Devils and Deep Blue Seas

My head is spinning. And I have no idea how it happened, really. Truth be known, I'm a slow reader. (I browse professional stuff fast.) Hence, "read at one sitting" is a foreign concept. But I managed to do it twice in one weekend, both times with books I picked up on the fly last Friday at Hatchards in London.

I often disagree with Financial Times "management guru" (how she hates the term) Lucy Kellaway. The world—perhaps the world of "management gurus" more than most—is awash in fools; still Mme Lucy's level of cynicism borders, for me, on repellant. (Like Scott Adams' Dilbert. Of course he brilliantly satirizes commonplace workplace stupidities—but his view is so dark as to be paralytic.) Hence I picked up LK's business satire, Who Moved My Blackberry, with little enthusiasm (simply thought I should take a look)—but with the foreknowledge of 8 hours on a train in the next 3 days. Actually, I bought it with a subconscious desire not to like it.

My worst expectations were confirmed as I dove in. I love good satire (the sort the Brits specialize in—think Evelyn Waugh); but this was silly satire—and of course good satire is anything but silly. But ...

But I kept "reading on." And then I couldn't stop. Stopping on my Cornwall hikes for a 5 min break, and pulling out the sweat-soaked book. On the pot—the ultimate accolade. And then I was done—and bereft that it was over. I could have delightfully imbibed another 375 pages of the life and tawdry times of Martin Lukes. (Lukes is the hapless protagonist; in fact the book purports to be his autobiographical musings: Who Moved My Blackberry, by Martin Lukes with Lucy Kellaway—as you can see, the satire begins on the cover.) In short, I loved the book. The "satire bit" is lovely—more important, Ms Kellaway exhibits that rarest of literary traits, the ability to create a compelling character, and to make one feel some empathy for a complete cad.

(On the other hand I do wonder just a little bit about LK's colleagues at the FT. Martin Lukes is an Olympic misogynist—where did Kellaway get the inspiration for that?)

On the other hand ...

Perhaps part of the reason I stuck so assiduously with Kellaway was pure, unadulterated relief from my parallel reading experience: A Woman in Berlin, by anonymous. It is unequivocally the most devastating book I have ever read. "Anonymous," whose name is actually known and who died in 2001, provides us, in 300pp, with a moment by moment (almost literally) diary of the life of a German woman-civilian in Berlin from 20 April 1945 to 22 June 1945, as the Russian occupation began with a matchless display of inhumanity. (Well, matchless save Hitler and his thugs.) The book makes Stephen King feel like a humorist. It is horrible. Horrible. Simply horrible. (Okay Lucy K, I guess I better understand the sources of unmitigated cynicism about all things human.) The horror unfolds, second by second, minute by minute. I read the book in, effectively, one sitting—but the sweat rolled off me and the words adhered to me as I read—I'd swear it took me 2 months to read (the time covered in the book) rather than the actual 8 or 9 hours.

I am woefully incapable of accurate description. The following couple of blurbs will have to suffice: "One of the essential books for understanding war and life."—A.S. Byatt. "One of the most extraordinary and moving books I have read."—Antonia Fraser. "... both an important work of social history and a remarkable human document"—the Independent on Sunday. "Among the most chilling indictments of war I have ever read. ... Everybody ought to read it."—Arundhati Roy. "Reading A Woman in Berlin in one afternoon is an unnerving sensory experience: the walls close in, the air thickens ... It leaves a deep scar."—Simon Garfield, the Observer.

I can't say I recommend the book in the ordinary sense of that word. I can say you might consider reading it—but you must have fortitude to do so.