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Two Mini Reviews

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

I have a tremendous backlog of good books to review that I have read in recent months and I am facing the fact that it is dubious that I will ever to get to feature most of them here.  As a stopgap, I am going to try a few mini-reviews instead of the more noteworthy, or at least interesting, titles. Here are two:

1. Stalin: Volume I Paradoxes of Power

Stalin: Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928  by Stephen Kotkin

Eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis praises Princeton’s Stephen Kotkin for his new biography, calling it “A monumental achievement”. This is certainly correct. Kotkin has done more than break new ground with Stalin: Paradoxes of Power; in my view it is arguably the best book on Joseph Stalin ever written.

Admittedly this is high praise. It is true, that Kotkin is not in the same literary class as Simon Sebag Montefiore, who demonstrated his great prose skill with masterfully written and deeply researched biographies of Stalin, but Kotkin is always a clear, effective and always forceful writer. Where Kotkin excels is in the granularity of his biographical narrative, unearthing aspects of Stalin’s childhood and early revolutionary days, the intra-party rivalries with leading Bolshevik personalities, especially Stalin’s complicated relationship with Vladimir Lenin and Stalin’s skill as a politician and grand strategist. The narrative is accompanied with Kotkin’s piercing psychological analysis of Stalin’s criminal psychopathology emerging from a combination of complex rational political calculation and a bottomless well of narcissistic self-pity that ate away at Stalin’s soul.

If volume 2 equals the first book, Kotkin will have written the definitive work of Stalin for years to come.

II. Salinger

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

The book that accompanied the documentary of the same name, David Shields and Shane Salerno have put together a remarkable page turner that explains the mystifying author behind one of America’s most iconic literary works.

“Don’t worry if all of the first wave of you are killed, We shall simply pass over your bodies with more and more men” 

J.D. Salinger’s counterintelligence unit spearheaded the landing of the 4th Division on Utah Beach on D-Day, Salinger participated in five major battles in the European theater including the deadly Hurtgen Forest where his regiment suffered 200% casualties and GI’s fighting in summer uniforms without blankets or winter coats froze to death in foxholes. A CIC field interrogator, Salinger operated with great freedom and authority and after participating in the liberation of the concentration camp complex known to history as Dachau, he checked himself into a mental hospital. To paraphrase Shields and Salerno, J.D. Salinger carried six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye in to battle with him, a book that took him ten years to write and which he then regretted for the rest of his life.

Salinger the Documentary

5 Responses to “Two Mini Reviews”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    I did not know this about Salinger.
    Catcher in the Rye is a book I despised when I read it in high school.
    My recollection is: Spoiled, rich, self-obsessed, self-pitying white kid makes a pain in the ass of himself, and imagines his vapid adolescent concerns to be cosmic instead of trivial and uninteresting to others.
    But maybe I am being uncharitable.

  2. zen Says:

    Salinger went through hell in WWII. The breaking point seemed to have been Dachau where he was in one of the satellite camps called Kaufering where the SS exterminated prisoners who had been injured, or ill or were too starved to do further slave labor and there were piles and piles or corpses everywhere. Salinger interrogated SS prisoners and apparently during the course of this suffered a nervous breakdown which he hid from the CIC by checking into a civilian German mental hospital. After he got out of the hospital, Salinger volunteered to do undercover work hunting down Nazi war criminals and became involved with a Franco-German woman who later turned out to have been a Gestapo agent.
    Holden Caulfield was all of those things, being a semi-autobiographical figure (Salinger quit or was kicked out of a number of prep schools and universities) there was apparently also a fair amount of symbolism in the plot related to the war buried in Catcher that was not obvious to us but hit an emotional nerve with the WWII and Silent generation, maybe unconsciously. Salinger had severe PTSD and some of that probably was channeled into Caulfield’s teen angst which now is a horribly overdone cliche but back then, a shocking literary device.
    The authors indicate Salinger was extremely well read but admired very few other writers, hemingway being one of the few exceptions. I have to wonder, given Salinger’s age (b. 1919) if Mencken and Sinclair Lewis weren’t influential

  3. larrydunbar Says:

    “My recollection is: Spoiled, rich, self-obsessed, self-pitying white kid makes a pain in the ass of himself, and imagines his vapid adolescent concerns to be cosmic instead of trivial and uninteresting to others.”
    Most likely, as an example, describing “you”, but how would you know that unless you had actually lived through war?
    Which I think is the main point of his books. Those who have gone through war want more for their children.

  4. Grurray Says:

    Most likely describing a great many kids.
    The book came out at about the same time when youth culture was rising to prominence. That is, when a large segment of the adolescent population began spending less time with parents and kin, as was the case in agrarian societies, and more time with each other in schools in the modern industrial world. Social alienation was the inevitable result for many in the transition. These were/are rich people/first world problems. Hard to sympathize with, especially when viewing it from working class vantage point or the perspective of someone from a tightly woven family fabric, but real nonetheless.
    I think one point of the book could be that in the process of ostensibly building a more materially prosperous world for their children, the world governed by moral and social values which worked for so long was broken apart.

  5. Grurray Says:

    I also read it in high school but don’t remember feeling too strongly one way or the other about it. The novelty must have worn off by then. I do recall a few years later reading ‘Shoeless Joe’, which used Salinger himself as a literary device, about the time the reclusive legend was overwhelming and overshadowing the work. That, unfortunately, came across as silly apotheosis and didn’t work for me at all. One of the very few instances when I can say I enjoyed the movie better than the book.

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