I am astonished that this book was published, utterly gob smacked that it won the Booker. It is badly written, has a plot as thin as a pancake, a "twist" that is hilariously predictable and a feeling of boredom that pervades both the narration of the protagonist and the mind of the reader. There are many books where there is a slight plot, but there is usually great writing that compensates for this. The Blind Assassin has neither.
This is widely held to be the best new history of WWII. Published after the declassification of wartime archives we get a very detailed assessment of the war on all fronts. Beevor is a very highly respected historian and I previously enjoyed his history of the Spanish civil war (although I did not finish it) and I still want to read his definitive history of the siege of Stalingrad.
He tends to fall into his old habits of dwelling on detail. So (and this is not a real extract) he would report on a naval battle: “The Allies lost two warships, three torpedo boats, five destroyers, two mine layers, in total 5,472 lives. The Germans lost eight warships, six torpedo boats, twelve destroyers, four mine layers, in total 10,724 lives.” All very interesting but I think “an overwhelming victory” would have sufficed. He does this throughout the book and it is what caused me to stop reading the Spanish Civil war – he believes that the value of the book will be undermined if he is not exhaustive in his detail, whereas his detail is really just tedious.
When he raises his sights to the big picture and describes the personalities and the global motives of the great generals he is quite brilliant. Ruthlessly unbiased he spares no one, whether Churchill, Roosevelt or any of their generals. He sticks very carefully to a chronology and deals with the war in chunks of time, shuttling between the European theatres of war, the Pacific and China. He critically analyses the motives and manoeuvres of every significant battle and describes the plans, their execution and their consequences with fascinating clarity. This is a technical history, not a human one.
I have read other books about WWII and this one - for the first time – exposed me to the following which I found surprising:
The extent to which Poland suffered – first at the hands of the Germans, then the Russians and finally, as a result of diplomatic betrayal, by the allies. I had no idea just how vicious the Germans were towards them.
How close Roosevelt was to Stalin. Roosevelt hated colonialism and he felt Churchill represented all that was reprehensible in the British dominion over its colonies. Although he did not approve of communism, he thought he could charm the pants off Stalin and turned a blind eye to much of Stalin’s misdeeds, to the detriment of what Churchill was trying to achieve. To the extent that the shape of post-war Europe and the misery suffered by Eastern bloc countries under Russian rule was very much a design endorsed by the USA acting against the better judgement of the UK.
Stalin was unbelievable. It becomes clear that all dictators have a similar pattern of action: start by defining the enemy as “inhuman” and then treat them like animals. When your troops encounter XYZ they will not consider them to be humans so will not hesitate to minister on them the most hideous crimes imaginable. And those targets deemed “inhuman” can change several times during the course of the war depending on your needs. This dehumanisation of other nations is well known, but it was not until I read this book that I understood how inhuman he was towards his own people. There is an instance where he needed to demonstrate Russian resistance against German attackers (I think in Leningrad). In one area there were no Russian soldiers left, all the ammunition was used up, there were no weapons and still he felt he had to resist. So he commanded that anyone able to fight do so. They really had nothing more than their bare hands but they were expected to fight tanks. This was aimed at slowing down German progress and using up their ammunition. Needless to say it was a complete slaughter. He cared nothing for any other life – his own people or those of his enemies. Similarly, when Hitler survived the assassination attempt by Von Stauffenberg he not only butchered the conspirators but killed their families too – more than 5,000 in total.
The extent to which humans illustrated their inhumanity towards their fellow man is simply astonishing. Shooting people seems too simple. There has to be rape, torture, starvation, infection with chemical and biological agents, experiments, cannibalism and systematic slaughter. All these hideous crimes (and many more) are described in detail. And almost no nation is immune from atrocities – either suffering them or committing them.
Operational incompetence was another surprise. The ratio of bombs dropped as opposed to those landing within 1 kilometre of their target is unbelievably low. A Russian soldier was heard to say “When the Germans drop a bomb we duck, when the Brits drop a bomb, no one ducks (i.e. it hits the target – the opposition), when the Americans drop a bomb everyone ducks!” The Americans were the most inaccurate of the war. There was a town in Belgium close to the German border that was repeatedly destroyed by friendly bombing.
