War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans***

warandturpentineI received a DRC of this memoir from Random House through its First to Read program. I read the book free in exchange for an honest review. Though it wasn’t a good fit for me, I think there are niche readers out there that might enjoy it.

This memoir chronicles the life of the author’s grandfather, Urbain Martien, a Dutch worker that fought in World War I. The son of a brilliant artist, Martien worked whatever jobs were available until the war broke out. He had hoped to become an artist like his father before him, but instead wound up painting buildings just to earn a living.

Apart from its historic aspect, this title is one that I knew would be outside my comfort zone. Since retirement I’ve pushed myself outside my usual well-worn paths and taken a few risks, and though it doesn’t always work out for me, a few unlikely choices have affected me so favorably and so deeply that I have continued to push my own walls outward. I don’t know a thing about art, but I thought it might not matter. I pushed myself to read The Goldfinch, which was about a stolen museum painting but also much more, and once I did I couldn’t believe I had let the DRC pass me by. So I had this in my mind; War and Turpentine might be one more opportunity that I shouldn’t miss.

The basis for the memoir is a series of notebooks that the author’s grandfather gave him, a journal of sorts, and the memoir itself is done not in the usual linear fashion, but as a series of snapshots. I confess I prefer my memoirs to start at the beginning and end at the end, if not the end of life, then at the end of the period being discussed. But an artist would perhaps not have thought that way; I can see the reason for selecting a different format, but because there was no discernible story arc, I found myself floundering and eventually avoiding the book altogether.

The prospective reader should know that along with some really strong imagery and other word smithery, the memoir contains some very graphic violence.

I suspect the ideal reader for War and Turpentine would be one that loves art, art history, and European history.  It is for this niche audience that I recommend this book.

Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, by James Curran ***-****

unholyfuryAll of a sudden, everybody is writing a book about or featuring Richard Nixon. Having grown up during the Watergate era, I voraciously attack anything and everything apart from the most blatant apologists’ work. This title, in which Nixon’s relationship with the government of Australia and in particular, Gough Whitlam, who became Australian prime minister during the Nixon administration, is examined, seemed like a good diversion from what I usually read. Like many Americans, I tend to focus too exclusively on matters having to do with the USA. It probably has to do with the size of the country and consequently, the sheer weight of available material on matters closest to home. But I knew next to nothing about Australia’s government, apart from their participation as an Allied force in World War II and their status as a friendly government to the US and Britain, so I dove in.

Thank you to Net Galley and Melbourne University Press for the galley, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

Between the title’s subheading and the book’s cover, which shows Gough speaking and Nixon looking furious, one might almost conclude that the two nations were on the brink of a shooting war with one another. Not so, not so. Yet the antagonism that sprung up between the two nations during a time when both had outspoken and sometimes abrasive leaders is unquestionable. There were two primary realms of disagreement that went beyond mere personality issues. One was the role of Australia in relation to the USA, and the other was the future of Asia in relation to both countries and in general.

Before reading Curran’s biography, I had never thought of Australia as an Asian nation. I sort of considered them to be out there adrift, all by themselves, being kept company just by New Zealand the Pacific Islands. I am aware that they are on the opposite side of the equator from where I am, and so when it’s summer here, it’s winter there. That, cowboy boots, kangaroos, and an unfortunate record for treating indigenous people fairly, one which the US shares, about sum up my knowledge base.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know the capital was Canberra.

Nixon was mostly not focused on Australia, and that, it seems, was a part of the problem. Menzies had preceded Whitlam as prime minister, and he too was an old hand who thought largely in Cold War terms. Nixon and Menzies had been fond of one another. But when elections were held and the beleaguered President Lyndon Johnson was due to leave Washington, he told Australia’s representatives, who were opposed to the US intervention in Vietnam, that they “might have one or two problems” with Mr. Nixon. It was a very droll understatement.

First, Nixon was outraged that a nation that looked to the US for security and aid would dare publicly criticize its role in Vietnam, and then—worse—in Cambodia. He regarded the Australians as a satellite that ought to be grateful and not bite the hand, etc.

Gough Whitlam took office with an eye toward creating a more independent Australia. He considered Australia very unlikely to be in danger of external attack for ten or fifteen years at least, and was aghast at Uncle Sam’s ugly doings in Indochina. He was looking for distance, and Nixon, under enough pressure from enemies without getting it from friends, erupted. Eventually Richard Nixon played a dangerous bluff on Moscow by recalling nuclear missiles from nearby Fiji, which involved the use of Australian terrain, without actually notifying the Australians. Visions of a mushroom cloud on home soil didn’t do much to endear President Nixon or the American government to Australians, needless to say.

Whereas Nixon was convinced that communist hoards would continue to advance across Asia unless Vietnam was forced to adopt a parliamentary democracy, Australia felt that it was time for the super powers to quit telling smaller nations what to do and abide by home rule in whatever form its citizens chose.

