TBR Thursday 278… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. Now that last year’s slump seems to be a thing of the past, I’m storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

Here goes, then – the first check-in of the year…

TBR Quarterly Mar 2021

On the whole, I’m pretty OK with these figures. The shortfall in new releases will be made up very quickly since I have tons on the TBR now, which also explains why the TBR total has gone up rather than down. Of course, that will make it harder to fit other challenge books in, but hey! Who’s counting? 😉

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

I read four from my Classics Club list this quarter, but have only reviewed three of them so far…

73. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – The only Dickens novel I hadn’t read before, and happily I loved the story of Little Nell and her grandfather, evil Daniel Quilp, and the usual myriad of quirky characters Dickens has created to delight us. 5 stars

74. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – A rom-com that neither thrilled me with the rom nor amused me with the com. Cluny’s coming-of-age story meanders unrealistically through the social classes of pre-war Britain. Just 2 stars.

75. Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – unfortunately the humour didn’t work for me in this cosy wartime tale of Hebridean highlanders and a shipwreck full of whisky. An excellent narration lifted it, though. 3 stars.

So a couple of disappointments this quarter, but Dickens more than compensated!

75 down, 15 to go!

* * * * * * *

Murder Mystery Mayhem

Doing slightly better on this challenge this quarter – I’ve read three, though I’ve only reviewed 2 so far…

41. Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch – During a garden party, the host turns up dead, face down in a pond with a knife in his back. The local vicar quickly deduces it’s murder! Quite enjoyable, but with nothing to really make it stand out from the crowd. 3 stars.

42. At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason (link to be added) – When an elderly widow is murdered and her beautiful young companion goes missing, her lover (the companion’s, not the widow’s) begs Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté to take on the investigation. Oddly structured, but I enjoyed it a lot. 4 stars.

42 down, 60 to go!

* * * * * * *

Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Finally getting into this challenge properly and enjoying it greatly so far, and I’ve got some interesting fiction to come now that I’ve got a bit of an understanding of the factual history. I read two this quarter and had one still to review from last year. Only two reviews though – my reviewing is very behind at the moment.

3. The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan. Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period. Deservedly so. 5 stars.

4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell fought with the Trotskyite POUM faction against Franco’s Fascists, and later was involved in the left’s in-fighting during the Barcelona May Days. This is his personal memoir of his time in Spain. An excellent read, with the politics reserved for the appendices. 5 stars.

4 down, indefinite number to go!

* * * * * * *

The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m just finishing March’s pick so haven’t reviewed it yet, so just two reviews so far – did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

JanuaryThe Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey – Harley Day beats his wife, terrorises his children, fights with his neighbours and has fallen out with his relations, so when he turns up dead the general feeling in the little town of Boynton and the surrounding farming community is that the old buzzard sure had it coming! I thoroughly enjoyed this cosy-ish murder mystery, set in the early 1900s in Oklahoma. 4½ stars.

FebruaryThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The four daughters of the family tell us of their time there and how it affected their future lives, and along the way show us the impacts of modern colonialism. A wonderful book, well deserving of all the praise and plaudits it has received. 5 stars.

Well done, People – you did great!

2 down, 10 to go!

* * * * * * *

Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo March 2021

I haven’t stepped out of my usual UK beat much yet this year, and will probably juggle with this a lot as I go along to slot things into the various categories. I’ll be spoiled for choice for books set in Scotland and England so will leave them to the end and see which boxes I’m struggling to fill. Here’s what I’m considering so far…

CongoThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into River at the moment, but it could also fit Africa or Forest.

SpainIn Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (review to follow) – set in Barcelona, I’ve put this in City, but it could also fit Europe.

Hmm… lot’s of work to do on this one, but I have a few interesting locations coming up on the TBR.

2 down, 23 to go!

* * * * * * *

A much better quarter, in terms of both quantity and quality, not to mention enjoyability. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

PS I appear to have gone on an unintentional break by virtue of not having written any reviews! So I’m going to take that as a sign and have a couple of weeks off to get ahead of myself again. Be good, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

One man’s war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Homage to CataloniaOrwell’s memoir of his time as a participant in the Spanish Civil War has the mix of romanticised idealism and hard-nosed realism that has become embedded as the received mythology of the war in the popular imagination – in Britain, at least. I assume that’s an indication of how influential this book was on forming British opinion at the time and in the years since. Orwell attached himself to POUM, one of the many factions on the left – a Trotskyite grouping opposed, not only to the right whom they were supposed to be fighting, but also to the USSR-backed Communist faction. This division led to fighting on the streets of Barcelona in May of 1937, as a result of which POUM were driven underground by the ascendant Communists.

Orwell was present first when POUM were part of the force fighting Franco’s Fascists, and later during the Barcelona May Days, and gives his personal account of both. In the bulk of the memoir there are surprisingly little polemics – he saves the political analysis for the appendices. This makes it a very readable account regardless of whether one agrees with Orwell’s political standpoint or not. In fact, the book is almost entirely about the left – the Fascists are there in the background as the enemy to be beaten, but the political foreground is taken up by the factional infighting on the Republican side.

