Book Review: Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, by Anthony Beevor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

arnhem_battle_for_the_bridges.jpgEven those with the slightest knowledge of the major events of the Second World War, would have heard of the September 1944 battle for Arnhem,  in the Netherlands on the lower reaches of the Rhine.

Under Field Marshall Montgomery, airborne and ground British, American and Polish forces, attempted to push into Germany across the lower Rhine and head for Berlin. A key bridge was at Arnhem, and it proved to be a disastrous defeat of the British-led forces, which gave rise to a metaphor for achieving failure by being too ambitious – “a bridge too far”, originating from the film of that name.

The film was dramatic enough, but superficial. By contrast, Anthony Beevor’s book, Arnhem, is another example of this author’s famous mastery of detail in-depth and  wide context.

Beevor studies the lead up to the battle following the successes of the battle of Falaise Gap in Normandy and the ragged retreat of German forces across northern France, Belgium and into Holland which raised considerable expectation that victory was close. And Montgomery wanted to claim victory in Germany before the Americans – he was jealous of US General Paton’s success in the south. Thus he did not listen to good council, even managing to have the final planning meeting at a time when General Eisenhower, the overall Allied commander, was sick. Montgomery pushed his plan through even against RAF advice.

‘In fact,’ Beevor writes ‘the fundamental concept of Operation Market Garden defied military logic, because it made no allowance for anything to go wrong or for the enemy’s likely reactions’.  A lot did go wrong and the Germans were in much greater strength in the area – in itself a failure of intelligence. Too few troops were landed initially and battalions lost contact with each other, sometimes because radios didn’t work properly – some even with the wrong crystal sets. Other troops, particularly the Polish were critically delayed in flying to the battle by bad weather.

The basic idea was for the airborne troops to capture the bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen and hold it until British and American ground troops could reach them. After many delays much bitter fighting the land column reached Nijmegen, but stopped.  The situation had become hopeless at Arnhem, the Germans were winning and would be able to move against the land column.  There is much dispute about the halting of the ground column and there are probably still many unanswered questions.

However, Beevor penetrates much of the fog of war with access to post war records of all the armies and the Dutch involved, but also by using personal accounts from all ranks.

Aside from the skilful narrative describing the battle, Beevor also opens the curtains on the terrible suffering of the Dutch civilian population. Dutch resistance groups joined the allied troops which later lead to savage reprisals against the civilian population. The city of Arnhem was more or less razed to the ground and 250,000 were evacuated. Many civilians were shot because they had sheltered British wounded. The town was a haven for ghosts when Canadian soldiers finally liberated it in April 1945. But between September 1944 and final Liberation in 1945, the Dutch were treated even more cruelly than they had before the battle of the Bridges, with thousands starving to death. Beevor exposes the tragedy.

Market Garden was not a total failure: part of the southern Holland was freed and some bridges were held. But the price was high. There were more than four thousand one hundred military and civilian casualties. German retribution against Dutch railway workers who went on strike to aid the assault led to a famine that killed over 20,000.

This book recalls a few days of the Second World War that had a major impact on the total history of the war which is still debated today. There are many tragic moments recounted in the book and interestingly, not all the atrocities were perpetuated by the Nazis.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges
by Anthony Beevor
Penguin Viking
ISBN: 9780241326763

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Book Review: London – 24 hours and 160 photos in one city

Available in bookshops nationwide.

London_24hours.jpgLonely Planet continue to produce superb guides for travellers. Once the basic stuff has been covered (and I have well-thumbed copies of many places in Europe and Asia ) the challenge is to take the traveller aside and tempt them with something else.

In London, the something else is to revisit old favourites and discover new treasures. Both photos and text capture another view of the city and enable the traveller to stray behind the scenes. While some of the more familiar places are included such as Kew Gardens, Battersea Power Station etc, the text and images give a slightly different perspective. I loved the 8am section on the full English breakfast. Here we see local pensioners catching up at Formica tables while eating the traditional fare. The text is sympathetic and informative. No judgements are passed on the way of life portrayed. Rather, it suggests that this should be part of your visit and allow you to experience a different side of London life.

