I don't know enough about Eastern-European history to address Snyder's claim that the mass killing of fourteen million pe...moreTimothy Snyder's "Bloodlands"
I don't know enough about Eastern-European history to address Snyder's claim that the mass killing of fourteen million people in Poland, Belarus, the Baltic states and western Russia was "the central event" of modern European history. But that certainly seems like a plausible claim, or rather it seems difficult to imagine an event that could be more significant for the history of the continent. Even an invading army can pass over a land like a wave and leave society and history to continue much as they were before; but the killing of one in every three people in a place cannot. The Nazis and Soviets killed as great a proportion of the population as did the black death, but while the black death was indiscriminate this was targeted: at Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, the communists, the intelligentsia, the bourgeoisie.
To my mind the question about the Holocaust and the other Nazi and Soviet mass killings has always been: how did it happen? I don't mean to ask what motivated or permitted people to kill their friends, neighbors, and countrymen; that part is all too understandable. What I mean is (though to my knowledge Snyder never puts it this way): why did these mass killings happen the way that they did? Why was mass killing organized—why organized the way it was, and why organized at all? To put it another way, if you wanted to kill all the Jews of Europe, why would you not just give your soldiers a standing order to shoot every Jew they met? Or just let them rampage over the countryside? Why would you lock people up in ghettos and then shoot or gas them later? Why not just starve people? Why bother feeding people in camps anything, if you just wanted them to die?
These questions Snyder answers. For a victim of one of these totalitarian regimes, how you died depended not just on who you were but where you lived, who was in control, when they were in control, and whether that state happened to be preoccupied by food shortages, labor shortages, the fear of fifth columns, or some combination of these and sheer hatred. Neither of these regimes was some kind of mindless technocracy, slowly putting into action predetermined plans. What was the mechanism that translated the hatred of Hitler or the paranoia of Stalin into the actual shooting of actual people, or into more complex forms of death like the killing factory at Treblinka and the logistical apparatus that fed it? As Snyder points out, what we now think of as "the Final Solution" was actually only the last in a line of plans to deal with the Jews, who were only killed en masse west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line after plans to expel them, hand them to the Soviets, ship them to Madagascar and deport them to Soviet Central Asia all failed.
The Jews, obviously, suffered the most in the sense that the Jewish population in the bloodlands was utterly destroyed. Treblinka, once it was running at full efficiency and maximum capacity, is the real horror and centerpiece of the book. Three quarters of a million people were killed there and their bodies disposed of in a manner that can almost be called precise. The only reason we know anything about its innards is that a few dozen of those Jews selected to labor within its walls saw that, once Warsaw's Jews were disposed of and the facility dismantled, their fates would be sealed too, and rebelled and fled. But the real tragedy is the story of Poland as a whole, a vibrant and independent civilization that was intentionally beheaded by the Germans and Soviets after 1939 and drawn and quartered for good measure, whose cities were subject to deliberate obliteration. The survival of Poland and Polish civilization at all seems a complete miracle.
What is the point of this litany of death? Reducing mass killing to its statistics and its sums, Snyder argues, serves us and our base motives, not the dead. And it serves us poorly. The histories of the bloodlands and of the Holocaust are not simple or easy. If we want to do justice to the past, and to really ensure that our present and future do not fall into its shadow, we must remember each person and know how and why they died.(less)
I'm a huge fan of David Grann's pieces for the New Yorker. The first one I remember reading was a 2002 or 2003 article about the giant tunnels that br...moreI'm a huge fan of David Grann's pieces for the New Yorker. The first one I remember reading was a 2002 or 2003 article about the giant tunnels that bring fresh water to Manhattan. Grann is brilliant at conveying the spooky grandeur of tunnels a thousand feet below the Hudson, and the creepy thought that we have no idea what it's like inside these tunnels any more and haven't for fifty years. I read it again every year.
So I was disappointed in the quality of Grann's writing in The Lost City of Z. (Perhaps really what I'm saying is that the New Yorker has amazing editors.) He's clear and competent, but almost amateurish. The sentences are plain, which would be fine, but so are the paragraphs and the pages and his general storytelling technique. Seemingly every chapter begins the same way, in medias res (as they taught me to say in high school English), with a one-sentence paragraph, invariably a quote from a character in the past or present. Quotations are handled clumsily. Unlike those water tunnels, we are told, not shown, most things in this book.
