Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Templars by Dan Jones

I requested this from NetGalley because it sounded interesting and I don't know anything about the Templars. If you don't know about them either, they're this Christian order that was formed to protect pilgrims to Jerusalem and ended up playing a big role in the crusades. Also, most modern portrayals of them (especially the 'Templars are still alive' thing) are inaccurate.

As a history of the organisation, this book takes a broad view, focusing not on the everyday life of a Templar but on the key events and people that made up the Templars or fought against the Templars. Since there are several countries involved this could have become very confusing but the author manages to make it one coherent narrative.

I found it pretty interesting to read about them and how they fought against the equally strong (and at times even stronger) Muslim countries. Thankfully, the author stays away from a discussion of both Islamic and Christian theology and/or which was right, instead focusing on who does what (and why), which I think helped make it an objective narrative.

Another thing I also liked that even though this is a book about a Christian organisation, Muslim sources are quoted as frequently as Christian ones (ok I didn't do a formal count but it definitely felt that way to me). Quoting both sides helped me get a fuller picture and to understand how the Templars saw themselves and how others saw them.

One thing I thought fascinating about the Templars was that their portrayal depended largely on the motives of the writer, something that holds true today. Usama ibn Minqidh portrays them as open-minded and specifically mentions that they let him use one of their Churches for his daily prayers. But another man, Imad al-Din, calls them "the worst of the infidels." The difference occurs because the former wants to talk about honour and chivalry while the later wants to praise Saladin.

I think anyone interested in history would enjoy this book. It's definitely a heavy read, but it is fascinating and after reading it, I wonder why anyone would bother making up stories about the Templars. The actual history has so much to draw on.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is one of those books that everyone but me has read (or so it feels). It's so highly recommended that I'm actually afraid to read it, because what if it doesn't live up to expectations? Well, when I saw the book on sale (for only 300 yen!) I decided it was time to read it.

If you haven't already read it, The Book Thief is a novel set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death. Liesel (our protagonist) starts her career as the book thief when she steals a book at her brother's grave. After which, she is separated from her mother and sent to live with Hans (Papa) and Rosa (Mama). Nazi Germany is not a kind place to grow up with, even though her foster parents do love her - though Rosa has a strange way of showing it, and Liesel comes face to face with the horrors of Nazi when her family takes in a Jewish man named Max.

Ok, this summary leaves a lot to be desired because it doesn't mention Rudy (best friend and love interest), the various people that Liesel meets, or the depth of story created by the mere act of saving a human life.

I think the most unique part of this book is the narrator. The book is narrated by none other than Death, which is fitting for the grim setting. While death and Liesel don't interact directly for most of the book, he is the one telling the story and his personality shines through every line. The point of view seems to alternate between first person and third, but death is always present. There are also interludes (perhaps they are poems? or just very indented text?) with facts or definitions and a dash-dash keyword feature at the start of each part. I was not as big a fan of the interludes and the start of each part as I was of death as a narrator and actually ended skipping all the "featuring" sections.

There are also a few sections that are pages from the "books" that Max writes and I think they may be my favourite parts of the book. They are moving and the illustrations go very well with the text. I can almost see Liesel slowly making her way through the words and it helped to show the deep bond between the two of them.

Overall, I really loved this story. While not everything about the way it was written appealed to me, I thought that death as a narrator was the perfect choice and I loved the depth with which each character was written. It's a moving and horrifying tale of how life in Nazi Germany was like, for both the Jews and the non-Jews.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Russian Countess by Edith Sollohub

The Russian Countess is an autobiography of Countess Edith Sollohub, born Edith Natalie de Martens. She was born and raised in Pre-Communist Russia and was unfortunately trapped in Russia after the revolution. This autobiography focuses on her life before the revolution and how she did her best to survive and escape after.

My first surprise came when I read the introduction of the book and found that it was written in English. I had assumed that this was translated, and to be honest if I didn't know that it was written in English, I would have assumed it was a very well-done translation because the English was really natural.

The second surprise was of her experience during the revolution. I don't know what I expected, but whatever I read was a surprise. Perhaps the fact that she wasn't put in jail immediately surprised me. Or perhaps it was because of how little the spirit of communism seemed to be in everyone. I had this image that most people wanted to become communist, but the book made it seem like most people were indifferent to it, or at best using it opportunistically.

Although this book provides a fascinating look into what it was like to live through revolutionary Russia, I do think that it doesn't provide a whole picture. Edith was supported in large part by her servants, who were still faithful to her. In fact, another thing that surprised me was that even after the revolution, she managed to keep a governess for her boys and her first escape was with a few servants. Certainly not the number she used to have, but it was definitely not zero. I think life for an ordinary person or even a person of nobility who was not well-liked would have been very different.

Not that I'm saying that this book isn't worth reading. Far from it. I really enjoyed reading it and I am in awe of how talented and resourceful Edith was. I just realised that I have to be careful not to take one person's account and assume that it applies to everyone living through that event.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Father Brown: The Essential Tales by G.K. Chesterton

Father Brown: The Essential Tales is supposed to be a "definitive collection" of fifteen of the Father Brown mysteries (short stories) by G. K. Chesterton, selected by the American Chesterton Society and with an introduction by P. D. James.

If you don't know about Father Brown, he's this little priest who uses his knowledge of human nature to solve crimes. But this being Chesterton, the writing is rich and lyrical and Father Brown is definitely not a conventional detective. He takes leaps of logic that end up making sense because it follows the human heart.

These stories are really more about the human condition as Chesterton saw it than a normal mystery. The writing is a lot more lyrical than something by say, Agatha Christie (who I also love dearly) and contains sentences like:
"A man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sons is not likely to be wholly unaware of human nature."
And

"Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak. 
[...] 
'I know a man,' he said, 'who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his rained turned also and he fancied he was God. So that though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.' "
Father Brown is the central figure in all these stories. Occasionally, someone called Flambeau will appear, first as a master thief and then as a semi-private detective (and Father Brown's friend). But there isn't a Watson or Hastings, so it's best not to expect one. Of Flambeau, he is once described (as he packs for a boat journey):
"Flambeau had stocked it with such things as his special philosophy considered necessary. They reduced themselves, apparently, to four essentials: tins of salmon, if he should want to eat; loaded revolvers, if he should want to fight, a bottle of brandy, presumably in case he should faint; and a priest, presumably in case he should die."
Which I think is a wonderful description of him. My favourite stories definitely feature him.

I think the Father Brown stories are for fans of Chesterton, for people who already like Orthodoxy or The Man Who Was Thursday. While I adore his writing, I realise it's not for everyone so you may want to try a story or two before deciding if you want to read the whole book.