Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

This book starts in Berlin, 2011, with Adolf Hitler waking up on a patch of wasteland smelling vaguely of petrol but alive and well!

The rest of the book is about Hitler discovering modern Germany and the modern world; the “Internetwork”, getting onto a television and becoming a media celebrity.  The book is absurd and laugh out loud funny in places.

But it also has a serious point to make.  We fail to see the ridiculousness of parts of our western culture and this book hold a mirror up to show us some of these things.  For example, collagen implants in lips, merchandising blitz when something new and expected to be popular comes out and having a media friendly email address.

The book ends as Hitler is recovering in hospital having been beaten up by 2 neo-Nazi things who think he is poking fun at “the real Hitler” and all he stood for.

The book is written by a German journalist and was first published, in Germany in 2012.  It became an international best seller and was made into a Netflix film in 2016.

I think the problem with the book is – as you might have guessed from the straws I’m clutching at writing this review – although the book is a fun read there isn’t enough of real substance.  It’s difficult to find enough to write about without regurgitating the whole story.

I’d recommend it as a fun days reading.  It will make you giggle and you can then move on to something you can get your teeth into.

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King John; treachery, tyranny and the road to Magna Carta – Marc Morris

Another not-quite-satisfying royal biography.  At least this one was more balanced, looking at all aspects of King John, in so far as they are known.

And this is the key problem with this particular book, at least for me.  King John is another medieval character about whom not that much is known.  This makes the book very definitely a political/public life biography.

I finished the book knowing a lot more about John’s political machinations and the instability throughout Europe during the lives of his parents (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine), the reign of his brother (Richard II/Richard the Lionheart) and during his own reign.  This has helped to reinforce what I’ve learned from other reading and to see different viewpoints.

It was also good to see King John in a different way from the two-dimensional villain he is usually portrayed as in Robin Hood-type films and stories.

However, it is frustrating to not know more about John as a person and to learn hardly anything about Isabelle of Angouleme, his children with her and his numerous illegitimate children.  Who were they?  What happened to them? Who did they become?

Despite its shortcomings and frustrations though the book was definitely worth reading…if only for the fabulous quote of the chronicler Matthew Paris, almost a contemporary of john, who said:

“Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John”

A popular King then!!!!

Click here to find out about Magna Carta in Lincoln Castle

George and Marina, Duke and Duchess of Kent – Christopher Warwick

Another 99p Amazon Kindle bargain book.  It looked vaguely interesting and I was in need of something to read whilst away from home and having no access to my stash of real books waiting to be read!

This is a biography of Prince George, fourth son of King George V of Britain, and Princess Marina, Third daughter of Prince & Princess Nicholas of Greece.

The book looks separately at their childhoods and teenage years, looks at them as a couple during their married years and then follows Marina through her long widowhood up to her death in 1968.

The book was interesting in terms of finding out more about the spiderweb of royal relationships across Europe.  I also enjoyed finding out more about the British royal family and the fallout from the abdication crisis.

The biggest downside of the book is that it is very one-sided, very pro the Kents.  A classic example of this is that he paints a picture of Marina as an out-and-out snob and then describes her as the pinnacle of British/European royalty.  In my worldview snobs aren’t the pinnacle of anything!  He also skirts over George’s less socially acceptable behaviour and tries to portray the Duke and Duchess as the perfect couple.

In summary, I found this biography a hagiography.  I don’t recommend it, unless you like uncritical and unbalanced biographies of titled people.  And I certainly won’t be reading any more of Christopher Warwick’s books.

Drive; the surprising truth about what motivates us – Daniel Pink

You’ve probably noticed that despite my profession I don’t read very many self-help or personal development books.  This is generally because I don’t like the tone of them; I don’t appreciate being lectured whilst in the comfort of my own armchair nor do I want authors pushing their brand of religion at me.  However, several people I respect recommended this book to me so I thought I’d give it a go.

The first thing to say is that I have only read this book once and I think it is a book that requires reading more than once to pick up on the nuances and to join up the dots between sections and ideas.

The basic premise is that the carrot and stick “motivators” used in the workplace are irrelevant and unhelpful in the direction work is moving towards so we need to rethink.  Apparently we are moving from Motivation 2.0 operating system to Motivation 3.0!

The book looks at what M2.0 is, what the elements of M3.0 are and how to move from one to the other.  The key elements of M3.0 are autonomy, mastery and purpose, which link quite closely to what Harold Jarche talks about in his blog (which I highly recommend by the way).

Having read this book I now understand why my last workplace suited me better than the one that preceded it.  It also helped me to understand why I prefer to work in the way I do.

I think I now need to go back and re-read the book to understand it more deeply…and work out how I can use the ideas to make a difference

Click here to find out more about Harold Jarche

Click here to find out more about Daniel Pink

Elsa Schiaparelli; a biography – Meryle Secrest

I’ve been looking forward to reading this biography for ages: so long in fact that I’d forgotten I had a copy of it and bought another!

I’ve been fascinated by Elsa Schiaparelli since I read that Stalin regarded her as the most dangerous woman in the world.  I may have misquoted that as I can’t find a source but it has been lodged in my memory for years.