He starts his account with his experiences as an international recruit, driven by his desire to defeat Fascism. He describes the conditions the recruits faced – ill-equipped, incomplete uniforms, a shortage of guns and ammunition. He suggests that his fellow Spanish recruits were motivated like him by an idealistic belief in their cause, and of course there is truth in that. But he’s also honest enough to recognise that the shortages of necessities, including bread, in civilian life drove many to join up simply as a way of getting food. Mothers, he tells us, sent their sons into the army so that they could smuggle bread out to their families. Orwell was horrified by the youth of many of the recruits – boys as young as fourteen or fifteen, with no real idea what they were fighting for. He describes the filth and squalor within the troop quarters, where there was a basic lack of sanitation and a permanent stench of human waste, and rats – lots of rats.

SCW Logo

Book 4

But he contrasts this with his enthusiasm for the principles of equality that pertained at this early stage of the war. There were no Sénors, only comrades. Orders, he suggests, were obeyed because the soldiers agreed to them rather than for fear of punishment. Not so on the Fascist side, he tells us, filled with forced conscripts rather than willing volunteers and desperate to desert given the slightest opportunity. I wonder. I am old and cynical and stopped believing long ago that good and evil are ever quite so clear cut, and I had to keep reminding myself that Orwell was just thirty-three when he arrived in Spain – still young enough for his cynicism to be held at bay by his idealism. He tries to defend the left against claims that their military indiscipline led to their repeated defeats, but he failed to convince me of that.

In reality, he saw very little fighting. He was positioned in trenches, facing Fascist forces in their own trenches, but neither advancing. He doesn’t make any effort to explain the military course of the war – that’s not his aim. Rather this is a personal description of what it was like to be there. As such, it adds colour, but doesn’t replace reading an actual history. On the one occasion when he is involved in more than a skirmish, he describes very well the mix of fear and bravery that he felt, although with a little of the gung-ho hubris that often pervades British war memoirs.

When his division is sent back to Barcelona, he describes the changes in the six months since he was last there. Then it seemed to him a truly socialist city, everyone equal. Now it is already reverting to normal – the rich able to get anything, the poor living with desperate shortages. He recognises himself as one of the wealthy, eating well, able to buy smuggled American cigarettes, etc.

Then the left factions start fighting each other, over nothing much, it seems. Orwell himself seems rather disillusioned by this stage, but still believes anything will be better for the workers than a Franco win, with a return to clericalism and a class-ridden society. He makes it clear that he didn’t really understand what was going on in Barcelona at the time – newspapers were either full of propaganda or heavily censored.

Barricade in Barcelona during the May Days

Back at the front, he is shot through the neck by a sniper. This allows him to see first hand and describe the medical treatment received by the injured – rather better than I’d have expected in truth, and happily he recovers well. Finally released from hospital, he discovers POUM have been suppressed, and some of his friends have been killed or imprisoned, so again this allows him to see the inhumane conditions of prisons, and the complete lack of any pretence of rule of law. He is forced into hiding until the British Consul can arrange for him and his wife to leave Spain. He writes very well about the atmosphere of suspicion, confusion and betrayal, and I found this account of the failure of his cause and his dreams beautifully and movingly written towards the end.

George Orwell
George Orwell

The first appendix gives a good summary of the politics on the left – the split between the anarchists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, et al. He is succinct and fairly clear-eyed about the chaotic nature of the left, and also about the journalistic propaganda being used by every faction. The second appendix is a lengthy discussion of what lay behind the factional infighting in Barcelona. His analysis obviously has to be treated with the caution that any participant account should receive, especially one written long before the fog of war had had time to clear. It’s interestingly done, though, with lots of references as to how it was being reported at the time in the leftist press, especially in England.

I enjoyed this much more than I expected. Splitting the politics off into the appendices works very well, preventing the human side of the story from getting bogged down in analysis. I was expecting it to be more propagandistic than it is – his honesty gives a very clear picture of his growing disillusion, not with the theories and ideals underpinning the revolution, but with the realities of it. Although I was glad I knew a bit of the background, I didn’t think it was necessary. It could easily be read on its own – it’s more about the experience of participating in a civil war than it is about the rights or wrongs of the cause. An excellent read.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

Subtitled: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period.

My theory is that it takes at least fifty years before historians can tackle any period with the necessary objectivity to produce anything approaching “truth” – a term that will always be disputed in relation to history. Writers who lived through events are generally unable to avoid two flaws: firstly, they assume their readers are familiar with the people and events of the period and therefore often don’t explain them well enough for future generations; and, secondly, the closer to events a writer is, the harder it is to avoid personal bias and opinion from distorting the story. Having said that, Brenan does his best to avoid bias and for the most part does a good job, but sometimes it’s clear that, like most British intellectuals of the time, his sympathies were with the left, and he tends to forgive their excesses more easily than those from the right. A bigger problem for me, as a newcomer to the period, was that he often left me struggling to follow timelines, or to work out the political alignment or even nationality of a particular person – he obviously assumed his contemporary readership would know these things from reading the news.

