KL; a history of the Nazi concentration camps – Nikolaus Wachsmann

An interesting book but, if you decide to read it, know that you’re in it for the long haul.  This is not a lightweight book in any sense of the term.

The book sets out to tell the full history of concentrations camps in Nazi Germany; a wider context than the Holocaust, which most histories tend to concentrate on.

It covers the early camps, the SS camp system, expansion, war, mass extermination, holocaust, anus mundi, economics and extermination, camps unbound, impossible choices, death or freedom.

The book gave me a better understanding of the different camps and the differences of purpose as well as a wider understanding of the different groups who were sent to the camps.  I hadn’t previously understood how small a proportion of camp inmates Jews were until quite late on nor how many Russian POWs were sent to die in the camps.

I also learned quite a lot about how the camps were run and the key players in the development and administration of Himmler’s camp empire.  It is horrifying to hear about how quickly most of the guards became normalised to the casual brutality of the system.

The level of detail in the book meant that it took me a long time to read; this was both because it took a lot of concentration to follow and because of the horrific details one is reading.  There were times when I had to put this book down and read something frivolous before I could go on with it.

Overall, I think there is a lot in this book that people should know more about, particularly in a world where certain segments of society are being radicalised and demonised; don’t think this style of camp couldn’t happen again!  However, it isn’t an easy or comfortable read.

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Fire and Fury; inside the Trump White House – Michael Wolff

Yes, I succumbed and read “that” book!

For anyone who hasn’t heard the furore the book has generated, this is a book about Trump’s presidential campaign and his first nine months as President of USA.

The book purports to have been written with the cooperation of Trump insiders.  It attempts to define Trump’s personal style and to show the chaos this creates via the bitter in-fighting between the various factions within the Trump White House.

Wolff describes the three camps as being centred around Steve Bannon, Jarred and Ivanka Kushner and Reince Priebus.  It was interesting reading about these groups knowing that neither Steve Bannon nor Reince Priebus still work for Trump.

The book suggests that Trump and his campaign team didn’t expect to win the presidency, that Trump didn’t want to be President and isn’t interested in the day-to-day necessities of the job.  It also suggests that the various groups around the President are more interested in scoring points against each other than in presenting a unified view of the President and his policies.

I think that, like a lot of this type of book, this is a broad overview of what is likely to be happening.  The events are too close and current to be viewed rationally and clearly.  At this point we don’t know what will happen during the Trump Presidency, what the pivotal moments will be and how the presidency will end.  Only once the dust has settled will we be able to draw certain conclusions.

I take the book with a pinch of salt but, nonetheless, an interesting read.

 

The Russian Revolutions – David Footman

This is a book I picked up at a charity shop that looked interesting.  It was originally published in 1962 and the author, born in 1895, was a diplomat and spy for the British as well as being a historian.

The book is an overview rather than being a detailed account of the various revolutions, or attempted revolutions in Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries.  It feels as though it was written for 6th-formers needing a superficial picture of Russian history.

The book starts with an overview of Russian society, which is useful to set the scene for what comes next.

The book goes on to look at various revolutionary movements, the February revolution, the abdication of Nicholas II and the road to power for the Bolsheviks.

The most interesting thing for me is wondering what more David Footman knew about the Soviet Union and its road to existence; he headed the MI6 unit responsible for procuring, processing and analysing information from the Soviet union during World War II.

It’s also quite interesting to read history books written about the Soviet Union before the thawing of the cold war.  This one manages to be reasonably neutral about communism and Stalin.

If you know nothing about the Russian revolution you could do worse than start with this book.  If you know something I wouldn’t bother with except as a curiosity.

Click here to find out more about David Footman

 

Flipnosis; the art of split-second persuasion – Kevin Dutton

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for ages; one of the books I’ve been saving and savouring the thought of reading.  Unfortunately, this one fell under the weight of expectation.  I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I was expecting to.

The book is about the psychology of persuasion.  It looks at the science behind why some people are better at persuading people than others.

The book uses a lot examples and stories about an interesting mixture of people; some who use their skill lawfully and others who are con-men.  There are also a lot of scientific experiments cited.  I loved reading about the people and the experiments.  They give a fascinating insight into what makes some people tick.

