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elkiedee

elkiedee
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      07.05.2013 05:52
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      An account of how Jews in Nazi Austria were made to participate in the Holocaust.

      This book deals with a very controversial issue - the apparent collaboration of Austrian Jews with the Nazi Third Reich's programme for their extermination. How could they have participated in something so horrific, and why did they?

      Doron Rabinovici is a Viennese Jew born after the war in Israel, but his family returned to Austria when he was 3. He has also written several novels and a collection of short stories. Eichmann's Jews was originally published in German under the title Instanzen der Obnmacht, which translates as Authorities of Powerlessness.

      Adolf Eichmann was a senior SS figure whose job in Austria from 1938 was to implement the Final Solution, and many of his methods were also used in other countries which came under Third Reich rule, such as the use of Jewish community leaders and organisations to help carry out the dirty work.

      Rabinovici describes the Jewish population of Vienna before the Anschluss brought Austria under Nazi rule in 1938 - the Vienna Israelite Community or Kultusgemeinde had responsibility for various social services, health care and educational functions as well as synagogues, and had hundreds of paid staff, and presumably lots of records and information about the city's Jewish population. Austrian Jews had faced a lot of anti-Semitism long before the Nazis - this had intensified in the 1930s, and there was substantial anti-Semitic legislation.

      Eichmann's Jews were recruited by a mixture of coercion and persuasion. The community leaders involved were called to meetings where they were offered little choice. They were invited to discuss the systematic expulsion of Jews, and hoped to be able to negotiate emigration to Palestine and elsewhere for their community members. Although they were unable to fund the services they had previously run, they tried to find a way to continue running soup kitchens, vocational training to help people emigrate and prisoner support. Later, the Nazis forcibly recruited Jewish thugs and gruppenfuhrers (group leaders) to help round up Jews for deportation to concentration camps.

      Rabinovici outlines how it all happened in fascinating and horrifying detail. While many of Eichmann's collaborator Jews were themselves later sent to camps and killed, those who survived were often judged, sentenced and punished for their involvement in war crimes than non-Jews - again, this is meticulously documented. He also explores in depth what might motivate this apparent collaboration.

      Eichmann's Jews is based on the author's PhD thesis, and is clearly a product of extensive academic research, backed up by over 40 pages of endnotes for a text of just over 200 pages. I don't know what the German text is like, but the English translation seems very well written, with real clarity and flow. The complexity and contradictions in the story of what happened to the Jews of Holocaust Vienna is presented in lots of short, straightforward sentences.

      Rabinovici is also responding to others who have written on the subject, most famously the writings of Hannah Arendt. Given that I haven't read any of these other books, I thought he handled well the need to summarise the arguments that he was replying to.

      Given its subject matter, this is not an easy or entertaining read but a worthwhile, thought provoking and disturbing account of a particular part of Holocaust history.

      I received a free copy of this book for review through the Amazon Vine program and a slightly different version of this review has appeared at Amazon UK.

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      16.12.2012 00:37
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      An English journalist visits small town America

      A British journalist arrives in the tiny town of Lebanon, Kansas, chosen for its central position in the USA. His plan is to track the progress of a 10 dollar bill for a month, and use this as a starting point for meeting and talking to some ordinary Americans about their lives. The concept is a bit artificial and Steve Boggan regularly reminds us of this. People might just take it to the bank or put it in a child's money box. However, a number of people obviously welcome the novelty of an eccentric Englishman in a tiny town which rarely attracts tourists and lacks any hotels or motels.

      To an extent his subjects are self-selecting - those who don't really want to spend much of their time chatting with him can just hand the note straight on for the most part, those who welcome the diversion might keep hold of it for a day or two. The first people he meets have let him rent accommodation for the night online in a hunting lodge - they turn out to be a couple who actually met online, and that does suggest that they will be open to helping him start his mad project. Unlike the glamorous and exciting big cities, this is the sort of place few outsiders ever visit, though surprisingly, Boggan does meet an Englishman who has gone native.

      I really enjoyed the accounts of the lives of those Boggan meets on his travels, such as his first hosts, Rick and Kay Chapin, who are happy to open up on their views of the problems the town faces. Boggan has a relaxed, chatty and self-deprecating style, and I thought he was good on the details of people's lives.

      Over a book rather than an article, the pace does occasionally drag, and he does spend a lot of time hanging around waiting for things to happen. Sometimes he conveys the boredom as well as his subjects' interesting stories. In the small town mid west, some people take a while to get round to spending money. There are few big journeys or big cities.

      This is quite a lightweight work of travel journalism written to entertain, not a serious academic treatise, but I thought it offered a bit of genuine insight into the lives of a few people struggling to get by in the declining small towns of the mid west, in an area rarely visited by tourists. I was charmed by Steve Boggan for a few hours, and will look out for his articles and/or books with interest.