Egos of Generals was the final surprise. On every side there were egos so big that they would endanger the lives of many thousands of men just to be the first to enter a city. They would trigger the deaths of their own troops just to outdo a colleague; they would risk losing a battle to ensure great press coverage. And the suffering they would inflict on any conquered people was incredible.
By the end of the book one is weary of death. Between 60 and 70 million people were killed in the war. Around 5-6million were Jews in concentration camps and ghettos. The numbers of dead soldiers seems difficult to calculate with any accuracy. The rest we civilians caught in bombing raids, murdered by rampaging troops, slaughtered after being gang raped, or – most typically – dying of starvation after being besieged by the enemy or having their crops taken away to support troops at the front. Needless to say suicide was rife.
I would really recommend this book for its thorough coverage and for the perspective it gives on the whole war. The writing is dry and unemotional and there are few individual human stories, however it is technically brilliant and for that it is worth reading.
The narrator is superb and his German and Russian pronunciation is excellent.
I must be getting old or intelligent. Probably just old. The classics are getting better and better and I am enjoying them far more than some of the supposedly good new writing. I struggled through Wuthering Heights as a student, I had other things on my mind. This time it was swift, powerful and fascinating. It is now obvious why the novel is prescribed in most literature courses (either university or school). Bronte tells a story of outcasts and obsessions – rural England: wind-swept, harsh landscape sculpting cruel and sociopathic creatures who are as violent as they are passionate. Heathcliff, the foundling, is shunned by all except his adoptive father. He spends most of his adulthood wreaking revenge for the ridicule and pain inflicted by his siblings and servants. Bronte draws her story beautifully through the eyes of a servant, Nellie Dean, and through the naive city dweller Lockwood. They are allowed to peer into this weird world and to observe how a childhood friendship can become an adult obsession that can destroy several lives. Truly great writing with dense imagery. It raises important, fundamental questions about the rights of women and the power of men.
I believe that Mervyn Peake is one of the best writers I have read since Charles Dickens. He draws characters like none other. His eye for detail and the weirdness of his characters is probably attributable to his being a fine artist in the first instance and a writer second. His biography also states that much of his Gormenghast world is based on his experiences of vast and ancient castles as a child growing up in rural China where his father was a doctor and missionary.
Clearly Titus Groan and Gormenghast (parts one and two of what was to be a series of books) are masterpieces. I have raved on about them, their characters and – to a far lesser extent – their plot. The final book, Titus Alone, should have been the culmination of this vast saga. Again Peake flourishes his craft, but almost immediately one realises something is amiss. The story is fragmented, the timescale confused, the flow is jerky with abrupt, apparently unrelated scenes. There is little cohesion and Peake manages to paint glimpses of people and startling episodes which are not linked in any cohesive way. One gets the impression that the book consists of sketches which will one day be written into a properly structured whole.
Although Titus has fled from Gormenghast and finds himself in another world and in another time altogether the reader soon becomes aware that the characters are merely shallow replicas of the Gormenghast crew – he is a master of character, but it is as if he has created all the characters he can and now churns them out time and again with little variation. The overwhelming impression is one of chaos and surreal anarchy. All of this makes sense when one understands that Peake was in a rapidly declining phase of dementia when writing the book and although still relatively young (about 50) he was losing his mind and would soon be in a home for the rest of his short life. His mental condition reflects in the delirium of his writing. We can only mourn that such a magnificent talent was taken too soon.
After two really poor books I reverted to the classics – and it was good. Tolstoy is a great writer – even in translation his mastery of language, imagery and characterisation is unquestionable. The book really does not seem long – there is a pace and drive about the narrative. Quite simply, it is a picture of late 19th century Russian nobility and the social pressures brought to bear on individuals when they dare to act in favour of their hearts instead of convention. We witness the progressive mental decline of Anna as opium, guilt and societal pressure corrode her consciousness. There are also fascinating sub-plots which reveal the growing sense of discomfort that some landowner felt about the exploitation of the peasants. There are also some tedious passages about the rural land management mechanisms but generally it is clearly an outstanding piece of literature. The narrator, David Horovitch, is the best narrator I have ever heard on audio. He brings out the subtleties of the text and bring the characters to life - a superb actor.