The model created by Dutton proposes that the art of persuasion is SPICE; simplicity, perceived self-interest, incongruity, confidence and empathy.  If you and your proposal meets these criteria you are more likely to persuade people to accept or adopt whatever you are proposing.

The book does a good job of exploring the different aspects of the model but it doesn’t really give any advice, suggestions or tips on how an ordinary mortal might improve each of these skills to become better at them.

I also finished the book with a niggling feeling that there were questions left unanswered.

If you’re going to read this book I’d suggest tackling it as an interesting psychology text-book rather than expecting it to be a self-improvement book.

Life to the Limit; My autobiography – Jenson Button

My latest 99p from Amazon choice and one that I enjoyed reading.

Button comes across as mostly being a nice bloke and someone who is passionate about racing.  He confesses to having been a spoilt, pampered child and one can see how this sometimes spills over into his adult life.

I enjoyed reading about how a driver – and it could be any driver really – starts in karting and works their way through the various stages.  I can also understand that it is a weird sort of life constantly travelling to races at weekends and can empathise with how Button struggled to be a “normal teenager”.  I guess this is where a level of natural selection occurs and separates those who are willing to make sacrifices to succeed from those who aren’t.

There is a lot of detail in the book about Button trying to break into Formula 1 and then his career.  It was interesting reading and interesting to get Button’s account of how he sees himself and my perception of him as a good driver but one who doesn’t quite have the killer instinct to be a great driver.

The key thread running through the book is the relationship between Jenson and his father.  I would say this book is Button’s way of publically acknowledging just how important his father was and how much he relied on him.  The sad part of the book is the feeling that Jenson hasn’t yet found a way to grieve for his father; he still comes across as a little boy lost.  I hope he finds it.

Overall, this is a lightweight book but interesting enough to while away a train journey.

Macbeth – directed by Polly Findlay for RSC

Macbeth, my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays and the one where I feel I haven’t seen a truly memorable production yet.

I have been looking forward to seeing this production even though the reviews in the papers haven’t been all that great; I like Polly Findlay as a director, I think Christopher Eccleston is an interesting actor and I’ve only ever seen Niamh Cusack in a read-through production before.

On the whole the stage set worked well.  It was adaptable and not too faffy.  I found the clock counting down the minutes of Macbeth’s reign a bit distracting but I really liked the Porter resetting it at the end.  I found the overhead, behind-the-perspex bit of the set way too distracting.  A couple of times I noticed that I’d missed bits because I was trying to work out who was up there and what was happening.  I feel this bit needs to be more static.

One thing I wasn’t looking forward to, having read a coupe of reviews, was the fact that Findlay has done quite a lot of playing around with the text.  As someone who knows the text reasonably well I though it might be distracting when familiar lines didn’t follow on from each other.  It wasn’t and I stopped noticing very quickly as I was drawn into the action.

Christopher Eccleston made a good Macbeth.  He was credible as soldier, insecure King and madman.  The only bit that didn’t work for me was the invisible dagger scene where I didn’t feel Macbeth was shocked to see this dagger floating in midair.

Despite the reviews, I thought Niamh Cusack was a good Lady Macbeth; an ambitious woman who wants the status promised by the weird sisters and is prepared to take the necessary steps to achieve her ends.  I thought Cusack did a good job of showing what happens to people who are too shallow to consider the consequences of their ambition and who end up falling to pieces.

That said, I didn’t think Eccleston and Cusack were particularly believable as a couple, let alone a couple who love are supposed to love each other.

It was an interesting idea to use children to play the Weird Sisters/Witches.  They looked innocent and harmless and yet, with the way they played with their dolls, they were creepy; almost like the children in horror stories who turn out to be psychopathic mass murderers!  Again, one slight distraction in that towards the end of the play, one of the girls was losing her slipper sock and I was distracted by the thought she might slip and hurt herself.  It sounds silly but costumes really shouldn’t be a distraction to the audience.

Michael Hodgson did a great job as a creepy Porter/Satan.  He was on stage all the way through the play, keeping tally of the murders and marking the countdown to Macbeth’s fall.  He didn’t appear very drunk when he delivered the knocking at the door scene and the humour was played down.  I thought this worked well for this production but I feel that if you’re playing down the humour you may as well cut the effects of alcohol section; I don’t think most people in the audience noticed it.