Where Brenan excels is in his detailed breakdown of the background to the conflict, especially his explanation of why the various different regions in Spain developed differing political alignments dependant on local geographical, agricultural and industrial factors. While all were affected by the power plays amongst the monarchy, Church and military, he shows that the impact differed according to the economic and social history of each region. I found that I was gradually developing a map of the country in my mind, one that showed not simply where places were but what people did there – how they lived, were they wealthy or poor, who owned the land, was the land fertile, what were their local industries, and so on. He also shows how parts of Spain looked over the border towards Europe while other parts were still influenced by their Moorish past. This left me with a much better understanding not only of the drivers that led to the Civil War, but also, in fact, of the current demands for independence from some regions which are still part of Spanish politics today.

Book 3

He also delves into the rise of the various factions on the left, explaining why some turned to anarchism while others adopted socialism, etc., again showing how this arose out of local rather than national factors. Syndicalism, a form of trades unionism that was effective in industrialised centres, was less well-suited to rural areas, for example. He explains the Spanish form of anarchism well, making it seem like a reasonable idea rather than the kind of extreme bogeyman philosophy it tends to be seen as now. He does the same for the right, but it wasn’t so divided and so is easier on the whole to understand, and I suspect Brenan was more fascinated by the philosophies underpinning left than right, so he writes about them more deeply and interestingly. He also explains the rise of anti-clericalism, showing how over time the Church ceased to be seen as the champion of the poor and became instead the paid instrument of the rich and powerful, helping them to maintain social control, and thus leading to the hatred that would result in so many atrocities towards clerics.

On occasion, he has a tendency to state an opinion as fact without supporting evidence, or to generalise about the “Spanish temperament” or the “Spanish psyche”, as if they were uniform things, which is a bit odd since the whole book is proving that Spain was a deeply fractured society at the time, region against region, philosophy against philosophy. And it’s easy with hindsight to scoff a little at those things he got wrong, as, for instance, when he suggests that Spaniards would never accept a dictatorship and that Franco’s regime would therefore be short-lived. As a right-wing dictator, he seems to see Franco in the same terms as Mussolini or Hitler, but future history would show distinct differences in Franco’s approach, which is probably why he survived into old age. But predicting the future is always difficult, and he doesn’t go too far down that line.

In the epilogue, Brenan explains that he is writing too soon to give an account of the war itself. He mentions the atrocities and, while accepting that the left participated too, claims the number of executions carried out by the right were far greater – a claim that I believe is now considered less clear-cut.

Gerald Brenan

Despite the small flaws I’ve mentioned, I found this a fascinating and hugely informative read, that has left me with a much better understanding of what led to the rise of the various factions, and why the drive towards war became seemingly unstoppable. I highly recommend it – its classic status is well deserved. However, I was glad I had already read Stanley G Payne’s The Spanish Civil War first – because it is a more conventional history written much more recently, I had some prior understanding without which I may have found myself floundering too deeply at those points where Brenan assumed existing knowledge.

My thanks to José Ignacio from A Crime is Afoot, who suggested this one when I was looking for something to give me some background to the war – an excellent recommendation!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 265… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time. Given that I’ve read almost nothing except vintage crime and short story anthologies for the last few months, this may be the shortest report in the history of the blogosphere…

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

I only read one from my Classics Club list this quarter, but I had three left unreviewed from the previous quarter…

69. Earth Abides by George R Stewart – An apocalyptic tale set in a post-plague world that may have been startlingly original when it was first published, but sadly bored me to distraction now. I abandoned it at 20%. 1 star.

70. The American by Henry James – The story of cultures clashing when a nouveau riche American businessman attempts to marry into the snobbish European aristocracy. I enjoyed this more than I expected to, and it has left me less reluctant to tackle some of James’ other novels. 4 stars.

71. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – The story of Willie Stark, an ambitious, high-flying politician in the Depression-era South, told through the eyes of his most loyal lieutenant, Jack Burden. Along the way we learn much about the corruption at the heart of American politics, but primarily this is a book about humanity in all its flawed imperfection. A brilliant book that earned a Pulitzer prize and the, arguably, even more prestigious accolade of being named my third Great American Novel. 5 stars.

72. Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald – A book full of narcissism and misogyny written by a misogynistic narcissist. Gah! I hated this and abandoned it at 32%. I did enjoy discovering that my fellow read-alongers all felt much the same way about it, though! 1 star, but only because I don’t have a zero rating.

So a very mixed bunch this quarter, but the brilliance of All the King’s Men made up for all the rest.

72 down, 18 to go!

* * * * * * *

Murder Mystery Mayhem

Although I’ve read a ton of vintage crime over the last few months, none of them were part of this challenge…

40 down, 62 to go!