      I originally heard of the book through extracts read on Radio 4's Book of the Week and then snapped up a review copy (courtesy of Amazon Vine) - it is currently available in trade paperback or Kindle (and presumably other ebook) format, published by Union Books.

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        19.10.2012 12:38
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        Fiction which uses some real stories

        Author: Laura Moriarty
        It is 1922. Two women take a train journey. Louise Brooks is a beautiful 15 year old from Wichita, Kansas, taking up the chance of a lifetime to study dancing in New York City. Her companion, Cora, is a 36 year old housewife, and seems respectable to the point of being dull. This summer will change the lives of both women.

        Louise Brooks was a real person - she had a brief career as a start of silent movies, but is still remembered, with her trademark glossy dark bobbed hair, as the epitome of 1920s glamour. I learned quite a lot that was new and interesting to me about her life, and what happened to her after her period of fame. However, this is a novel, and the real story, as the title suggests, is that of the chaperone, Cora Carlisle, a fictitious character. I found it a fascinating and enjoyable story.

        The narrative is from Cora's point of view, and Moriarty includes some biographical detail of Louise Brooks. She has little apparently in common with her charge, who turns out to be a brat with shocking behaviour, getting drunk with strange men. Cora tries to curb and protect her behaviour without much success. At the same time, Louise is very bright, with highbrow reading tastes. I had believed a popular myth that Brooks' career was brought to an end by the introduction of "talkies", that her speaking voice was terrible. In fact, she refused to go along with studio system expectations, was perhaps too clever and argumentative, as well as badly behaved. She lived into her 70s and after various failures found some success and respect as a film critic.

        Cora turns out to have a motive for taking on the chaperone's role - it is an opportunity to escape from a stifling home life, but more importantly, to try and find out more about her origins - she was adopted as a child from an orphanage in New York City. This summer will turn out to be just a start to her on a voyage of discovery.

        I enjoyed the various shifts in the relationship between Cora and Louise, both over the summer and in occasional encounters later in their lives, when Louise has grown up. They have very different outlooks on life and will never be best friends exactly, but they make each other think.

        I wasn't sure that all the story of Cora's later life, told in the last third of the book, was believable - though it was a great story and I wanted to think it could have all turned out that way. Still, I loved the way Moriarty develops her as a character who remains outwardly respectable but is inspired to pursue her own way forward to a much more satisfying life. I also enjoyed the look at social history in the US through Cora as a character.

        I thought this was a terrific and memorable read.

        I received a review copy of this through the Amazon Vine programme, and this review appears there in a slightly different form.

        Book details:

        Publisher: Michael Joseph
        Publication date: April 2012
        371 pages
        ISBN: 9780 7181 58972
        Price: Paperback RRP £6.99; Current Amazon price £4.16; Kindle £4.99

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          07.07.2012 23:02
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          twelve short stories looking at (mostly) modern relationships and family dynamics

          Married Love is Tessa Hadley's second collection, containing twelve short stories looking at (mostly) modern relationships and family dynamics - many are about parents and their grown up children and in-laws, others are about couples. Flicking through the book to choose some of the best and/or most interesting stories to mention, I have found a difficulty. Almost all of these incisive, witty stories reveal an interesting group of characters I would like to know more about after the end, sometimes from several different viewpoints, and it is hard to pick out just a few.

          In the title story, a talented student shocks her family by announcing a plan to become her university tutor's third wife. Later, Lottie seems to be rebelling against her fairly relaxed, liberal parents in conforming to very old fashioned stereotypes of marriage and motherhood.

          In A Mouthful of Cut Glass, a couple take each other home to meet the parents, and come up against some of the differences between them they had hardly noticed before, particularly class. In In the Country the outsiders at a family gathering, both partners of grown up children in the family, surreptitiously bond with each other.

          The majority of these stories have contemporary settings - The Trojan Prince features a young man in the early 1920s. A Mouthful of Cut Glass takes place in 1972, and in fact I initially overlooked the historical setting. Looking at it, there are various period references but the preoccupations of Hadley's characters don't change much over the years.

          I was moved and a little shocked by the children of Because the Night spying on their parents' parties and the unsuitable behaviour of some of the adults.

          I especially liked the very 21st century situation of Journey Home, in which Alec worries about his sister who changes her Facebook status to Single and won't answer her phone while he is abroad.

          The Godchildren is a story of a reluctant reunion describes brilliantly the guilt of people after the death of someone who had been generous and caring towards them all in their childhood, and about not having kept in touch enough.

          She's The One centres on themes of mourning and friendship, as Ally struggles to come to terms with her brother's suicide.

          These stories are not directly linked in any way. All of them have been published before separately, six of them in the American magazine the New Yorker, the others in various British periodicals, and they stand alone as strong, memorable stories. However, they share several common themes and complement and enhance each other well as a collection.

