


Beethoven: Symphony No. 6- Pastorale / Schubert: Symphony No. 5 (DG The Originals)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6- Pastorale / Schubert: Symphony No. 5 (DG The Originals)
Price: £6.90

4.0 out of 5 stars Almost Perfect, 7 May 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
It seems like heresy to award this recording only four stars and to use the word "almost" in my headline: Bohm's reading of The Pastoral has been accepted by conventional wisdom as being the best available and most reviewers here concur.

There's nothing wrong with it, of course; nothing to criticise. The VPO play like Gods, the remastered sound is virtually indistinguishable from a modern recording and it's difficult to believe it's thirty-five years old. Bohm's tempi are relaxed and expressive and it's "proper" Beethoven - from long before anyone thought "HIP" was a good idea. The most famous, successful and celebrated conductor from a similar era - Herbert von Karajan - made several attempts at The Pastoral and never approached the perfection Bohm so nearly achieves; and if I hadn't heard one recording which is, in my opinion, better, I would be awarding a full five stars.

I think that's enough teasing. Despite my admiration for Bohm and The VPO, my recommendation for The Pastoral remains the 1957 recording by The Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Otto Klemperer.

The two recordings, in fact, sound very similar. Tempi are virtually identical and I'd imagine (though I don't actually know) that Bohm was familiar with Klemperer's recording. If I could put into words what I think Klemperer's recording has, and Bohm's lacks, I would tell you, but I can't. The best advice I can give is to listen to both interpretations and see if you agree with what I'm about to say: Bohm's recording inspires love, deep respect and unending gratitude; but Klemperer's recording inspires awe.

The Schubert 5, by the way, included on this disc, sounds wonderful but, as I lack the familiarity with the work required to offer an informed opinion, I can't say anything more about it. I know The Pastoral pretty well, which is why I have no hesitation in recommending this recording: but, unless I hear something else really special, my top recommendation will always be Klemperer.


Collected Poems: 1958 - 2015
Collected Poems: 1958 - 2015
by Clive James
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Poet And A National Treasure, 24 April 2016
Clive James. A Tribute.

When I was young, Clive James was on TV
And satirising game shows from Japan -
Who knew he was a poet? Well, not me.
A novelist and critic too: a man
Of letters, with a lofty intellect.
A friend of Amis, Rushdie, Fenton, Hitch.
He's never lost his Aussie dialect,
His poetry continues to enrich
Our English language. Now, in his old age,
As illness and affliction militate
Against him: here, to read on every page,
A record of his genius. Worth the wait.
I read his poems with envy and great pleasure:
Australia's, and Britain's, national treasure.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 22, 2016 7:50 PM BST


Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders
Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders
by Julianna Baggott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.41

5.0 out of 5 stars A Truly Great Writer, 22 April 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Oh my goodness, where to begin? This novel is astonishing.

A complex tale spanning the entire 20th century, it requires effort and concentration from the reader and - in this reader's case, anyway - will probably benefit from being re-read.

The device of using multiple narrators is an interesting one, as it allows the author to approach, and the reader to see, the same storyline from different memories and opinions. It can cause problems, though.

The narrators are different generations of the same family, and each begins with her own earliest memories. Harriet's tale begins in 1900, Eleanor's in (I'd guess) the early 1950s, and Ruthie's and Tilton's in (guessing again!) about 1975-1980. Thus a childhood memory reported by Ruthie or Tilton, at the beginning of her tale, is often recalled by Harriet towards the end of hers - which can be 200 pages further on in the book, when the reader may fail to remember the significance of it.

So I'm going to re-read the book. Not just yet though, and I'll tell you why......

I almost gave up about a third of the way in. Nothing to do with the quality of the writing, which is exemplary: I began to find the story depressing.

When Ruthie returns home after fourteen years, she finds that nothing has changed: and I mean NOTHING. The house is identical; no new appliances, no new carpets, no new decor, the windows are never opened due to Tilton's multiple allergies (most of which seem to be a figment of her mother's imagination). Eleanor doesn't work and, presumably, is keeping herself and Tilton on Harriet's royalties. Tilton has not grown up, and her mother's sole purpose seems to be to perpetuate this: the sheer pointlessness of their lives gave me a feeling of claustrophobia - nausea, even. The feeling of living in the past is accentuated by the old-fashioned language Tilton uses. She says "Sure I'm sure" and believes that callers may want to know things that are "none of their beeswax". Since Ruthie left, she's barely seen anyone other than her mother and Mrs Gottlieb, their neighbour, and doesn't have a TV. So she uses expressions her mother uses, from the 1950s and 1960s. This is all beautifully shown by the author, beautifully written, but it doesn't make for pleasant reading.