The end of the play and the crowning of Malcolm worked really well and I loved the way Fleance was woven into it.

The evening ended very abruptly however, with only one curtain call.  The play was very well received by the audience and I don’t think it is unreasonable for the actors to make more than one appearance to make their bow, particularly as the play finished before 10pm.  It felt a little mean and discourteous of the cast to not allow the audience to show their appreciation of the play.

Overall, I still don’t think I’ve found my definitive Macbeth but I do think I have found a measuring stick for other productions to live up to.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich – RSC

My first trip to the theatre in what seems like forever and the first production I’ve seen of the RSC Spring/Summer season.

The play is a comedy from around 1700 and was originally called The Beau Defeated and is about women making their own choices and wielding their own power. The play is written by Mary Rix, an almost forgotten contemporary of Aphra Benn.  In fact she is so forgotten that I can’t find any more information about her on-line so am relying on the programme notes.

Mrs Rich is wealthy but wants to improve her social standing.  Lady Landsworth has social standing but wants love.  Sir John Roverhead, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset have social standing but want money.  Sir John, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset think they are using Mrs Rich.  Mrs Rich knows she is being used and is allowing it to go on for her own ends.  The play ends with Mrs Rich having married a title and Lady Landsworth having found her love.

I loved the costumes designs for the play.  They immediately tell you what you need to know about the character without anyone having to spell it out.  The set design also did a great job of setting the scene too – simply and without too much faffing.

Sophie Stanton was a wonderful Mrs Rich; a restoration version of Hyacinth Bucket.  She showed her character as being both shrewd and human.

Leo Wringer and Amanda Hadingue were also well cast as the funny country bumpkins Elder Carimont and Toni, a hard act to pull off as they were almost always overshadowed by the gorgeous Lossie and Theia, Elder Carimont’s dogs!

I can’t think of anything I particularly disliked or didn’t enjoy about the play, which I think says quite a lot about it; on the whole is washed over me rather than really engaging me.  It has a good point to make about ambition being a good thing for women to have and it made that point, it just doesn’t really have anything in it that lingers in the imagination and nags to be brought out and chewed over.

If you like a colourful, fun and enjoyable night out at the theatre go to see it.  If you like something to make you think this probably isn’t for you.

But well done to the RSC for rescuing more playwrites from oblivion.  We need more Companies to do this.

Click here to find out what’s on at RSC

 

The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

This is one of those books that has been sitting on my shelves waiting to be read for years.  It’s been there so long I don’t even remember when or why I bought it.

For some reason it caught my attention when I was looking for a book to read on the train so I decided now was the time to read it.

It is about the aristocratic Salina family who live near Palermo in Sicily and is set during the Risorgimento or Italian unification.

The central character is Prince Fabrizio Salina, a middle-aged, modern-minded scientist who sees the need for change yet is too indolent and hide-bound by his family history to be part of that change.  His nephew, more like him than his own children, is in the thick of the changes and is an up and coming man.

The book shows, through Salina’s eyes, the transition of Sicily from Bourbon principality to inclusion in this new thing called “Italy”.  It tracks the transition from aristocratic rule to professional government and the rise of the middle-class. Yet Salina continues in his belief that the more everything changes the more everything stays the same.

The book wraps up with the Princes’ death from a stroke and a post-script relating what happens to the children as they grow old.

I found the book quite hard to read.  I like the fact that I now know more about the Risorgimento and the upheavals it caused in long-established states.  It was interesting to understand how the hereditary ruling class was being gradually displaced by the growing middle-class and professional class. But it was the reading equivalent of going for a walk in the midday sun in Palermo, slow and languorous!  It might have been better if I’d read it in the evening.  It certainly didn’t lend itself to waking me up on my commute. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either.

Click here to find out more about Risorgimento

Three weeks eight seconds; the epic Tour de France of 1989 – Nige Tassell

A Stage by Stage, accident by incident telling of the battle for the yellow jersey between Pedro Delgado, who was supposed to win it, Laurent Fignon, who thought he’d won it, and Greg Le Mond, who started out as a no-hoper and who did win it.  This is the story of a remarkable race.

