Monday, May 19, 2014

The Hotel on Place Venedome - Tilar J Mazzeo - Harper Collins

Tilar Mazzeo was a teacher and is a pretty good author, too. She was  fascinated by the Hotel Ritz in Paris while looking at declassified documents about the wartime adventures of Coco Chanel.

This expanded to include the German military, wealthy French civilians and expatriates.  She realized that this diverse group had a significant part in shaping Europe not only after WWII but far into the future. “We all live in the long shadow of this history,” she claims - almost as rationale for this vignette-laden history of the world's most famous hotel. 

Her main focus is between 1941–1945, but also traces the Hotel’s history from construction in the late 1800s to now.  She deliberately eschews the traditionally dry litany of facts commonly used in historical accounts, using the Hotel Ritz as a lens to present the events of World War II in very human—and very memorable—terms.  You get the fly on the wall account, with the before and after of the events.   

Each chapter is dense with everyday incidents and even with Paris under siege during World War I, dinner parties continued; the intrigues were endless.  There was hunger throughout the capitol, but the Ritz was isolated—and indifferent. The history is almost immune to the suffering in this respect, like the description of a painting, ignoring the state of the building it hangs in. 

The stage was set for the Treaty of Versailles, intended to shame and impoverish Germany but also to tempt them.  And during WWII they came back - to the Ritz. 

German soldiers occupied a separate wing of the hotel during World War II. General Hermann Göring took up residence as Hitler’s aide de camp. Well-heeled expatriates, war correspondents, and French citizens all coexisted. As fortunes were lost a brisk trade in jewelry and furs between residents and the Nazis thrived.

Chanel, the catalyst for all this, was just to blame.  She amassed a fortune selling her signature Chanel No 5 fragrance to the Germans.  She was truly one of the most colourful characters in this human drama and the most audacious/  She was an equal opportunity opportunist.

No group was spared their share of intrigue and betrayal. Competition for scoops among war correspondents superseded all manner of fair play, especially as the allied troops landed at Normandy. The author describes one man’s determination to get back to the front by entrusting his rolls of film (106 images) to a courier in London (only 11 survived). Wounded, he was back on the beaches the next morning.

Ernest Hemingway, in competition with then-wife Martha Gellhorn “poached” her press credentials from Colliers. Undaunted, Martha boarded a medical rescue ship  (still without credentials). “When the nurses landed onshore, Martha was among them. She joined the ambulance team and worked side by side with the other medics. Only later would she return to London to file with Collier’san not loo as a freelancer. The magazine had too much sense not to publish them.” Yet in spite of whatever had gone before, these unlikely competitors found their way back to the Ritz as colleagues (and more).

This is a book littered with the undocumented personal histories - the ones that were likely gossip of the day, perhaps innuendo - and now truth of sorts.  How the other half lived.  But like a beautiful car crash - we can not look away.  This will no doubt be a film, and I will pay to see it!

Groove Book Report - Dear Leader - Jang Jin-Jung - Random House

Kim Jon Un, who was succeeded on his death by his son Kim Jong Un, was apparently so moved by a particular poem that he highlighted various sections and wrote out the title by hand. It's author was invited to become one of Kim’s “Admitted”, an elite group entitled to better food rations and certain protections under the auspices of the police state. 

The poet now writes under the pen-name Jang Jin-sung.  He fled North Korea in 2004.  Dear Leader is an account of his arduous escape through China to the west and also a reflection on his life as North Korean propagandist and counter-intelligence officer. It's billed as a unique insider’s account of how North Korea’s totalitarian state is actually run.  It opens as Jang is summoned to see our Dear Leader (yes, that's what they call him!). After several hours of travel through the night, Jang is disappointed with his first sighting of Kim. Being older than in his propaganda pictures and playing distractedly with a Maltese puppy, ignoring the fervent shouts around him of “Long live the General!” Kim approaches Jang and him (then in his twenties) if he wrote the poem that he loves so much. He intimidates him: “Someone wrote it for you, isn’t that right?” because “Don’t even think of lying to me. I’ll have you killed.” Kim really is an arsehole dictator, straight out of a Hollywood cliché'.

And you'd be forgiven for wondering if all this is really true!  Because one of the problems of Jang’s interesting, gripping book is that so much is impossible to verify.  There is seemingly fantastical revelations about how the system works must be taken entirely on trust and I wonder how the people have not found the courage to rebel!  Despite the complete shut out, how come there is no internet rebellion, smuggled movies or even the adoption of Jeans and Rock'n'Roll.  Surely it can't be all one way with no gratification.  North Koreans can't be that dumb! Can they? 

