Friday, September 25, 2015

HOTEL FLORIDA by Amanda Vaill

"Hotel Florida" was chosen as one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times.  It tells the story of the Spanish Civil War which took place in the late 1930s, just before World War II.  It  presaged the rival ideologies of communism and fascism as if in a horrible preview of what was to rent the world in a few short years.  Eventually the reporters, who flocked to the war to make their reputation and fortune, became famous even as the war was forgotten in the greater conflagration which followed.

Vaill masterfully tells the history of the war through the eyes and writings of three couples who worked with and fell in love with each other.  Robert Capa was a Hungarian photographer who made his reputation there by being one of the first embedded reporters, following the troops from battle to battle.  He was joined by his Polish lover, Gerda Taro, a beautiful, brave and daring photographer whose shots depicted the human side of the residual misery war brings.  Gerda's photos became world famous before she died at age 26, crushed by a tank.  Their story is exciting and heartbreaking.

The Spaniard, Arturo Barea, loyal to the Loyalist government and his girlfriend, the lovely Austrian, Ilsa Kulcsar were press officers for the Republicans.  They worked in constant danger, hated by the Germans and Franco's rebels, and likewise by the Russian communists, who were meddling and carrying out large sums of money from the government coffers. Barea who lost friends and family in the war, had little use for the foreign reporters who hounded his office looking for dispatches they could send back home.

Finally the most famous of all, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, equally fearless and hungry for the story and publicity of front page reporting.  Hemingway, especially, is revealed to be a blustering ego-driven blow-hard who was the center of the social scene at the Hotel Florida where reporters and spies gathered nightly to exchange war stories heady with drink and bravado.

The war went on for three years and 400,000 lives were lost, among them young idealistic volunteers from all over the world who came to fight for the Loyalist government which was being crushed by Franco's Italian and German backed money and weapons.  Through it all the Hotel Florida remained standing, a bastion of intrigue, drama, passion and gossip.  Our three couples met and separated here and met again.  We see the war through their eyes and history comes alive thanks to Vaill's precise and interesting writing.  I highly recommend this book to all readers, especially those who would like to learn more about a time in history when young men and women from around the world, fueled by the stories of these reporters, flocked to defend an idealistic government which was doomed from the start.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD by Elena Ferrrante (fic)

This novel is the last book of Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels.  Since I have reviewed the other three books in the series, I don't wish to repeat the many accolades, but if you are an avid reader of Ferrante's work, you will not be disappointed in this latest installment.  She continues with the story of the intense friendship of Elena and Lila and their families.  The old neighborhood is once again the setting as Elena moves back to fuel her writing and resume old friendships.  All the characters of the first novel are here, only now we see these children as they enter old age, still carrying the burden of the past, still passionate in their loves and hates, still carrying old grudges.

Elena's and Lila's children have grown, and the older generation has passed away.  Still, Elena is drawn to Lila and their lives again become entangled.  Elena has now become a writer of renown, yet still doesn't trust her own abilities.  Along with the reader, she puzzles over who is the real author of her work, herself or Lila who is the prime motivator of Elena's work.  As the story progresses Elena gains strength along with insight into her relationships with the various characters of her past, but has never been able to escape the ties that bind her to her childhood's "brilliant friend."  By the end of the book, Elena and Lila have presented the reader with the best picture of the psychology of female friendship of any book that I have read.  I highly recommend the entire series for all readers. Perhaps you will find as I did, that the best was saved for last.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

THE MONGOL EMPIRE by Michael Prawdin (non-fic)

Michael Prawdin, a Russian/German (1884-1970) wrote this book between the World Wars, and it is still in print and popular. While he has been criticized for carelessness in some facts and the credits are not complete, he writes a very readable and complete history of the largest empire of the world, which stretched from China westwards across the vast deserts and steppes through the Middle East and into Eastern Europe. What a history it is!  For two centuries the Mongols were able to dominate China, Iran, Russia and parts of South East Asia. Beginning with the mighty Jenghiz Khan and following his progeny beyond Kublai Khan and Tamerlane until family factions caused its decline and fall.

Jenghiz was born in 1165, a leader of great ambition and insight into the motives and weaknesses of his enemies, he was able to dominate beyond just destruction and fear.  Though terrifying people to the point of their being unable to respond, he also set up a code of laws to govern and was a genius of organization and management.  He inspired loyalty by promoting talented war chiefs and set up a swift messenger service, much like the pony express.  The Mongols were nomads and did not desire riches for vast cities.  The soldiers desired nothing more than plundering conquered territories and portable wealth: silver, gold and material that could move around with them.  Their greatest motivation was the thrill of destroying any who stood in their way.  One can't imagine the terror of seeing a Mongol horde riding swift and tough horses charging down on one's city.  "Nothing was left of a conquered town beyond what might be useful to the Mongols. The invaders were regarded as devils incarnate, as the scourge of God. The tribal name of Tatars, first brought into Europe from the East, was corrupted into Tartars, the dwellers in Tartarus who had risen out of the nether-world."

Eventually Jengihiz Khan's vast Empire was split into three large territories ruled by his sons and grandsons.  They learned to dwell in cities and build great palaces, depending on and adapting the culture of the Persians and Chinese. The famous Kublai Khan ruled over the East and China.  He became enamoured with Chinese culture and Buddhism.

The many violent campaigns became tedious reading but the history was endlessly fascinating.  Prawdin covers a huge amount of history: Marco Polo and other westerners who bravely pioneered into the Mongol territory to trade and learn the culture; the monks and friars who ventured unsuccessfully to obtain converts to the Catholic faith, the Crusaders who foolishly thought they could apply traditional battle tactics against the Mongols, and all the great rulers, East and West who played a role in this story.

The book finally closes with the establishment of the Mongolian Peoples' Republic in the 20th century and the recognition of the importance of Mongolia which lies between Russian and China, a buffer of vast expanse with a diverse population.  The methods of conquering territory that the Mongols perfected is even echoed today when terrorism strikes fear in the helpless and art and ancient treasures are destroyed and cities laid to waste and ruin.