* * * * * * *

Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Oh, dear, oh, dear! Not only have I not ready any books for this challenge this quarter, I still haven’t reviewed the book that I finished reading back in July!

2 down, indefinite number to go!

* * * * * * *

Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it? 😉 I’m sure things will pick up in the new year – 2021 has to be better than 2020! Doesn’t it?? Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 259… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

(Yes, I know it’s not Thursday, but I forgot to do my quarterly post yesterday, so I’m fitting it in today instead.) At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. Although I’m not slumping as badly as I was earlier in the year, I’m still not reading at anything like my usual rate, so there’s zero chance of me meeting targets this year. (What’s new??) But I’ve decided not to beat myself up over it, and I’m still slowly chipping away at my various challenges.

Here goes, then – the third check-in of the year…

Well, it’s actually slightly better than I was expecting! Most of the challenges are still badly behind, but I think I’ve actually caught up a little since I last reported. The Classics Club is the real problem, since I’m supposed to finish my list by next summer. Does anyone know what the punishment is for failure? It better not be chocolate-denial…

The TBR had dipped a bit at the end of September, although honesty compels me to admit October has been a bit of a spree so far. My recent disappointing experiences with some of the older books on the TBR has given me just the excuse I needed to add new ones. Plus my favourite publishers have come out of lockdown and a few parcels have been arriving – yay! However, I continue to cull the wishlist monthly, so the combined figure is still on target – amazingly…

 

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

I’ve read a respectable six from my Classics Club list. I had two left unreviewed from the previous quarter, and now have three unreviewed at the end of September. My reviewing slump has actually been worse than the reading slump. Still, that means I’ve reviewed five this quarter…

64. Flemington by Violet Jacob – Set during the Jacobite Rebellions, this is the story of two men on opposite sides in the conflict. Well told, some great characterisation and a good deal of moral ambiguity, with Jacob showing that both sides believed in the honour of their cause. I enjoyed it very much. 4½ stars.

65. The African Queen by CS Forester – The book on which the classic Hepburn/Bogart film is based, this is the story of a spinster lady and a Cockney steamboat pilot coming together to destroy a German gunboat. The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. It’s an old-fashioned adventure story, enjoyable but let down a little by the ending, which was changed in the film to make it more exciting. 3½ stars.

66. The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson – Set in Elgin in the 1920s, this autobiographical novel tells of a little girl growing up among the women of Lady’s Lane. Her mother is a prostitute and little Janie is seen as neglected, though she doesn’t feel that way herself. But when the Cruelty Man comes calling, Janie’s life will change. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and humour, and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson. A beautiful book. 5 stars.

67. The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison – Another Scottish classic, this time set in Gleneagles just after the Jacobite Rebellion. It’s based on the history of Mitchison’s own family, and while it is clearly brilliantly researched and gives a real flavour of the lives of the minor aristocracy of the time, sadly it’s let down by a weak and rather dull plot. I abandoned it halfway through. Just 2 stars.

68. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler – this classic noir simply didn’t work for me, but I take the blame since noir rarely does. The detective, Marlowe, is convinced that his friend didn’t murder his wife, even though he confessed and committed suicide. The book is way too long, with more emphasis on Chandler’s musings on life than on the plot. Again, just 2 stars.

A very mixed bunch this quarter, but with a couple of goodies in the mix. If I never read about another Jacobite though, I’ll die happy…

68 down, 22 to go!

* * * * * * *

Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read and reviewed three for this challenge this quarter. I’m going through a bad phase with these, often unable to see why Martin Edwards would have included them in his list. However, I’ll keep going for a while longer since, despite this quarter’s dismal experience, overall I’ve enjoyed most of the one I’ve read. To see the full challenge, click here.

38.  The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham – A murder mystery with a twist – the dead man appears to have died twice! This is an unusual Campion mystery in that it’s told in the first person rather than the usual third. I enjoyed getting inside his head – it made him seem a little less of the silly ass that he sometimes appears. One of the more enjoyable Campion books for me. 4 stars.

39. The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole – the story of a man driven to murder and the effect it has on him. This is a rip-off of Jekyll and Hyde, and not nearly as well done, dull and over-padded. I can’t imagine why it’s on the list. Abandoned halfway through, and a generous 1 star.

40. Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges – dear me! I only got halfway again in this one! It’s a spoof of The Old Man in the Corner stories and filled with “humour”, but I found it overly wordy, condescendingly knowing and gratingly arch, with every client (of the three I read, at least) having exactly the same characterisation. 1 star, though I may have to introduce a zero stars rating soon.

40 down, 62 to go!

* * * * * * *

Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve actually read two history books for this so far, but have only reviewed one (in October, but I’m counting it anyway). I haven’t managed to fit in any more of the fiction books yet, and I think this challenge is really only going to take off properly next year. My enthusiasm is still high, though – it’s just a matter of scheduling!

2. The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne – this was an excellent introduction to the subject, concise but packed full of information, clearly presented. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence. 5 stars.

2 down, indefinite number to go!