Another morning activity is swimming in the Serpentine. This is a long held tradition but as the temperature never exceeds 15 degrees, I suspect most visitors might pass on the opportunity. I sent some suggestions to my nieces who live in London. They tracked down the Nomadic Community Gardens and enjoyed meeting a Kiwi who has a regular plot there.

This book could easily be another coffee table treat, but I think it has more to offer the repeat visitor who desires a little more from their visit. The photos and text work well together to suggest an alternative excursion for the curious traveller.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

London: 24 hours and 160 photos in one city
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781787013438

 

Book Review: The Birds at My Table, by Darryl Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_birds_at_my_table.jpgThis book, The Birds at My Table is, in the words of its author, ‘an exploration of this fascinating, complex, simple, sometimes compulsive human activity’, the feeding of wild birds.

Darryl Jones writes that the United Nations estimate the global bird-seed industry to be worth US$5-6 billion, growing about 4% annually since the 1980s. He has searched for information from bird feeders all over the world, including here in New Zealand, regarding the effects of this food, which is consumed by the birds on top of what they eat in their normal diet.

Studies done by researchers in countries diverse as New Zealand, the UK and parts of the United States, have shown that 40-50% of households feed wild birds from some form of garden feeder.

In 2002 a journalist writing in the Wall Street Journal headlined his piece American Backyard Feeders May Do Harm To Wild Birds with the subtitle “Feeding Wild Birds Lures Pests, Predators, Causing Illness and Distorting Populations.” Citing this article as a summary of the arguments typically fielded against wild bird feeding, Darryl Jones says about The Birds at My Table– ‘this entire book is an attempt to evaluate and respond to the issues -some legitimate, some just provocative -raised by [the Wall Street Journal’s] piece.’

The average person, buying or preparing food for the birds that live around their home, most probably has never thought further than the pleasure it brings them and the benefits it may bring to the birds. This well researched book, written by a man who takes delight in seeing the wild birds visiting his feeder, opens a window to a greater understanding of the topic of why we feed wild birds and why it matters.

The book has an extensive appendix with notes on each chapter and references to other studies cited and discussed in the body of the book. It is a most interesting book and one that has been written to gently inform those interested, the implications of a pleasurable hobby.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

The Birds at My Table
by Darryl Jones
Published by NewSouth Publishing
ISBN 9781742235974

Book Review: Janesville, by Amy Goldstein

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_janesville.jpgJerad Whiteaker had worked at the General Motors manufacturing plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, for thirteen years when its closure was announced in 2008. Each of the stations he worked along the assembly line had bored him to no end, but he had stuck at it, as no other jobs in town could match the $28 an hour.

Now with the plant closure, he and so many others have been severed from a secure wage and have some confronting choices ahead of them. The repercussions ripple outwards, paying no heed to people’s circumstance, affecting a myriad of lives in different ways. Deri Wahlert, the local social studies teacher, realises that it is not just the ‘GMers’ who face the impacts, but the small shops that will no longer have customers, the freight yards transporting goods, as well as the construction workers and carpet layers – as people won’t be able to afford homes.

Janesville, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post, is an impressive and engaging feat of reporting, which extends far beyond the immediate aftermath of the town’s loss of its major employer into the years of struggle beyond, as people rally, tread water and attempt to avoid the fall in various ways.

We meet a cast of characters – former GMers, bankers, politicians (including Paul Ryan), educators and so on – and we warm to them, hoping that their efforts prove fruitful. This is a social history, an emotional history – an archive of responses, a meticulous work of lived-experience testimonies. Here the domestic sphere, which is straining under pressure from much larger forces, is political. With the number of individual threads compromised, there is to be a dramatic rift in the urban fabric.