Even Ruthie, who managed to escape, hasn't got very far. She has a loveless marriage to a professor, nineteen years her senior, who's clearly more interested in her for the fact that she's Harriet Wolf's granddaughter than for herself, and who openly discusses his desire to have an affair. She's estranged from her own daughter, following the pattern of rejection throughout the generations. Harriet felt rejected, so she rejected Eleanor; Eleanor felt rejected, so she rejected Ruthie; Ruthie felt rejected, so she rejected Hailey. Anyone who has ever read Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse" will have it floating around in their head whilst reading this novel (and hoping Hailey doesn't have any kids herself!), and wondering if Baggott decided to write a novel to prove it. The inescapable conclusion to draw is that being the descendant of a famous person, particularly if one has no discernible talent oneself, is not a good thing.

So, two long paragraphs listing my problems with the book, but I'm still going to re-read it. Why? Well, for Harriet's story and for the quality of the writing. When Baggott is writing in Harriet's voice she soars, and has produced some of the finest prose I've read in a long time; and Harriet certainly has a fascinating tale to tell. Harriet is a great writer, so Baggott tells her tale in the voice of a great writer. When Tilton tells her tale, Baggott captures the slightly skewed view of the world, evidence of the mildly autistic (to a "layman" like me, anyway), perfectly. And when Eleanor and Ruthie tell theirs - how to explain what I mean? Well, I can tell they're related to a great writer and conscious of the fact: they want to write like her, but they can't and they know it. Baggott hasn't just written a novel in four distinct voices, she's made this reader believe that it could have been written by four different people. Not being a writer myself (as you can tell!), I don't know how that's done or how much skill it needs: but I suspect it needs a lot.

Make no mistake: Julianna Baggott is a truly great writer. Yes, I found the story depressing at times, didn't like many of the characters and found their lives dishearteningly stunted. But that, I'm sure, was meant to happen: Baggott knows what she's doing, and this novel is a stunning achievement. Despite my reservations, writing of this quality deserves nothing less than a full five stars.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 25, 2016 5:59 PM BST


The Hope Six Demolition Project
The Hope Six Demolition Project
Price: £9.95

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Passionate Work Of Art, 16 April 2016
Polly Jean Harvey doesn't "do" mediocre. She doesn't look for, and certainly doesn't pander to, her audience. She does her own thing in her own way, and allows her audience to find her: if they didn't, one suspects, that'd be okay by her too. Kipling's twin imposters of triumph and disaster clearly mean little to her: a sure sign of a true artist.

In our sadly misogynistic world, it takes a brave woman to attempt such an approach, and a supremely talented one to succeed. Patti Smith springs to mind; Kate Bush too. PJ Harvey is, though, possibly the finest example.

This is a proper album, in that it needs to be listened to in its entirety: collectively, it's more than the sum of its parts. I can also report, from my own experience anyway, that the listener needs to give it time and patience. After my first listen, I thought "Hmmm...... okay, but......?" My second listen, I realised what she was trying to do. My third listen, I "got" it: and, well, WOW!

Our dumbed-down, vacuous, politically disinterested, celebrity obsessed culture has allowed the media to use twee, euphemistic phrases such as "friendly fire", "collateral damage", "social housing", "economic migrant", and "globalisation" without pausing to consider what these words actually mean; and to real people, just like us. Harvey hasn't just considered their meanings, she's been and seen their consequences and, if the resulting album makes the listener feel a little uncomfortable, then so it damn well should.

Now I've discussed the album's philosophy (or, to be strictly accurate, my interpretation of it), I don't want to overlook its musicianship. There is excellent guitar work from John Parish and Mick Harvey, some sublime saxophone playing, and PJ Harvey's voice sounds - particularly in her high range, which she uses more expansively than she has before - better than ever. What could, in the hands of a lesser artist, have degenerated into a "worthy" mess of "trying too hard" has, due to Harvey's ability and integrity, become a challenging, important and beautiful work of art.

Unquestionably my album of the year, to date. Is that accolade likely to be challenged? I hope so, but I doubt it.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 16, 2016 3:21 PM BST


Raised By Wolves: Series 2 [DVD]
Raised By Wolves: Series 2 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Rebekah Staton
Price: £10.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Acting, Great Writing, Great Series, 16 April 2016
This is one of the funniest and most original comedy series shown on TV for years.

