Saturday, February 17, 2018

The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved

The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved by Jonathan Fenby

I can’t ever recall reading a book that started out so promising, so enrapturing, and yet by the midway point, turned into a disappointing thud of a clunker.  It might be a tad unfair to blame this sudden reversal of fortune on the author. Instead, one might concede that the life of the subject matter just became uninteresting as did the events that surrounded him at a certain point.  Still, one wishes that the author may have realized this as well, and therefore had handled the latter half of the man’s life in not so quite of a meticulous fashion.

As the title implies, yes, Charles De Gaulle did save France, and he “saved” it on more than one occasion. For me, the story that was the most engrossing was the role De Gaulle played in World War II. At the conclusion of World War II, the story then shifts to De Gaulle’s political life.  Sadly, this is where the book became about as interesting as picking out a pair of socks to wear for the day.
The author treats his subject matter in a fairly balanced way. He comes across in the author’s view as a positive figure (after all, he ‘saved’ France), yet it makes your head spin how many of De Gaulle’s contemporaries loathed him. Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, Khrushchev, Truman….none of them had kind words for the man. As we see, however, this is mainly due to his hard, uncompromising arrogance and such a trait is necessary because of the circumstances.

De Gaulle’s early life is quickly glossed over – a bit more attention is focused on his comings and goings during the first world war. He was quickly made a commander, quickly became one of the first of the wounded, quickly resumed command and was quickly captured by the enemy and made prisoner.  He then attempted an escape no less than five times.  This stuff is exciting to read about.

Even better is the transition to World War II. France, the ultimate victor of World War I is basically so exhausted and fatigued, that they ignore Hitler and rival Germany as they slowly grow to become the most fearsome army in modern civilization. With revenge on Hitler’s mind, France is quickly added to his list of conquests. France capitulates – mainly because they simply don’t have it in them to fight anymore. The battle scars from 25 years ago are still fresh.  Except De Gaulle. He remains the only key player that refuses any part of the puppet Vichy government and quickly sets up base in the French North Africa.  Although the allies ultimately prevail, the hawk De Gaulle isn’t allowed to be a major player, and is rather upset when the U.S. and England basically leave him as a spectator on the sidelines. This is the case even during the Battle of Normandy (D-Day). De Gaulle simply can’t fathom this.  It is after all, HIS ‘country’.  So one begins to see why the other leaders consider him a burr in the butt.  Again, exciting stuff.

I wish the book would have wound down at this point. After World War II, the book turns into a giant Wikipedia article with mostly the everyday comings and goings of the French government.  There are brief bits of interesting material – such as the failures in Algiers and Indochina, but the book focuses too much on the minutia of the fall of the Fourth Republic, the rise of the Fifth Republic, etc.  Yes, De Gaulle was a major player, but all of this is simply not exciting stuff.  I confess that there were times where I became so bored, I would basically scan a 50-page chapter in about five minutes.  At least it helped me fall asleep some nights.

Another minor irritant is that the author simply won’t refer to his subject as “De Gaulle”.  He is always referring to him by his rank, title, or some other euphemism. It became confusing when he’s referred to as “The Colonel”, “The General”, and “The Free French Leader” all in a span of about 50 pages. On a positive note, a fair amount of time is spent with his immediate family, and De Gaulle does come across as quite the loving husband and father – especially with his daughter who suffered from Down’s Syndrome.

Perhaps a reader with a more thorough understanding of the ins and outs of the French government and its personalities will enjoy the latter half of the book more than I did.  I still would recommend it, just be prepared to be bogged down rather heavily during the latter portions.