          This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk

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          08.06.2012 21:51
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          An intriguing story about 19th century prostitutes gets lost among too many layers of narrative

          The Whores' Asylum, a debut novel, is a tale of friendship, love, sin and criminality set in late 19th century Cambridge and Oxford. The comparison to one of my favourite historical novelists, Sarah Waters, also caught my attention. Sadly, I was a little bit disappointed.

          Edward Fraser, the primary narrator, is a Cambridge graduate who has chosen to continue his theological studies at Oxford, and becomes good friends with his room mate Stephen, a medical student. He is dismayed when Stephen starts working with the local fallen women, and even more so when Stephen announces he has fallen in love - as he has met Stephen's beloved, Diana, before.

          This should be really intriguing, yet I never felt sufficiently emotionally engaged by Darby's characters to care about what happened to them. I think there is a problem with the structure of the novel.

          Darby really overuses the device of enclosing various stories within other narratives. The novel is presented as a bundle of papers left to be opened after Fraser's death, then there is a letter from him to his son. After telling the story of his friendship with Stephen up to their quarrel, the story flashes back to his Cambridge days. Then there is a long letter from Stephen. There is even a letter from the mysterious Diana herself, introduced by yet another note from Edward. The effect of this structure was that I felt really distanced from the characters, and it made the whole novel feel a bit like an introduction to a main story which never happened. Also, the opening Editor's note and the letter which forms the Prologue didn't really add to the storytelling or give any extra insight into the main story, they just made it clear that the narrator is already dead. I like historical novels to take me back into the period when they are set, not to keep reminding me what a distant past they are set in.

          The meat of the story is a bit of a melodrama/tear jerker, but it is so buried in other narratives that I was not sure I cared. I was far more interested in Diana's story than in most of the rest of the book - this was the part that the title refers to and the core of the story, but it comes two thirds of the way into the novel.

          Katy Darby does write well, in flowing narrative sentences which convey a convincing flavour of the Victorian setting. I understand that she has published a number of short stories and I would like to try some of her other work. I am hoping that her next book doesn't have such an exasperating structure.

          This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk

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          07.04.2012 12:55
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          The story of a Danish colonial family interned in a Japanese camp during WWII

          "It was towards the middle of the year when my friends started disappearing."

          I have read lots of memoirs, fiction and history about WWII in Europe but know less about Asia. The Blue Door is an account of a Norwegian family's internment by the Japanese in Indonesia.
          Lise Gronn-Nielsen (she writes under a married name) was born in Java, Indonesia in 1934, the oldest of 3 children of Norwegian parents. Indonesia was then a Dutch colony and she writes of an idyllic and luxurious childhood, living in a big house with lots of servants and spending lots of time at swimming pools. She went to school with other European children, and remembers seeing Javanese children as young as six at work, making bricks, operating looms and pulling ploughs.

          Then the Japanese invaded in 1942 and started interning Dutch and other European families. They came for Lise's family in 1943 - her father was taken somewhere else and Lise, her mother, her 7 year old sister, Karin, and her baby brother, Lasse, were taken to the first of several internment camps.

          This is a moving and vivid account of a very grim existence from a child's viewpoint (though written in old age), but also of the bravery and spirit of a child in a dreadful situation. She learns to steal useful things from houses where families have been moved on (presumably to another camp), to kill flies and rats to earn sugar to supplement a very meagre diet and avoid starvation. Her mum and other adults try to keep some of the darkest secrets from her, but brutality and the deaths of other internees are frequently all too visible.

          I was very impressed by the author's powers of recall of her dreadful experiences almost 70 years later. Much of the content is horrible, but she avoids well the pitfalls of the misery memoir. The Blue Door is well written (especially considering English is not her first language. There is only a little bit of the political and historical background to her story in the book - I know very little but looked some of it up online - but it is about what she perceived and experienced as a child, so this seems appropriate. There is a chapter about Lise's life since the camps, trying to resume normal family life back in Norway and what happened to everyone since, and she doesn't shy away from describing the after effects of the war on her mother. She also very clearly retains a lot of bitterness and anger, and expresses a wish to see a Japanese person without feeling these negative emotions but says she can't.

          I would recommend this book for adults and teenagers with an interest in the history and experiences of those who lived through the war, and a different and unusual perspective on it.

          This review was written for the Waterstones Cardholder scheme, through which I received a free copy. It is currently in hardback and ebook formats like Kindle.

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          18.03.2012 14:03
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          Another Anglo Irish big house story? Yes, and a good one

          Polly grows up in an Anglo-Irish family in the years following World War II. Her father died in the war. Her mother sends her off to spend school holidays with her grandparents at Kildarragh, a great house in the countryside, far away from Dublin.

