Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Books I Read In December

'The Origins of the Second World War' by A.J.P. Taylor
Initially reading this book I was pleasantly surprised by its strengths.  Though the version I read was published in 1964, it is still of value for anyone studying the history of this period today.  In some ways Taylor treats the reader maturely.  He does not include loads of dates and figures, assuming that you can pick these up from other places.  Instead he digs into explaining what happened and why.  I like the fact that he overturns many myths about the lead up to the Second World War which in most cases seem as prevalent today as they were in the 1960s.  He also shows how historians have come to certain conclusions.  Again, because these have proven persistent, his insights remain valid also.  Taylor highlights individuals such as MacDonald, Halifax, Benes and Bonnet who often get left out or wrongly interpreted even nowadays and it is good that he shines a light on them.  He also shows effectively the extent to which British policy and, in part, French policy was driven by a sense of 'morality' and doing what was 'right' rather than any strategic perspective.  Thus, even once Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939, British politicians and officials believed that they could hold an international conference to resolve the issues.  The British did not value the rights of different countries equally and saw the demands of Germany as of a far higher status than those of Czechoslovakia or Poland.  This does help explain the strange policies the British governments adopted, applying one principle until it was trumped by the other, but consequently divorcing them from any Realpolitik.

Taylor is, at times, refreshingly self-critical too.  In 1963 he added a new opening chapter to his 1961 book in which he analyses his own failings of analysis.  Few historians seem capable of doing this even now.  Before moving on to my difficulties with the book, I would note that it is far better than 'The Habsburg Monarchy' (1941) by Taylor that I read in April.  That book careered through the history in a frenetic way and if he had applied that approach to the events covered in this book then it would have been almost impossible to read.

Now, the problems.  Taylor criticises historians who have sought out the 'guilty men' of the lead-up to the Second World War, though smugly he says he believed Hitler should have been contested right from January 1933.  However, throughout this book he is imbued with perfect hindsight.  Whilst he might not portray those involved in the events as guilty he certainly repeatedly points to them as naive, foolish and vacillating as if the way events would turn out were visible to them and they simply ignored them.  This smugness becomes very difficult to swallow as the book goes on.

At the time of publication, Taylor was condemned as writing a book which was pro-Hitler.  Now, there are two reasons for this.  One is that Taylor does seem to give (perhaps grudging) admiration for Hitler for having one approach and sticking to it throughout.  He shows that repeatedly Hitler would not take the initiative if he could get another country to do it for him, hence the dangers of appeasement.  Taylor is right to show appeasement as advancing the Nazi agenda more effectively than Hitler himself.  Taylor cannot stand vacillation and as a consequence every other leading politician is shown in a poor light.  It is not that Taylor lauds Hitler it is because of the principle of one man seeming to step forward from a line because all the others have taken a step back.

The other complaint people had at the time but seems irrelevant now was that in showing that it took the bulk of Germany to bring about the Second World War, he somehow let off Hitler from responsibility.  This is a false impression.  Taylor simply aims to counter the view that Hitler was to blame for absolutely everything that was nasty about the Nazi regime, whereas in fact it required many thousands of men and women, not all of the German, for it to be effective in that respect.

There are some minor quirks that distort Taylor's book, some of which you see in others he has written.  One is that he does not believe that there was any German resistance to Hitler.  He cannot comprehend any of the attempts to halt or remove Hitler at any stage and is sneering about any reference to these.  He utterly dismisses the French and Italian armed forces as irrelevant.  The French military was utterly wasted in 1940 because as he identifies elsewhere defeatism had already debilitated the French state.  However, if used effectively it is clear now that the French military could have blunted severely if not indeed halted the German offensives against Poland, Belgium and France in 1939-40.  In Taylor's view that was impossible.  The Italian forces might have been weak but their advances in Greece and North Africa caused delays and casualties for the British and drew Germany into regions it might have otherwise avoided.

Another thing is that Taylor is so much a 'child' of the era of Keynesianism that he finds it impossible to consider any other approach to the economy as legitimate, ridiculing the deflationary policies pursued in Britain in the 1930s.  I am sure he would be startled if he returned today to find that for the past thirty years such economic policies have been the economic orthodoxy and Keynesianism is utterly forgotten even by the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats.

This book still has value for people studying the lead-up to the Second World War.  However, Taylor grandstanding with a very dismissive, arrogant attitude to almost all those involved in the events is very tiresome and detracts greatly from what he is trying to communicate.  This book is most useful for challenging many of the myths that still appear in popular histories of the period, notably the Hossbach Memorandum.