There is a narrative of hope, which from the reader’s safe distance becomes an increasingly empty echo as we move through the book towards 2013. First the town has hope that GM might be lured back, that the manufacturing line might just be a pause. But in spite of ‘the enormous dowries in the form of tax breaks’ that are offered, the closure is final. Janesville, like many places around the world, has entered a post-industry era, and the town must shift (or sink) with the times.

There is ample grant money available for former factory workers to retrain. Bob Borreman, who runs the Rock County Job Centre, is optimistic at first, thinking that perhaps the ‘catastrophe might prove to be unbidden opportunity to help people find the work paths that would have suited them all along.’ Barb Vaughn, who worked at Lear Corp, the factory that made seats for GM vehicles, faces a reinvention of self, and retrains as correctional officer, aware that she will need to ‘shed old factory habits… and pick up new ways’.

Yet a few years down the track, people are coming out of training with no jobs, or with jobs that offer less than half their former pay. Matt Wopat began retraining as a linesman, but realising the slim chances of securing employment in his new field, takes a GM factory job some four hours away, joining the ‘GM gypsies’, whose family lives now occur as the commute allows.

There is continued cross-party agreement on money being funnelled into job training. Politicians, business leaders and the public peddle in hope: ‘The premise is that this recession would be like the past recessions and that jobs would come back at the pace they have before’. But it becomes increasingly obvious that there are no jobs to go into and that the unschooled are more likely to find work, and better paying work at that. There are homeless teenagers; the suicide rate has doubled. In Jerad’s home his daughters, who have after-school jobs, need to pay for the groceries. Any way you look at it, the standard of living has declined and working poverty is on the rise.

In a global economy, it is a complex task indeed to rebuild a prosperous city. The gradual accretion and diversification of businesses, their suppliers and networks, the housing and amenity that this then allows for – all of this takes time. Janesville is a moving and cautionary account of what happens when global forces, sunset industries and human energies coincide.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Janesville
by Amy Goldstein
Published by Simon & Schuster
9781501102264

 

 

 

Book Review: Experience Italy, by Lonely Planet

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_experience-italy.jpgLonely Planet has long conquered the domain of the travel guide, and its well-thumbed tomes appear in the hands of travelers, desperately searching for a particular restaurant or hotel recommended in the aforementioned guide, the world over.

Experience Italy, a new release and part of the expansion of Lonely Planet titles to every conceivable nook of a bookstore’s travel section, is a long way from such humble titles as Southeast Asia on Shoestring. As a hard cover coffee table book, thick with colour images and packed with a dizzying amount of information, it is not one you will be taking on your travels. Rather it is one to dip into at home for a bit of escapism, to be elsewhere – an elsewhere that, as it turns out, might not be akin to actually being there.

The book traverses culture, architecture, food, sport and daily life, presenting a range of potential experiences to inspire the traveler, and ‘to introduce you to the personality and, dare we say, the very heart of Italian culture and landscape’. Images abound – detailed maps, archival photos, glossy landscapes, reproductions of famous artworks, light filtered through lush vines. All invite exploration of the book and evoke a textured, multifaceted Italia.

The extensive material, which includes entries such as ‘Walk like an Italian’ ‘Puglia’s Peasant culture’ and ‘Exploring Sicily’s Market’ is primarily marshalled into sections that are reflective of the ‘themes that season Italian life’ – from ‘The Italian Icons You Already Love’ (histories of the Vespa, pizza, and grape varieties/wines included), through to ‘Treasured Heritage Hill Towns and Harvest’ (featuring, among others, the Slow Food Movement, mosaics and Shakespeare’s Italian Plays). There are also sections on the big hitters: Rome, Florence, Milan, Naples, Venice. You can follow circuitous routes through the book by heeding the cross references, which then lead you to stumble upon others. It is a self-confessed ‘scavenger hunt’.

This labyrinthine method can seem confusing at first, and irritating if you did just want to read by area without having to continually look things up, but this is a book to read at home. And perhaps this approach is more reflective of how we experience and discover a place – haphazardly, in parts and without ever conquering the whole. And there is something to be said for the pleasure of chance discovery, for being exposed to ideas that would never had occurred to you to look up in the first place.

