Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book Review Blitz

There are a that I’ve read over the year that I’d like to recommend. Since I read them a while ago, and had no idea I’d be blogging, I never took notes and my memory isn’t clear enough for a full review of them. So I thought I would do a quick hit blitz of books that I particularly enjoyed.

I’m a big fan of Amazon. It’s a great place to buy for the discounts and for the reference software they have. If you create a profile, they will recommend books that fit your reading pattern. I have found so many great books this way.

So here are a few I recommend:

Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler
Many people recognize this title but it seems not many people I talk to have read it. An old Bolshevik revolutionary, Rubashov, now a Soviet official, is falsely accused of treason and sent to stand trial. It is a fictional account of the famous Stalinist Show Trials of the 1930’s. The party wants him to publically confess to trumped up crimes before his execution. How do they get him to do it? This is a brilliant book about idealism and humanity.

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
After reading Darkness at Noon I went out and bought this Stalin biography. It’s an account of life inside the Kremlin with Stalin’s top officials and his inner-circle. As the back cover says: “Who were his Himmler, Goring, Goebbels? How did the ‘top ten’ families live?” The paranoia, intrigue and executions. What was behind the decision making? … Stalin was an evil genius.

The Company, by Robert Littell
This was a beautiful accident. I picked it up on a whim at the bookstore. I had never heard of it or the author. It’s a fictional account of the CIA from its foundations in World War II through to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The tragedy is the pattern of American meddling. The CIA, for example, encouraged a revolt in Hungary in ’56 and an attack on Cuba in ’61 both with disastrous consequences for people they were trying to help. The weakness of democracy is that it’s hard to see projects like this through when the going gets tough. The Soviets are much better at espionage but their system was ultimately unsustainable. Littell wrote a follow up novel, Legends, continuing with the CIA after the Cold War. Though shorter, it is just as great.

Tides of War: A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War, by Steven Pressfield
I was sold on Pressfield after Gates of Fire, the historical novel about the famous battle at Thermopylae in 480BC between the Spartans and Persians. In Tides of War, he gets more ambitious and covers the prolonged Peloponnesian War 431-404BC between Sparta and Athens, from the Athenian point of view. At first I couldn’t help but think of it in a 20th century context: Britain (Athens), a democracy and great mercantile sea power, vs. Germany (Sparta,) a rigid, authoritarian society with a fearsome land army. However, I came to see it as an examination of the flaws of a democratic power when trying to fight wars. The Spartan general, Lysander, has a speech on how to defeat the Athens demos not by big victory but by holding off and playing for time. “For every hour we deprive the foe of victory is another we turn his own strength against him.” North Vietnam said the same thing about the Americans… A bonus about this book is the wonderful maps of the Mediterranean, in and around ancient Greece, to help you follow the battles.

Berlin Noir, Philip Kerr
Another wonderful accident, this is three novels in one. They are about private investigator Bernie Gunther during the late 30’s in Nazi Germany. As I mentioned before on this site, I enjoy the noir genre, and with Berlin as the backdrop I knew I had to buy it. Gunther has witty one liners that surpass Chandler's Marlowe. Many top Nazi officials make appearances. The Nazis had a gothic/occult revival going, with Himmler as the main enthusiast. Kerr exploits this to the fullest.

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