* * * * * * *

So  a more productive quarter in terms of quantity, with enough great books to make it all worthwhile. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne

Distilled history…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On starting my personal challenge to get an understanding of the Spanish Civil War through history, memoirs and fiction, the first book I wanted was one which basically explained the historical background, laid out the events leading up to the war, introduced the main leaders, explained the factions and tried, at least, to avoid bias. This last point was the hardest – all the best known histories on the subject seem to be pretty overwhelmingly biased towards the Republican (left) side. After a couple of false starts, I settled on this one and feel I couldn’t have made a better decision. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence. Every word in its short 286 pages counts, so that there’s far more information in here than in many a waffly 900-page tome I’ve struggled through on other historical periods.

Payne’s bias, if he has one, seems slightly to the right, though it’s quite clear he’s no more a fan of the regimes of the far-right than the far-left. He avoids any kind of romanticisation of the left – generally a recurring feature of British and American writing on the SCW, showing how much better the left were at propaganda, if nothing else. Indeed, propaganda and the role of foreign journalists and novelists in its dissemination at the time, and on public perception of the conflict even today, is one of the many subjects he addresses in the book.

Payne starts with a brief introduction, putting the SCW into the context of the many civil wars happening in Eastern Europe and around the “periphery” of Europe around that time. He notes that Spain was unique in being the only Western European country to have a civil war in the interwar years, and that, while the political upheavals in other western nations like Germany and Italy rose out of the aftermath of WW1, Spain had remained neutral in that conflict.

He continues by giving a concise and clear history of Spain, from the time of the Romans. This is done in a just a few pages, but gives the newcomer to the subject a very clear idea of the development of the social, political and economic conditions in the country just prior to the civil war. He discusses Spain’s failure to modernise at the same rate as other European countries, remaining more rural and socially backward, less literate, poorer. Out of these conditions arose the factions on left and right that would both eventually feel that a limited conflict would give power into their hands.

Book 2

Payne slows down a bit as he discusses the years from around 1930 to the outbreak of war, but it is still a very distilled account – no padding, very few anecdotes or character sketches, but everything very clearly explained. The profusion of factions on both left and right are the main reason I, and I’m sure I’m not alone, find the SCW more confusing than many other conflicts or historical events, and Payne takes the time to explain each in turn – how they arose, their affiliations to outside forces like the USSR or Mussolini’s Italy, their regional power bases within Spain, what they believed in and what kind of government they wanted to create. As he develops the history of events, Payne is excellent at constantly reminding the reader of where each faction stands whenever they are mentioned, so that I rarely found it necessary to turn to the included glossary of all those dreaded acronyms, like POUM and PCE and CEDA. In fact, by the end of the book I actually had a good idea of what all these terms actually meant – a considerable achievement, believe me!

Stanley G Payne

Alongside the narration of events, Payne includes themed chapters where he goes more deeply into one aspect of the conflict, such as religion or foreign intervention or propaganda, etc., and it’s in these chapters that he’s more analytical. He debunks some of the commonly held and somewhat romantic myths, explaining their origin, and replaces them with factual analysis, including plenty of statistics, on numbers of executions on both sides, for example, or the brutal atrocities carried out, again by both sides. He is critical of Franco’s skills as a war strategist, suggesting his failure to take decisive action at crucial moments led to a prolongation of the conflict. But his strongest criticism is directed at the shambolic chaos on the left, with faction fighting faction, and no clear plan of what they were trying to achieve. He compares the conditions in Republican and Nationalist zones, and suggests a major factor in the Nationalists’ success was their economic competence – indeed, their competence generally. The picture he paints is of idealism, factionalism and chaos on the left defeated by planning, pragmatism and organisation on the right. (Are you listening, America?)

My only caveat, and it’s a small one, would be that a basic understanding of the Russian revolution and of the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini would be helpful, but I think he gives enough information on them in passing to prevent any reader from feeling too lost. So, in conclusion, great as an introduction for the newcomer, but there’s also plenty of analysis in here to interest those with an existing knowledge of events. Highly recommended – the perfect start to my quest!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 246… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. It was already beginning to go horribly wrong when I last reported at the end of March, and I fear my plaguophobia has made this my worst quarter since I started blogging and maybe for several years before that. However I haven’t given up all hope of finding my groove and making up for lost time in the second half of the year. Time to see just how bad the situation is!

Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…

 

Oh dear, most of the challenges have fallen badly behind, especially the Classics Club and the challenge to read some of the older books on my TBR.

However, while the TBR (books I own) remains stubbornly high, the combined TBR/wishlist figure is looking better. The mathematically-minded among you will realise that’s because books are gradually moving off the wishlist onto the TBR as I acquire them, and I’m not madly adding new ones. Mostly this is due to a lack of enthusiasm, but it’s also because I’m receiving almost no books for review at the moment, as my favourite publicity people remain furloughed. This is no bad thing since it’s allowing me to clear my feet of old overdue review copies a bit, but I do miss those parcels popping through the letterbox!