The Sin Killer

The Sin Killer (Book One of the Berrybender Narratives) – by Larry McMurtry

This book surprised me. My only experience with Larry McMurtry was his wonderful (albeit uneven) Lonesome Dove tetralogy. That series was a Western.   This book, also part of a four-book series, is also a Western.  So I should expect the same thing. Right?  Not really.  This book is a comedy.  This book is gut splitting funny.  Rarely does a novel make me howl with laughter at various times.  One makes the experience even more rewarding is that you rarely see humor involved in the ‘American Western’.  Sure, we have the movie ‘Blazing Saddles’ but, as good as that movie is, the humor feels forced.  Here it feels uncomfortably genuine.

Lord Berrybender is an old rich English aristocrat.  He’s very rich. He decides to take a trip to the ‘West’ of the United States with an entourage of about 30 people on a chartered boat up the Missouri River around the year 1830 for a hunting expedition. His ensemble includes his wife, his mistress, various servants, tutors, and about 5 of his 50 children. Yes. You read that right. You can get away with a lot when you’re that rich.  There’s also a dog, a parrot, and a spare vessel that is employed to carry only the Lord’s expensive claret.  Very rich indeed.

Well, this group is incredibly out of place and they encounter all sorts of crazy characters that one would expect when reading a novel about the Old West in the year 1830.  Oldest daughter Tasmin is about 16 and quite beautiful.  Unfortunately for Lord Berrbybender, she’s also quite the rebel.  While exploring the prairies one day while the boat is stuck, she meets Jim, the “Sin Killer”.  He’s only a few years older than her and completely the opposite in every way possible. After all, the old west is his home. It’s lust at first sight between these two.

The curious pair of lovers serve as a center for the story, yet there’s so much confusion and chaos that ensues, it makes your head spin. Fortunately, the author includes a handy “cast of characters” at the beginning of the book. It’s a necessity.    It’s quite irrelevant to describe the story in any more detail that I already have.  Despite all of the trials and travails, it’s still a raucous read.  I’m eagerly anticipating the next three novels.  I doff my cowboy hat to Mr. McMurtry. He really surprised me, and the surprise was a welcome one.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Rise and Fall of Stalin

The Rise and Fall of Stalin – by Robert Payne

I read this book directly after my first Robert Payne biography - his biography of Lenin.  The similarities between the two books, obviously, are striking. Good and Bad. Good – this is a very thorough biography of Joseph Stalin, the man.  Or as thorough as it can be.  The life of Joseph Stalin is fascinating. Frightening, but fascinating.  The man was nothing short of a psychopathic bully. When one tries to construct a narrative about an individual in a place like early twentieth century Russia, there are a lot of gaps to fill. Many of these gaps are filled by Stalin himself. He either a) lies about his accomplishments b) over exaggerates his importance and c) thinks of himself as one with flawless character.  When he becomes dictator in 1924 – his evilness cultivates to unprecedented levels. I cannot think of any time nor any place in modern history that I would rather not be.

Critics state that this book isn’t a linear account of his life. That’s only partly true. When we arrive at the decade of the 1930's, for example, we read the account of his infamous purges. We read about several key people (including his wife, allegedly) that Stalin has put to death for some obscene reason. Do we read about these accounts chronologically?  Not necessarily. In my judgement, though, this doesn’t affect the impact of such travails.  Instead of a strict timeline, there are many chapters detailed to a key figure that suffered death at the hands of this tyrant during this period.

There are times, though, when one wishes the author would devote a bit more attention to the events of the time and not assume the reader is completely familiar with history. Example: We read about the alliance between Hitler and Stalin during the early stages of World War II. Most know that Hitler did a double-cross and sent his armies deep into Russia in the hope of conquering the country (he wanted the oil). So the author begins to tell of this event and then….well….stops.  History tells us Germany failed in its advance because of the long, cruel Russian winter that they had to crawl through (like Napoleon). The German military just couldn’t handle the brutal cold.  If you weren’t knowledgeable of this, you wouldn’t have any inkling of it if you had only read this book.  I remember the author made this mistake as well in his biography of Lenin. Some more background would have definitely been helpful in many instances.