Not for the faint of heart, the prudish or the easily offended, the series is beautifully written by Caitlin and Caroline Moran, and features a wonderful cast. Many of them are making their television debuts, but you'd never know it: each actor fills his / her role so completely that you can't imagine anyone else playing it.

Helen Monks is gloriously, outrageously over the top as eldest daughter Germaine. Alexa Davies plays the bookish Aretha who, during the course of this series, develops a "girl crush" on her teacher: these scenes are so poignant and so utterly believable that you can't but ache for her. Philip Jackson has been one of Britain's finest character actors for years, and he's clearly having SO much fun playing Grampy. Likewise Rebekah Staton as mum, Della: finally, it seems, she's found a role she was born to play. And even "the babbies", Wyatt and Mariah, occasionally get a great line to deliver.

My favourite character, though, is Yoko (Molly Risker). With two elder sisters constantly hogging the limelight with their unending bickering, Yoko is often caught in the middle, or ignored. She's a quirky little soul who has her own ideas and gets on with doing her own thing, but occasionally loses her temper and stands up for herself. I suspect she's Della's, and Grampy's, secret favourite too.

As I said, this series is not for the easily offended. Some of the storylines will be found inappropriate by many, and the dialogue is deliciously un-PC. Mary Whitehouse (Google her, kids!) would have hated it; which, for me anyway, is a recommendation in itself. If you like a good laugh, enjoy great acting and brilliant writing, and are reasonably broad-minded, you'll love it.

One point of annoyance which I'd direct to Channel 4: why has the original pilot not made it to DVD? Maybe there are copyright issues. Maybe they're waiting to release it in a "deluxe box-set", which would be a little cheeky, but I'd buy it! The scene where all the kids, and their mum and Grampy, are in the car singing along to "I Touch Myself" by Divinyls had me rolling about (and joining in!), and I'd love to see it again.

Buy this DVD. If, like me, you've watched the series on TV over the last few weeks, you'll want to watch it again. If this is all new to you (possibly re-directed here from Caitlin Moran's books?), buy this and buy series one, too. It's wonderful, and I hope Caitlin and Caroline are already writing series three.


Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1950-2013
Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1950-2013
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.53

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations, 10 April 2016
When The Band performed their farewell concert at Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, on Thanksgiving Day 1976, there was a stellar cast of guest performers: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dr John, Eric Clapton, and the list goes on. A last hurrah for a supremely talented and influential group of musicians, the concert was recorded under the direction of Martin Scorsese and the resulting film, "The Last Waltz", is arguably the greatest rock documentary ever made.

That's not what I'm reviewing, of course, but buy it and watch it. And if you do, about half-way through, you'll see something that's wonderfully odd and oddly wonderful.

A middle-aged man, wearing scruffy trousers, a shirt that's too big for him and a bowler hat, sporting an Amish-style grey beard and with a comic grimace on his face shuffles onstage and recites a poem. It's based on The Lord's Prayer, but with clever, doom-laden changes ("Thy will will be undone / On Earth, as it ISN'T Heaven"). He's on stage for barely a minute, and shuffles off again.

When I watched the film, I found his performance strangely mesmerising. That was the first time I (and, I suspect, many other viewers) ever saw or heard Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I became a fan, and have remained one ever since. I found out about his life; I read his poems (and have re-read them, many times). It's debatable which is / are the most extraordinary.

Ferlinghetti was far from a young man when he appeared on stage with The Band in 1976. Born in 1919, he has recently celebrated (and I hope it was a joyous celebration) his 97th birthday. He saw service in World War II, moored offshore on D-Day, looking for German submarines. After victory in Europe, he was redeployed to the Pacific, as the USA continued its war against Japan, and served as navigator on USS Selinur. He visited Nagasaki six weeks after the atomic bomb had been dropped, and became a lifelong pacifist. He co-founded City Lights bookstore and publishers in San Francisco in 1953. He was a friend of Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg. He published Ginsberg's "Howl" and found himself prosecuted for obscenity in 1957: he was found not guilty. (God bless the First Amendment!)

And this book is a record of his travels. Fifty years'-worth of them, from 1960-2010. Back and forth, through The USA, Europe, Latin America and The Caribbean. I only wish I had the facility with words to adequately describe how wonderful it is. To do so would require a far better writer than I'll ever be, dear reader, so please take my admission of failure as a recommendation in itself.

