Thursday, February 04, 2016

Books read in February 2016

1. Born Survivors by Wendy Holden

I give this book four stars for the subject matter is such that I cannot indicate I love it.  This is the story of three different Jewish young wives sent to Auschwicz while concealing their pregnancies. The narrative takes them from the death camp to save labour in an aircraft factory then an horrific train journey to Mauthausen, a death camp in Austria. Each woman gives birth on the way to Austria. Miraculously mothers and babies survive and are among those liberated by American troops. As in other accounts I have read I see the survival of some Jews, not as mere luck, but because of a determination to survive and their hope no matter the horrors they endured. We are told what happened after the war. No happy reunions with lost husbands. Part of the horror of the story is the way that German civilians who had contact with the prisoners did nothing to help either because they did not care or were too frightened. There was one glorious exception, a stationmaster in Bohemia who organised food, clothing and other help from his town when the train of prisoners was stopped there. One other man praised in the book is Bomber Harris. The man in charge of the RAF bombing is rarely praised but these women working as slave labour in a factory near Dresden, thought of him as a saint and believed Dresden a legitimate target for strategic reasons. So in conclusion this is a book to horrify one as to the depth of human depravity but also encourage one to see people can endure and triumph through appalling suffering.

2.Submission  by Michel Houellebecq 

Middle aged French academic loses his lectureship at the Sorbonne after a Muslim government comes to rule France. If you do not have a working knowledge of French writers and philosophers you will find this hard going. There is a typically French love of gastronomy and drink. However I found the explicit sexual detail to be pornographic. The author could have explored further the implications of Islamic rule beyond the borders of academe.

3. Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency by Virginia Comolli 

Published in 2015 this book deals with events until August 2014 only so there is nothing concerning the present situation after the 2015 election of Buhari as president. We are though given a comprehensive history of Islam in the north of Nigeria and the many factions after 1960 independence. Boko Haram is but the latest and most violent manifestation of salami/wahabi Islam. That Islam in the north has a long history of rejecting all things Western (except technology) is seen in the figures quoted for literacy, said to be the world's lowest. The author does not tells that Nigeria proclaimed universal primary education in the early nineteen seventies. BH is shown to continue and harden the anti-western line rejecting the institutions of the secular state, the Muslim establishment and Christians. Despite the northern states proclaiming shari'a law they are in the judgment of BH,not strict enough. Links are described with Islamist movements in other countries and the BH effect on neighbouring states. The response of the Nigerian government has not been effective. It has failed to crush BH or to protect the people from the insurgents. There have been extra-judicial killings so the people may fear the security forces as much as BH. The major omission from this account is that there is hardly anything on the Fulani insurgency in the Middle Belt. In states like Plateau, indigenous Christians now live in fear of raids by nomadic Muslim Fulani cattle herders and their supporters. Though not strictly BH this is also Islamist insurgency.

4. Margaret Thatcher by Jonathan Aitken 

In his introduction to his second volume of the authorised official biography of Margaret Thatcher, Charles Moore relates that at the many talks he gives on Lady Thatcher, the curiosity of audiences does not focus on the political events of his subject's life, but on her personality. What was she like? Jonathan Aitken knew her very well indeed.  He had sixteen years as a fellow member of parliament. He courted Carol Thatcher and remained a friend after his imprisonment until her death. So he is the one best qualified to write on her personality. He is also a skilled biographer. I have enjoyed him on Nixon, Colson and John Newton. If you wonder why Moore not Aitken was given the task of official biographer, Aitken tells us that Thatcher did not want her authorised account published while she was alive and Aitken was not too many years her younger. So much as I have enjoyed Moore's two completed volumes, Aitken is my favourite biographer of the Iron Lady. Moore is more detailed and academic. Aitken, even at 700 pages, is briefer and much more personal. Both authors are admirers, neither are hagiographers. I think Aitken is the more critical but I should cease comparisons as Moore's third volume is yet to be published and the trauma of her removal from Downing Street to be related. After each chapter Aitken reflects on the events and the behaviour of his subject. He is able to give us her great strengths and also her weaknesses.  No-one else could have given us victory in the Falklands. Her's was a critical role in ending the Cold War and the break up of the Soviet Empire. Her trades union reforms and subsequent victory in the miners strike changed the country but her intransigence over the Community Charge was a factor in her downfall.Other factors were her increasing stridency over the E.U. and her poor man management of cabinet colleagues, particularly Geoffrey Howe.So the chapters on her removal from office and life in retirement read like a real tragedy, all the more tragic knowing that with better management she could have gone on to win a fourth term.

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