December 22nd, 2012



In the scheme of things, the 1905 departure of a mother with seven children in tow and five dollars in her pocket from Volhynia to join her husband and eldest son the United States doesn't appear to be that big a deal.  From my perspective, where that mother is my great-grandmother Charlotte and one of the children is my grandmother Minnie, it's a much bigger deal, and it becomes bigger still when one contemplates that a part of the world in which people  moved relatively freely and peaceably among countries became the site of mass death in the Russian Civil War, Stalin's collectivization of agriculture, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, his subsequent annihilation of Jews, Stalin's drive to the west, and the redrawing of national boundaries after World War II.

Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands is the author's attempt to tell the story of the people whose lives ended, by famine, or shooting, or gas, or as what the military theorists call collateral damage.
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Other ideological or theoretical explanations are similarly unsatisfactory.  The closing paragraph of Bloodlands sets a task at once simple and difficult.

The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate, some of which we can reconstruct with fair precision.  It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective.  It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.  If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

#34-38 Jacques Le Goff & Steven Saylor

Jacques Le Goff: Saint Louis

My French is not up to serious historical literature, so I've read this in English translation. And I'm sad to say there were problems with it. Partly, this might be the editor's fault. Sometimes, the sentences simply did not make sense and I had to reread those a few times to come to some kind of agreement with myself as to what it might mean.

The book itself is huge and appears to include everything which could be known about Saint Louis. In fact, many things are repeated over and over again in different sections. There does not appear to be an attempt to create a holistic picture of the king. Rather, he is dissected and viewed from all possible angles, a collection of constructs rather than a human being. Occasionally, the author does talk about his humanity, but such instances are few and far between. There is almost nothing said about the king's family, with the exception of his mother Blanche.

I might try to read Joinville some time in an attempt to get a different picture.

Steven Saylor: Roman Blood; The House of the Vestals; A Gladiator Dies Only Once; Arms of Nemesis;

My thanks to the fellow member who made me notice the series. Not only is it nicely told, but also the historical reality is, in my opinion, very well treated. I am definitely going to read on.
eastern muse

Book 172: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Book 172: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
Author: David Mitchell, 2010.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Japan. 17-18th Century.
Other Details: Hardback. 469 pages

The story opens in 1799 on the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour, which serves as the Japanese Empire’s only port. For more than 150 years the Japanese have kept the West at bay and the only way that the Dutch East India Company (VOC) is allowed to trade is under strict restrictions and the merchants are effectively interred on the island. Jacob de Zoet, a devout young clerk, has come to the East in order to make his fortune so that he can win the hand of the wealthy young woman he loves back in Holland. However, these intentions are overturned after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor. Her work as midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate has led to her being granted the right to study medicine with the Dutch physician, Dr. Marinus on Dejima.

The narrative has three main plots. There is Jacob's story on Dejima and his interactions with his countrymen and the handful of Japanese he has dealings with; also Orito's story that takes a dramatic turn following the death of her father when she is sent away to a nunnery associated with a sinister mountain cult; and finally of the British attempt, based on The Phaeton Incident, to force the Dutch to leave Dejima and to take over trade with Japan.

I found this a beautifully written, lyrical novel that completely transported me into Mitchell's vision of Japan. It is an obviously meticulously researched novel. Before reading this novel I knew nothing about the history of Japan during this period, unaware of its isolation policies or how it restricted contact with the West while still maintaining some trade. However, Mitchell's writing is quite dense and did demand a fair amount of concentration. I read it in three days but rather wished I had given myself a longer period to savour its richness and complexity.

The cover art for the UK hardback edition was exquisite. It is embossed so that there is a ripple of shimmering turquoise when it catches the light.

Official website for 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' - includes detailed synopsis, reviews and link to excerpt.

Book #08 - The God of Small Things

Book #08 – The God of Small Things

Name of the Book (Name of the Series): The God of Small Things
Name of the Author: Arundhati Roy
Genre: Slice of Life, Drama, Romance, Political
Pages: 352
Date: 10.11. – 25.11.2012
Short description: ( Compared favourably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel is a modern classic that has been read and loved worldwide. Equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama, it is the story of an affluent Indian family forever changed by one fateful day in 1969. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevokably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing “big things [that] lurk unsaid” in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest. Lush, lyrical, and unnerving, The God of Small Things is an award-winning landmark that started for its author an esteemed career of fiction and political commentary that continues unabated.

Own Statement:

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Next to review: #09 The Legend of  Sleepy Hollow