Pity Mark Z. Danielewsi's copy editors. With each book, he pushes the bounds of what it means for something to be a "book" further and further. Surely...morePity Mark Z. Danielewsi's copy editors. With each book, he pushes the bounds of what it means for something to be a "book" further and further. Surely, editors and readers thought when reading his creepy and affecting House of Leaves, with its colored type, its pages and pages of concrete poetry, words twisted in shapes, words that formed a literal physical (as well as psychological) labyrinth, surely this can go no further.
Well, he's gone further.
The Fifty Year Sword is intended to be read on a device capable of displaying multimedia. That engendered dread in me, because I had a vision of cheesy full-motion videos embedded in every other page. Instead, what we encounter is a series of bespoke (mostly) text animations, a few moving and breathing line drawings, and some understated and appropriate ambient music.
Setting aside all of the frippery, all of this is draped around a short and simple fable, a tale of sadness, rage, lust, revenge, and perhaps even, just maybe, a little love. The work would have made a fine short story without the multimedia. But taken as a whole, the extras work well to enhance the story, rather than distracting from it. I enjoyed it immensely.
"It was...a symmetrical convenience – for Stalin – that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union."
Martin Amis opens his very personal history of Josef Stalin, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million with a quote from Robert Conquest's book on the the Terror-Famine.
We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in this book.
That sentence represented 3,040 lives. The book is 411 pages long."
Amis belongs to a particular literary circle that is more inbred than the most backward hillbilly clans in Appalachia. They self-congratulate, they self-promote, they review each others' books, and they never seem to tire of writing about the 1980s in London. One must always approach anything by this clique with caution, as if engaging a drunk at a party, because you never know when they will ambush you with tiresome insider rubbish. One moment you'll be engaged in sparkling repartee about Sir Richard Burton's Arabian Nights, and then suddenly you're listening to a pointless ramble about the time James Fenton got really drunk and threw up on the doorstep of The New Statesman, and you have to start looking for excuses to leave the party. I completely fabricated this example — but if you've read any of their works you know that it might have been true.
I am willing to forgive Amis his lapses into inside baseball. Why? Because his sentences are beautiful. Because he is a compelling prose stylist. And because you can recognize his writing from just a few sentences.
"But that is want they want, the believers, the steely ones, that is what they live for: the politicization of sleep. They want politics to be going on everywhere all the time, politics permanent and circumambient. They want the ubiquitization of politics; they want the politicization of sleep."
I approached Koba the Dread with some trepidation also because the reviews of it in the mainstream British literary press were so universally tepid, and surprisingly negative. Now, with the benefit of having read the book, one can see the level to which the criticisms are not political, or even literary, but personal. Certainly one might forgive this of the late Christopher Hitchens, since after all Amis includes a chapter written to him in the book, and — gently but directly — indicts him. When punched, it's fair game to punch back. But this excuse doesn't extend to those such as Johann Hari (am I allowed to be publicly amused at his fall from grace?) who mix valid criticism of the work (Amis interpreting Stalin's crimes from a personal perspective come off as somewhat lightweight) with purely personal ad hominem (of course Amis' book isn't any good, because Hari didn't like his father.)
"I was in my late twenties when I first realized–the moment came as I read a piece about Islam in the TLS– that theocracies are meant to work. Until then I thought that repression, censorship, terror and destitution were the price you had to pay for living by the Book. But no, that wasn't the idea at all: Koranic rule was meant to bring you swimming pools and hydrogen bombs. Collectivization, similarly, was meant to work. Stalin had earlier expressed doubts about the "Left-deviation" (i.e., extremely doctrinaire) attitude to the peasantry: its policies, he said, would "inevitably lead to ... a great increase in the price of agricultural produce, a fall in real salaries and an artificially produced famine." And his preparations for Collectivization, in the initial burst, were frivolously lax. Yet Stalin believed that Collectivization would work Collectivization would astonish the world. This was a Stalinist rush of blood. And that is how Stalinism is perhaps best represented: as a series of rushes of blood."
Other criticisms of the work center around the choice of topic ("Who, today, are the Stalinists who must be denounced?") and the appropriateness of Amis as the writer. Amis relies heavily on the works of Robert Conquest, whose book The Great Terror remains the most encyclopedic treatise on the topic. Why not just read Conquest?
Amis himself is not coy about his credentials: he presents himself as a novelist who has read "several yards of books about the Soviet experiment." He does not pretend to be Robert Conquest, but rather someone writing a book that summarizes and distills the horrors that he's read about and tries to grapple with certain questions. Among them, why were so many seemingly otherwise intelligent Westerners seduced into sympathizing with the Soviet experiment in the face of the pile of corpses it produced? Why can people so easily joke about Communism, when it is so much more difficult, comparatively speaking, to joke about Nazism? And why, in world where the name Stalin is only somewhat less reviled than the name Hitler, do people still speak admiringly of Lenin and Trotsky ("a nun-killer", opines Amis), who were no less brutal in their aims, albeit more limited in their capabilities?