'Tart Noir' ed. by Stella Duffy & Lauren Henderson
This collection of twenty stories proved to be a real disappointment.  I was enthused by the concept, i.e. female authors writing crime fiction with female protagonists.  The emphasis is on strong, sexually liberated women in control.  However, the stories contained really failed to live up to my expectations.  Perhaps I was wrong to have imagined that there would be more female detective stories contained in the book.  I do not think I was wrong to not expect fantasy stories to be contained within it.  In any collection written by multiple authors there will be stories that you find better than others.  However, for me the overall standard was too low.

Perhaps the stand-out story is unsurprisingly 'Metamorphosis' by Val McDermid which quickly conjures a sexual obsession and then the overwhelming need to get the person out of your life.  This was the kind of story that I expected throughout, but was sorely disappointed.

I do think they should have warned the reader that one story, 'Stormy, Mon Amour' features scenes of sex between a woman and a dolphin.  I guess I should have remembered the movie 'Max, Mon Amour' (1986) about a woman's sexual relationship with a chimpanzee which caused uproar at the time and is clearly being referenced by this story.  The resulting birth of a mermaid is simply fantasy but of a very dreary kind.  I almost abandoned the book at this point, but pressed on because I thought it might improve. 'Labia Lobelia' by Lisa Jewell is another fantastical story.  The protagonist calls up the ghosts of Judy Garland and Joan Collins.  If it had not been for the book's rules, I would have assumed she was a transvestite.  However, she turns out to be a woman with magic powers.  She turns her neighbours' flat into vast (and smelly) labia and a vagina. 'Talk Show' by Lauren Henderson has a talk show, unsurprisingly, but featuring Medea and Phaedra from Greek myths and Lady Macbeth.  It is better than a secondary school balloon debate or an Oxbridge skit.  Bestiality features once more but at a distance.  Overall, though, it is more an intellectual entertainment than a 'noir' story; it reminded me of 'The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul' (novel 1988; radio serial 2008) which features Norse gods in contemporary London.  I would almost put 'The Wrong Train' by Jenny Colgan into the fantasy category.  It is about an administrator at MI6 who gets on a train full of immigrants with TB being ejected from the country.  It turns out to be a government conspiracy story, but for much of it reads as if it is an offshoot of 'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman (TV Series 1996; novel & audio book 1996; graphic novel 2005; stage play 2010; radio play 2013).  It could have been scarier and better.

A number of the stories are about revenge.  The two most memorable are 'The Best Revenge is Revenge' by Chris Niles.  A touch light in tone at times, it seems credible in featuring a TV presenter getting revenge on the executive that sacked her.  In a short story, the relationship with male characters is handled well, a kind of push-and-pull between them.  The snobbery of the narrator is maintained well.  'Martha Grace' by Stella Duffy herself shows very skilled characterisation of the eponymous protagonist.  Like the best of these stories, it shows the unusual but without becoming unbelievable.  You want to see Martha in other stories. 'Africa' by Jenny Siler, does feel like an episode of 'Spooks' (2002-11; movie 2015).  However, it quickly builds up a complex story and portrays Morocco very effectively.  This is one story you would have liked to have seen developed further.

Some of the revenge stories feel as if they could have fitted into 'Tales of the Unexpected' (book 1979; TV series 1979-88) especially the televised versions which tended to be edgier than the stories in the book and the two that succeeded it. 'Enough was Enough' by Martina Cole fits that category.  It is a very capable portrayal of a wife drawn into her husband's sexual fetishes and then baulking against them. 'What He Needed' by Laura Lippman is of a similar quality and nature.  Not as good, but not too bad is 'The Man' by Katy Munger.  It is a straightforward revenge story with all the bodily fluids featured.  You could argue whether being a gigolo is worthy of revenge, but in this book it clearly is. Munger's description of the gigolo is very well done. Not about revenge, but with the twist beloved of the 'Tales of the Unexpected' is 'The Diary of Sue Peaner Marooned! Contestant' again has the bitch narrator.  The outcome is not unexpected and in many ways given how extreme these survival programmes are her behaviour does not seem too extreme.  This story does include cannibalism but it is passed over so lightly as not to really impact.  Like some of the other stories, the lightness naturally undermines the 'noir'.

Two of the stories are what I would term 'shotgun shack' stories.  They are noir in a different way.  In large part the woman is disempowered by the structures that the men in their lives create, leading to tragic outcomes especially for children, that seem unavoidable.  These two could appear in books simply about the lives of many women in modern USA and UK.  'Alice Opens the Box' by Denise Mina is the UK one and 'Necessary Women' set on the border of Alabama and Georgia.  In these stories murder is the only power the women have to survive; though you do wonder about their sanity.  These are bleak stories rather than true 'noir', primarily because the protagonists are so disempowered.