          I really like Anglo-Irish great house stories, and tales of family relationships, and this is a beautifully written example. Polly feels secure in the love of her grandparents and other family members who come and go. They are still mourning the loss of their son (her dad) and a daughter during the war, and Grandpa sometimes seems to think that she's his daughter Jassie returned.

          Johnston builds up a portrait of family dynamics through lots of little incidents. The family loves to tell stories of the past and she has learned about those who died. However, I also felt Polly's sadness and discomfort as she discovers some painful truths from conversations between people who don't realise that their comments are heard. Kildarragh is a refuge for Polly but she isn't always sure that she belongs there.

          I found the characters in this story very real and convincing, the living and the dead. One of the most interesting, and sometimes disturbing, is Polly's Uncle Sam, her dad's youngest brother, only 5 years older than Polly herself. At different points I found him attractive and irritating. He is sharply critical of his family for sending him off to school for a bourgeois education and runs away from home, and will not tell his parents where he has gone. While I liked his idealism, and was interested in his plans to go to Cuba to support the revolution, I thought his attitude to his parents was very selfish. I was uncomfortable, as I assume the author intended, with his attitude to Polly, burdening her with secrets but also with a rather incestuous and exploitative streak. This is never spelled out. It is possible to interpret Johnston's presentation of this story as failing to be critical of his incestuous overtures, but I preferred the ambiguity, the chance to read between the lines.

          Shadowstory is an atmospheric, evocative novel with some strong, memorable characters. It is a novel for readers who like stories of thoughts and feelings rather than fast paced action, and I would recommend it to such readers.

          It is currently available in hardback and as an ebook, with a paperback edition due out in June 2012.

          This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk

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          29.02.2012 01:51
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          The lives of a group of German refugees from Hitler

          "When Hitler came to power, I was in the bath".

          In Sydney, Australia in the 1990s, Dora Becker receives a package, containing the writings of a long dead friend. Those writings and the memories of Dora, a German woman now in her nineties, form the narrative structure of this thought provoking novel. I have read a lot of novels and non fiction about this period recently, but All That I Am is more than just another tale about more victims and survivors of Nazism.

          Anna Funder's first book, Stasiland, was a non fiction work about the former DDR (East Germany), the secret police and their victims. This time, she has drawn on true stories and used real people, but All That I Am is presented as a novel, a kind of historical, literary thriller. The characters are a group of German socialists who are forced to become refugees after Hitler's rise to power.

          The novel is in the form of two alternating first person narrators, looking back on their pasts. "Ruth Becker" in the novel, really Ruth Blatt, ended up in Australia, where she lived into her mid 90s and became a friend of the author. The other narrative is by Ernst Toller, a socialist activist and writer writing his memoirs in a New York City hotel room in 1939. The other main characters in the story include Ruth's husband Hans and her cousin Dora.

          As a novel this is the story of a small group of individuals, it doesn't aim to look at what happened to the German left/far left in the Weimar period, but it is ground which has not been so thoroughly covered in the books about the period I have read, and it made me want to know more about the real people whose stories Anna Funder explores here. I was really interested by the stories of the German revolutionary socialist movement. Ruth was just a child during the First World War, but remembers Dora as already a teenage anti war activist.

          Ruth's initial response to the news of the Nazis being elected is to put up a little red flag. Initial efforts to build effective resistance to Hitler go nowhere though, and the novel becomes a story of the refugee experience, as Ruth, Hans, Dora and Toller move to London. However, even in England, their situation is frustrating and precarious, with strict conditions placed on them as refugees. They are "dislocated and struggling - without our language, often without money, without readership and with no right to work", and with visas stipulating "no political activities of any kind". As Ruth says, "We were being offered exile on condition that we were silent about the reason we needed it". For people whose whole adult lives had been shaped and defined by their political activism, this is hard to imagine. Think of being terrified for friends and family left behind and not being allowed to talk about it.

          Worse is to come. This part of the novel takes on a thriller quality, only we know at this point that there isn't going to be an action hero who can save the day. As they were real people, you can look up what happened to the characters in this novel, but I will not discuss that here, to avoid spoilers.

          I found All That I am a very moving novel of love, friendship, politics, mourning and much more besides. Highly recommended.

          All That I am by Anna Funder was published by Penguin Viking, September 2011, and is currently £11.04/£10.99 in hardback/Kindle - the paperback comes out in May this year.

          This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
          Thank you to Penguin Viking for sending me a copy to review for Curious Book Fans.

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          27.02.2012 03:53
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          A real life Ballet Shoes, in which a famous choreographer looks back at the early days of her career

          At eight years old, Gill Pyrke was driving her parents crazy, as she couldn't sit still and was nicknamed wriggle-bottom. Her mum took her to see the family GP and told him in great detail how annoying she was. The doctor asked if he could talk to Gill alone and put on some music. She started to dance around and climbed on to his desk. He prescribed ballet classes. She started off in a Bromley dance class where one of her classmates was later to be the famous ballerina Beryl Grey. This story is lovely and funny, and has lots of elements of a dream story, yet is told in a very down to earth style which makes it very convincing. The same could be said of the whole of Gillian Lynne's memoir of her early years, starting out on a brilliant career in dance.