"Some prominent comrade further remarked that only then, when Communism ruled the earth, would the really warm work of class struggle be ready to begin....And I instantly pictured a scorpion stinging itself to death. Scorpions have of course been known to do this–when surrounded by fire, for example. But where is the fire, on a Communist planet? It is a fire in the self. It is self-hatred and life-hatred. After all, the scorpion has an excellent "objective" reason for killing the scorpion: it's alive, isn't it?"
The central part of Koba the Dread is concerned with the events leading up to the Great Terror, including the numerous famines and the Party machinations that resulted in Stalin taking power. Amis makes the argument that this became inevitable years before, around the time of the Kronstadt rebellion when the Bolsheviks realized that they did not, in fact, have any meaningful support among the workers they claimed to represent. Kronstad made it clear, even to Lenin, that World Revolution was not about to happen. And so the Bolsheviks decided that if the People weren't going to support the revolution, than the Party itself would have to safeguard it. By murdering the People the revolution was on behalf of, if necessary. The Party, in other words, became its own raison d'être, and from this point some result similar to the Terror became inevitable. Although Stalin did manage to be truly impressive in his brutality. To quote Amis, "when Stalin wished for a death, then that wish came true."
This core of the book is shocking to anyone whom, like me, was not acquainted with the breadth and depth of human misery the Great Terror encompassed. As Amis observes, all of us would say we feel that the Holocaust was "worse" than the Terror. But if called to account for this based strictly on numbers and the horror of personal stories, I think any of us would be hard-pressed to reduce that feeling to a cogent and consistent explanation. From that perspective, I think that Koba the Dread is an important book. It takes a topic that I would be willing to wager most Westerners simply don't know much about and distills it into an emotional blow that can be absorbed, and that will leave the reader thinking for days.
Wrapped around this core are some of Amis' personal recollections - the death of his sister Sally, some struggle understanding his father's move from a dedicated Communist to that of a dedicated right-winger, and all of this wrapped up with not a little guilt about his many happy years running in a social circle that was (and, honestly, still is) all too happy to make excuse after excuse for the Soviet experiment, despite the piles of corpses. While I understand Amis' need to provide a framework to hang the core upon, it does, in my opinion, weaken the work somewhat. It may have been cathartic for him to create that frame, but next to the edifice of Soviet dead, any such frame will appear trivial at best, and petty at worst.
Despite my reservations about the framing, I think that Koba the Dread is still an important work, and one whose importance will only become apparent some years from now - after the cocktail party clique grows old and is forgotten, and what remains is an exploration into the depths of pain and degradation into which ideology can drag us.(less)
Paul Greenberg charts the exploitation and decline of four fish - wild salmon, European sea bass, cod, and bluefin tuna - in this thoroughly depressin...morePaul Greenberg charts the exploitation and decline of four fish - wild salmon, European sea bass, cod, and bluefin tuna - in this thoroughly depressing work. Much of the book is spent channelling representatives from various commercial fishing operations, or alternatively from environmental groups. Some attention is paid to the question "so, if we shouldn't eat these fish, what should we eat?". (Spoiler: Greenberg says barramundi, tilapia, and "kona kampachi", a trade name for almaco jack)
The book comes alive only when Greenberg stops quoting and instead talks about his own ambiguous relationship to these fish as an amateur fisherman. Beyond those parts, I'd have much preferred to have read a distillation of his thesis as an article in the New Yorker. But, and I say this without intending to be cruel, that would require a writer who has more eloquence than Greenberg.
My recommendation: unless you are obsessed with the topic, skip this one.(less)
"With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa" is E.B. Sledge's autobiography of his role in two unspeakably bloody battles in the Pacific theater of Wo...more"With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa" is E.B. Sledge's autobiography of his role in two unspeakably bloody battles in the Pacific theater of World War II. At Peleliu alone the Marines suffered losses in excess of 10%; the Japanese on the island 11,000 strong, were annihilated to nearly a man.
Many, if not most, of the most storied books about war come from one of two perspectives: from that of the officers who lead it, or from historians writing after the fact. With the Old Breed is written from the point of view of an enlisted infantryman. This fact suffuses the entire book with a particular bitterness that, once read, is instantly recognizable. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and the memoirs of Robert Graves, written thirty years earlier, have the same anger. There is patriotism here, and a sense that Sledge is fighting in a good cause, but it is coupled with an anger against his own officers, and indeed against the whole bloody fact of war, that defies any simplistic catcall of "my country right or wrong." That Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory and not an author known for wanton log-rolling has spoken of With the Old Breed as "one of the best memoirs to emerge from any war" is surely an indicator of this.
Sledge's description of the enlisted man's relationship with the officer class runs through the narrative like a thread. It's not that there are no good officers - Sledge tells the story of many officers, some excellent, some terrible - but he recognizes that the fundamental job of an officer is, when necessary, to get his men killed.
