Looking through my bookshelves not so long ago I was shocked to discover that I could remember very little about the books that I’ve read, even the ones I really liked. I love reading, and I’m fortunate that in a sense it’s part of my job, but how do you remember characters, plots or historical facts accurately when the list of what you’ve read starts to build up? After giving the matter some thought, I decided to try my hand at maintaining an annotated bibliography. The researching and publishing that I’ve done so far has required that I create bibliographies, but this one would be different. I started with basic publishing information and then gave a short account of what the book is about and what I thought of it. These would not be reviews as such, but my general thoughts on the book which I could revisit from time to time and hopefully relive a little of the book itself. I’ve pasted two entries below which reflect my reading interests of crime fiction and history.
This is a fairly new thing for me so if there are any bibliophiles out there, or people who have better methods of memory recall when it comes to books, I’d be interested in hearing what you’ve got to say:
Camilla Läckberg The Hidden Child (London: Harper, 2011)
Having seen Camilla Läckberg speak at Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate, I rushed out to buy one of her novels. The Hidden Child was the first one to hand. Upon reading it I was impressed by her skillful crafting of a good thriller. There is a gritty realism in her writing which is missing in the more overblown work of fellow Scandinavian greats Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, but the downside is her writing lacks the visceral excitement of either of these contemporaries.
Erica Falck is writing a true crime book when she discovers her mother’s diary, a Nazi medal and a baby’s clothing stained with blood. Läckberg alternates the story between Falck’s investigation into the meaning behind the items and flashbacks to 1940s war-ravaged Europe. The mystery unravels slowly in both settings with the hardships of war contrasted with Falck stumbling into a case which involves Neo-Nazi groups and murder. So far so good plot-wise, but no Scandi crime novel would be complete without an exploration of the leading characters complicated domestic lives, and here Läckberg goes into overdrive. Falck has a new-born baby: her husband Patrik is a detective on paternity leave but is proving fairly hopeless at it. Patrik is also visiting his ex-wife and helping her look after her young son while her husband’s away. Erica’s sister Anna is struggling in a new relationship because of an exceptionally stroppy teenage stepdaughter, oh and did I mention Melberg, the curmudgeonly Police Chief who reluctantly inherits a stray dog, strikes up a romance with a fellow dog lover and takes up salsa classes? Now there is nothing particularly wrong with any of this, but there does seem to be an awful lot of it and it was beginning to distract from the mystery storyline towards the end. Still, The Hidden Child is a strong mystery novel by a writer who is in Barry Forshaw’s words, ‘The hottest female crime writer in Sweden at the moment.’
Andrew Mango Atatürk (London: Murray; 1999)
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is one of the most enigmatic figures in twentieth- century history. He might plausibly be described as a benevolent dictator. Andrew Mango sets himself the gargantuan task of telling Atatürk’s life story, and his massive role in founding and shaping the modern Turkish State, but also unravelling the deeper mystery of who Atatürk really was. He succeeds at the first task but falls short on the second. Born into the Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloniki) in the late nineteenth century, the details of Atatürk’s (or Mustafa Kemal as he was known then) are understandably sketchy. Mango spends this early part of the book chronicling the decline of the Ottoman Empire, a process which had started years before the calamitous decision to enter The Great War on Germany’s side. Although it was a dying state, there is something Romantic about the pure Ruritania of the Ottoman empire with the monarchy sustained by Islam through the Caliphate. Atatürk was a staunch secularist and was sketching out his vision for a Republic of Turkey while bravely fighting for his country, famously defeating the allies at Gallipoli. The chapter on Gallipoli falls a bit flat, but Mango does well at deconstructing some of the myths surrounding Atatürk. For instance, his famous order, ‘I don’t order you to attack. I order you to die. By the time we are dead, other units and commanders will have come up to take our place.’ Is more likely to have been ‘I do not expect that any of us would not rather die than repeat the shameful story of the Balkan war. But if there are such men among us, we should at once lay hands upon them and set them up in line to be shot!’
Atatürk was a cunning strategist, outwitting rivals to become the leader of the Turkish Nationalists and foiling the Allies attempt to carve Turkey up into a Hellenic empire. By the time the Sultan tried to side with the Nationalists, Atatürk sidelined him, so that he couldn’t take any credit in their victory. After winning independence, he set about secularising an almost entirely Muslim country. The Fez was banned under the 1925 Hat Law. A new constitution separated Church and State. Atatürk is regarded as the great emancipator of women. His adopted daughter became a fighter pilot. Inevitably, people who resisted his vision were dealt with harshly, but the Cultural Revolution Atatürk set in motion is remarkable for the relatively small loss of life in comparison with other revolutions. By the time of his death, many Turks still lived in extreme poverty, but his regime had laid the foundation for prosperity, liberty and democracy. Or had it? Mango offers a spirited defence of Atatürk noting some of the contradictions of his character. He did not treat women in his private life with the emancipated role he gave them in Turkish society. His atheism seemed at odds with his penchant for bizarre pseudo-intellectual ideas such as the Sun-Language theory, and posthumously, a cult has been built around his personality. It is illegal to criticise him. Statues and portraits of him are everywhere, and ‘Atatürk’ translates as ‘Father Turk’, the surname he chose which was forbidden to any other Turk, which partially makes him appear more of a monarch than the first President of Turkey. During his rule, the Turkish parliament had no greater role than simply rubber-stamping his reforms. The first free Turkish elections were not held until 1950, and since then, there have been a series of bloodless military coups. But Mango leaves the reader with no doubt that Atatürk transformed Turkey for the better: if his reforms amounted to ‘Measured Terror’ and might seem precarious, bear in mind Turkey’s unique position as the meeting point between East and West, and the condition today of neighbouring states such as Iran and Syria.