Though no actual shooting war was ever threatened or contemplated, the US did examine alternate places for its bases—a $5 billion dollar investment in 1970’s dollars—and at one point, Australian dock workers voted not to unload goods from US ships. In turn, US dock workers placed a moratorium on Australian trade, which left a good deal of beef rotting near the dock for days on end. And sometimes, with breathtaking rapidity, trade wars can in fact lead to shooting wars. It wasn’t going to happen this time, though; the USA already had its plate full.

It probably is telling of my own ethnocentrism that I had difficulty focusing on the lengthy passages leading up to the conflict. There’s a fair amount of detail regarding Australian politics that novices like me may find it hard to plow through. On the other hand, the author should have known that communists would never use the term “Vietcong”, which was a pejorative. Vietnamese freedom fighters are referred to as members of the National Liberation Force.

Even if the reader gives in and skims those bits of political nuance that will suit some interest levels but not others, there is a great deal of entertaining dialogue and detail in the meaty center of this work to make it worth reading.

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, by Oleg Khlevniuk*****

stalinAlthough this book is published by Yale, Klehvniuk is a research fellow at the Russian national archives, and has devoted twenty years of his life to studying Stalin, the ruler that held much of Eastern Europe in an iron grasp from 1929-1953, when he died. That must be a really dark place, but he’s done a brilliant job. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Yale University Press for allowing me a free peek. This book is available for purchase right now.

The author tells us that revisionists have undertaken to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation lately, and to attribute his various unspeakable crimes against humanity to those below him. What a thought! Many previously secret archives were opened in the early 1990s, and our researcher has been busy indeed.

He begins with a brief but well done recounting of Stalin’s childhood, which he says was grim, but not grimmer than that of most of his peers, and surely not sufficiently grim to account for the monster he would become later in life. Then he discusses the Russian Revolution, and the relationship and struggle among its leadership, most notably Lenin (of whom he has a less favorable view than my own), Trotsky, and Stalin. Lenin and Trotsky disagreed over a number of things, primarily the role of the peasantry in the new society and its government. Lenin pushed Stalin to a higher level of leadership for a brief while because he was not happy with Trotsky, who in any case was in charge of the military, a critical task all by itself at the time. However, when Lenin’s health began to fail and he realized he would have to select a successor, he turned to Trotsky. By then, unfortunately, Stalin had built himself a clique within the leadership. A struggle for control ensued. Stalin came out on top, and Trotsky was banished. In 1940, Stalin paid a henchman to go to Mexico City and kill him with an ice pick.

After Lenin’s death, government was largely by committee, and although ruthless decisions sometimes had to be made at a time when there were still Mensheviks (Social Democrats) who would turn the revolutionary achievement into a bourgeois state, no one person had the ultimate power over the lives of his comrades. Over the next few years, however, the German Revolution failed and scarce resources had to be allocated. Stalin consolidated his hold on authority and the precious resources that could not be distributed sufficiently to keep everyone under the Soviet umbrella warm and fed went first (and increasingly lavishly) to the corrupt bureaucratic caste that controlled the Soviet Union, foremost Stalin himself. After that came resources for the workers in Russian cities; and after that came everyone else. The peasantry, which had been in a state close to slavery under the Tsar, were still shut off from the benefits of the Revolution, and Stalin undertook to force them to produce food for the city while punishing and often executing those that tried to stockpile a small amount on which to sustain their own families.

Klehvniuk gives a good deal of space, and rightly so, to the Great Terror of 1937-1938, when Stalin began suspecting all sorts of people, those close to him, far away, sometimes in large groups, of conspiring against him. He had them rounded up and executed. There even came a point in his career when he was having family members rounded up and shot. Toward the end of his life it was hard to find a qualified physician to treat him, because Stalin had been having so many doctors arrested and shot.

Klehvniuk provides us with a surprisingly readable narrative. He tells the chronological story of Stalin’s rule, with the horrifying numbers of people, most of them innocent, that were slain for political and nonpolitical “crimes” during the quarter century of his rule, and he alternates it with a narrative of Stalin on his deathbed. (Because everyone was so afraid of the guy, when they found him on the floor, alive but in a humiliating position, they had to step out and take a meeting so that no one individual would bear that responsibility. Until then, he stayed on the floor right where he was.)

An intriguing question that will probably never be answered has to do with the very congested state of his arteries upon autopsy. How much of his behavior can be associated with physical causes, possibly including dementia? He was one mean old man when he died. It’s a haunting consideration.

This reviewer was already familiar with a lot of the basic facts of Russian history, and moreso with the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin, and Trotsky. Nevertheless I think that the interested lay reader, if not overly attached to remembering the names of all of the secondary players that came and went, ought to be able to make it through this work and find it as absorbing as I did. It’s dark material, and I read other things in between sessions in order to keep my own mood from sliding. That said, I don’t think you will find a more knowledgeable writer or a more approachable biography anywhere than this one.

Whether for your own academic purposes or simply out of interest and the joy in reading a strong biography, you really aren’t likely to find a better written biography of Stalin nor a more well informed author. It went on sale May 19, so you can get a copy now. Highly recommended!