Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies

For anyone aspiring to an education in European history Norman Davies book is a "must read." The crannies of history that have remained obscure are made painstakingly clear, from the Visigoths to the Kingdom of Poland and its Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Not only is this book essential for an understanding of Europe's chaotic history, but it clarifies, through the author's own travel experiences, what's happening now and why. Davies' approach is unique in my experience in his vivid accounts of the present conditions of the lands whose pasts he delves. Most harrowing: the effects of the soviet era, depopulating cities and regions that were centers of culture and prosperity not so very long ago.

The text is littered with maps, as borders and the identity of nations change and change. One would do well to have such maps printed on clear plastic to be able to overlay them to see the lengthy passage of time, as anatomy books overlay a view into the body inch by inch. Vanished Kingdom is not easy reading, it can be head-spinning in its complexity. My advice is to take it slowly, reading a section, absorbing it, perhaps reading something else for a while (I'm taking a break with the Countess of Carnarvon's Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey), but forge on with Davies, for there lies wisdom, compassion and a true sense of our past.">View all my reviews</a>

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review: The Tale of Fido Gask by Huw Thomas

The lowest depths of the human condition in civilized, Western nations (specifically in this case urban England) are drawn in exquisite detail in Huw Thomas’s The Tale of Findo Gask. Findo is a child thief, born into a world devoid of all that four thousand years of human effort has sought to make orderly, yet a world utterly familiar to the 21st century reader, down to the minutest detail of Mars bars, packaged foods and the latest in surveillance equipment. 

This work is a good deal more than an entertaining picaresque novel in the tradition of Lazarillo de Tormes and Oliver Twist; it is a close look at the feral side of mankind where well meant social programs are cancelled and the rough instincts of homo sapiens are all that is ultimately needed for survival. Findo Gask’s self effacing  cautions and delicately fostered skills of observation of his surroundings are those of the human animal in a deadly wilderness. 

Here the wilderness is the abandoned buildings of failed urban industry and their inhabitants who live by illegal means from theft to drug dealing to prostitution and “protection” rackets.
Yet The Tale of Findo Gask is a curiously tender work, not only because the young hero finds a few people who treat him with care and kindness, but because the author delves into an understanding of his every impulse and perception with an intimacy that injects the reader under his skin – and there the reader finds a being quite like he could have been.

The child thief is not the only character drawn with such insight and intimacy. A series of characters, from the drug raddled prostitute mother, to a second generation Marxist librarian, to a lonely little middle class girl, to an astute mobster kingpin are explored in what amount to side essays on the history of each. While these habitual digressions of the writer may be seen as a structural flaw according to the canon of creative writing’s “show, don’t tell”, it is perfectly in keeping with the shape of the picaresque novel. 

Should society not have done better in its millennia of effort to create a civilized world?  Should governments take note and find the means to eradicate these lower depths of suffering and violence? Or is mankind still feral in nature, recreating wilderness in even the most “developed” and controlled of societies?

The Tale of Findo Gask is a brilliant work of observation of the human condition in its most tried and trying circumstances short of literal battlefields, and Thomas has rendered his insights, miraculously, in an enjoyable and compelling way.

Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series