Friday, February 25, 2011

Review: Stalingrad by Antony Beevor


So I have come to a predicament. While reading this book, I realized that I have absolutely no idea how to quantitatively (or qualitatively) review a nonfiction book. The reviewing of a novel is a bit easier. It is both more organic and subjective than the review of a nonfiction book. Sure, I can dismiss a novel's characters, plot, or prose and that is my prerogative. The things which I can criticize in a nonfiction book are an entirely different animal. I can't really criticize a character or plot. I can judge how they are put forth to the reader, but facts are facts. Unlike others, I can't criticize facts; I just have to accept them for what they are.

To attempt to do my best to objectively judge any nonfiction books that are drawn by the random number generator, I'll use three measures (but reserve the right to add to or remove these measures). They are:
  • Accessible: I know a little about a lot and a lot about a little, so I'm more than likely going to need my hand held through a lot of nonfiction content. It should be readable enough for the lay person without being targeted towards a third grader.
  • Scholarly-ness (content sources): Tell me where you got the information you're telling me. Not too crazy of a concept. Doesn't need to have footnotes or anything, but a bibliography is obviously mandatory. Bonus points for good primary sources (government documents, diaries, letters, etc.).
  • Writing/Prose: Just because a book is nonfiction does not mean that an author can let the use of prose and good writing go to the dumpster. The author should use the topic and sources to tell a story.
So, there we go. An outline to review nonfiction books. Let's put it to work.

I have to admit: everything I knew about the Battle of Stalingrad I learned from Enemy at the Gates. While I really do enjoy that movie, I had a feeling that it probably wasn't particularly historically accurate. For instance, the individual Jude Law plays in the movie (Vasily Zaitsev) did exist in real life. And he really was a super awesome sniper. I just don't know how much further the truth goes. Here is one example:

 
Jude Law as Zaitsev: Dreamboat

 Vasily Zaitsev playing himself: Not so much a dreamboat

I'm sure you see what I mean. Because of my almost complete ignorance on the topic and my moderate interest in war history, I was quite pleased when the RNG chose Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. Stalingrad, as the name would suggest, chronicles the lead up to the Battle of Stalingrad during WWII, the battle itself, and the aftermath of it. Frankly, some of the content of the book was shocking to me. The battle was one of total war and the atrocities committed by both sides were sickening. With all of the media (books, movies, tv shows) created concerning the U.S.'s involvement in the Western Front, little has been created concerning the equally (if not more) crucial Eastern Front. This book is one of the more touted concerning the history of this battle.

Accessible

As I noted above, I knew very little about the Battle of Stalingrad. At first, the book was a little difficult to get into. A number of the German and Soviet army and government terms and organizations were used without being defined, which was a bit difficult. I also had trouble often determining which armies and units were on which side when they were referred to just by number. The book could also use many more maps to help visually explain the movement of troops within Russia by both nations. I found myself lost when they were explaining where different armies were moving to, particularly during the German's beginning assault into Russia.

The final two-thirds of the book is much more readable and accessible than the first. It is in this part of the book where Beevor does his best work. He balances the high level overview of the war perfectly with the more human, anecdotal details concerning the conditions of the troops and the front. While the high mortality rate during the battle keeps Beevor from focusing on specific soldiers for any length of time, he does a pretty good job on focusing on the higher level officers who manage to stay alive for much or all of the war. When this book is accessible, you can burn through the pages easily. On the other hand, I found myself stuck or glassing over the dryer, denser sections.

Scholarly-ness

In my opinion, this is where Stalingrad shines. In addition to the usual secondary sources, Beevor also manages to find and use letters sent from the front, soldiers' diaries, de-classified Soviet and German files and communication records, and various other primary sources. The sources are remarkably utilized; in particular, the diaries and letters reveal the humanity of soldiers from two nations who are often demonized and dehumanized by popular culture in the U.S. They also show the almost complete lack of care towards these soldiers by their nations' leaders and upper officers.

Writing/Prose

The writing in Stalingrad is decent enough, but mainly exists to bridge together quotes from the primary sources or paraphrase when it seems too many direct quotes have been used. This is probably for the best, as flowery or colorful writing would probably draw the focus from where it belongs, which is on the primary sources. I would say that the writing is just about average and there is no reason or way for it to be more than that.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this book was pretty good. It's not as good as I hoped it would be, but it does what it was supposed to, which is to tell the story of the Battle of Stalingrad. I found the anecdotal content much more interesting than the "10,000 foot view" content, but that's probably because, like most others who will read this book, I am not a military strategist. I probably wouldn't recommend this book to the general bookreading public, but for those of you interested in WWII (or war history in general), this will provide an eye-opening account of one of the less talked about events which largely shaped the world we live in today.

Accessible - ***
Scholarly-ness - *****
Writing/Prose - *** 1/2
Overall - *** 1/2

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After I finished Stalingrad, the RNG chose The Lord of the Ring series for me to read. I've read the Hobbit, so I'm going to skip that one, but the rest will be read and reviewed one at a time. This is definitely one of those cases of "how have I not read this yet"?

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