          Another teacher later decided that Pyrke was no name for a ballet dancer and renamed her Gillian Lynne. Lynne trained in classical ballet at Sadlers Wells with considerable success before moving into a more varied and commercial dance career which included also acting and singing, film and musicals. She is best known though as a choreographer with a CV including top musicals such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera. This memoir, though, is about her early years, ending on her 20th birthday in 1946.

          As I would expect from a dancer's memoir, there is lots of detail here on Lynne's training and career as a dancer, including auditions and different types of dance, and lots of turning points in her career. However, she also faced many other huge upheavals as a young girl. In summer 1939, her mother was killed in a car crash, and soon after that World War II began, her father joined the army and Lynne was evacuated.

          I really enjoyed Lynne's chatty, down to earth style. For a woman who has had a long, successful and glamorous career, she is quite self-deprecating. She says she wasn't pretty. It is hard to tell from the pictures in the book but there are online photos which show a very beautiful young woman (who still looks enviably elegant at 85). While fiction about girls at ballet school (and other school stories) often portray a very self-contained environment with no concern about what is going on in the world, Lynne was obviously more aware of and concerned with what is going on in the war than many teenagers now would be.

          There are a lot of black and white photos reproduced through the memoir, showing Lynne and many of her famous contemporaries, colleagues and friends, and more personal family pictures. It seems quite nice to have the illustrations with the text, rather than just having a few photos in the middle of the book. However, they are all rather small and dark, slightly more than passport size, and the size and poor quality are sometimes frustrating. It is hard to get a clear idea of what the author or anyone else mentioned really looked like.

          A Dancer in Wartime is very accessibly written and would appeal to teenage girls who like ballet school stories as well as to more mature readers. It is also another picture of life in London during the war. Apparently Lynne has written far more about her life than what is in the book, but the publisher was primarily interested in this part. I hope there will be more to come as Lynne must have many more stories to tell.

          This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk

          This book was published in hardback and Kindle formats by Chatto & Windus in November 2011.

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            12.02.2012 23:54
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            A look at the impact of the drugs trade and related crime on border between Mexico and the US

            More than 38,000 people have been killed in the last 3 years in what Ed Vulliamy argues is an unacknowledged war, on the long border (2,100 miles) between Mexico and the United States. The war is between drug trafficking gangs over control of the lucrative drugs trade from Mexico to the US. In this compelling and disturbing work of reportage Vulliamy travels through the borderlands meeting some of the people affected.

            Amexica is organised in chapters travelling eastward along the border from Tijuana, Mexico, south of San Diego, California, to Matomoros, near Brownsville, Texas. A map shows the route and the cities and towns referred to in the book, and reveals how many Mexican border cities have a US counterpart just across the border - in fact, many people regularly travel across to work. Looking at the map really emphasised for me how interconnected life, death and economics on both sides of the border are.

            Much of the book is taken up with describing the level of violence and the frightening impact it has on the people in the region. As an experienced reporter he is a gifted storyteller, and he also finds interviewees who are eager to talk about their lives and opinions (despite high personal risk for some in doing so). These chapters are full of personal stories from drug rehab clinics, people who have lost relatives and loved ones. He also meets workers trying to help addicts, prosecutors trying to confront and stem the scale of the problem and politicians.

            Perhaps the most chilling chapter, Urban Frankenstein is about Ciudad Juarez, considered the most dangerous city in the Americas and maybe in the world. It is dominated by the narco traficantes (drug traffickers), by maquiladoras, factories making cheap goods primarily intended for US markets, and people hoping to migrate across the border. All these are inextricably intertwined and cannot be separated. A key argument advanced by the author is that Juarez shows very clearly the effects of rampant capitalism and deregulated free trade, and very grim it is too. Vulliamy is very critical of US foreign, trade and immigration policies, and their impact on the people of Mexico.

            Another part of the book which stood out for me was Vulliamy's encounter with a group of Mexican truckers. They drive long distances under intense pressure, using various drugs and pills to keep going. US regulations prevent the truckers from continuing to drive across the border. One of them acknowledges that if he were a US trucker, and a member of the Teamsters trade union, he wouldn't want this bunch of Mexican drivers around either, with no union organisation and with very tough, dangerous working conditions and practices.

            Vulliamy also highlights an American contribution to the violence of the drugs trade, other than being the primary customers for drugs. Many of the gun shops in US border states sell a significant proportion of their guns to members of Mexican drugs gangs.

