The Odessa File, by Frederick Forsyth

August 25, 2012 at 09:08 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller) (, , , )

3/10

In the vast morass of Nazi fiction and Second World War fiction, Forsythe’s name stands out as one likely to produce a reasonably well written book; or at least one fitting the reputation of a renowned author. He was not the first writer to decide that Nazis made the best and most original villains in a thriller, and unfortunately he will not be the last. The story found in The Odessa File is not particularly innovative, nor does it offer many surprises in the telling. Forsyth goes to great pains to maintain the illusion that his book is at least as much fact as it is fiction, and it falls upon the enterprising reader either to swallow this claim whole, or untangle it later. Needless to say, authors who are — if not dishonest then a little cagey with the truth — can swiftly grow tiresome.

“‘You’re not Jewish, Miller. You’re Aryan. You’re one of us. What did we ever do to you, for God’s sake, what did we ever do to you?'”

-The Odessa File

There are enormous sections of this book where Frederick Forsyth seems to forget that he is no longer a journalist, and where he slips into a frighteningly dull passive voice, and narrates what might otherwise have been some rather exciting scenes with all the vividness and thrill of a speaking clock. Far too often the pendulum is prone to going the other way, with authors so excited about writing that they feel the need to floridly elaborate on every zephyr, every tilt of her head or bob of his Adam’s apple — but The Odessa File commits the peculiar and frankly rather rare sin of over-expositing and over-explaining to a bizarre degree.

It is surely due to this overwrought need to clarify and explain that the most thrilling part of the book, the denouement, reads with an uninspired sense of familiarity and inevitability. There is altogether too much driving and travelling, too straightforward a path walked by the faceless and forgettable protagonist, and a depressing dearth of any sort of tension whatsoever.

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What to do with Japan, by Wilfrid Fleisher

August 20, 2012 at 17:38 (Asian History, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

What to do, indeed, with a book bearing such a deliciously arrogant and condescending title? There is something brash and daring about it: the refusal to wonder if anything might be done, but the decision what shall be done. As a piece of history in itself, What to do with Japan is a fascinating prospect, written as an opinion piece by a journalist from the New York Herald Tribune some time in 1945. But it is shocking just how prescient Fleisher’s insights into the allied nations’ looming post-war ordeal actually are. It is remarkable how sage and levelheaded he remains, with no emotional outbursts and few racially-motivated generalisations on the “yellow race”. Even when he does make cultural judgements, they are as much reflections on the Western mindset as they are descriptions of a foreigner. “We know them to be fanatical and vindictive…” he begins, setting the stage for a book in which what America (and the rest of the world) ‘knows’ ought perhaps to be re-evaluated.

“If we expect to be welcomed back in Asia with open arms as liberators, we may experience some rude shocks unless we are prepared to return with a new philosophy…we assume, perhaps too readily, that the conquered peoples are yearning to rid themselves of their Japanese masters and to welcome the return of the occidental Powers.”

-What to do with Japan

Starkly prophetic are his insights into the difficulty of managing a post-colonial world, and of occupying a foreign country in the modern era. From predicting grave trouble between Russia and China in the decades ahead, to warning that any American occupation of Japan must have a clear exit strategy and a roadmap towards responsible self-government, there are entire paragraphs that would not look out of place if they were transposed sixty years into the future.

There are moments where Fleisher makes inaccurate predictions, but these are none the less interesting for their errancy.  He utterly fails to predict the Cold War, and it is deeply interesting and even a little humbling to hear him use the words ‘united nations’ as an adjective and a noun more than as an organisation, several times evoking the sincere belief that the nations of the world would have general consensus throughout the rest of the century, only pausing to solve occasional disputes.

An interesting and manageably brief little book, that stands out from its competition by virtue of the tact, humility and conciliatory nature with which it is written. It is truly rare to find so much good sense packed into such an unassuming form.