"Yeah, some goddamn glory-happy officer wants another medal, I guess, and the guys get shot up for it. The officer gets the medal and goes back to the States, and he's a big hero. Hero, my ass; gettin' troops slaughtered aint' being no hero," said a veteran bitterly."
Sledge recognizes that this isn't as simple as an infantryman might make it -- "Actually, in combat our officers caught just as much hell as the enlisted men. They also were burdened with responsibility." But the tension between officers and enlisted men always lies behind every event retold in the book. This becomes particularly evident in Okinawa, at which point many of the enlisted men are veterans, and many of the officers are green. At the height of the Okinawa campaign, this is shown in brilliant relief in a fabulously tense moment when a veteran corporal on Sledge's mortar team, staffed by veterans of Peleliu, disobeys a direct order to hold fire (telling his lieutenant to go to hell in the process).
The writing in With the Old Breed is not, as they say, Great Writing; that is one way in which it differs from the elegance and eloquence of Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. it is simple writing, with little to recommend it stylistically. But that's not really the point of the book. Its status as a detailed firsthand account of the brutality and viciousness of the war in the pacific is enough to guarantee it a place on the bookshelves of great books about World War II.
Brutality is a theme Sledge treats with repeatedly, and explicitly. The brutalism is not just that which is inflicted on them by the enemy (and Sledge does not play down the visceral and racial aspects of this), but is a process that leads both ally and enemy alike down into a race to the bottom. "My emotions solidified into rage and a hatred for the Japanese beyond anything I ever had experienced. From that moment on I never felt the least pity or compassion for them no matter what the circumstances.") It is this moral decay that informs Sledge's bitterness about what the war did to him and his fellow soldiers.
The war had so brutalized us that it was beyond belief.
I noticed gold teeth glistening brightly between the lips of several of the dead Japanese lying around us. Harvesting gold teeth was one facet of stripping enemy dead that I hadn't practiced so far. But stopping beside a corpse with a particularly tempting number of shining crowns, I took out my kabar [knife] and bent over to make the extractions.
A hand grasped me by the shoulder, and I straightened up to see who it was. "What are you gonna do, Sledgehammer?" asked Doc Caswell. His expression was a mix of sadness and reproach as he looked intently at me."
"Just thought I'd collect some gold teeth," I replied.
"Don't do it."
"Why not, Doc?"
"You don't want to do that sort of thing. What would your folks think if they knew?"
"Well, my dad's a doctor, and I bet he'd think it was kinda interesting." I replied, bending down to resume my task.
"No! The germs, Sledgehammer! You might get germs from them."
I stopped and looked inquiringly at Doc and said, "Germs? Gosh, I never thought of that." ... Reflecting on the episode after the war, I realized that Doc Caswell didn't really have germs in mind. He was a good friend and a fine, genuine person whose sensitivity hadn't been crushed out by the war. He was merely trying to help me retain some of mine and not become completely callous and harsh."
The book is a bracing tonic to a civilian political culture whose contemporary knowledge of patriotism and warfare is limited to saccharine flag-waving of the most infantile sort. Sledge volunteered for the Marines when he could have sought a college deferment. He believed in what he was doing, and went to the fight willingly. But he never ignores what the war cost him, and his comrades, in human terms. Beyond the loss of life and limb, the war took away people's souls, and Sledge writes on that loss on almost every page.
With the Old Breed is not the book to read if you want an overview of the strategic and tactical aspects of the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa. But it is unparalleled as a personal testimony of the filth, misery, and utter wretchedness of war. It is hard to read. And that might be the most important reason to read it.(less)
The Defense of Duffer's Drift is a fascinating little book that anyone can read in a short afternoon. Written by Capt. Ernest Dunlop Swinton around th...moreThe Defense of Duffer's Drift is a fascinating little book that anyone can read in a short afternoon. Written by Capt. Ernest Dunlop Swinton around the dawn of the 20th century, it is a meditation on small unit tactics, based on experience gained in the Boer War.
The most fascinating thing about the book is its insouciant tone. The protagonist, Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, has a dream in which he is given command of 50 men and told to defend the ford to a river. Arriving with his men, he sets up a perimeter, is generally irresponsible, and the unit is subsequently attacked by the enemy with disastrous results.
The next night, Lieutenant BF has the same dream — only this time, he remembers what he did wrong the last time, and so corrects those mistakes. Again, his unit is attacked and is lost, although slightly less ignominiously than before. This Groundhog Day scenario plays itself out six times. Each time it is replayed, BF learns something new, and helpfully summarizes it for the reader, ("Do not, if avoidable, be in tents when bullets are ripping through them; at such times a hole in the ground is worth many tents.")
Dunlop obviously intended the book for a military audience; it reads as though he wrote it for his friends. The prose is conversational, easygoing, and unpretentious. Whether the tactical lessons in the book are still valuable and operative I am not qualified to judge. But as a method of getting into the mindset of a turn-of-the-century British infantry officer, it's quite effective.
The book is available for free as an eBook from Project Gutenberg here.(less)