Yet Experience Italy, which champions the offbeat, cobbled paths, cliff-hugging towns, rolling hills and hidden secrets, risks branding experience. We are advised to eat that ‘last, lingering gelato on the steps of the Duomo’, look ‘beyond its blockbuster, crown-pulling sights’ and avoid ‘hordes of motor-coach tourists. Rather we should ‘Walk in the oak and chestnut forests of remotest Tuscany, as the autumn mist creeps in’, engage with its ‘Epic art and architecture’, experience its ‘insanely lovely spread of deep-cut, vine-blanketed valleys’.

The avuncular tone, the triumvirate of punchy adjectives so often rolled out to rule over perceptions, and the parade of dramatic verbs set to fire you up can be relentless at times –almost oversaturated. It’s as if a filter (by way of a distinctly Lonely Planet style) had been applied to enhance your potential experience, advising you how to reflect on it. One could be forgiven for wondering how expectations will match reality.

It suggests a consumerist approach to landscapes, culture and climates, pandering to our need for ticking off bucket lists. This is an Italy where everything is incredible, unique and yours for the taking. It is, perhaps, too inclusive, confusing two traditionally opposed ways to travel: heading out on your own and taking the well-trodden path. It is hard to know whether the title is suggestive, inviting or an imperative – a rallying call to the Lonely Planet way of life.

But for all my cynicism, this is a nice book to have within reach of the armchair – it is a pleasure to look through and there is much to glean from it, when it gets down to business and stops playing the hype-man. From tips on the price of coffee through to background information on Lecce’s tradition of papier- mâché statues (which originated in the affordability of the raw materials required) it explains customs, the significance of sites, the history of certain foods – it presents many entry points as to what Italy has to offer.

And it does get you excited and make you want to go. So, read up from the comfort of your armchair and leave the book at home. Love at first sight is promised: ‘We’re not talking a mere flirtation, but a fully blown, red-hot love affair’ but ‘before you set foot on Italian soil and unzip the length of its boot’, perhaps steady those heady expectations and apply some measure to the hard and hyped up sell.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Experience Italy
by Lonely Planet, Bonnie Alberts, Oliver Berry, Alison Bing, Abigail Blasi, Cristian Bonetto, Kerry Christiani, Gregor Clark, Douglas Cruickshank, Matthew Fort
Published by Lonely Planet
ISBN 9781787013315

 

 

Book Review: The World’s Best Bowl Food, by Lonely Planet Food

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_worlds_best_bowl_food.jpgThe World’s Best Bowl Food is a salute to comfort food found the world over. Bowl food is undergoing a revival. You can spot a million #powerbowl posts on Instagram, and for many people it’s all about what superfoods you can pack into the bowl.

A little research from Lonely Planet found that the original bowl food is all about comfort – there’s a reason why each ingredient finds its way in there, and it’s because it’s delicious, reminds us of home, or tradition. As the Foreword says, ‘some of the world’s most beloved dishes – macaroni cheese, Vietnamese pho, and Japanese ramen have transcended their local roots and become transcontinental comfort foods.’

I’m a foodie and I loved this book. There are lots of different takes on old favourites of mine (nasi goreng, ceviche, chilli con carne), recipes I’ve always wanted to try (pho, jambalaya, any Asian flavours in a soup-food-bowl), and loads of exciting new recipes with flavour combinations or ingredients that tickled my fancy.

I tried my hand at the intriguing-looking Chia Pudding from Central and South America.  Chia seeds have a delicate, nutty flavour and have a great capacity to absorb liquid. They’ve now made their way into kitchens and supermarkets around the world, and this has to be the easiest recipe out there. Mix 2 cups of natural yoghurt with half a cup of chia seeds. Leave for 4 hours. Serve cold with maple syrup or honey, and toasted flaked almonds and berries – or whatever you have to hand.  Delicious!
Chia Pudding.jpg

I also tried the Quinoa Stew. I liked the look of all the flavours, as well as the fact it didn’t take long to cook on a week night. It was super-tasty and the leftovers froze well for delicious work lunches.

