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review 2018-08-04 02:47
The human side of an epic battle
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 - Antony Beevor

Though the Second World War was decided in battles waged over several years and in multiple regions, the most important front of the war was the one in eastern Europe. There the German war machine which had conquered so much of Europe with seemingly little effort was ground down in an extended clash against the Soviet Union. Millions of soldiers not just Germans and Russians, but Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Croats, Italians, and others fought and died on an unprecedented scale, with the slaughter ending only with the final defeat of the Nazi regime in the ruins of Berlin.

 

While numerous battles defined the course of events, the decisive clash on the Eastern Front came in the autumn of 1942 in the city of Stalingrad. There the German Sixth Army fought a grinding campaign to conquer the industrial center, only to be encircled by a surprise Soviet counter-offensive in November. Debilitated by the twin forces of battle and winter, tens of thousands of troops surrendered in February 1943, inflicting the greatest defeat yet suffered by the Third Reich. One of the strengths of Antony Beevor's history of the battle is in its detailing of the experiences of the men who fought and died on both sides. Drawing upon letters, diaries, and other records, he describes the nearly unimaginable conditions they faced during their long months of struggle against each other. To this he adds a perceptive explanation of both the events leading up to the battle and how is was that the sides sustained such a debilitating effort, both on the national and personal level.

 

By clearly detailing its events and recounting the lives of the soldiers who fought in it, Beevor has written an excellent history of the battle that is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand it. And yet the book falls short in one important respect. For while Beevor conveys well the human side of the conflict, it doesn't quite capture its truly epic nature. Scale is missing, as the war-defining nature of the event lost amid the stories of the men and the details of the campaign. While the effort to do so would result in a very different book, perhaps only then might it be possible to fully appreciate the importance of the titanic struggle waged there, both for the people involved and for the broader war itself.

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review 2018-07-28 01:41
MAUS I: MY FATHER BLEEDS HISTORY by Art Spiegelman
Maus I : A Survivor's Tale : My Father Bleeds History - Art Spiegelman
Powerful story told through the eyes of the cartoonist son of his father who tries to survive WWII.  The family is Jewish and the story is of their lives before WWII and the Nazi takeover of Germany to the time the man and his wife are separated at Auschwitz. 
 
It is a hard story to hear how the survivors made it through and what they did to survive.  Done though graphic novel format does not lessen the horrors or the fear.  Going between the past and today, the story shows the contrast between the generations of survivors and their offspring.  It shows how those experiences continued to influence the present life for those who made it. 
 
This is not a book that will be left behind.  I will remember it.  I also want to read part 2. 
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review 2018-07-07 12:36
A fantastic book, didactic, entertaining, and moving. Great images and fabulous writing.
The Third Reich in 100 Objects: A Material History of Nazi Germany - Roger Moorhouse

Thanks to Alex and the rest of the team at Pen & Sword for providing me a hardback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have always been fascinated by antiques and collectibles, not so much for their monetary value, as for the stories (and the History) behind the objects. As museums prove, objects can make us feel closer to other cultures and eras, creating a tangible reminder of lands and times distant from ours. Some objects might have an intrinsic interest (they are made of valuable materials, or by well-known artists), others are interesting because of their owners (kings, queens, or famous historical figures, like writers, inventors, artists…), and others because of what they represent. Although no objects are good or bad in their own right, they become infused with meaning through the use they are put to, and they can make us feel all kinds of emotions, from delight to abject fear.

In this book, the author has collected a hundred objects to give us, as the subtitle states, ‘A Material History of Nazi Germany’. And he achieves his aim with flying colours. The author is an expert on the period and has written many books about Hitler and Nazi Germany, and although I’m sure different people would have chosen differently, the selection he has put together gives the reader a good understanding of all aspects of life in Nazi Germany. We find personal objects, both of the Nazis (from Hitler’s paint box and his moustache brush to medals, decorations, and death cards) and their victims (the well-known Judenstern [the yellow star Jews had to wear), a forced labourer’s ‘Work Card’, or Sophie Scholl’s Matriculation Card [a member of the White Rose resistance movement]), objects that illustrate everyday life under the regime (ration cards, a gas-mask, the devaluated German banknotes, Hindenburg Lights…), examples of propaganda (The Schattenmann [the shadow man, a warning against talking about military secrets], a variety of posters including one for the propaganda anti-Semitic film Der Ewige Jude, the Great German Art Exhibition Catalogue, and the many imposing buildings), objects directly related to the war, including weaponry (planes, tanks, bombs, even the V-2 Missile) and documents. Each object is accompanied by a brief note (around a page or so) explaining its origin and putting it into context.