I also love the pre-war clothes she created as part of the Surrealist movement; the Cocteau inspired evening coat, the lobster print evening dress and the stunningly simple and elegant red evening coat.

I wanted to know more about the woman who created these fun yet fabulous clothes.  I wanted to know how she translated the art the surrealists created into wearable, stylist and elegant fashion.

And how does the daughter of a well-off and prominent Roman family end up married to a con-artist and rise to the top of Parisian haute-couture?

The book gives a good overview of Schiaparelli’s early life but thereafter it is quite a vague biography.  Very little seems to be know about Elsa as a person and no one seems to have thought to ask her friends, employees, friends and family about her whilst they were still alive to ask.  I guess that is one of the challenges of writing a biography about someone whose life melted into obscurity after WW2 when she went out of fashion, or ran out of ideas, went bankrupt and faded into obscurity.  She was also one of the fashion designers whose reputation suffered from accusations of collaboration with the Nazi regime.

I’m still not sure how this extraordinary woman managed to transform herself from a poverty-stricken single parent to being the centre of 1930s fashion design but I am pleased I read the book.  I’m pleased to have the pictures in the book so I can keep going back and marvelling over the design.  I’m also pleased that it prompted me to splurge some birthday money on a Schiaparelli hat!

Would I recommend the book as a biography?  Not unless you already know something about the label Elsa hid behind.

Queen Anne; The politics of passion – Anne Somerset

I’m not entirely sure how to start this review.  I started reading this book during the Christmas break and have read 36 other books whilst reading it.  It isn’t that it’s a particularly dull book but it hasn’t grabbed my attention either.

Before I started I didn’t know much about Queen Anne.  I knew who she was, whose daughter and sister she was but most of the rest I knew was from reading Jean Plaidy’s book, The Queen’s Favourites.

This book puts Queen Anne in context; what was happening in the wider European world, the intrigues in France to put her father and then her half-brother on the throne and the War of Spanish Succession.  One can also see the development of party politics in England and Britain, once the Act of Union was passed.

I think the author tries to give a balanced view of Anne as not the cleverest or most educated monarch but a monarch who genuinely tried to do her best for her country. But overall I got the sense of a person who was stubborn and determined yet could be unduly swayed by people in her inner circle.

And of her inner circle the people who come across as having the most interesting – if not necessarily nice – characters are the Duke & Duchess of Marlborough.  Definitely a couple I want to read more about!

Overall, whilst this book is filled with a lot of facts it didn’t bring the majority of characters to life or really give me a living sense of the social upheavals that were taking place in Britain at this time.  Parts of it were interesting enough to keep me reading but there were too many bits that didn’t and why I picked up other books to read along the way.  I probably won’t choose to read another book by this author.

The Road to Little Dribbling: More notes from a small island – Bill Bryson

I have been looking forward to reading this book.  I loved Notes From a Small Island and can still clearly remember reading it; I was on holiday on a Nile Cruise, sitting under the awning of the rear deck of the boat in the hot midday sun listening to Buena Vista Social Club on my discman and engrossed in my book until my partner suddenly prodded me and told me to be quiet!  I had been laughing out loud without even realising it!

The problem with having a sense of anticipation about something is that the event or thing can sink under the weight of expectation.  And I’m afraid this book did, at least a little.

There were still some laugh out loud stories and anecdotes.  And I loved the random selection of places Bryson visited using his north-ish to south-ish line drawn down mainland UK.  I liked the fact there were some really obscure places included as well as some well-known ones.

There was also the usual quota of quirky facts; although none with quite the impact of the opening of Down Under!

What was really missing from this book though was the kindness, tolerance and affection of the earlier books.  Bill Bryson appears to have become a grumpy, intolerant old man and I feel sad at this.

I can understand that travelling around a place you live and are going to continue living doesn’t bring out the same feelings of nostalgic affection as towards a place you are about to leave behind.  And I also understand that as one ages ones views change.  But I still feel sad that a loved author appears to have lost his joie de vivre.  It feels like going back to a favourite holiday destination after 20 years and finding out it has changed beyond all recognition.

The worst thing of all is that I feel robbed of the feeling of looking forward to the next book.  I’ll probably buy it and read it.  But I’ll do so with a sense of trepidation.

Joan of Kent: the first Princess of Wales – Penny Lawne

I’m back to my “Plantagenet-fest” this week with another book about another interesting and determined woman of the English court.

This one is Joan, also known as the Fair Maid of Kent, who married the Black Prince, eldest son of King Edward III.

The first thing I was surprised to learn about what that her father was half-brother to Edward II and son of Eleanor of Castile’s successor.  Which felt like a nice link back to my previous book.  Somehow, I’d always been lead to believe that Richard II’s mother was a commoner when, in fact, she was of royal decent.  I also didn’t know that as a child she lived a precarious life on the edges of court life after her father was executed for treason.