I mean what, for example, are we to make of the 3,000 researchers working in a special unit to prepare medicines and dishes for the express purpose of extending Kim’s life? (He died age 70 so that clearly failed! ) Or what about the department that scours schools for the prettiest 13-year-old girls to be groomed for Kim’s appetite? That was truly gross.  I really hope that wasn't true!
In the end, we can only take Jang's word for it.  If it's true then this is  a brilliant case for foreign intervention.  So why hasn't the West intervened? You'd also wonder how far Jang has gone to protect credibility.  Essentially, I can't handle the truth.  And I wonder if you could, either.

When Jang originally published the book in Korean, it focused almost entirely on his escape, which starts when he obtains a special pass to take him to the Chinese border. Jang had become disillusioned with the North Korean regime, whose brutality became glaringly evident to him during a trip home when he witnessed old friends dying from starvation. The story of his flight through China has its exciting and humorous moments, though some of the reconstructed dialogue is a bit clunky.  The English version  begins with a longer account of the North Korean regime and his role within it. That seems to have been partly at the suggestion of translator, who in a preface notes that Jang was slow to realise what a cache of secret information he had. These revelations are absolutely terrifying.  Korean experts, eager for any scrap of information to improve their knowledge of the Hermit Kingdom, will no doubt comb this for clues. But what we really make f this depends on what you are prepared to believe.

Groove Book Report - The Trigger by Tim Butcher - Chatto & Windus (London)

Foreign correspondent Tim Butcher is a British best-selling author and the kind of explorer that blend history with travel.  His latest, "The Trigger", documents the 'story' of the young man who sparked the First World War a hundred years ago by shooting dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a street corner in Sarajevo. In the introduction Tim talks about how he was in Sarajevo during the Serbian siege of the city, which was at the heart of the Serbian/Bosnian war in the 1990's.  He noticed how, during a lull in the fighting locals were out on the streets.  He followed some, thinking they were heading to a secret location, only to discover the town's only public toilet was in fact the tomb of a Serbian: Gavrilo Princip - the assassin.  This, in turn leads to a trek across Bosnia and part of Serbia on the trail of Princip, making a number of discoveries missed by a century of historians.

His first book, "Blood River - A Journey To Africa's Broken Heart", was an epic solo journey through the Congo. Translated into six languages, it topped the Sunday Times best-seller list in Britain and was shortlisted for various awards from the Samuel Johnson Prize in London to the Ryszard Kapuściński Award in Warsaw.  And his second, "Chasing The Devil" was a  350 mile hike  through Liberia down a trail walked by the whisky-sozzled Graham Greene in 1935, discovering along the way that Greene's life was saved by his indomitable cousin Barbara Greene.

As the foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, Tim specialised in covering awkward places at awkward times: Kurdistan under attack in 1991 by Hussein; Sarajevo during the Bosnian War; the Allied attack on Iraq in 2003; Israel's 2006 clash with Hizbollah in southern Lebanon;  God loves a trier.  He must love and watch over Tim!

"The Trigger" is a tough read.  Nothing in this part of the world is tidy or romantic and Butcher tells many tales that are both hair raising and challenging.  His work is impeccable and you wonder how he found out what he knows.  It almost borders on insane.  Why don't the historians know this.  Butcher relies a lot on local knowledge, with his skill being the talent of listening and only asking the few questions that get results.  In the year of commemoration of WWI there will be plenty of books about the hardships of the troops, of the mud and the blind loyalty that ruined a generation for little reason other that blind ignorance.  Butcher's tries to find the real reasons for the assassination, which was less about a political catalyst and more about genuine rebellion against an empire that was hell bent on domination.  That same sentiment re-emerges in the 1990's during the Serbian/Bosnian war.  He's not slow to see that the same people a few generations on are affected by the same tyrannies as in the past.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

An intimate, raw memoir by a founding member of one of NZ’s iconic rock bands, Hello Sailor; a tale of creativity, misadventure, success and excess.

It was like David and Goliath. Only Goliath wasn’t about to be blown away, and David was stoned. Dave McArtney’s description of Hello Sailor’s campaign to conquer the American music scene is as funny as it is accurate. In this long-awaited memoir, completed just weeks before his untimely death, Dave gives the reader an access-all-areas pass to the life of a working rock’n’roll musician. From the band’s earliest days at the notorious ‘Mandrax Mansion’ in 1970s Ponsonby, to becoming the biggest band in the land and then taking on the world, Gutter Black is a story of music, mateship (Mandrax) and a good deal of madness. It is also the memoir of a uniquely creative musician, who went on to further success with his band the Pink Flamingos, and a very personal story of love, family and facing one’s own mortality. Complete with previously unpublished photographs and band memorabilia,Gutter Black is the definitive account of the man, the bands and the music that rocked a nation.
About the Author:

Dave McArtney was one of New Zealand's best known musicians and songwriters. As a founding member of the legendary Hello Sailor, he wrote or co-wrote most of their best known songs, including 'Gutter Black', one of the country's best known and best loved hits.