Friday, January 27, 2006

A journey into the previously un-gnome

I've read two books in the last month which I will try (albeit inadequately) to review here.

Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

Was recommended by someone at a christmas party and piqued my interest after I read the excellent Mao by Jung Chang. It's an interlaced biography of, well, Hitler and Stalin. Hitler was born 10 years after Stalin and the chapters are arranged by life periods - early life, rise to power, etc. The biographies interlink fully during WWII. There's some comparing and contrasting of Hitler and Stalin's motivations and dictatorial styles which to someone who likes ideas rather than dates/events was the most appealing bit. Stalin was more a conventional calculating, 'Machiavellian' type whereas Hitler was a chaotic, disorganised fantasist whose power was to believe his own place in destiny, to intuitively understand others motivations (at least initially) and to drag people into his twisted vision. For those of you who like multifunctioning, the book also doubles as a doorstop - it's absolutely jam-packed with detail which sometimes detracts. Like any novel with too many characters/events it can get somewhat confusing, especially if you (like me) aren't particularly familiar with the period. Like any text, it's doubtless biased but the bias is well hidden (unlike with Mao: The Unknown Story) and it reads as a factual narrative. This makes it somewhat less horrifying and disturbing than Mao which lingers over the terrible human cost. The last chapter is the most interesting since it wanders discursively (but sadly briefly) over the legacy of Hitler and Stalin. It asks questions such as whether individuals or context make history and concludes that during periods of turmoil, individuals can have a disproportionate impact on events. Most of all it shows why although democracy is a dreadful system, it's an improvement on dictatorship. Definitely recommended despite its length - I'm not noted for my patience but I managed to persist with it until the bitter end!

Watching the English

Is a somewhat repetitive book written by a social anthropologist and initially brought to my attention by my co-blogger, LibertyCat. He prompted a free and frank exchange of views on several occasions by citing the views of this book on the wearing of natural fibres by the upper-middle classes and the social class of the owners of garden gnomes. Not sure whether he was actually convinced by any of the book - it's hard to tell since we argue for practice and thus invariably take opposing sides, but I'm itching to check whether his assertion on my social class last time we met had anything to do with my parents' spectacularly lower middle-class sofa.

I'm unsure why this book irritated me as much as it did since it's right on some stuff - queuing being a prime example. It's painfully repetitive (as I said before) - raking over English discussion of the weather, the use of humour, fair play and light-hearted moaning. It labours to death the English phrase "typical" which I've never heard used. It probably riled me because although in the best tradition of science it expresses this is a generality and not a rule applied to everyone, I think I took its assertion that I was socially uneasy, moderate, reserved, conformist and inhibited (except when the dipolar opposite) rather personally. It was also because the book seemed to be implying that there were a significant minority of people out there who did actually judge people on their use of the word 'serviette' and their ownership (or otherwise) of a Ford Mondeo and this just depressed me.

I probably should not take the book too seriously (another thrashed to oblivion characteristic of the English) since it thinks I'm fluctuating over a spectrum extending from working class (my habit of saying "Ya whaaaaa?" if I don't hear someone) through lower middle-class (use of the word 'lounge') right through to upper middle-class (my choice of reading literature in the lavatory/cloakroom/WC/toilet/loo/bog) and upper class (my enjoyment of garden gnomes without even considering if they are ironic).

Conclusion - it's a life-changing work. Since I can't emigrate to Italy imminently, I'm going to make a fresh start the next time I travel on public transport by engaging in lively conversation with those senile old ladies who talk to everyone on trains.


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