But at least Grann's writing doesn't get in the way of the story—stories, I should say, his and Fawcett's, each pretty great and excellent together. Grann tells the story of Fawcett's career as he tells his own search for Fawcett's lost expedition. Fawcett is, unlike most late-Victorian explorers, actually a pretty hardy guy, and not, like Livingston or Stanley, someone who relied on hundreds of locals to get him to his "discoveries". Grann has fun at his own expense; Fawcett is dodging snakes while meanwhile (in the book's simultaneous narratives) Grann stocks up at an EMS in Manhattan. Grann doesn't think enough, it seems to me, about these differences. (One of Grann's weaknesses is that he's a sucker for experts, and so while he is sympathetic to Fawcett his attitude towards the Victorian and post-Victorian explorers is mostly filtered through the lens of "they were racist/misguided/silly", visiting psychic mediums etc., which is true but unhelpful.)
In Werner Herzog's movie "Grizzly Man," Timothy Treadwell is obsessed with bears, a bunch of weirdos are obsessed with Treadwell and Herzog is obsessed with everyone. To me, it seems that the subtitle of the book, "a tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon," is deceptive. Or maybe I was a little too optimistic. Europe is obsessed with the Amazon, Fawcett's obsessed with Z, thousands of people are obsessed with Fawcett and Grann is obsessed with the story and then with Z itself—although a big problem with the book is that Grann's unable to make us believe he really became obsessed with the city, because he's simultaneously making Fawcett out to be increasingly lunatic about the idea of such a place. I can't shake the feeling that this could have been a really fantastic book about obsession. Instead, it's a fun book about Fawcett.
Really, though, I'm being way too harsh. I couldn't put this book down for 36 hours. I'm glad I read it and you'll be glad you read it too.(less)
Yeah, yeah, David Mitchell is a genius. I know. I've heard. But there are writers whose sentences and paragraphs make you want to read what comes next...moreYeah, yeah, David Mitchell is a genius. I know. I've heard. But there are writers whose sentences and paragraphs make you want to read what comes next; Mitchell is not one of them. Each page is more of a chore than the last. I'm on page 218 of this book, but I'm not reading any more of it. I don't see why I should be expected to carry on reading if after 218 pages I haven't been convinced yet and I have to force myself to keep going. I have yet to find a sentence or description I'll remember. And even if I did, it would be a Mitchell sentence, and not one in a believable voice of a character. And that is a bigger problem. For all his genius you never are allowed to forget that you are reading a novel or even to pretend otherwise. If you are going to write a book in the form of letters, a diary, an interview, then you have a high but not unreasonable bar to clear. Your letters have to sound like letters, your diary has to sound like a diary and your interview has to seem a plausible interview. Ishiguro's butler's memoir in The Remains of the Day, for example, rings true. Mitchell's don't, not any of them. In no case does he actually project the voice of anyone but David Mitchell. What letters or journals cannot sound like--even though, and really because, this is what they are--is a device by which the author can hide information from the reader. And yes, it's true, Mitchell knows this is an issue, so when Frobisher picks up Ewing's diary, he questions its authenticity. The Luisa Rey manuscript is for a novel. Clevah, very clevah! But acknowledging an issue isn't the same as addressing it and I see even less reason to read an uncompelling badly fabricated badly fabricated diary than I do an uncompelling badly fabricated one. The promised reward of an ingenious payoff four hundred boring pages later is not one that tempts me. It takes a lot to make me put a novel down after 218 pages out of more than 500. But remember, Mitchell's a genius.
UPDATE: Tried to keep reading. Got as far as the second page of the post-apocalyptic noble savage world or whatever. I really don't care about any of the stories or characters, and I don't find any of them convincing expressions of anything except Mitchell's ego. So why I should care about how the six of them link up or what those links "mean" remains beyond my power to comprehend. In general I react badly to artists praised as the messiah. But I genuinely dislike the act of reading this book. Sorry. But not too sorry.(less)
This book is devastating. I read it in two days. I couldn't put it down, and I'm still dreaming about it.
There is the occasional overwrought metaphor...moreThis book is devastating. I read it in two days. I couldn't put it down, and I'm still dreaming about it.
There is the occasional overwrought metaphor but for the most part the writing is clear and crisp. And when he wants to, Marlantes can overwhelm you with fear or sadness or terror.
The acronyms and military jargon and technical terms (PRC-25 and that sort of thing) can seem Tom Clancy-ish but they're not. I think they're meant to convey how a soldier thinks; if an actual soldier wants to correct me, feel free.(less)