Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Deborah Lipstadt, "History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier" (2005)

This book details Lipstadt's court battle to prove that her assertion that author David Irving had engaged in a long-standing effort to falsify history: selectively using and misrepresenting documents to cast Adolf Hitler in a favourable light, as well as denying the very existence of an intentional, widespread, systematic, and state-sanctioned effort to slaughter Europe's Jewish population.

The case stemmed from claims Lipstadt made in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, wherein she discussed Irving's work as well as the efforts of other 'deniers'. (See my discussion of the book here). Three years later, Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, for libel (stemming from the statements in her book). According to British law, the onus was placed on the defendants to prove that their assertions could be supported by evidence.

Working with an impressive team of scholars and legal minds, arrayed against Irving's rather lacklustre and self-managed representation, Lipstadt and Penguin without a doubt brought Irving low. He was publicly shown to work less as a historian than an ideologue, calling into question the integrity of the entirety of his oeuvre. The revelation of his sloppy, highly biased, and clearly flawed use of documentary sources and other archival materials effectively ended his career as a historian. Banned from entering multiple countries, considered persona non grata by respectable publishers, and saddled with a significant financial burden after losing the case, Irving is unlikely to ever widely enter public consciousness other than as a sad, deluded figure.

As a result of the trial, and her unwillingness to compromise or back down from defending her observations, Lipstadt has become a far more widely known scholar and commentator on 20th-century Jewish history, particularly as it relates to the Nazi regime.

Her book is more narrative of the experiences of the trial, and exploration of some of the choices made in her legal team's efforts. In this regard, it is compelling and informative reading. For readers seeking a closer analysis of Irving's work, however, better sources are available, such as the expert analysis of Irving's work carried out for the trial by Richard Evans, Hajo Funke, and Robert Jan van Pelt. (Electronic editions of these can all be found at the Holocaust Denial on Trial website). Trial transcripts can be found at the same site.

I discuss Lipstadt's 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust, here.
I also discuss her 2011 book, The Eichmann Trial, here.
I discuss Irving's 1996 biography of Josef Goebbels here.

Jenna Jameson and Neil Strauss, "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale" (2004)

Jameson, for those who don't know, is the Madonna of porn.
With a carefully managed career, she has graduated from stripping to magazine work to porn to managing what her husband refers to as a "porn conglomerate". She is the name behind what seems to be a very successful group of websites, cellphone services, films, and still collects royalties from the over 50 films she made before going 'indy'.

Her story both fits within and frustrates how sex industry workers are often portrayed. In her autobiography, she outlines a sordid and tragic history of sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, industry corruption, misogyny, alienation from her family... the list goes on. She also, however, suggests that her life experiences led her to the level of financial and career success, as well as personal satisfaction, that she has attained.

The book is well written, on the whole. It combines first-person narrative, comic-book format, simulated diary notes, interview transcripts, photos, and guidance for those seeking to enter the industry. This variety sometimes comes across a scattershot, but does help to break up what might otherwise begin to become monotonous or repetitive. It sparkles with occasional wit, while not glossing over what outsiders suspect about genuinely negative and dysfunctional aspects of making one's living as a sex worker.

If you are interested in this book, you might also peruse my notes regarding:
- "Porn King", the autobiography of John Holmes written by his wife
- Jimmy McDonough's "Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film"

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Stephen King, "Cell" (2006)

I used to turn to Stephen King novels as 'palate cleansers', something fully to read that wouldn't tax my brain, and to give myself a break from political history books. I can't recall what the last King novel is that I read, but it was likely one from the '80s. Cell crossed by path and as it was fairly short, I thought I might as well poke my toe in the pool and see what King has been up to for the last decade or two.

As the book's title intimates, the storyline revolves around the effects a mysterious 'pulse' emitted from cellphones has on the phones' users. In a few minutes of time, the world seems to have been turned into a maelstrom of neck-biting, flesh-ripping, self-destructive peoploids, chasing each other and the as yet unaffected. The protagonist of the story has just finalized a book deal, and hopes that this change might help save his failed marriage. He is feeling like his life is turning around into something positive, when the zombie apocalypse begins.