I read this book. This book is about a kid and his ma. They live in a room. The room is small. The story is told by the kid. The sentences are short. The story is predictable – that is a big word for a five-year-old kid. They are trapped in the room. The kid does not know about the outside. Then one day he does. And then the rest of the book is about the outside. And then the kid discovers things like trees, and dogs, and showers, and nurses and then I simply could not control my bowels any more and stopped reading this pile of steaming ... I am not sure what happens in the second half of the book – maybe there are angels, Martians, heroes. I don’t know and I don’t care to find out. The writing became just too tedious to tolerate. Imagine reading an entire book written by a five-year-old. A wonderful experiment, maybe, but that is like having to eat the cooking experiments of a five year old – everyday, for every meal, for a long time. Sooner or later MacDonalds is going to win. The only positive thing is the narrator – the child is simply brilliant.
I don't think anyone gets closer to Dickens than Peake when it comes to characters. There is no one who can compare with the way he draws the weird and wonderful world of Gormenghast. His plot is a little thin, mostly, and he is incapable of increasing his pace - even when the tensions and action reaches "fever pitch" the events are captured in slow motion. This is not irritating, but rather amusing and it leaves one more time to wallow in the glorious, graphic, intricate and incomparable writing. This should be required reading for any aspirant author. I have also picked up a new favourite saying, thanks to Dr Prune-Squallor when he sees his rather desperate and sad sister toffed up for a social occasion "by all that convulsive ..." . Looking forward to the last in the series.
The narrator is superb as usual. On a technical level the recording leaves much to be desired. There are several instances where a passage is repeated instead of being edited out - at one point it was about 3 minutes. There are also long silences. This points to a lack of attention to detail but not to the overall enjoyment of the masterpiece.
With all the fuss about 50 shades I thought it would be good to go back to the most contentious novel of its time - and one I had never read. Lawrence uses the sex to illustrate two worlds clashing: the sophisticated, well-informed and utterly sterile world of the landed gentry in post WWI England and the earthy, honest, horny world of the staff working for them. It is a predictable plot, but the characterisation is what sets it apart. DHL creates vivid characters with real concerns, vital passions and sometimes hopeless lives. He writes with intimacy and this has led to the huge reaction from critics and sensors. You'd get rougher language on the back of a Sunday newspaper but you'd have none of the social commentary and the carefully dissected social structure. Go on and read it - if you can wrestle it away from your granny. The narration is absolutely fantastic - it is sometimes difficult to imagine the speaker is a woman, her modulation is so dynamic. Extra Brownie points to Veronika Hyks - much of the enjoyment of the novel is due to her acting ability.
As a Bryson fan I have thoroughly enjoyed his books and was looking forward to his insightful and irreverent treatment of this noble subject. He lived up to expectations with a rather concise account of the life, times and work of Shakespeare with generous dollops of sarcasm, humour and derision thrown in. It would have been a splendid piece of work had Bryson settled for a professional narrator (as in Short History of Nearly Everything). Instead Bryson's clipped, clumsy and poorly enunciated voice is intrusive and jarring. What a pity. I hope the publishers consider another edition with a trained actor as narrator.
With all the field work and research available to him Diamond stands at the brink of what could be the most fascinating and significant popular science book of the era. He brings together so many disciplines to show macro trends, chaos theory, the power of germs in fashioning human history. It could all havee been absolutely mind changing. Sadly Diamond is not Bill Bryson. He has a scientific mind and a scientific compulsion for being comprehensive. Where Bryson can spin a story out of a proton, Diamond gets mired in a repetitive catalogue of insights applied meticulously yet tediously to every possible place, time and civilisation. I would really love someone else to re-tell this - someone who has the ability to convert the linear into the prosaic. I gave up after about 50%.
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