The wondrous Patti Smith has come as close to capturing the magic as anyone is likely to, in her review of the book. On the back cover, she writes "Courageously beautiful, high-spirited and sensual, Ferlinghetti's private journals read like an unfurling open letter to the reader. One can hear his distinctive voice, our American poet and wanderer, as beloved as the land itself." (It's just occurred to me that she could have been describing herself there, but that's a subject for another review.)

Some of the writing reads as conventional diary entries, though written in Ferlinghetti's unique style. There are also many stream of consciousness narratives; the most brilliant being a parody of Molly Bloom's astonishing thoughts and feelings in the final chapter of "Ulysses". There are drawings. There are previously unpublished poems. Throughout, Ferlinghetti notices things that no-one else would notice, and writes about them as no-one else could.

I could find something worth quoting on nearly every page, but I'll restrain myself to just the one; chosen because it's one great poet paying homage to another.

"May 15 - At Laugharne, Wales.
Dylan Thomas's cliff-perched writing shed over the Taff estuary. How quiet the coursing waters beneath the screen of trees flowing up the flats, the clay shingle, the grey waters flooding, touch of green in it, moss upon the sands, among the rocks a grebe floating far out, acacia & maple by the shed - steep stone steps straight up. I stand at the top against the stone wall looking over the estuary writing this - Where now bully boy? Gone under the hill with the dancers."

When I read "Gone under the hill with the dancers", I found I couldn't read on for a while. Must have had something in my eye..........

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has led a very long, full and blessed life. In return, he has blessed the world with his truth, his honesty, his integrity and his genius. The title I've given this review, in case you were wondering, is a direct quotation. Like much of his work, the superficial simplicity reveals profound depths when given thought.

Another great, though very different, poet, W.B. Yeats (it's almost incredible to reflect upon the fact that, when Ferlinghetti was born, Yeats had yet to write some of his finest poems) wrote:

"An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress."

Keep singing, Mr Ferlinghetti. Keep singing.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 13, 2016 9:31 AM BST


Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning
by Timothy Snyder
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.49

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Historian And A Lousy Prophet, 5 April 2016
This is a difficult book to review, as parts of it are brilliant whilst others, to say the very least, are not.

The best advice I can give the potential reader is this: if you want to know about The Holocaust, do not make this the first book you read. From that advice it goes without saying, but it's important enough to say it anyway, that you should certainly not make this the only book you read. In saying this, I'm not trying to present myself as some kind of expert, because I'm not. I have, however, taken a keen layman's interest in the subject for more than twenty years, and have read enough books about it to feel disquiet when alarm bells ring. And ring they did: during the course of this review, I'll explain why.

The prologue and introduction are the best parts of the book, and could have been expanded and elaborated upon. In them, Snyder offers a well-reasoned analysis of Hitler's worldview and his desire for "lebensraum". Germany hadn't been a united country 'til the 1870s and, unlike Britain and France, it didn't have an empire: the few African territories it had held were occupied by the allied powers during World War I, and transferred to British, French and Belgian control by the League of Nations. In Hitler's view, Germany needed an empire as it couldn't feed its population from its own soil, and there was nowhere to go but East: to Poland and Russia, land of the Slavs. Hitler blatantly said this many times (and wrote about it in "Mein Kampf"), which didn't matter when he was an obscure revolutionary, seen by most Germans as a raving lunatic, and incarcerated in jail. The world crash of 1929, the collapse of The Weimar Republic, and an ailing President Hindenburg combined to create the conditions under which he came to power and, when he did, there could be no doubt that he'd meant what he'd said.

Similarly with Hitler's antisemitism. Snyder offers a concise and persuasive analysis of the views expressed in "Mein Kampf". That the history of the world was a struggle between races, but Jews were not a "race" as such, as they had no homeland. Jews were scattered throughout the world, and Hitler expanded the myth of the "international Jewish conspiracy" that had first been written down in "The Protocols Of The Learned Elders Of Zion". Jews were blamed for the Russian revolution. Jews were blamed for the international capitalism that had collapsed in 1929 and led to German penury. Jews were vilified for their "otherness" and the fact that they kept to themselves. They were also vilified for their assimilation and the fact that they had infiltrated all levels of German society and all aspects of business and culture. In short, Hitler's antisemitism was a mass of contradictions, half-baked theories and blatant lies which could not survive reasoned analysis: but Hitler knew that there was no easier way to unite a people than to present a common enemy. A prosperous, satisfied population wouldn't have fallen for it. A country riven by hyperinflation and destroyed by mass unemployment swallowed it whole.