 

* * * * * * *

The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and since then I’ve broken out of quarantine three times but have only reviewed two of them so far – my reviewing slump is even worse than my reading slump!

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I spent a long visit in Egypt with the family of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad in Naguib Mahfouz’s wonderful historical saga Palace Walkset in Cairo to the backdrop of the end of WW1 and the movement for independence. Then it was off to the Alps for a skiing holiday in the company of Carol Carnac in her Crossed Skis – a trip which, as is so often the way with vacations, promptly turned into a murder mystery. (Originally I had put Frankenstein in the Alps slot, but having now abandoned three books in my attempt to fill the Arctic slot, I’ve shoved Frankenstein into it and put this one in the Alps instead. All this world travelling gets quite complicated…)

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

78 down, 2 to go!

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

I’ve only read three from my Classics Club list this quarter, and still have two to review, so just one review this quarter…

63. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – The story of deaf mute John Singer who attracts a small group of broken and lonely people, each of whom finds his silence allows them to talk openly to him in a way they can’t to other people.  A profound and moving study of the ultimate aloneness and loneliness of people in a crowd, and of the universal human desire to find connection with another. The writing is beautiful, emotional but never mawkish, with deep understanding of the human heart and sympathy for human fallibility – a book that fully deserves its classic status. 5 stars.

Low on quantity this quarter, but high on quality!

63 down, 27 to go!

* * * * * * *

Murder Mystery Mayhem

Although I’ve read several vintage crime novels, I’ve only actually read one for this challenge this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.

37.  The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton – This is the first collection of Chesterton’s stories about the little Catholic priest who not only solves inexplicable mysteries but also cures souls as he goes along. I honestly don’t know what it is other people see in the Father Brown stories – they don’t work for me at all, and I abandoned this after the first four stories. 1 star.

37 down, 65 to go!

* * * * * * *

Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

This challenge really only started properly in June, so I’ve only read one book for it this quarter and unfortunately haven’t reviewed it yet. My enthusiasm is high though, so expect this section to be busier next time I report!

1 down, indefinite number to go!

* * * * * * *

So not the most productive quarter but I still enjoyed most of the few books I read for my various challenges. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 235… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I usually start off pretty well and then it all goes horribly wrong later in the year. However, due to a severe dose of plagueomania, for most of March I’ve been struggling to read anything except thrillers and mysteries, so I fear the horribly wrong bit has started early this year !

Here goes – the first check-in of the year…

Actually I thought the reading targets figures might be much worse than they are. The classics are taking the worst hit as generally speaking they require the most concentration. The Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge won’t get underway properly until I finish the Around the World Challenge, which should happen in April but may drift to May.

However, the TBR figures are going in completely the wrong direction! After exercising iron willpower over new releases all last year I seem to have gone mad this year and have acquired about a million! Well, slight exaggeration but it won’t be if I keep going on like this. Must do better!

* * * * * * *

The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and this quarter I’ve done most of my travelling in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. One is still patiently waiting for me to review it – better do it soon before the holiday tan wears off! It’ll appear in the next round-up.

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I visited the Suez Canal only to find that I’d turned up in the middle of the Suez Crisis to witness the dying throes of the British Empire, in PH Newby’s Something to Answer For, the first ever Booker Prize winner.

I also had a few detours this quarter. First, I went to the Swedish island of Öland, where I got involved with the disappearance of a little boy many years earlier, in Johan Theorin’s excellent Echoes From the Dead. Off to Sicily next where I got caught up in Garibaldi’s attempt to unify Italy, spending some time with the decaying aristocracy in Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Then I found myself in Ruritania, (which may have been a fictional country but is still probably better known than many a real one so I’ve decided it counts!) and had great fun with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll as he impersonated the Ruritanian King in Anthony Hope’s swashbuckling adventure The Prisoner of Zenda. I also returned to China, a destination I’d already visited. I enjoyed the magically realistic look at life for the modern urban Chinese woman in An Yu’s Braised Pork so much I’ve decided to swap it in to replace the one I’d previously listed for China.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

76 down, 4 to go!

* * * * * * *

The Classics Club

Although I’ve only read three from my Classics Club list this quarter, I had a backlog of four from the previous quarter still to review. So six reviews this quarter, and one still to review which will appear next time…

57. The New Road by Neil Munro – Set midway between the two major Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, this great adventure story tells of two men travelling north into Highland country at the time when General Wade was building his New Road as part of the effort to pacify the clans. Entertaining and very well written, although the heavy sprinkling of Scots language and rhythms combined with its assumption of familiarity with the historical context might make it a demanding read for non-Scots. But for me, 5 stars.