            This book is very readable but sometimes the content is quite grim. There are brave people trying to organise to improve things for the better, though. The official trade union is very bound up with the government, and is unable and probably unwilling to help workers in the maquiladoras. An organisation called the CFO was formed in 1979 to offer advice and support regarding workers' rights, and to resist the bosses' endless wage cuts and productivity drives. Not surprisingly, employers haven't welcomed this, and CFO activists have faced difficulties keeping their jobs and getting back to work, but I was impressed by the courage and spirit they showed in this book.

            The first edition of this book, published in 2010, was based on material collected during trips in 2008 and 2009, and in a foreword and afterword in the new paperback edition (the edition reviewed here), Vulliamy outlines a number of recent developments and changes, also speculating on what may happen in the 2012 elections.

            There are a few pages of colour photographs, showing migrants setting off to walk across the border, children foraging for anything potentially useful at the scene of a massacre, some of the people caught up in the war. There are several pages of endnotes, an index and a bibliographical notes with several suggestions for further reading, which I will follow up.

            Amexica is a compassionate, intense and political look at this forgotten war, well worth reading.

            This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk

            The RRP of this book in paperback is £8.99; Amazon sells it for £5.49. There is a Kindle edition for £5.22 - I'm not sure whether this is based on the hardback or the more up to date paperback edition, but this would probably be clear from the free sample.

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              02.02.2012 15:29
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              A topical picture book featuring a classic character

              Babar the elephant is the king of Celesteville, and this year his country is hosting the Worldwide Games. Athletes come from all over the world to compete. There is a fairytale romance for one of Babar's children, now grown up, too.

              The Babar the Elephant series is 80 years old. It started as a bedtime story told to Laurent de Brunhoff as a child by his mother, and his father Jean illustrated 7 books about Babar and his family. I don't remember the stories that were read to me as a child clearly, but Babar's name and the pictures make me feel very nostalgic.

              As we look forward to next year's Olympics, this book has a certain topicality. The pictures are great fun, showing elephants, lions, tigers, crocodiles and others performing amazing physical feats. The story has lots of positive messages about internationalism and love being more important than racial differences as Babar's daughter Flora falls in love with an elephant from another country.

              My reservation about this book, though, is that I am unsure who it is aimed at. Young children might enjoy some of the pictures but I don't think the story is really written for them. The writing is a bit clunky and awkward and I can't see this being a bedtime favourite for my two boys.

              The paperback RRP is £5.99, with Amazon currently offering it for £5.39.

              This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk

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              27.01.2012 10:12
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              Two journalists retreat from reporting in war zones around the world to have a baby in Paris

              Two war reporters decide to settle down to a more ordinary, domestic life, away from the world's conflicts, in Paris. They are having a baby. This effort at normal life turns out to be more stressful for them both than they could have imagined.

              Janine di Giovanni has had a long and successful career reporting conflicts around the world, including Sarajevo, Grozny, Pristina, Baghdad, Mogadishu, Algiers and many others. I remember reading her articles and finding them powerful and moving, and the content horrific. Yet she believed herself strong and resilient, untroubled by nightmares about the violence and tragedy she had witnessed, as did Bruno. It wasn't until they embarked on marriage and parenthood in Paris that their experiences started to catch up with them.

              Janine Di Giovanni has written several previous books of war reportage but this is a bit different. In part it is a love story, passionate and romantic but not soppy. Bruno is a charming, passionate lover who understands Janine's unusual and challenging lifestyle because he shares it, but is that enough to make him ideal husband material?

              Initially, I was not sure what I thought of this book, although I had wanted to read it for months and was thrilled when a copy arrived. Perhaps I had been expecting more continuity with the author's earlier work, more about war. It does open with a chapter about how they met in Sarajevo, parted and got back together several times in different conflict zones, but the focus of the book is on very different battles. They have both been used to long periods apart working in different countries, and this is the first time they have really lived together. Then Janine has to get used to motherhood in Paris, and Bruno is trying to drown his demons with alcohol, then trying not to drink. Trying to get used to peacetime life, suddenly they are both haunted by nightmares about war and death.

              In the end though, I found the book very moving, sometimes quite funny, often very sad.

              The experience of having a baby and early parenthood is one of the main subjects of the book, which I found really interesting, as Di Giovanni recounts her difficult pregnancy, Luca's premature birth, her feeling of being unable to protect her new son. She has conflicting advice on whether or not to breastfeed, as English friends assume she will want to and French hospital staff, friends and acquaintances suggest that bottle feeding is the way forward, better for her figure, work, relationship with her husband etc (I was glad that at this point she rebelled). She also writes of something that many mothers will recognise - the effect of becoming a mother on her relationship with her own mum. Her biggest problem though is that she becomes paranoid that something terrible will happen and she won't be able to protect her son, hoarding food and mineral water in the way she might in a war zone.

              I found the section of this memoir dealing with Bruno more difficult to read, a beautifully written but ever so sad account of a loving partner and father's disintegration and battle with alcoholism.