Jews did not "invent" the concepts of charity and mercy, but were the first people to write about them and present them as desirable human characteristics. Hitler hated the very concepts of charity and mercy, seeing them as a subversion of the natural order. He believed that the strong should conquer, and then eliminate, the weak: charity and mercy allow the weak to survive, even prosper. Snyder writes "Hitler's basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilisation. It was rather that humans were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption. The very attempt to set a universal ideal and strive towards it was precisely what was hateful." and by so doing, encapsulates Hitler's philosophy in a nutshell: brilliant.

Snyder is equally perceptive in his analysis of those states which were first conquered by The Soviet Union and later by Germany. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had allowed the Soviets to invade the Baltic states, Eastern Poland and parts of Romania. The populations of those territories had, as Hitler knew they would, by and large collaborated but, when Germany invaded, were anxious to see the Germans as their "liberators" from "Judeobolshevism". Who were the real collaborators? The Jews, of course. Thus, Snyder shows, the first Jews to be slaughtered en masse were those Jews in lands "liberated" from Bolshevism, with the enthusiastic participation of the local populations. Virtually every Jew unfortunate enough to live in a land "liberated" from the Soviets by the Germans was murdered. There was a much higher survival rate in the countries of Western Europe that were invaded by Germany but hadn't been Soviet vassals first: France, The Netherlands and, especially, Denmark, where Jews couldn't be blamed for Soviet collaboration. This was all new to me, I must admit, but it explains so much: Snyder's logic here is faultless.

All so far so good, so what about my objections and those troublesome alarm bells? Well, by writing what I've written so far - thinking out loud, essentially - I've come to the conclusion that Snyder is excellent at telling us what actually happened, and equally excellent in his analysis of how and why it happened. Where he, in my opinion, falls into serious error is in his attempts to apply the lessons of The Holocaust to our modern world. As a historian, he has great value: as a philosopher, political theorist and prophet, he's out of his depth.

At the close of an otherwise thoughtful and worthy chapter about those who chose to rescue Jews at great risk to themselves, Snyder writes "If these rescuers had anything in common (......) it was self knowledge. When you know yourself there is little to say. This is worth brooding upon as we consider how we, who know ourselves so poorly and have so much to say about ourselves, will respond to the challenges to come." Who is this "we", then, Mr Snyder? Presumably the "we" who don't mind being collectively patronised.

Snyder posits the argument that the greatest challenge to the future of the planet is global warming. He may have a point, but he barely mentions Islamic fundamentalism which, I would argue, is a far more immediate challenge and far more likely to lead to genocide. He presents Vladimir Putin as the new "bogey man" in terms so farcically "reasoned" that, several times, I had to re-read a passage because I couldn't believe what I'd just read. Apparently, Putin's support for several far-right parties in Western Europe (which is disputed anyway, and Snyder doesn't offer any evidence whatsoever for his claims) means that "In 2014 and 2015, Putin rehabilitated the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact". Really, Mr Snyder? Such a ridiculous statement is unworthy of a serious historian. He goes on to say "Moscow generated a new global scapegoat - the homosexuals. The new Russian idea of a "gay lobby" responsible for the decadence of the world makes no more sense than the old Nazi idea of a "Jewish lobby" responsible for the same, but such an ideology is now at large in the world." Well, Mr Snyder, I haven't heard of it. Nor, I suspect, has anyone else. There's no doubt that Putin is an authoritarian, but I would argue that his response to the threat of ISIS has been more pragmatic (basically, in helping the Assad regime, he's chosen the very bad over the far, far worse) and more effective than the response of the EU or NATO. Snyder clearly has an agenda here, and it does him no credit.

There will never be another Jewish Holocaust as long as the state of Israel exists. And Israel will continue to exist as long as it has an overwhelming military superiority over its neighbours. Beware those who blame Israel for the ills of the world. Substitute "the Jews" for "Israel" in their arguments, and you'll realise that they're old-fashioned antisemitism of which Hitler would have been proud. Again, and rather tellingly, Snyder doesn't mention this aspect of the modern world at all. I wonder why?

In conclusion, before this review becomes as long as the book, I'd say this. Read it for a concise history of what happened and an often brilliant explanation of the "how" and "why". But be aware that, when Snyder stops telling us about the past and tries to predict the future, he is, to put it mildly, extremely unreliable.


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