For fans of gore and zombies, Cell is a good read. The action starts within the first few pages, and the zombies never disappear as a threat. Sloppy romanticism is kept to a minimum, although King's attempts to undermine it are a little heavy-handed. In particular, most of the efforts to establish a sustained optimism regarding familial or paternal feelings come to naught (and often end in messy death).

The book's ending is a little unsatisfying. Although I'm sure it's intended to be cliffhanger, and perhaps to leave the door open to a sequel, it smacked more of laziness to this reader. It felt like instead of resolving the plot line, King simply stopped writing, got up from his desk and said, "ah, well, that's good enough."

Friday, 17 October 2014

Norman Finkelstein, "The Holocaust Industry" (2000, rev. 2003)

Subtitle: "Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering".

The book is essentially three essays ('Capitalizing The Holocaust', 'Hoaxers, Hucksters and History', and 'The Double Shakedown'), each arguing - with significant reference to media articles, legal activity, and some archival research - how a cadre of Zionists have co-opted the tragedy of the genocide carried out by Nazis during World War II to privilege Israeli political and economic interests, as well as Zionist advocacy groups outside of Israel.

Given the topic, and more so Finkelstein's position, the book is very, very controversial, and I expect it would prove challenging to pretty well any reader. I know that I am hesitant to even write a summary regarding the book, for fear sloppy language or thinking might make me appear to have some kind of hatred that I do not. The book has been characterized as an anti-Semitic attack (by someone whose mother died in the Nazi genocide, as Finkelstein informs his readers).

I will note a few (related) aspects that I found intriguing:

1) Finkelstein notes the tension, and in some respects competition, that has taken place over the definition (historicizing and politicizing) of the genocide carried out by the Nazis as a set of events. He notes that a cadre of Jews has worked to marginalize the importance of non-Jewish victims, or at the least to point to the necessity of understand Jews' experience of the genocide as the lens through which all other victims' experiences must be viewed.

2) He proposes that this cadre of Jews undertook a re-historicization and political/economic functionalization of the Nazi genocide in large part as a response to the period of military conflicts involving Israel that lasted from the late 1960s through the early 1970s.

3) Finkelstein spends much of the third chapter examining various claims for compensation, as well as 'repatriation' or return of funds and other goods held in several nations' banking systems (particularly Dutch and Swiss banks). He notes US support for investigation of Swiss banks (and the US calls for quick and willing restitution to be made to victims). He raises the disquieting point that if this is the US position, why has it quashed efforts to compensate descendants of slaves, and flattened demands to seek repatriation and return of money and other goods to victims of the Nazi genocide who had deposited their wealth in US banks? As Finkelstein notes, the US was one of the top three recipient countries of financial resources being exported by Jews from the Third Reich.

4) In his revised edition (I'm not sure about the original), Finkelstein occasionally indulges in some unhelpful, annoying and provocative personal attacks and less than professional use of language. In these portions, the book crosses from polemic to screed. Perhaps his indulgence is a product of the deep hostility that Finkelstein's work generated, but it does nothing to reinforce the sense of objective and informed scholarship. This is unfortunate, and helps to lend support to the idea that there might be more to Finkelstein's attacks than a pure desire to correct our understanding of how the world works.

5) Finkelstein is a graduate of Princeton, was being considered for tenure at DePaul University in 2007, and has published widely on the Israel/Palestine conflict (nine books).

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Michael Bliss, "Right Honourable Men" (1996, rev. 2004)

Subtitle: "The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien".

Bliss presents a selective history of the men he regards as the most noteworthy Canadian Prime Ministers. His commentaries primarily reflect on these men's time as political leaders, exploring their campaigns, the decisions they made, and evaluating their successes and failures.

There are few surprises in the book, if you already have a decent grasp of Canada's political history. If not, Bliss writes an eminently readable book. It is more substantive than the average 'curiosity' reader probably wants, and perhaps a bit light for the academic reader. It would be ideal for a junior undergraduate course text.