The book layout is great – an attractive photo for each recipe, an interesting note on origins and history, and essential for the foodie – tasting notes. The book is sectioned out into bowl food types: breakfast bowls, dessert bowls, soups, salads and healthy bowls, stews and hearty bowls, and rice, pasta and noodle bowls. There’s also a difficulty guide for easy, medium or hard which is handy for the time-conscious, or when you miss that part of the recipe that says simmer for 3 hours and its 8pm already.

Quinoa Stew
Food and drink is a huge part of the travel experience and the memories we have of our adventures overseas. Travel guidebook publisher Lonely Planet launched this new ‘Lonely Planet Food’ imprint in 2016 and it’s great to see such a quality range of books for the foodie or the keen traveller.

The imprint houses titles from the Lonely Planet World’s Best series such as The World’s Best Brunches, The World’s Best Spicy Foods, and The World’s Best Superfoods. The Lonely Planet Food logo can also be found on the From the Source series which introduces food lovers to local dishes from around the world and to the cooks that have perfected them.

We raise our bowls to you Lonely Planet Food, keep these books coming!

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

The World’s Best Bowl Food
by Lonely Planet Food
ISBN 9781787012653

 

Book Review: First Person, by Richard Flanagan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_first_personFirst Person is Richard Flanagan’s new part-novel, part-memoir. He appears to have sought a balance between these two genres in a more obvious way then the usual novelist. First Person is unexpected in many ways and goes against the norm of a typical novel.

The story’s protagonist (and narrator) is Kif Kehlmann, a struggling writer from Tasmania with a three year old daughter and a wife who is pregnant with twins. He is approached to ghostwrite a notorious conman’s memoir for a sum that would appear to solve his family’s problems and the task itself promises to provide Kif with the purpose and self-assurance that he constantly seems to be in need of. Pride and well-warranted internal warnings hold him back from immediately accepting but eventually he agrees to the project and thus begins his journey to work at creating a sensational memoir with a deadline hanging over him and a dangerous criminal at the helm.

Richard Flanagan himself wrote an autobiography for an Australian fraudster, known as John Friedrich, back in 1991. I researched more on the subject and First Person time and again drew extreme similarities to Richard Flanagan’s own experience – even down to the sum offered as remuneration and that his wife was pregnant with twins at the time. He has acknowledged that his own experience has served as inspiration for First Person and initially to me this made the novel feel more significant to me. ‘

On further reflection though, I think it ultimately hindered the novel. If Flanagan had decided that this was to be his own ‘first person’ account of events that he experienced writing Death of a River Guide about John Friedrich then personally I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more. A novel by definition is fiction and fiction doesn’t have to be as close to the original truth as Flanagan has placed it.

The story at certain stages finds a definite purpose, but all too often it veers off into irrelevancies, to the point that the main motive of the novel is nearly forgotten. Finally, the story moves back to the writing of the memoir of the fraudster, but it seems as though the story goes in constant circles and serpentines, repeating the same events and situations slightly differently and in a progressively amplified manner. The climax was sprung upon you with no time to prepare – the reader doesn’t have time to comprehend that this is what everything was building towards.

Unfortunately the faster pace doesn’t carry on for the rest of the novel, which slows back down to the point where you’re left wondering if there is supposed to be another climax building, though that never delivers. The concept of the story was solid, but I just wish Richard Flanagan had chosen one course – fiction or fact – rather than trying to incorporate both to the extent that he seems to have.

This wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed, I have seen it described as a literary masterpiece and I definitely can acknowledge that Richard Flanagan is a very good writer. But it seems I was not alone in not enjoying it despite his ability, as I found other reviews that communicated the same view.  I feel like the novel is an acquired taste for a particular audience. I have not yet developed this taste.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

First Person
by Richard Flanagan
Published by Knopf Australia
ISBN 9780143787242