58. The Go-Between by LP Hartley – A re-read of a book I loved in my youth and happily I loved it just as much all over again. The narrator Leo looks back to the summer of 1900 from a distance of fifty years. The story he tells us is one of subtle gradations of class and social convention, of sexual awakening and the loss of innocence, and over it all is an air of unease created by the older Leo’s knowledge of the horrors of the wars which would soon engulf the 20th century, changing this enchanted world of privilege for ever. 5 stars

59. The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – A miserable and misanthropic portrayal of small-town Scottish life in the mid-19th century. I admired the skill of it, and the use of language, but it’s not an enjoyable read. And, while it is undoubtedly insightful about some aspects of Scottish culture, it certainly doesn’t give a full or rounded picture. 3 generous stars.

60. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – No such reservations for this wonderful classic set during the Spanish Civil War. A love story, a story of the horror of war, of loyalty and comradeship, and surprisingly with a very strong female character at its heart, there is so much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. 5 supernova-bright stars.

61. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – Set during the Gordon Riots of 1780, this is Dickens’ first attempt at the historical novel. The structure he uses is not wholly successful, but it’s filled as always with some delightfully original characters and also has some very fine mob scenes that hint at what would come in his later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. 4 stars because I’m comparing it to other Dickens’ novels, but would be 5 stars if compared to almost any other author’s work.

62. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – In this excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa, Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man has on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes. Not an easy read, but more than worth the effort. 5 stars.

A fantastic quarter! I hope my next batch of classics are just as good!

Update to the list: I abandoned the third book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, Grey Granite, at too early a stage to review. (If you’re interested in why, here’s a link to my comments on Goodreads.) So I’m replacing it with The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson. Details will appear on a future TBR post.

62 down, 28 to go!

* * * * * * *

Murder Mystery Mayhem

Although I’ve continued to read a ton of vintage crime, I’ve only actually read two for this challenge this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.

35.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie – When a rich old lady is killed in her country house, the various members of the household come under suspicion. This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. Great fun to see how the Queen of Crime began! 4½ stars.

36.  Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley – Another murder in a country house, this time of an American business tycoon. Trent is a journalist and amateur detective who soon thinks he knows what happened, but has his own reasons for not revealing his suspicions. From 1913, it’s an intriguing look at one stage on the road to development of the genre. 4 stars.

36 down, 66 to go!

* * * * * * *

Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Although this challenge hasn’t really started yet, it would be crazy not to link Hemingway’s classic to it…

1.  For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. This story of love set amidst war is one of the best known books in English about the Spanish Civil War. The wonderful writing and profound insight into Spanish culture and the realities of war mean it richly deserves its status as a major classic. A glowing 5 stars and a great way to start the challenge!

1 down, and who knows how many to go!

* * * * * * *

Another great quarter’s reading, even if the last month has thrown me off track a little! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Love and war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. The guerrilla band is ostensibly led by Pablo, who was once a feared warrior but is now an untrustworthy drunk. The real leader is his woman, the gypsy Pilar, on whose strength and courage Robert will quickly learn to rely. Also in the group is Maria, a beautiful young woman whom the guerrillas rescued from the fascists, but not before they had abused her cruelly, raping her repeatedly and cutting off her hair to advertise her shame to the world. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. And we will see Maria and her Roberto fall in love – a love made more urgent and profound by the uncertainty of the future. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love.

At first the writing seems odd – Hemingway uses thee and thou and a stylised sentence structure in the dialogue throughout, as a way, I assume, of reminding the reader that in fact the participants are speaking in a language which Robert knows well but is still foreign to him. He also replaces the infrequent swear words with euphemistic replacements, so that one gets sentences like: “And when thou comest to the camp, order that someone should relieve me because I have indescribable and unprintable hunger and I have forgotten the password.” However, he does it so well and consistently that very soon the reader’s mind becomes attuned to it, and it begins to add to the sense of place and time. (It also meant this reader spent way too much time guessing which swear words were being bleeped out…)

Book 60 of 90

The main story, of the plot to blow up the bridge and of the love affair, is wonderful in itself, full of drama and tension, brutally savage at times followed by scenes of tender beauty. Regulars will know that I have mercilessly mocked other male writers’ attempts to write sex scenes, but boy, Hemingway knows exactly how to make something erotic without any explicit description of body parts or bodily fluids! (I was amused to discover that this is the book from which the famous question “Did the earth move for you?” originated, although in the book it is a moment of real emotion rather than the naughty wink-wink joke it had become by my teen years.)

“I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. And many have died. Many. Many. Thou canst not think how many. But I love thee as I love what I love most in the world and I love thee more.”

Maria, admittedly, is little more than a beautiful sex object, the idealised submissive female rather typical of the time. But she is strongly counter-balanced by the depth Hemingway brings to Pilar – for me, the real central character of the book. It is Pilar who tells us about the tragic life of the matador she once loved, a wonderfully told and absorbing tale which shows the importance of bullfighting as part of the culture both as it happens and as a basis for the tradition of oral storytelling and mythologising which feeds into the camaraderie and fellowship of the band. It is Pilar, too, who tells us of the time that she and Pablo took back her village from the fascists, repaying atrocity with atrocity, and showing the reader how easily good people can become a vicious mob, each afraid to stand out and goading each other on to ever worse barbarity. One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Hemingway’s refusal to make one side all bad and the other all good. Here motives and affiliations are murky and, as in most forms of guerrilla warfare, somewhat tribal in that most participants are following strong local leaders rather than fighting for deeply held convictions of their own. Here too we see how the peasants, told by the Communists that God no longer exists, struggle with a sense of loss for a religion that has been so deeply embedded in their culture.