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The Roots of Obama’s Rage, by Dinesh D’Souza

August 11, 2012 at 08:47 (Book Reviews, Politics, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

1/10

This schoolboy compendium of allegation and insinuation is the literary equivalent of a microwaved pizza. Bolt it down while it’s hot stuff, and almost forget about the metaphorical diarrhoea that inevitably follows. It is short enough and simple enough that even the simplest reader can quickly digest its pith, but is as nutritional as any tabloid rag. Dinesh D’Souza writes from the vapid standpoint that because he himself is not white, he can hurl the most despicable  and vile epithets and innuendos at his chosen target without repurcussion. In obsessively remaking Obama as a primitive African revolutionary stuck in the post-colonial cold war era, he transforms him into a wretched kind of golliwog, a nasty and unbelievable scarecrow of a man–reminding his readers several times that, as an Indian, he somehow has the right to dredge up whatever idiotic caricatures he pleases.

His central and resounding accusation against Obama, dressed up repeatedly in new language to fill out the hundred or so pages of his bitesize polemic, is that Barack Obama is against colonialism. The implication is often given that colonialism has no dirty laundry to air, no sins to purge, and no shame to recall. Of course any serious historian would readily admit that the colonisers of history left boons as well as smallpox, and legacies as well as corpses, but when D’Souza flippantly suggests without any trace of irony that the greatest sin of the Belgians in the Congo was their neglect of the education system, he assumes the mantle of a David Irving, and loses any credibility as an historian that he might have clung to.

“There is currently no alternative to American leadership in the world, and deep down even American liberals know this.”

-The Roots of Obama’s Rage

As a commentator, he is graceless and crass, with all of the baggage of the worst American neoconservative jingoism and none of the redeeming optimism. As a writer he is clumsy and often badly informed (hilariously noting at one point, for instance, that the Norwegian government dispenses Nobel prizes, or misunderstanding Hobbes’ eponymous Leviathan to refer to a massive government rather than an extension of the social contract). As a critical thinker he has a long way to go, and his arguments are based almost entirely upon his own baldly-stated “suppositions” or “beliefs”, and as much on his own circumstantial and highly suspect “explanations” and interpretations as on any actual facts. His seething hatred for the President is scarcely hidden behind a rather wilted fig leaf of protestations to the contrary, and his contempt for anybody who disagrees with him is plain in his casual and dismissive tone. He is absurdly preoccupied with meaningless minutiae, such as his fixation on Obama’s removal of Churchill’s bust from the White House, reading volumes into trifling happenstances. Sadly, this book has nothing whatsoever to recommend it, even for those looking for a book critical of Barack Obama. It is an ugly relic of the past, and a venomous agitation that stoops to the lowest of levels to make its erratic and misplaced attacks.

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AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, by Larry Kahaner

August 4, 2012 at 17:09 (Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , )

7/10

It is tempting to mentally remove the title emblazoned across the cover of this book and replace it with the legend, “This is a book about guns!!!” If books are to be judged by their covers, then this one is a little embarrassing, a little bombastic, and not the sort of book one would feel comfortable reading on a train. Thankfully the interior is markedly less cartoonish than the jacket, although it is not a deep or penetrating historical work.

Kahaner has faced a great deal of undeserved criticism for his apparent aloofness and harsh verdict on what is unambiguously a weapon of the proxy war and of the criminal. He does not set out to write a technical manual, and he does a capable job in surveying both the history of the gun’s inception, the history of comparable weapons, and several case studies of the AK-47’s use, availablity and changing role. Incidentally, all of his case studies are soberly written and entirely germane to his topic.

“The army was enamoured of the complexity and promise of these smart weapons. ‘Despite all the sophisticated weapons we or the Soviets come up with, you still have to get that one lone infantryman, with his rifle, off his piece of land. It’s the damn hardest thing in the world to do.'”

-AK-47

While several of his conclusions are certainly up for debate, and are clearly written as opinions and not as facts, this book is neither an essay on the evils of guns, nor a statistics sheet for gun enthusiasts. It is a very general overview supported by some carefully chosen examples and a brief survey of one weapon’s use in selected twentieth century contexts. Considering that the author was compelled to summarise some sixty years of the history of declared wars, terrorism, criminal subcultures across four continents, and the legal and illegal traffic of firearms in general, it ought to be clear that he has successfully and skilfully distilled an immense amount of information in a very clear and professional manner.

Readers looking for a Tom Clancy sourcebook should look elsewhere; readers looking for a biography of Kalashnikov should read a biography of Kalashnikov; readers looking for a comprehensive and multifaceted study of every conflict and event Kahaner surveys have at least a dozen other books they ought to read. But for what it is, this is an excellent book.

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