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review 2018-03-19 05:31
Absolutely tore through this.
Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace - Masha Gessen

It's pretty rare for me to chew through non-fiction this fast, but I couldn't put this one down.


The storyline follows the lives of the author's grandmothers, both Jewish one from Moscow, one from Poland, from their birth through to the present day, with a focus on how they survived WWII and Stalinist Russia. The book illuminates their careers, their loves, their children. It shows better than anything else I've read what living in Russia int eh '40s and '50s felt like, and at its heart it's about choices.


At the very centre of the book, in terms of page count, are a set of potentially conflicting accounts of the actions of Gessen's great grandfather, who was an elder in a Nazi-run ghetto in Poland. The information is unclear, possibly contradictory. Was he a hero or a collaborator? What choices did he make? What choices did he have? How did he die? Each option is explored, conclusions are implied.


The ghetto story a microscale of the rest of the book, in which his daughter and the woman who will eventually be her best friend, the mother of the girl his grandson will marry, make those choices their whole lives. What is folding to the state, compromising your ethics, protecting your family, staying alive? Do you turn away a job for the secret police if that job will keep your baby from starving? If you do, what then? If you don't, what then?


I'm making this sound unrelentingly grim, and certainly bad things happen in it and the central characters suffer, but both of these women lived and even thrived in a hostile state, built careers and families, and have children and grandchildren who did the same. Maybe at it's heart it's also about growing potatoes on Mars: survival against all odds.


The writing itself is gorgeous and compelling. I hadn't run into Gessen before, aside from an essay that pointed me to this book, but I will be reading them again.

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text 2018-03-18 16:28
Reading progress update: I've read 6 out of 396 pages.
The Wrong Stars (Axiom) - Sean Pratt

took a chance on this after spotting it while browsing, then went off and nervously dialed up some reviews...no longer nervous, at least right now: all reviews I looked at were positive! and I could use some exciting space opera.

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text 2018-03-18 15:52
Reading progress update: I've read 100 out of 320 pages.
Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights - Melanie Windridge

Ah! Eric Donovan - Professor at Calgary University of not phoning you at the agreed time for a job interview, thereby ruining your Easter holiday, and making pathetic excuses about it afterwards. You will note I don't work for him...

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review 2018-03-18 13:49
Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Sherlock Holmes - Andrew Norman

Arthur Conan Doyle - Beyond Sherlock Holmes, Andrew Norman's biography of Arthur Conan Doyle is one of those books that got off to a rocky start with me and I should have DNF'd after the Preface. 


However, I wanted to know how preposterous the book could actually get, or, ever so hopeful, if the premise set forth in the Preface was just an unlucky and sensationalist choice of "bait" that would be abandoned in the course of Norman's investigation of ACD's life. 


As I don't want to string anyone along, the book did not improve after page 11, which is where the Preface ended. In fact, if anything it got worse. So, if you plan to read on this short collection of thoughts about Norman's biography of ACD, you're in for a bit of a rant.


To recap, the Preface of the book seems to say that Norman's focus in this biography will be to explore what motivated a reasonable, logical fellow to believe in such ridiculous concepts as spiritualism and fairies, and the last paragraph of the Preface suggested that Norman's conclusion was that Doyle must have suffered from a mental illness:

Not only that, but this illness was itself a hereditable disease, in other words, one which Charles may have handed down to his son via the genes. Suddenly I realised that I now had an opportunity to solve what I consider to be the ultimate mystery, that of the bizarre and extraordinary nature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself."

This was the in Preface! I don't know about other readers, but unless I am reading an academic text where the expectation is that the conclusion is summarised in the prefacing abstract, I am not looking to have the author's assumptions stated as facts on page 11 (!) of what I would hope to be a gripping biography of an extraordinary personality. 


Strike 1!


Next we get two (yes, TWO!) short chapters on Doyle's childhood, which are mostly pre-occupied with his the difficulties that his family had to cope with - mostly his father's alcoholism. There is, in fact, little about young Arthur in these chapters.


Following this we get no less than ten (TEN!) chapters about Sherlock Holmes. Not just about the writing and publication of the Sherlock Holmes stories but actual interpretation of Sherlock as a character - all substantiated with apparently randomly selected quotes from the different stories. 


Seriously? A book that carries the subtitle of "Beyond Sherlock Holmes" should not focus on the one topic that the subtitle seems to exclude. What is more, there are only 25 chapters in this book in total. Norman has spent 10 of them on Holmes. That is preposterous. 


Strike 2!


Luckily, we get back to ACD after this with a brief run down of his involvement in actual criminal cases, where he managed to prove vital in overturning two miscarriages of justice, and his work and life during and after the First World War. 

Unfortunately, there is nothing new or detailed in this, and the focus and ACD is superficial. Norman uses these chapters to write about ACD's father's illness and time in various mental institutions, surmising at what kind of psychiatric condition he suffered from. This, however, can only be guesswork on Norman's part. Charles Conan Doyle was hospitalised privately. There are few actual medical records. What is more,even if there had been medical records, the areas of psychiatry and medical treatment of addiction or mental illness in the 1890s was still in its infancy. The recording and diagnosis of cases of people who had been hospitalised or committed can hardly be described as reliable. And yet, Norman, with the help of The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry (by Michael Gelder, Paul Harrison, and Philip Cohen) dares to presume to make a diagnosis of what illness may have plagued Charles Conan Doyle, and has the audacity to infer that Arthur Conan Doyle may have inherited the same potential for mental illness because in one of his works he wrote that he knew, rather than believed, that fairies existed!


What utter, utter rubbish!


And, btw, I kid you not, but the The Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry is referenced throughout the relevant chapters as the ONLY source to back-up Norman's ideas.




Never mind that spiritualism was an actual thing in the early 1900s and that ACD was not alone in believing in fairies and magic and the paranormal. Instead of investigating ACD's interest, Norman's work in this book is not just superficial but outright lazy. He simply regurgitates the same outrage and disbelief over how a man of sound mind can belive in something fantastic. With this book, Norman simply jumps on the gravy train of sensationalism and continues an outcry over the notion that an author of fiction may have believed in something other than hard facts.


I can't even...


Fuck this book. (Note: This is Strike 3!)


Seriously, I have no idea what Norman's other books are like, but he seems to have written several other biographies featuring Charles Darwin, Agatha Christie, Robert Mugabe (seriously???), and others. 


None of which will ever end up on my reading list.


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text 2018-03-18 12:42
Reading progress update: I've read 88 out of 320 pages.
Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights - Melanie Windridge

The Sun from core to solar wind: Feels like the "Curse of Knowledge" has struck pretty hard; I can follow well enough with my extensive physics background but I wonder how well a naive reader would do. Much better in the travelogue/history/culture parts.

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