Some of the stories do have the detection element that I anticipated.  'The Convenience Boy' by Sujata Massey stands out because it is set in Japan with Japanese cultural perspectives whereas most of the other stories are set either in the UK or USA and all of them have the cultural norms of those countries as their basis.  This story is almost sweet rather than noir.  It is a nice peek into a different setting especially if you have not read crime fiction set in Japan either by Japanese or Western authors, though there is a lot more easily available in English these days.  'I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside' by Jessica Adams has a lightness about it.  It features a seaside clairvoyant able to detect crimes very easily.  It features many Brighton [UK version] tropes including a range of gay characters,  It was entertaining but not really 'noir' and Madame Romodo is not really a protagonist, more a spectator.  'Pussy Galore' by Liz Evans is set in London and rather erratically, but ultimately, effectively, switches between being cosy and sinister.  I found the old woman character credible, despite her great claims to a past in spying because in a part of London close to where the story is set I attended a discussion with former members of SOE, who like the character in this story retained some of the 'old skills'.

Some stories you feel 'so what?'.  'No Parachutes' by Karen Moline is in this category really simply detailing how the protagonist gets turned on by violence on an aeroplane, just as the author confesses she does at the end of the book.  'Take, for Example, Meatpie' by Jen Banbury is very much in this category about a woman who seduces a 16-year old schoolboy and introduces him to poetry and music before casting him loose again.  Yes, she might be in control, but there seems to be no real outcome so you are left dissatisfied.  'Queen of Mean' by Liza Cody is better, but is really simply a 'slice of life' story about a woman who with a mentor changes her life.  It lacks the necessary 'noir' but is interesting as a straightforward short story.

'Timequake' by Kurt Vonnegut
In theory, this book is a novel.  However, it is in fact more fitted to Vonnegut's short story and autobiographical books, 'Fates Worse Than Death' (1991), and 'A Man Without a Country' (2005).  This is a real mess of a book, really an assembly of fragments.  Some of them come from the first book he started writing called 'Timequake' which envisaged that in 2001 the universe reset by about ten years and everyone on Earth was compelled to live the preceding ten years again with no ability to change anything until the reached the starting point in 2001 once more.

Much of the book is a stream of consciousness about the author's career, members of Vonnegut's family and a number of fictional characters, notably Kilgore Trout who is a kind of older alter ego of Vonnegut's.  Little happens and the whole tone is like an old man (Vonnegut lived 1922-2007; the book was published in 1997) rambling on about things as he recalls them.  It encompasses themes that Vonnegut liked exploring.  He thought television was killing writing, reading and imagination though many of his statements could be used unchanged today for commentary on use of the internet and social media.  At times the book is juvenile in tone, especially when referring to sex and death, but maybe, despite his aversion to a lot in US society, Vonnegut is simply tied down by all the euphemisms that many Americans seem compelled to use, especially if they were born in the 1920s.  This may be in part to be humorous but it quickly becomes tiresome.

The decent part of the book is Vonnegut's discussion on the challenges of writing short stories, something he was able to live off for parts of his life.  By the 1990s he saw it as a dead art because of the dominance of television, not foreseeing its revival through self-published e-books and indeed free to view story websites.  You cannot make a lot of money off short stories but there are certainly numerous outlets across a massive spectrum of genres.  Vonnegut discusses the difficulties of ending a short story without killing everyone, a challenge I have encountered with my own short story collections especially when writing about war.  There is an implication that the short story must end with a 'big bang' even if it is simply a surprising revelation.  Amateur reviewers seem to insist on this, even arguing that a 'slice of life' story is not really a story at all.  One of Vonnegut's editors told him something along the lines of have the hero get on his horse and ride off into the sunset or an appropriate equivalent dependent on the context.  I do not know if that would satisfy many amateur reviewers who seem not to know what they want from a short story but certainly know what they do not want; some even see the approach as entirely illegitimate.  This is ironic given how much a boost short stories and episodic stories have received from e-book readers.  I would have liked more on this topic in 'Timequake'.

Overall this a very unsatisfactory book.  It would have been better if he had simply written a straightforward autobiography.  He could have discussed the same topics and even the same fictional characters as feature in this book, but it would not be the shambles that 'Timequake' is.  I can only imagine his age and standing in US science fiction were what meant a publisher would permit this book to come out.  It is really nothing more than a shabby scrapbook and the ramblings of a man whose talents had clearly dimmed.


StubbingtonVillage said...

I enjoyed your review and analysis of AJP Taylor. I'm currently reading "The Boer War" by Thomas Pakenham - have you read it and if so would you be kind enough to share your views?

Rooksmoor said...

Stubbington, thank you for the feedback.

Unfortunately I have not read 'The Boer War'. Many of the books I am working through now have been bought over the past twenty years, I am trying to reduce what is in storage, so I have a lot of my reading for the next few years already set out.

It will be great to hear your views on the book.


Alexander Rooksmoor.