Jamie's Reviews > Europe Central

Europe Central by William T. Vollmann
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's review
Jan 31, 10

bookshelves: literary, pushing-my-limits
Read from January 03 to 31, 2010 — I own a copy

I tried reading this book four years ago, when it won the National Book Award. I was woefully unprepared and unmotivated and each page was a total chore; I quit after three weeks and only 150 pages.

The second time around proved that “Europe Central” is totally worth the effort. This book is masterful. Impeccably researched, extraordinarily thorough and historically accurate, and yet with the right background information you can get through it at a relatively fast pace. Relatively being the operative word – it did in fact take me a month to get through this 750 page tome (never has the word “tome” been more accurate).

All that said, it’s masterful but not quite a masterpiece. It’s been said many times before, but it could have used a little editing. Some chapters meander for entirely too long (I’m talking to you, “The Last Field-Marshall). Yet without Wikipedia and Google, I would never ever have been able to understand it – it’s a nearly 800-page novel that literally cannot be read unless you research each “character” before you read his or her respective chapter.

The book is ostensibly made up of alternating chapters between Germany and the USSR (I say ostensibly because the Soviets have a much higher representation in the book – for almost every 30-page chapter set in Russia, you invariably get a 5-pager in Germany). Oddly enough, I found the longer stories to be the easiest and ultimately the most satisfying, even though they took the longest to get through. The sections with Shostakovich were the heart of the novel; Vollmann’s descriptions of his music are inspiring and perfectly rendered. His metaphors using musical terms are so perfect, they had me practically crying. The middle third of the book is probably the best; the two stories about General Vlasov and Field-Marshal Paulus are the most perfectly mirrored in terms of Vollmann’s “pincer movements” conceit, and the chapter about Kurt Gerstein is the easiest and most heartbreaking read.

“Europe Central” was on my list of 10 books I am determined to finish before I die. And I highly enjoyed it. It takes some perseverance, it takes a heavy duty background in European history during the World Wars (thanks, Dr. Kennedy, it only took me seven years to appreciate your class), and it takes a whole lot of energy, but it’s worth it.
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Reading Progress

01/03/2010 page 1
0.12% "Tried it 3 years ago, thinking my brain post Infinite Jest can handle just about anything. Let's hope."
01/05/2010 page 77
9.49% "It takes nonstop internet access and two readings for each section, but I love this book thus far. Second time's the charm."
01/13/2010 page 185
22.81% "Oh, man, does page 181 have a gorgeous extended metaphor."
01/18/2010 page 275
33.91% "It's getting easier. It's also getting better. And I am in love with it."
01/25/2010 page 420
51.79% "Done with "The Last Field-Marshall" chapter. Thank God. Otherwise I have no complaints about this book."
01/28/2010 page 565
69.67% "Have to keep updating my status so it's clear that I am, in fact, reading. Even if it takes a month to finish, I'm reading." 2 comments

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