Top positive review
Almost brilliant, but I wanted more.
on 20 March 2017
This is a fascinating book but I wish the author had held back a little less.
The idea behind the book is superb - a collection of pen-pics of the most intriguing people Rees has met during his long career working as a historian. Most publishers seem to prefer the whole narrative history thing, which is a shame as more books like this would be instructive. They're tied together thematically, with a short intro into each section. The choices are also excellent, and I can imagine that Rees had an almost endless catalogue of interviews to choose from. Some are obvious, but most have an added extra something that makes the choice far more illuminating than much of the material that gets published.
Importantly, the book asks questions of the reader, and brings them into the world and dilemmas and choices of the interviewee.
Why, then, only four stars? Well for some readers - for instance an 18 year old looking for a bit more nuance as they get to grips with some of the larger aspects of the Second World War - this is absolute five star and superb. For me, though, it was a bit over-simplistic. Perhaps because there are not many books like this out there I wanted more out of the interviewees: more detail, more background, more personal interpretation of those big questions about what others would do in the same position. Rees gets in, picks up on crucial details, explains what needs to be explained, then gets out. Those with a more in-depth appreciation of the historical issues and controversies are left wanting more. The four stars is more about my frustration that I wasn't the audience than anything else!
One other thing: I did find that Rees also stopped short of allowing himself full appreciation of the personal dilemmas faced by the Nazis in his story. Yes, we understand the gravity of what happened in the name of National Socialism. But Rees seems to feel it necessary with the Nazi interviewees to include a 'well of course he would say this but he's in denial about his true guilt' type of statement. This jars a little bit, and is maybe another reflection of the most appropriate reader being younger and less surefooted.