              Ghosts by Daylight is a raw and powerfully honest book by a talented observer of other people turning her skills to analysing herself, her life and those closest to her.

              I look forward to reading Janine Di Giovanni's books of reportage, but this is a fantastic story of a complex relationship and of how scary new motherhood even for the most courageous of women.

              I was sent a copy of this book to review for www.curiousbookfans.co.uk, where this first appeared.

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                22.01.2012 12:41
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                A beautiful picture book for children of all ages, inspired by the life and art of Franz Marc

                Eric Carle's latest story consists of just 50 words, 10 animal paintings and two pictures of the young artist at work. Simply, a child creates a series of vibrant paintings of animals in unusual, striking colours, including a blue horse, a green lion and a multi-coloured, polka-dotted donkey. My own favourite is the purple fox. The child says, I am a good artist.

                The one page explanatory note at the back of the book, for older readers, uses far more words than the main story to tell a tale of Franz Marc and Eric Carle, making it clear that this is a book with an important message, that what matters is colour and creativity.

                Franz Marc was an early 20th century German artist who whose unconventional paintings in non-realistic colours were controversial but inspired others, and he was particularly famous for his blue horses. He died in World War I. Later, he was one of a number of painters banned by the Nazis.

                Eric Carle, born in 1929, grew up in Nazi Germany. His art teacher noticed his unusual ideas and secretly showed him some forbidden art while explaining that he was only allowed to teach strictly realistic drawing and painting.

                My children, who will be 3 and 5 on their next birthdays, are big fans of Eric Carle's work. I think this book may take longer to catch on with them than favourites like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but it is a lovely book to look at and talk about with them, and you can vary yoru approach for children of different ages. Also, this is one in which I personally really enjoyed the illustrations. You can also use it to inspire children's own drawing and painting activities, and I think this book would be useful with young primary school children.

                This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk

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                15.01.2012 13:25
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                The history of women at an Oxford college, with lots to say about higher education more generally

                University Women

                'A Serious Endeavour' is an account of the role of one Oxford college in the history of higher education for women. When it was first founded in 1886 there were very different views on what such education should be, even among its supporters. The university would not even grant female students degrees until 1920, and students were allowed to choose their own course of study and whether they would take formal exams or not before this.

                Laura Schwartz draws together the threads of wide ranging research in a fascinating and readable story of St Hughes. Her sources include recent historical research and biography, but also 19th century writings on education, committee papers and student publications throughout the history of the college.

                Early Days

                Schwartz outlines the context in which the college was set up by its founder, Elizabeth Wordsworth, and its first Principal, Annie Moberly - Wordsworth wanted to offer educational opportunity to daughters of the Church of England clergy, and chose Moberly as someone who shared her values and would appeal to and reassure the parents of would be students. The college was modelled on 'the life of a Christian family'. Student behaviour was closely observed and female students were expected to employ chaperones to accompany them to lectures.

                Schwartz points out the contradictions and tensions between such apparent conservatism and the social and political pressures for change of which St Hughes' and other women's colleges were just part. Annie Moberly's successor Eleanor Jourdain actively supported the campaign for women's suffrage. The changes brought by WWI, the granting of the vote and the right to take degrees, the economic and social changes affecting the lives of students and staff at college, obviously had an impact but St Hughes also held on to its older traditions.

                Different or Equal?

                Later in the 20th century, the question of different or equal and the continued justification for the existence of separate women's colleges became a contentious issue, and St Hughes finally went mixed in 1986, more than 20 years before St Hilda's College gave up being women only.

                Who Cleans a Room of One's Own?

                One of the best parts of this book is Schwartz's examination of how the opportunities for young women to study and learn are supported by other women's domestic labour, in the chapter, Who cleans a room of one's own? Like other Oxford colleges, rooms in college are maintained by domestic staff. This is a subject which many other accounts of higher education, even those from a feminist perspective, don't consider much. The best known portrayal of scouts in a women's college is the rather hostile one in Dorothy L Sayers' novel Gaudy Night, in which domestic staff are described as stupid and philistine.
                Whose Education is it Anyway?

                Schwartz considers herself a socialist as well as a feminist, and the main text of the book ends with a chapter, Whose education is it anyway? which considers the issues of funding and protest, throughout the history of the college, particularly in more recent years around first the replacement of grants with loans, then the introduction of tuition fees, then right up to date with our current government's hikes in fees.

                Notes and Pictures

                This book is a serious scholarly work with nearly 50 pages of endnotes (and these ones contain enough extra material, anecdote and quotation to be worth reading alongside the main text) and a 20 page index. At the same time though, it is an accessible account of women's higher education which should be attractive to the general reader, with some black and white photos showing early students and staff at the college.