Richard Overy’s introduction sets well the project of the book and its author and emphasises the importance of image for Hitler and his party. This becomes increasingly evident as one progresses through the book, where there are ample examples of uniforms, symbolism (like their use of runes, the swastika, and the German eagle), badges… The writing is both informative and compelling, and it varies to suit the nature of the object. Sometimes it is descriptive and fairly neutral, but at others, it is impossible to read without feeling grief, sadness, and/or anger. The book has the advantage of not following a narrative thread, whereby it is easy to read in fits and starts, and readers can pick and choose the objects they are interested in, or go through them all, as I did. If we read it from beginning to end, the objects form a chronological history of sorts, as we start with objects that reflect the beginning of the regime, and eventually get to weaponry and documents from the very end of the war. The last object is Göring’s cyanide capsule, so you get the idea.

There were objects I was familiar with, and others that I knew about but had never seen (for example, the iron bed of a psychiatric asylum, that, as a psychiatrist, I found particularly moving and horrifying), and some that were complete surprises, like a Hitler Elastolin Toy Figure, the Mutterkreuz (a cross given to mothers who had 4 children or more. The author summarises it thus: It signified, in effect, the politicisation of the German womb, [Moorhouse, p. 109]), or the very cute ‘Goliath’ miniature tank (sorry, but there are some lighter moments as well. In case you feel curious, you can check it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goliath_tracked_mine). What I was more impressed by, apart from the quality of both, images and writing, was the way these disparate objects and the narrative behind them managed to give me a good sense of what life was like at the time, without having to read tonnes and tonnes of pages full of dry information. This book illustrates well the power of images. I have read plenty of books set on that era and watched many movies that take place in the same historical period but seeing the real objects helped me feel closer to the action, the people, and the events than I had ever before.

I recommend this book to people interested in the history of the period who are not big experts on it and don’t want an exhaustive account of battles and events. I also recommend it to anybody thinking about writing a book about the era, or people who design sets or work sourcing props or designing backdrops and objects for theatre, television or film. There is plenty of material to inspire numerous productions, and it is all collected in a single, easy-to-read, and well-indexed volume, with notes that facilitate further research tasks. Another winning volume published by Pen & Sword.

A quick note: my version of the book is a hardback copy, but I’ve checked the e-book version and the images are as good as those in the print version (although depending on the use you are thinking of giving it, you might consider what suits you best, as there’s little difference in price between the two versions, but this varies depending on the store).

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review 2018-04-25 21:07
Compelling WWII historical fiction, coming-of-age and M/M love story, and a fascinating backdrop.
The Artist and the Soldier. A Novel - Angelle Petta

When I was approached about the possibility of reviewing this book, I was fascinated by the historical background behind it, which I was not familiar with. A book combining World War II, Nazi summer camps in the US, the filming of a movie by Vittorio De Sicca in Rome during the war, and a love story, had to be a winner.

The author manages to combine a coming-of-age (both male protagonists, Max and Bastian, are very young at the beginning of the book) and love story with a fascinating historical background. The two youths meet at a Nazi summer camp in New York. Both their fathers are German and want them to grow up aware of their heritage. Max and Bastian are, in many ways, mirror images of each other, opposites that, indeed, attract. Bastian looks German (blond, tall, strong), is impulsive and always excels when it comes to sports, and outdoor activities, whilst Max takes after his Italian mother, is quiet, and has the soul of an artist. They both suffer trauma and have difficult childhoods, although in different ways. The unlikely pair becomes close and Bastian supports Max when tragedy strikes, although things take a bad turn, and they end up separated by life and circumstances.

