Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor

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Most of us know either a little or next to nothing of the experience of war (thankfully), and its futile, pointless waste of life, destruction of society (mentally and physically) and the indescribable horror it creates and ultimately leaves behind. Stalingrad will give you an vivid, terrifying and insightful taste of that experience.

Stalingrad is probably the finest book of non-fiction I have read on the subject of war, without it being overly academic or wordy. Anthony Beevor spares us none of the horrors of the battle but also brings a very human dimension to the warfare, through letters and recollections from the combatants on both sides. Beevor has an incredible ability to take you (from the comfort and safety of your armchair) right into the heart of the action and give you an experience of the truly horrific and dehumanising nature of the battle.

The battle of Stalingrad took place between 1941 and 1942 on the vast open steppes           of southern Russia between the invading German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red army.             It was one of the most brutal conflicts of WW2 and left tens of thousands of combatants and civilians dead or wounded.

The battle could be categorised as not just a military battle but also as a clash of ideologies: Stalin’s Communism against Hitler’s National Socialism. Two ideologies that differed in some ways but ultimately were very similar breeding grounds for totalitarianism.

Beevor explores and explains the aims, ambitions, paranoia and the absolute lack of humanity of these two brutal, narcissistic dictators. Their egomaniacal lust for total power and control cost in and before WW2 cost millions of lives throughout Europe and the Soviet Union.

Hitler and Stalin both incessantly interfered with the military strategies of the battle, this created even more misery and chaos for the soldiers and civilians involved. Neither of these men knew anything about military strategies and operated purely on hunches, paranoia or egotistical delusions and any generals who dared disagree where belittled, dismissed or worse!

Stalin’s purges before the war cost the Red Army thousands of it’s finest officers and strategists, so when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Red Army was in total disarray, leaderless, completely at the mercy of the paranoid whims of Stalin and his equally brutal head of state security Lavrentiy Beria.

The Germans were in total control of the war in the Soviet Union in early 1941, they were in striking distance of Moscow, the and Red Army were on their knees, demoralised and beaten when fate intervened or should I say Adolf Hitler. Hitler ordered the advance on Moscow to stop and ordered his forces to head south to the oilfields of the Caucasus mountains and fatefully Stalingrad.

The two huge opposing armies were eventually camped on opposite sides of the river Volga which Stalingrad sits on the banks of. The battle was a savage one even by Eastern front standards. The Germans initially held the upper hand and their brutality towards Soviet civilians but at Stalingrad and right across the western Soviet Union would come back to haunt them over the few years as the Red Army murdered, pillaged and destroyed all on their victorious path to Berlin.

Naturally the battle started to turn the Soviet’s way during the winter as German fuel and supply lines became ever more stretched .All of this was caused by Hitler’s constant, illogical and eventually catastrophic interference which meant his armies got increasingly overstretched and annihilated by the now reorganised and strengthened Red Army.

Stalin (despite his own reckless interference) gained the upper hand, with his massive superiority in manpower and industrial output proved to much for the Germans. Soviet and German generals showed no mercy to the enemy or to their own men, who were used as cannon fodder, especially by the Soviets.

The two sides were merciless with prisoners, many were shot on the spot, sick and wounded were very often left to freeze to death on the Steppes in the middle of the harsh arctic like winter. Men on both sides were monitored and punished by brutal special units and secret police. The Soviets had NKVD and Smersh and the Germans had the SS and the Feldgendamerie. Men were interrogated, tortured and murdered by these units regularly for cowardice, desertion, and lack of ideological fibre be it Communist or National Socialist.

The final play was Hitler refusing to let Field Marshal Paulus’s sixth army retreat so it linked up with German forces that were further back behind the frontlines. The sixth army was surrounded by the Red Army and starved, bombarded and near annihilated. Many thousands of men died unnecessarily because of Hitler’s hubris , pride and lack of humanity.

The battle of Stalingrad was a massive turning point in the war, the Germans were now in full retreat and were driven back into Germany relentlessly and brutally over the next three years. It was Hitler’s Waterloo, ironically he didn’t learn the lessons of Napoleon’s equally disastrous campaign into Russia two hundred years earlier.

Stalingrad is an incredible and moving tribute to the futility of war written in a novel like fashion which makes it very readable despite the brutal facts of the battle. I would recommend this book highly 10 out of 10.

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

how we fight for our lives

I love a good autobiography/memoir. It’s a window into someone else’s world and the experiences they’ve lived. Unfortunately, in this book, very little of interest actually happens, and that is my main complaint.

