At Home He's a Tourist

He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Book Reviews

I missed this one when it came out in April, but it seems to be well reviewed on the whole. Besides, our books on dictators circulate well, and this one promises to be particularly lurid.

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Knopf.

Choice: “Extraordinary, brilliant, essential.” Nation: “Montefiore’s massive volume is one of the first to delve deeply into the newly accessible facts of Stalin’s family and friendships to give us the personal side of Stalin. Montefiore gives us not only the most intimate view of the general secretary that we have to date but a rounded and complex portrait of a man who could go from charming to lethal in thes pace of a few seconds. There is, astonishingly, almost no discussion in the book about Marxism or the history of the Social Democratic movement in Russia. The large historiographical questions that have puzzled professional historians are not addressed.” Contemporary Review: “Montefiore has produced the authoritative account. A huge mass of material has been organized into a clear, coherent narrative, well balanced between the serious politics and the intimate detail. The most impressive feature is the amount and seriousness of the archive and research material he has deployed.” European History Quarterly: “Montefiore has done an extremely convincing job of challenging readers’ preconceptions. He serves up a whole host of fascinating detail. The author’s research team are to be congratulated on their enterprise in tracking down so many fascinating witnesses. This volume is a mine of information about the private lives of members of the Stalin-era elite and hence about the political culture of his court in its widest sense.” New Leader: “To say it is the best life of Stalin to date would be to damn it with faint praise. This impressive biography is illuminating and rich in personal detail.” Wilson Quarterly: “For the first time a credible human character begins to emerge. Montefiore’s tight focus on Stalin and his court produces some flaws of context. On the whole, though, Montefiore has produced a remarkable and riveting work.” Foreign Affairs: “Stunning detail.” Library Journal: “Recommended.” Booklist: “Extraordinary detail. A landmark work.” Publishers Weekly: “There are many Stalin biographies out there, but this fascinating work distinguishes itself by its extensive use of fresh archival material and its focus on Stalin’s ever-changing coterie.” Kirkus: “A fascinating, superbly written study. Altogether extraordinary.” Virginia Quarterly Review: “A most implausible and frustrating piece of work. The author evidently set out to write simultaneously an ambitious academic monograph and a sensationalistic best-seller. The author preserves and serves every scrap of comment from his nearly private sources, regardless of how little pertinent or informed it is. In fact, the material presented is not collated and organized in such a fashion as to add up to a coherent portrait of the subject. It amounts only to a numbing accumulation of dubiously reliable trivia. The book is a good example of how not to do historical work.” History Today: “No summary can do justice to the wealth of this book, which leaves little to be desired.” New Statesman: “Not too strong on political ideas and historical forces. Even so, it is formidably well researched, and tells its lurid tale with gripping immediacy. The book is couched, for the most part, in biographese, a racy idiom in which at least two graphic adjectives must be yoked to every proper name. This is, in short, history postmodern style: personalized, sexed-up, short on ideas, and intent on what some reviewer is bound to call ‘bringing history vividly alive.’ The only problem is that the actual history threatens to get lost in the process.”


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