Now, the above mentioned faux pas is somewhat forgivable. The biggest Achilles Heel of this book is that the author isn’t content with simply referring to his sources when bringing up key events.  Rather, he feels the need to quote his sources verbatim – sometimes lasting pages within the book. It’s quite the distraction. I almost think that had he not felt the need to quote pages and pages of material, he could have easily cut the length of this book by about 20%.   (I remember reading about one of the summits that Stalin attended with Roosevelt and Churchill. The author feels obliged to spend about a page describing the menu that was offered at the dinner!  Unbelievable.) I soon learned that it was unnecessary to pour through these long recollections. Most of the time when I arrived at one of these quotes (provided in italics), I simply skipped it. It didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the book. In fact, it helped. I suggest you do the same.

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed it as much as one could about such a tyrant. Not only is it difficult reading about the every day life of such a monster, but when his behavior inflects paranoia of every single person that he comes in contact with, it makes the enjoyment rather limited in that aspect as well.  Much of what is on these pages is devoted to only what Stalin though or only what Stalin did.  After all, nobody else was allowed any sort of say about anything.  A very sad time in history.

King and Maxwell

King and Maxwell by David Balcacci

Those who read David Baldacci knew exactly what to expect as soon as they saw the title of this book.  Neophytes might be slightly curious. Why would you name a book after its two protagonists?  Isn’t a more descriptive title about the story necessary?  Well, if you’re a fan, you understand. Baldacci has a lot of reoccurring characters in his various books. I think the “Sean King and Michelle Maxwell” books are my favorite.  A duo of private investigators who both used to be secret service agents.  He is good looking, athletic, handsome and single.  She is good looking, athletic, beautiful, and single. Yet apart from an odd uncomfortable innuendo or suggestive encounter, their relationship is strictly platonic.

While driving one day, the two encounter a scared teenage boy running frantically in the rain waving a pistol. Being good Samaritans, they stop and help, and discover the young man has just lost a military father who has been killed in the line of duty somewhere in the Middle East.  Or so he’s told.  So King and Maxwell get involved and start to uncover a labyrinth of lies and deceptions.  Like most of Baldacci’s thrillers, this one takes place in the realm of the government, and nothing is ever what it seems on the surface. Even the President of the U.S. is a minor character in this book.

On a macro level, I really enjoyed the book and found the story to be quite rewarding.  When one digs deep, however, one sees flaws. Baldacci sometimes struggles with writing things like characters talking to each other. Example: When Sean and Michelle have simple conversations about anything, they always use each other’s name in conversation.  When friends talk to each other, they rarely ever do this. So we read Sean constantly saying things like:
“What should we do, Michelle?”
“Let’s get something to eat, Michelle.”
“Take a left turn here, Michelle.”

This sounds like a silly complaint, but trust me, it gets quite annoying after a while.  Speaking of flawed character descriptions, it also seems a bit unnecessary (and silly) for Michelle to be referred to at times as a “slob”. This trait bears absolutely no relevance on the story. It just seems like every time they get in her car, it gives a reason for Sean to complain about an old banana peel on the passenger seat etc.   It just seems forced. It would be different if this trait somehow affected the action and the circumstances, but it really doesn’t.

What really brings this story down a notch is their friend Edgar. It seems Edgar is a bit of a wiz with a computer and finding out things via secret computer files that few have access. Anytime there’s a spot in the story when the author seems to get stuck on how to proceed, he uses the character Edgar as a cheat to advance the plot. Need to know the president’s limo route?  Let’s call Edgar! He’ll know!   Need to figure out who’s car is following them?   Let’s call Edgar! He can trace the license plate!  And so on. Without dear old Edgar, our heroes probably wouldn’t be able to have accomplished much.

Still though, this book is better than most out there, and whereas Baldacci will never be in the same league as someone like a John Grisham, his Washington government-crime stories mostly play out well, and are mainly enjoyable.  This one was a nice addition.