A World War II novel that barely mentions America at all... since it's more or less been lost to American history that the Soviet Union was the countrA World War II novel that barely mentions America at all... since it's more or less been lost to American history that the Soviet Union was the country that kicked Germany's ass and stopped their encroaching empire. The story focuses slightly less on the war and more on the human stories from the war, concentrating on Soviet Russia and Fascist Germany, using quite a few obscure (to me, at least) historical figures as characters. Vollmann points out that in a war between ideologies like Soviet Communism and German Fascism, whomever wins still loses.
This is a book that might properly be called historical fiction in the non-Harlequin Romance sense, since plenty of the dialogue and events have been culled from history's sources. Real-life characters include artist Kathe Kollwitz, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Stalin, Hitler, German Field Marshals Friedrich Paulus and Erich von Manstein, "Red Guillotine" Hilde Benjamin, Soviet General Andrey Vlasov, film director Roman Karmen, Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova, and SS Officer Kurt Gerstein.
The largest part of the text is devoted to composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was hounded his entire life by the Russian Communist Party and threatened often with imprisonment and death. His life was overwhelmingly sad, and he died sick and unhappy with his few friends keeping their distance out of their own fear of Stalinist agents. For extra pathos, Shostakovich is given an unrequited love interest lasting over forty years.
Kurt Gerstein's tale "Clean Hands" is the most effective of a highly affecting bunch. Appalled by Nazi Germany's crimes against humanity, he joined the SS in order to stop them. Gerstein destroyed barrel after barrel of Zyklon B in an effort to save Jews or at least keep them alive longer. At great personal risk to himself, tried to inform the Swedes, Americans, the British, and the Catholic Church of the Holocaust, only to be scoffed at by all of them. He was arrested and sentenced as a war criminal after Germany's defeat.
There aren't many writers who can make German SS soldiers and Nazi field marshals into sympathetic characters. Vollmann probably wisely doesn't try to make his reader feel such sympathy for Hitler, Stalin, Mengele, Goebbels, Goring, and the rest; however, it's difficult to not feel empathetic toward men lower on the totem pole who are fighting because they'll be killed outright otherwise by their own government, and who miss their wives and children.
This is a good companion piece to Vollmann's excellent Rising Up and Rising Down, which also covers quite a bit of Soviet Russian sociomilitary history, particularly with regard to the Russian Revolution. I'd not have known the word "dekulakization" (Soviet Russia's murder of two million well-to-do "class enemies") and a few other pieces of history had I not read that first. It isn't often that one hears about WWII from the Russian and German perspective, and Russia is barely conceived of now as its own political entity, for better or worse, that fought and won against a better-prepared invader. ...more
North Korea is ten times crazier, more fucked up, more cartoonish, backward, pitiful, regressed, frozen in time, and culturally maladjusted than you'vNorth Korea is ten times crazier, more fucked up, more cartoonish, backward, pitiful, regressed, frozen in time, and culturally maladjusted than you've heard. It's almost like a perfect sociological petri dish: What happens when one tiny south Asian country effectively seals all of its borders (from some pretty major Communist and later nominally democratic countries like China, Russia, and South Korea), installs the very definition of a cult of personality dictator, crushes any hint of capitalism/free enterprise/private trade, brainwashes the entire populace into dependency on the state in general and the dictator in particular, bans all outside influences and products, cuts off the electricity, and starves its people.
A pretty telling anecdote was when a former North Korean who defected remembered marveling over an American-made pair of nail clippers, never having seen such a technological marvel. This country has nukes?...more
Good start to the new L.A. quartet, but I'm pretty sure the Underworld USA trilogy has spoiled me. Not for Ellroy newbies; Perfidia features tons of oGood start to the new L.A. quartet, but I'm pretty sure the Underworld USA trilogy has spoiled me. Not for Ellroy newbies; Perfidia features tons of old Ellroy characters. ...more