                Price

                A Serious Endeavour was published by Profile Books in July 2011. The £17.99 cover price for a slim volume sounds a bit daunting, and even at Amazon it is £10.43 or £9.39 in Kindle ebook format. It is aimed at a more academic rather than a popular market. I can only hope libraries will buy it as, although it's about just one college, it is quite illuminating on the issues facing women in higher education well beyond St Hughes or even Oxford University.

                This review originally appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk

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                12.01.2012 19:31
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                An absorbing and revealing account of day to day civilian life in the German capital during WWII.

                Berlin at War is an account of the day to day lives of the ordinary people of Berlin, the then capital of Nazi Germany, during the Second World War. Berlin was heavily bombed throughout much of the war, and suffered greatly as the symbolic target of Allied forces at the end.
                A lot of books about London in the Blitz have been published, as have lots of military books about the war and books on the causes and impact of Nazism. However, Roger Moorhouse contends that there are few such books about German social history in wartime, so he has set out to write this book, drawing extensively on primary sources such as wartime private diaries and published observations. He also interviewed many Germans who had lived through the experience.

                In the prologue and first chapter, Moorhouse highlights the sharp contrast between the enthusiastic celebration of Hitler's birthday in April 1939 and the announcement that Germany was at war (with Britain and France) just over 4 months later, on 1 September 1939. Many Berliners felt little enthusiasm for the war - they had lived through the first one - and at first, supporters hoped that he would be able to continue annexing other countries without declaring war. Also, Berlin was never a stronghold of Nazi support. This debunking of a stereotype sets the tone for the book, as Moorhouse tries hard to analyse the reality without falling back on preconceptions.
                Other chapters explore a number of themes, some which address more obvious questions and some that I had not thought about much. Chapter 2 on the deadly necessity of darkness caused by blackout regulations is a good example of his approach - he includes the requirements and the possible punishments for breaching it, including public humiliation, fines, a brief stay in a police cell and even, for repeat offenders, the threat of the concentration camp. Compliance was policed by air raid wardens. He cites evidence of people using the cover of darkness for criminality - theft, assault, sex crimes and even murder. His use of sources includes public writing such as William Shirer's reports, and private diaries which may show more of the psychological effects. Another chapter looks at the impact of rationing and actual shortages of food, fuel and other goods (often even the permitted rations were not actually available).

                While I have read some shocking and disturbing stories about the effects of WWII and bombing in Britain, this book suggests that the war took a toll on Berlin and its occupants on a totally different scale.
                Compared to London, where children were evacuated early (and many returned), the Kinderlandverschickung (KLV), or programme of 'sending children to the countryside', did not start until the second winter of the war. Such a programme meant an acknowledgement of the impact of bombing on German cities, and that the war was likely to continue for a while. Older children were sent to KLV camps where they slept in dormitories. Children's education tended to suffer, as while responsibility for how children spent their time was in theory shared between teachers and Hitler Youth representatives, the Hitler Youth had more control in practice. Jewish children, epileptics, bedwetters and others whose background or behaviour was considered undesirable were excluded from the programme.

                Moorhouse discusses anti-Semitism in government policy and in Berlin throughout the book - for example, different and smaller rations, eviction from homes, not being offered evacuation, etc. In Germany, the large scale deportation to concentration camps took place in the middle of the war, and some Jews remained living and working in Berlin until early 1943, particularly those of mixed origin, with Aryan relatives and/or spouses. In Against All Odds, he describes the round up of Jewish workers in February 1943, and the extraordinary Rosenstrasse protest by women whose Jewish husbands were being held in a building while their exact racial credentials were checked - extraordinary because there were almost no very large public protests against Nazi policy between 1933 and 1945. In another chapter, Enemies of the State, Moorhouse describes some of the smaller examples of protest and resistance.
                The final chapters describe the grim final days of the war, as the Germans faced defeat and the Russians arrived in Berlin.

                Berlin at War has been criticised by one reviewer for not analysing the causes of Nazism. However, there are many other history books which try to do that - this is a study of the impact of the war on the civilian population of Germany's capital city, not the history of how Hitler came to power or the origins of that war.
                I am more disappointed that this book doesn't discuss women in the war much, for example how the outbreak of war changed Nazi policies towards women, their participation in the workforce. Women were clearly involved in everything that is described in the book, and would have presumably been a majority of adult civilians, but not considering women specifically seems a bit strange in a social history of this period. Claudia Koontz's study of this subject, Mothers in the Fatherland, is sadly out of print and is not included in the bibliography. Many of the authors of his primary sources and his interviewees must have been female.

                The book does have an index and a detailed bibliography of further reading. It is available in hardback, paperback (£9.99 RRP; £6.29 on Amazon) and Kindle, but the Kindle price is a bit more than the paperback at the moment.

                On the whole, Berlin at War is fascinating and informative, manages to seem scholarly yet accessible, and is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in reading and writing about World War II.

                This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk

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