This is about more than just these three cyclists though as there were a number of exciting break aways and Stage finishes on the 1989 Tour.

The book begins with the shooting accident in 1987 that almost caused the end of LeMond’s cycling career.  He was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law, seriously injured and, in early 1989, was struggling to find fitness and form going into the Tour de France.  He found form during the Tour and he and Fignon were both battling to gain and keep the yellow jersey.

Delgado was in top form and defending his Tour win from the previous year but there was controversy about a failed drugs test and he got his time mixed up for the Prologue time trial and turned up late.  He spent the rest of the Tour trying to catch up to the front-runners.

Fignon, a Frenchman, was not universally popular in France and he and his team didn’t help themselves by not adopting new technology, such as tribars for time trials, teardrop shaped helmets and how disc wheels are used.

The battle for first lasted all the way to the Champs Elysees and Greg LeMond won by 8 seconds.

I really enjoyed knowing what happened on the 1989 Tour.  It is unlikely that in today’s world of team radios and solid team tactics such an exciting race will happen again.  It’s also a story of a simpler time when cycling teams weren’t as media savvy as they are today.

What the book does lack, however, is the humanity of the race.  The facts are presented, the breakaways and spills related but it just doesn’t ever quite come alive.  At the end of the book I have no more sense of the three main protagonists as people than I did at the start of it.  And none of them are cited in the acknowledgements, which makes me think they weren’t involved in the book and which might explain its 2-dimensional nature.

I am pleased I read it. I know more about the 1989 Tour than I did. I won’t be looking out for any more books by this author.

Whisper of the Moon Moth – Lindsay Jayne Ashford

The latest of my 99p Amazon Daily Deals I actually started reading this some time ago and got sidetracked, which I think says something about the beginning of this book.  The book’s start is pleasant but doesn’t really grab you, making it easy to put to one side if something more interesting turns up.  This is a shame as the middle part of the book was interesting.

I should probably let you know at this stage that the book is a fictionalised biography of the life of the film star Merle Oberon from her time as a young woman in Calcutta to the point she marries the director Alexander Korda.

Before reading this I didn’t know much about who Merle Oberon was.  I vaguely remembered that she was in the film of Wuthering Heights, which I loathe because it is given a happy ending.

What I have learned from this book is that whilst she was alive Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson made sure her background was entirely fictional to hide the fact she was Anglo-Indian, which would have made her persona non grata in Hollywood.

The book takes what facts have been discovered about her and turns them into a reasonably plausible story of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book gives a good flavour of the lives of Anglo-Indian people trying to be accepted as more English than Indian to improve their lot in life.  This is interesting from a sociology perspective but the least interesting part of Estelle’s story.  And I think that because I read this section in dribs and drabs I kept forgetting who Estelle was going to become.

The parts about the young girl and her mother working out how to survive in cold, dreary London are really interesting.  This is where the story starts to come more alive as Estelle moves into the film industry and moves up the ladder, changing her name and history to facilitate it.

The book doesn’t sidestep the numerous people Merle had affaires with although it does edit some of them out and cleans them up into “love affaires” rather than rungs on the career ladder, which I suspect they were.

The most annoying parts of the book are where it casts certain people as villains of the story when there is no evidence they were, for example the part where Vivian Leigh blackmails Merle into not taking a screen test for the part of Scarlett O’Hara.  This doesn’t seem very fair to me.  It’s ok to cast villains when they are wholly fictional but not when they were once living, breathing people and there is no evidence of it.

The true end of the book occurs around the death of Oberon’s mother when she learns that her mother was actually her grandmother and her sister, long estranged from their mother, was her birth mother…and her father was still her father!  This must have been a shocking revelation, assuming Estelle grew up without knowing the truth.

The actual end of the book is a summary of what happened after this revelation and Oberon’s marriage to Alexander Korda.  This is simply a list of facts and spoiled the book for me.  I would have much preferred a suggested further reading list or a link to an online biography.

Overall, this was an interesting book but I think I would have preferred a genuine biography to this fictionalised one.