Jones is somewhat a cause celebre as a poet (although he is mainly known as someone who works for Buzzfeed) and this was eagerly anticipated and highly lauded, however, plainly, it is just boring. It was very short, and even then, it was a struggle to read. As I mentioned, very little out of the ordinary happened – Saeed struggled with his sexuality and his relationship with his mother – and when figuring himself, had sex with lots of people. That’s about it. And to be honest, not really enough to base a memoir on.

A flimsy, unsatisfying and utterly dull read.

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Room Little Darker by June Caldwell

room little darker

A very strange collection which revels in assembling a band of misfits, outcasts and deviants. When Baloo urged Mowgli to look under the rocks and plants to take a glance at the fancy ants (and maybe try a few), it was towards a greater awareness of the natural world and all its constituent parts he was pushing his pupil. When Caldwell peels back official Ireland’s urbane and sophisticated sheen, we get a look at an Ireland that exists, I’m sure, but I don’t feel any the wiser for it. If I can run with the Jungle book analogy for the moment, there was an edifying aspect to Baloo’s teachings, a straining towards comprehending the world as many, and yet as one. Room little Darker notes that there are many shades of green that walk among us, some of them tragic, but the abiding sense from the collection is of a kind of voyeuristic nihilistic glee. The prose is scratchy, at times memorable, but for me fails to come together in the grander, indefinable sense that gives meaning to the collection. Rather, all we get is a a string of grimy ditties; pained people leading painful lives.

The Autiobiography of Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes by Scott Frost

my life my tapes

The first thing I downloaded when I got broadband (remember when that was a new thing that was just being introduced) was Twin Peaks. I had heard so much about it but never seen it, and once I did I fell deeply in love with its strange beauty, a love that remains to this day.

Having read the other books (The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, The Secret History of Twin Peaks), this was one that has been woefully out of print (and I’m not sure why – The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer was reprinted a few years ago) since its first publication in 1991. Thankfully, the internet doth provide, and I was delighted it did.

This book is wonderful. Documenting Dale’s life from his childhood right up to when he enters Twin Peaks for the first time, it is a beautifully written book that captures Dale’s voice perfectly. The book purports to be a transcription of his tapes throughout the years, from his very first when his dad gets him a tape recorder as a child, and if tiny Dale isn’t adorable.

Lots of fascinating info here, and a first hand account of “what went on in Pittsburgh” which became really important to have fleshed out in the second half of Season Two! If you can get your hands on a copy, I would recommend it, although the cheapest secondhand copy I can find is $90, but if you’re a true fan, as Dale himself would say: “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present!”

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

her body

Having read her simply stunning memoir, In the Dream House (reviewed here), I sought out this, Machado’s first book that launched her into the literary world.

This collection of eight short stories – the shortest about ten pages long, the longest a novella of 60 pages – is probably unlike anything you’ve ever read, as it was for me. Machado mixes horror and fantasy and science fiction in a contemporary way that is uniquely her own, completely literary and utterly, utterly strange. From souls being sewn into expensive dresses, to a diet gone horribly wrong, to a writers residency turned terrifying, these stories are intense and beautifully (and playfully) written, grabbing you and holding you in a headlock as they unfold.

My favourite story was actually the one I started out not liking at all, the longest one: ‘Especially Heinous’. Presenting itself as short descriptions of each of the 272 episodes of Law & Order: SVU, it very much becomes its own thing, a weird story of Benson and Stabler’s exploits, including a main thread where two doppelgangers – who seem to be better at their jobs – Henson and Abler, are running over the city just out of their reach.

Odd, affecting and recommended.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

normal people

A divisive novel, both personally and socially, by which I mean, I am still not sure how I feel about this book and indeed, I often  catch myself revising my opinion about it, but also divisive in the sense that I have sat in on a large number of arguments among friends about the novel’s merits.

On reflection, this novel is a bit like a radio or TV advertisement that has horrifically catchy jingle. You hate it passionately but reserve a great deal of respect for its creator. The novel’s protagonists are extremely irritating, who make frustrating decisions, have frustrating conversations and lead frustrating lives. They struggle in late adolescence and young adulthood through genuinely traumatic and trying circumstances. However, at this point, reality starts to exhaust itself for Connell and Marianne, and many of their social circle, seem to embody a fetishised version of college going Irish young people whose origin I am not certain of. For all I know, they may very well have stumbled inebriated out of a Hollywood film. They’re all beautiful, they have lots of sex, they’re incredibly smart, and they’re all troubled and disaffected (but in a cool way). For this reason, rather than earning my empathy, I veer towards regarding them with ridicule.

