A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

I kept looking at this book for ages before I decided to buy it.  And then it sat on my pile of books to read before I decided to read it.  I wonder what it is about somethings that interest and intrigue us but not enough to compel us to immediate action?

Anyway, its time came last weekend on a flight home from Cork.  This was a perfect book for one of those times when you want to be distracted from yourself but without having to invest too many brain cells in the process of assimilating what is being read.

The basic premise of the story is that in 1922 Count Alexander Illich Rostov is sentenced to internal exile in newly Bolshevik Russia.  His place of exile is the Hotel Metropol in Moscow.  Count Alexander is safe as long as he doesn’t set foot outside the hotel doors.

The story is about Rostov’s life from 1922 to 1954.  It tells of his friendships with the hotel staff.  It portrays the growing confidence of the Bolshevik regime seen through their activities in the hotel.  It relates how old and young learn from each other when it tells the story of Rostov’s friendship with lonely child Nina and then his guardianship of her daughter Sofia.  Mostly the book tells us that it doesn’t matter how wide or narrow your physical horizons it is the openness of your mind to the possibilities life has to offer that counts.

If you discount the total improbability of someone being sentenced to imprisonment in a luxury hotel when they are accused of being an unrepentant aristocrat this is a gentle, enjoyable story of how a person’s life unfolds.

I found it frustrating not knowing what happened to Nina.  Although, having read a fair bit of the history of the Bolshevik revolutions I can guess what is likely to have happened.

I suspect this might end up being one of those comfort reads that I go back to when I’m feeling unwell or out of sorts with the modern world.

The German War: a nation under arms, 1939 – 1945 – Nicholas Stargardt

The blurb on the back of this book describes it as being a history of the ordinary people of Germany using the letters and diaries during the war years.

I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while but saving it as a bit of a treat.  More about ordinary people and less of an historians perspective on what was happening.

It didn’t work out quite like that.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting book and it does seek to understand the extent to which ordinary German citizens were bought into the Nazi ethos and what alternative beliefs were current.  It just has more of an historian’s perspective and few quoted letters and diaries than I was expecting.

The book is in 5 parts; Defend the Attack, Masters of Europe, The Shadow of 1812, Stalemate, The War Comes Home and Total Defeat.

The first shock, to me, was that to the average German citizen the British were seen as the aggressors of war who wanted to encircle and weaken Germany.  Oddly, I’ve never come across this before.  I understand that nations always find another nation to blame when they choose to start a war but I was genuinely shocked that Britain was being held accountable. Probably gross naivety on my part!

The second shock was that Viktor Klemperer comes out of the book with his image slightly tarnished.  I’ve never actually read his diaries although I know of them so hadn’t realised he actually led a very sheltered life during the war and never ended up in a KL. I recognise that it seems unfair to blame him for that stroke of luck, which allowed him to survive.  And I feel uncomfortable with my reaction.  But…

However, what mostly comes out of reading this book is that whilst things were going well most people were happy to go along with things.  When things started going badly people couldn’t see an alternative to continuing going along with things.  The Nazi propaganda machine didn’t convince all the people all of the time but it did a ruthlessly effective job at doing it for a lot of the people a lot of the time.  A useful reminder of how important it is to gather your news from multiple sources.

It wasn’t quite the book I was expecting but it was a different perspective and I’m pleased that I have read it.

Eleanor the secret Queen; the woman who put Richard III on the throne – John Ashdown-Hill

A biography of Eleanor Talbot, the woman whose alleged marriage to Edward IV meant his children by Elizabeth Woodville were illegitimate and allowed Richard III to depose his nephews.

This book tells what little is known, or can be inferred about Eleanor Talbot.

Talbot was the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury by his second wife.  Her first husband was Sir Thomas Butler, son of Lord Sudebury.  her second husband may, or may not have been the man who became Edward IV.

As is often the case with medieval woman, Eleanor is a shadowy figure and doesn’t come across as particularly interesting so it’s hard to imagine what Edward might have seen in her other than a challenge.  Her younger sister comes across as much better company!

What was interesting was understanding more about how solemnly medieval England viewed pre-contract marriages and understanding more of life in Plantagenet Britain.

Ultimately though I found the book frustrating.  I want to understand, as far as I can, just how it came about that Richard III came to his throne.  I want to understand the Court’s response to the allegations of  Edward and Eleanor’s pre-contract.  This book just doesn’t do it.  It takes too many leaps of faith and presents them as fact to cast any real illumination onto the subject.

Operation Garbo; the personal story of the most successful spy of WWII – Juan Pujol Garcia and Nigel West

This is one of those autobiographies you just couldn’t make up; no one would accept the story as it’s just so incredible.

Juan Pujol Garcia was a British double agent in WWII who managed to persuade the German Secret Service that his entirely fictitious British spy ring existed and then persuaded them to accept the fictitious information he fed them from the fictitious spy ring!

Juan Pujol Garcia was, to cut a long story short, a chicken farmer who spent the Spanish Civil War avoiding fighting for either side. At the outbreak of WWII he wanted to help defeat the Nazis, again without fighting.  He offered his services as a spy to the British, who declined.  He offered his services to the Germans who accepted and encouraged him to travel to Britain.  He claimed to have travelled but in reality was in Lisbon making up reports from hat he thought might be interesting and from consulting library books about Britain.  Britain eventually recruited him after learning about his reports from decoded Enigma messages between Madrid and Berlin.

Once recruited by MI6 his “spy ring” expanded and through it Allied High Command were able to send useful misinformation to Nazi Germany, in particular the misdirects about D-Day.

The parts of the book written by Pujol Garcia are memoir and Nigel West contributes an historian’s perspective of the same points.

I loved finding out more about Garbo and his amazing, fictitious spy ring.  It was good to get more detail about some of the things I’ve read in other books such as MacIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat.

The problem is, mainly, that this is in part an autobiography.  I got a strong sense that Pujol Garcia is telling a very sanitized version of his story and he’s very assertive about telling his reader how apolitical he was and how desperate to help Britain defeat the Nazis.  I suspect the reality was a bit more complicated.  I’m not suggesting that Garbo was not really important to the war effort, he was, but in real life people don’t just wear a white hat or a black hat, they are a combination of both.

I would definitely recommend reading this book though.