They go their separate ways, and we keep waiting, convinced they will meet again. Bastian is still daring, impulsive, and is plagued by self-hatred and doubt. Max, who has always been more accepting of his own identity and has become stronger and more determined, has been living in Italy, has studied film, and finds a great opportunity to help Italian Jews. He takes part in the project of filming a movie under the protection of the Vatican and comes up with the idea of offering them contracts there. De Sica is determined to keep filming for as long as he can to keep all those people safe, and this historical fact provides a fascinating backdrop to the story of the two lovers.

The story, told in the third person, follows the point of view of the two male characters first, and later we also get to read about the adventures of Ilsa, Bastian’s sister, a fantastic character, from her point of view. She is strong, a fighter, and is determined to find her brother, no matter how far she has to go and what she has to do. Her experiences as a nurse during the war are gripping, and she keeps working despite terrible personal loss, hardship, and deprivation. Her character allows us to see things from a different perspective and also provides us more background into Bastian’s character, that is, perhaps, the most complex of the book, at least in my opinion.

Although the love story is central to the book, this is not a light and easy book to read. Apart from the tragedy and the terrible events that happen during the war, there is child abuse, mental illness, bullying, and the novel does not shy away from the unsavoury aspects of life. The characters are not all good and perfect either, and they sometimes do things that are questionable, while at others they can behave like true heroes.

The writing beautifully conveys the emotions of the characters, the setting (Rome as an open city provides a great backdrop), and the relationships, without going over the top with the descriptions, and ensuring the story keeps moving at a good pace. Being a big movie fan, I would have liked to read more about the filming of the movie, but the author refrains from getting sidetracked, and the guest appearances by the actors of the film and the interventions by De Sica are all the more enjoyable for being kept under control and not overwhelming the main story.

I wanted to share a couple of quotes from the book:

“Travel safely, signora. It is a dangerous world we are living in.” Her world had always been a dangerous one. A gun instead of a fist, a war instead of an irate father, her present didn’t feel so different from her past.” (This reflection belongs to Ilsa, Bastian’s sister).

Did something as inconsequential as film belong in this new world? It was De Sica who’d helped him see his misconception. “We need film, and music, and art, more than ever now,” De Sica had said. “These mediums help us remember that we are humans living in a world filled with monsters. What we are doing here is not frivolous. It is saving us, our humanity.” (Max questions his vocation, but De Sica comes to the rescue).

The ending feels appropriate and fits in well with a love story. It shows that both characters have grown and learned to accept who they are and what their relationship means. Other issues are resolved as well, and although some of the coincidences and the way the characters always seem to be in the right place at the right time require some suspension of disbelief, this does not go beyond the expectations for the genre.

In an end note, the author explains the conception of the story and clarifies that although Max, Bastian, and Ilsa are creations of her own imagination, the historical events and backdrop are accurate, and she has used her fictional characters as a conduit to tell the story. I believe this would be a great selection for book clubs, as there is much to discuss and many interesting aspects that will attract readers of different types of stories.

I recommend this book to readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in WWII, Italian cinema, and love stories with complex protagonists. I look forward to following the author’s career in the future.

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review 2018-04-15 15:31
Holocaust Day (a little late) remembrance
I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror - Pierre Seel

Horrible what hate does to people, makes them bestial and vicious and base. Seel saw all of that, from his entry into the list of homosexuals kept by police to his arrest and deportation. Gay people in concentration camps were not accepted and cared for as were other prisoners, they were victimized by the others as well as the guards.

 

What is it that you hate so much, straight people? Christian, Jewish, Muslim people? What in your souls says "I hate" so loudly that even your big bully imaginary friend hates too?

Well, anyway, after an amazing wartime changeup and a forced conversion to straightness in the 1950s, Seel finally came to peace with himself in 1981 and, in 1994, finally wrote down the painful facts of his past.

 

It's not easy to read, but I wish I could make every religious person and every anti-gay bigot read it. I can't, so there's no point in going on about it. If something in you thinks that it's okay to say "sure fine be *that way* but ewww don't talk about it" then you're the reason books like this are necessary.

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