But, I have to assume that this is all part of Rooney’s design. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this novel has reacted in a similar fashion to what I’ve outlined above, although I should note, some have not and argue that her depiction of life for a certain cohort of Trinity students to be spot on. You could never accuse the novel of inconsistency. You do get a sense that Rooney is in control here, and that every word is carefully chosen.

What I did struggle with was the quasi-YA aspect to the novel. The style, while meticulous, can be at times a bit drab and full of the understated melodrama of teenage angst, which is another irritant.

For all my irritation though, it’s a book that gets under your skin. I’m just still not sure if I liked it.

The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

faceless

Welcome to Night Vale is a bimonthly podcast set in the fictional town of Night Vale, where all manner of weird and wonderful things live and happen. One of their recurring characters, and fan favourites, is The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home (yes, that is her name), and she is voiced by Mara Wilson (the little girl – now grown up – who was the little girl in Matilda and all those other 90’s movies).

I was a bit hesitant to get this book. Their first novel, Welcome to Night Vale, was utterly brilliant and incredibly moving. Their second, It Devours, was – well, I hated it. So I didn’t know what this would be. What it is, essentially, is an historical novel about piracy that tells the story of her life.

Growing up alone with her father in an estate (which was her dead mother’s, not her poor father), she discovers that her father is involved in criminal enterprises (we are in the 1800s here) and seeks to join. A lot happens that I won’t spoil, but she ends up going on a series of adventures that are great fun, beautifully drawn, with some excellent supporting characters.

What I loved about this book, without spoiling anything, is that it doesn’t go where you think it will. It takes the tropes of these books – the historical novel, the seafaring novel – and circumvents them, and ultimately, this book is a sad book about a person destroyed, literally losing herself and becoming faceless, the terrifying Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. It is a book about love and revenge and is very much recommended (and, you don’t have to have listened to Night Vale, or read the previous books to read it!)

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

anna

I have never written a book review before.   I’ve verbally enthused about a book, anything by Jane Austen is up there at the top of the list J and of course I am happy to read other authors!  However, if a book doesn’t grab my attention / affection within the first few pages then it won’t be read.   I really hate not finishing a book so this might explain why I stick to what I know!

It was suggested to me that I read Anna Karenina.   I admit that it was never on my radar, maybe I was intimidated by Tolstoy, or just the size of the book and so, as I thought at the time, I took on the challenge. Challenge?  It was a challenge to put it down!   Those of you who have already read it know how brilliant it is.   If you haven’t read it yet, then I envy you the fabulousness that awaits you.   I will read it again but it’s not the same as reading it for the first time.   As Dolly says when trying to come to terms with Oblonsky’s infidelities “the first explosion of jealousy once past could not be repeated”.   In the same vain, with reading a book, first is best.

There are very intellectual reviews about this book, this is not going to be one of those. Yes, it is about families, economics, things that were absolutely applicable in the era and are also applicable now, studies of life, love and despair and everything in between.   Life for the people back then had just the same highs, lows and worries as it does now.   And it’s all packaged as a wonderful read.

What appealed to me, what I loved about it was the ‘turn of phrase’, the beautiful, descriptions…..

Part 2 Ch13: “On the Thursday the wind fell and a thick grey mist rose as if to hide the secret of the changes nature was carrying on”.

Part 3 Ch26: {Levin} brought back as he always did after a day’s shooting, a splendid appetite, good spirits, and the stimulated mental condition which in his case always accompanied physical exertion”.

Part 4 Ch7: (Levin talking to Oblonsky…. landing on deaf ears I’m afraid J)   “Just think, this whole world of ours is only a speck of mildew sprung up on a tiny planet; yet we think we can have something great – thoughts, actions! They are all but grains of sand!”

Part 5 Ch31: (Anna with baby Anna)   “The plump, well nourished baby, as usual when she saw her mother turned her little hands – so fat that they looked as if the wrists had threads tied tightly round them…. waving them as a fish moves it’s fins”.

Part 8 Ch17: “The wind obstinately, as if insisting on having its way, pushed Levin back”.   “A white curtain of pouring rain……”

I loved the sarcasm and (unintentional) humour….

Part 1 Ch3 (Anna about Countess Lydia Ivanovna)   “But it is really funny; her aim is to do good, she is a Christian, and yet she is always angry and always has enemies – all on account of Christianity and philanthropy!”

Part 1 Ch34 (Vronsky’s 2 different sorts of people “in his Petersburg world”)

“One – the inferior sort – the paltry, stupid, ridiculous who believe that a husband should live with the one wife to whom he is married….. that one should pay one’s debts and other nonsense…..old fashioned ridiculous people.

But there was another sort of people: the real people to whom he belonged….well bred, generous, bold, gay, and to abandon themselves unblushingly to all their passions and laugh at everything else”.