Read a sample here.

You might also compare my comments on Bliss' book with those I've offered on Bruce Hutchison's Mr. Prime Minister: 1867-1964, a similar book written in 1965.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Heike B. Görtemaker, "Life With Hitler" (2011)

This is a fascinating biography of Eva Braun, the woman who for over a decade was Hitler's closest female confidante, if not his mistress.

Görtemaker takes on an aspect of the Nazi regime that has rarely been investigated: given Hitler's (and the majority of the Nazi hierarchy's) stance on the proper comportment and role of women in the regime, how was it that Hitler (and his entourage) maintained his relationship with a single young woman who never bore children, who smoked and drank, and who seems in many respects, the exact opposite of the ideal Aryan woman?

Görtemaker is treading on territory where she has few peers. There have been only three biographies written about Braun. This one is exceptional. The author's investigations being vexed by the glaring holes in archival resources. Many letters and other documents produced by Braun and Hitler have disappeared or been intentionally destroyed. Nonetheless, she is careful to assess shortcomings in the existing evidence (primarily testimony provided by members of Hitler's entourage and Braun's family members), which usually leaves her pointing out that more questions than answers exist about Braun and Hitler's life together.

The book features an exceptional array of rarely seen photographs, both of Braun within her own circle, as well as within Hitler's. A quite different vision of the 'Fuhrer' emerges here, less iconographic and more casual: Hitler and friends at the opera, lounging over lunch, etc.

More to follow...

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Tony Iommi, "Iron Man" (2013)

Sub-titled: "My journey through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath".

As do many music autobiographies, this one starts off really fascinating. Iommi talks about his early years: exposure to music, upbringing, early influences, and how he met the people who would later on influence his work and life. Unlike the members of the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, however, the pre-Sabbath years of Black Sabbath members is not particularly widely known. Iommi's story is also unique in that a work injury as a young man left him without a few fingertips on one hand. The resulting experimentation and solutions he arrived at to enable him to play provide some unique insights into his playing style, and thus the 'Sabbath sound'.

Iommi's details on some of Black Sabbath's most notorious exploits are light, unsurprisingly. He does not shy, however, from taking what might be perceived as pot-shots at some of his bandmates, Ozzy included; suggesting, for instance, that Ozzy is rather scatter-brained and lazy.

With Ozzy's departure from the initial Sabbath line-up, Iommi would remain the only person who would play in all permutations of the band working under that name. His perspective on all of these changes, what makes the band continue on (really, what makes Iommi keep working under that band name), would provide compelling reading for a fan. His analysis and depth of discussion really begins to taper off with the end of the Ian Gillan era. Most of the 80s and 90s get slim discussion. To Iommi's credit, perhaps, he admits that several of the releases of this period were sub-par, either being cobbled together with changing line-ups where personalities were not gelling, or products that were rushed out without the sort of reflection and improvement that they might have deserved.

Iommi's work isn't as amusing as Ozzy's "I Am Ozzy", but is far more informative about the musical decisions, particularly of the 1970s, and the Sabbath reunion. See my review of Ozzy's work here.

Robyn Doolittle, "Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story" (2014)

Doolittle is a Toronto Star reporter who covers the City Hall beat.
While a flurry of books and investigative media pieces have told the Ford story, this is likely the best of the bunch. Doolittle not only coherently assesses the Ford rise to the mayoralty of Toronto, but places the Mayor within the context of his family history, changes within city politics, and as a player within a political 'machine'. Of course, she describes the chase for the now-infamous 'crack video(s)', but to her credit she also relates many of the details of how the Star's decision-making process worked with regard to not purchasing the video, and deciding to go to print with the information it had once the video's existence had been broken by other media.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

You can read my discussion of a similar book, How Rob Ford Happened (from the National Post, a competitor to the newspaper Doolittle works for). In short, Doolittle does a better job of telling the story. The Post text seems pretty opportunistic.