As with the book about Eleanor of Castile more is inferred about Joan of Kent than is actually recorded although she was clearly a strong-willed and feisty woman.  At the age of 12 she was seduced, possibly, into a clandestine marriage with Thomas Holande.  She stuck by Thomas even though her mother tried to have the marriage annulled and to marry her to William Montagu.  And stuck by the marriage even though it was several years before the Pope confirmed the marriage and she was able to live openly with her husband.

Her second marriage, to Edward the Black Prince, was also a secret one initially and neither the King nor Queen were in favour of it.

I think Joan’s story is one that would lend itself to the type of fictionalisation authors such as Philippa Gregory and Jean Plaidy have given to other women in history.  As a biography this book is more a history of the period than one that brings its central character to life.  As a work of fiction Joan’s startling life story could be vivid and colourful.

The book has added to my knowledge of the late-Plantagenet period but I rather suspect my next book needs something a bit more substantial than conjecture and theory built from shadowy references.

Blitzed; Drugs in Nazi Germany – Norman Ohler

I saw this booked reviewed in one of the weekend papers and put it on my book “wish list”; two months before my birthday I put books onto my wish list rather than rush out and buy them or my partner grumbles that he doesn’t know what to buy me!  And then it came up as a 99p Kindle book deal.  As regular readers will know I can’t resist 99p bargains.

Having read the book I now know I will be leaving it on my wish list so I have an actual book version.

I thought the book start off slowly looking at the development of methamphetamine by a German chemist and the large-scale use of Pervitin as a cure-all during the period of the Weimar Republic.  There was a slightly odd diversion into the author’s visit to the Temmler laboratory where the drug was manufactured, which didn’t really make sense in the context of the opening chapter.

Once the book got going though I was thoroughly absorbed in it, much to the amusement of colleagues who I was on a residential course with, whose comments were along the lines of “Gillian’s doing drugs again!”

So, why was the book so absorbing?  I think, primarily, because it isn’t a topic that has been covered in any depth in my previous reading.  Also, because it is a mixture of personal stories and an overview; the reader gets to know about the people as well as the context and the “what”.  The idea of performance enhancing drugs being used to facilitate blitzkrieg also makes sense.  I also loved the story about the BBC doing an article, during the war, about blitzkrieg only being possible because of the use of drugs; because it gave the British population a reason why the German Army appeared invincible and inexhaustible they became exhaustible and defeatable.  The downside of the article was the start of the use of benzedrine by Allied forces.

I found the bit about Hitler’s decent into drug addiction less interesting although it does give a different insight into the man and his increasing narrow band of cronies.

The most frustrating thing about the book is its ending.  It just ends with the suicide of Hitler and the later death of Dr Morrell.  I want to know what happened after the war ended.  If you have an army who are addicted to, by that stage, fairly high doses of methamphetamine what happens to them?  Are they weaned off the drug?  Do they have to go cold-turkey?  Are their studies within Germany on the long-term after effects?  And I’m left in limbo not knowing!

That said, I would definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in German history, the history of drugs and drug taking and the tactics of war.

Eleanor of Castile – Sara Cockerill

Before I read this book I didn’t know who Eleanor of Castile was or which of the medieval English kings she was married to.

Turns out she was married to Edward I and had a busy and eventful life.  Although not much of Eleanor’s life is recorded Sara Cockerill has inferred a good history from what is recorded and what is recorded about her family and dependents.

I certainly didn’t expect to learn about the Spanish Reconquista from book about an English queen, although I guess the clue is in the title!  Her father, Ferdinand III of Castile, was instrumental in reconquering Spain from the Moors.

I also learned that this Eleanor was great-great-granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of my heroines of the Middle Ages.  And this Eleanor had some of the intellect, business acumen and stamina of her grandmother.  She was also very well-educated for the era; both her father and half-brother, Alfonso, were patrons of the arts and encouraged literacy in their courts.

During the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to the future Edward I she appears to have struggled with her mother-in-law who wanted to retain her influence over her son Edward.  However, the young couple were soon sent to Gascony to manage the royal duchy and then went on crusade to Acre.

The overall picture that is create of Eleanor through this biography is of a busy, business-like Queen and a close Royal couple.  Eleanor was a successful businesswoman in her own right, accumulating property and managing it whilst travelling around supporting her husband.  Yet her business dealings didn’t always make her popular.  She was also well-loved by her husband and mourned by him even when he later remarried; imagine how his second wife must have felt attending mourning services for her predecessor with her new husband!

I really enjoyed finding out more about the Middle Ages.  This book fills in some of my gaps between Eleanor of Aquitaine and the start of the Wars of the Roses.

It’s also fascinating to speculate on how England might have been different if we’d had King Alphonso I instead of Edward II.

Which, sort of, leads on the one of the downsides of this book and that is that a lot of it is about what we can infer from the records there are.  On some things it can be very clear; there is plenty of evidence that Eleanor accumulated a lot of property in England and some evidence that she was actively involved in managing it herself.  But it is quite hard to pin down the person behind the facts so Eleanor isn’t really knowable as a person.

I would, however, still recommend this book as an insight into the Queen whose heart is buried in Lincoln and who was sincerely mourned by the King who erected crosses wherever her body rested on its journey from Lincoln to London.