Part 2 Ch7 (Princess Myagkaya: Her husband said that Karenin was a remarkable statesman!)

“If our husbands didn’t talk we should see things as they really are; and it’s my opinion that Karenin is simply stupid.…..I thought I was stupid myself because I was unable to perceive his wisdom, but as soon as I said to myself, he’s stupid (only in a whisper of course), it all became quite clear”.

Part3 Ch20 (Vronsky about Anna)

“….she was for him a woman worthy of as much, or even more respect than a legitimate wife.”

Part 7 Ch20 (Oblonsky lamenting that he lived in Moscow and not Petersburg)

“In Petersburg children did not hinder their father’s living”.

Part 8 Ch16   (Levin’s brother (Kaznyshev) on the decision to go to war with the Turks)

“Well, if you want to gauge the national spirit arithmetically, of course that is very difficult to do! Voting has not been introduced in our country, and cannot be because it does not express the people’s will”.

I loved the observations of people’s behaviour.

Part 2 Ch3 (Kitty crying on Dolly’s dress)

“As if tears were the necessary lubricant without which the machine of mutual confidence would not work properly between sisters, after having had a cry they started talking of indifferent matters and in so doing understood one another”.

Part 2 Ch8

“Karenin was being confronted with life….. He had lived and worked all his days in official spheres, which deal with reflections of life, and every time he had knocked up against life itself he had stepped out of its way.”

Part 5 Ch7 (Vronsky meeting Golenishchev in Italy)

“Vronsky would never have thought he would be so pleased to see Golenishvhev, but probably he was himself unaware how bored he was”.

There is a quote at the desk in Ballyroan Library, it says “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are”.  Never more true than now, when we really have to stay put.

In the past few weeks I have been in the depths of a cold Moscow winter, sweated in the heat on a shooting expedition in the Gvozdevo marshes, been to Italy with Anna and Vronsky (not a pleasant experience), been over and back between Petersburg and Moscow several times, been involved in discussions and ponderings I never would have imagined, some enjoyable, some a little wearying, but all giving food for thought, and all in the company of some wonderfully witty and interesting friends.

The book is not just about Anna, she wasn’t even my favourite character.   It’s about much more than that.   I had no idea of the story before I read it and so, at different stages I had the privilege of imagining that things would turn out different.   Needless to say I loved it, and would totally recommend it to while away a few ‘isolation’ hours.

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” ― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

This Life: A Novelisation by Sam Colman

this life

Back in the mid-90’s, I knew this was the show for me when my elder sister, who also watched it herself, was appalled that 14 year old me was watching it. But how could I not, it was everywhere. The first series, on its repeat airing, in the run-up to the second, became the biggest TV show in years. Set in London, in a townhouse which five lawyers shared, it was about their messy loves and lives, but there was a honest queerness that I responded deeply to, in the characters of Warren and Ferdy.

So, when I saw this novelisation, I knew I had to have it, despite worrying that, honestly, it would be terrible, because if you’ve read a novelisation before, you’ll know – unless they’re written by novelisation standouts like Alan Dean Foster – they’re usually uniformly terrible.

This, however, delightedly, was not. Written by William Sutcliffe, under the pen name Sam Colman, who had then recently published his first novel, New Boy, it manages to capture the tone of the series very well. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the series, so I’m not sure how much was lifted directly from the script, but I liked the addition here and there of some inner thoughts of the characters – I had forgotten how much of a homophobe Miles was (which, of course, was there in the series).

Honestly, a rollicking good read that I would recommend to fans of the series, who can certainly pick this up for cheap now, and relive their favourite tv series from back in the day!

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You can reserve a copy online from South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

Monopolies of Loss by Adam Mars-Jones

monopolies

I have read bits and pieces of Adam Mars-Jones, including his excellent novel from the 90s, The Waters of Thirst. This collection of short stories predates that (1992) – I stumbled across it on Kenny’s Bookshop’s secondhand section and had to have it.

Firstly, it’s a collection of stories about AIDS, and boy, if that wasn’t a weird book to be reading at the start of quarantine in this pandemic. I felt like I was transported back in time, back to another disease that people didn’t understand, that people used as a weapon against others for the own personal gain, or bigotry.

Adam Mars-Jones, to be honest, writes lines so beautifully that I could read him write about paint dry and he presents nine stories (eight about AIDS, although some don’t even, purposely, mention the word, and the first, Slim, is a character’s personal nickname for the disease). Prescient, scary, this book is fully of relationships ending, of people trying to move on, of a real world that is distant and remote from their lives. It is a book, to put it bluntly, that is spookily about now.

Recommended.