….“You have killed?” Robert Jordan asked.
….“Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even fascists whom we must kill.”
….“Yet you have killed.”
….“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.”
….“By whom?”
….“Who knows? Since we do not have God here anymore, who forgives, I do not know.”

Hemingway doesn’t delve into the minutiae of politics in Spain, but instead treats fascism as a universal threat. He has Robert talk to the other characters about his own country, America, suggesting it is not immune to the forces ripping Spain apart. Much of what he says about that aspect sounds depressingly like the current political state of the US, giving the book a feel of contemporary relevance. Robert does not consider himself a Communist – he is fighting for love of the Republic – but he knows that when he goes home he will likely be branded a Red and be barred from pursuing his career in teaching. He tries to imagine life in America after the war, with Maria as his wife, but there’s a pathos to these scenes because we also see that he doesn’t expect them ever to come true. Robert has killed men and is willing to kill more, but he knows that when it is over, if he lives, he will be changed forever by what he has experienced.

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

So much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. What a great start to my new challenge!

Book 1

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Reading the Spanish Civil War…

¡No pasarán!
They Shall Not Pass!

The Spanish Civil War is one of those periods of history about which I am embarrassingly ignorant despite the fact that it inspired so many writers at the time and afterwards. Sometimes ignorance becomes self-reinforcing – when I see a book about the Spanish Civil War, I avoid it because I feel I don’t know enough about the history to understand the book, and therefore I never learn about it. But having enjoyed my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge a couple of years ago, I feel inspired to finally read myself into this period of history in the same way.

I’m going for a mix of fact and fiction, and am hoping to read a selection that will show me the war through the eyes of contemporaries and also retrospectively, through history and novels. As well as books by British authors, I’ll be trying to read some Spanish writers, though unfortunately I’ll be restricted to those which are available in English. I’ll be hoping to mix some lighter, action reads in with the heavier stuff as I go along. I expect my initial list will expand and change as one book leads to another.

I’m already conscious that the books I’ve selected seem to be heavily weighted to the Republican side, so if anyone knows of any good fiction from the perspective of the Nationalists, or indeed other good books from the Republican perspective, I’ll be grateful for recommendations. It seems to have been the accepted position of most British writers of the time that we should be on the side of the Republicans, but I have no real view on the matter as yet, not being a fan of either fascists or communists as a general rule, so I’ll be starting at least with an impartial eye.

Here’s my initial list, in no particular order:

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (fiction)

High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels…

The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor (history) – Abandoned.

With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war – its causes, course, and consequences.

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (fiction)

Natalia is hesitant when a stranger asks her to dance at the fiesta in Diamond Square in Barcelona. But Joe is charming and forceful, and she takes his hand. They marry and soon have two children; for Natalia it is an awakening, both good and bad. Then the Spanish Civil War erupts, and lays waste to the city and to their simple existence…

The Frozen Heart by Almudena Grandes (fiction)

Alvaro discovers an old folder with letters sent to his father in Russia, faded photos of people he never met, and a locked grey metal box. From the provincial heartlands of Spain to the battlefields of Russia, this is a mesmerizing journey through a war that tore families apart, pitting fathers against sons, brothers against brothers, and wives against husbands…

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (memoirs)

Young Laurie Lee walks to London, and makes a living labouring and playing the violin. But, deciding to travel further afield, he heads for Spain. With just a blanket to sleep under and his trusty violin, he spends a year crossing Spain, from Vigo in the north to the southern coast. Only the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War puts an end to his extraordinary peregrinations…

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom (fiction)

Madrid: Sept., 1940. Enter British spy Harry Brett, sent to win the confidence of a shadowy Madrid businessman. Meanwhile, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare is engaged in a secret mission of her own—to find her former lover, whose passion for the Communist cause led him into the International Brigades and who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (memoirs)

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism…” Thus wrote Orwell following his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Here he brings to bear the force of his humanity, passion, and clarity, describing with bitter intensity the hopes and betrayals of that chaotic episode.

Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Grey (history)

Thirty-five thousand people from across the world volunteered to join the armed resistance in a war on fascism. More people, proportionately, went from Scotland than any other country, and the nation was gripped by the conflict. What drove so many ordinary Scots to volunteer in a foreign war? Here, their stories are powerfully and honestly told, often in their own words.

* * * * *

Additions

The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne (history)

An excellent, concise and clearly presented introduction to the subject for the beginner, but there’s also plenty of analysis in here to interest those with an existing knowledge of events. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence.

The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan (history)

Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period. Deservedly so.

¡España una, grande, libre!
Spain, one, great and free!