Three books, two fiction (based in historical fact), one fact (but with a dose of historical fiction)

While in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) this summer, I had the opportunity to visit the impressive and evocative memorial to the defenders of Leningrad during the 900 day siege by the Nazis, when over one million soldiers and another million civilians died and over 250,000 bombs were dropped on the city. Although the memorial is not in the historic heart of the city (it is in Soviet Leningrad on the main road to the airport), it is well worth a visit if you are there.

I have not read Harrison Salisbury’s “900 Days”, the classic narrative of the siege, or Anna Reid’s new book “Leningrad”, but I did read David Benioff’s well respected recent novel “City of Thieves”. And I was a bit disappointed.

The “author” gets his grandfather to talk about his time in Leningrad during the 1941-1943 siege, and a difficult time it was. The book becomes the first person account of a teenage boy, left by himself (his poet father has been liquidated by the Soviets, and his mother and sister escape the city on a convoy before the Germans fully encircle) to face the enemy, insecure in his own skin. It is really simply a coming of age story, with all that connotes, but with the background of a city surrounded and starving. So our young protagonist has his series of adolescent adventures, guided by an accidental friend who is better and more experienced at everything, as they escape death time and time again, both in the city and with the partisans outside of the city (try escape only to return), until lo and behold, our young man becomes a hero and, so it appears, winds up with the girl.

It’s a readable book, and I did want to finish it, so I can’t be too critical. But is it respectful of the victims of the siege? No. Does it portray the effects of the siege accurately? I doubt it. Are the adventures of our young hero credible? In no way.

Let’s move to a different topic that has long interested me – the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars of southern France. The Cathars were a Christian sect, both fundamentalist and tolerant, anti-Roman Catholic, and reputedly quite prosperous. Destroyed under the orders of the pope in the 13th century, the Cathar movement was wiped out, but the famed Cathar treasure, believed to have been hidden somewhere near Montsegur has never been found.

This is the story that author Sophy Burnham took upon herself as a challenge in her historical novel “Montsegur”, the story of one of four survivors of the last assault on the Cathars, and the only person who knew the location of the hidden cave where the treasure had been hidden.

I found the story intriguing and captivating. The deficiencies I found in the Benioff book, I didn’t find here. And I am not certain why, unless it was because the life of protagonist Jeanne was more credible to me, although she clearly also had her share of very unlikely adventures. It probably just comes down to taste. I’d love to see what others thought.

The third book I recently read is reputed to be fact, not fiction, the story of Nixon’s visit to the USSR in 1959, and Khrushchev’s two 1960 trips to America. Because I had been to a program a few months ago at the National Archives on Nixon’s trip and the “kitchen debate”, I was intrigued by the subject of Peter Carlson’s “K Blows Top”, to remind me of Khrushchev’s visit to the filming of “Can-Can” in Hollywood (excerpts had been published last year in Smithsonian Magazine), to the corn and pig farm in Iowa, and to the United Nations where he banged his shoe on the table while the Philippine representative spoke about the Soviet occupation of central and eastern Europe.

The book treats the visits as comic events with potentially serious repercussions, which I think is appropriate. And it is very easy, enjoyable to read. My problem, and it is a problem, though is that I am not sure that the author spent much time corroborating his information.

This is a book that anyone could have written. Carlson simply looked at available material, largely from newspapers and magazines, from the time of the three trips (plus interviews with Khrushchev’s son Sergei, now a professor at Brown). He took is material and, except for taking a sarcastic approach, he simply reported what he read. But how accurate was he?

I ask the question because of his several references to Marilyn Monroe’s assistant Lena Pepitone, who in her memoir described the events leading to the meeting between Khrushchev and Monroe in Hollywood. Pepitone’s book portrayed Monroe as an ignoramus who did even know who Khrushchev was

Obviously this could not be the case. Monroe was anything but stupid – at the time she was married to author and intellectual Arthur Miller – and certainly knew who the Russian premier was. And, to make things worse, Pepitone later admitted that her memoir of life with Marilyn was fiction, not fact. But Carlson writes of Monroe and Khrushchev as if everything that Pepitone said was true. This seems inexcusable based on what I have seen, and then leads you to question everything in the book.

Still, as I said, it is a lot of fun, and I am sure is largely factual. So I wouldn’t discourage you to read it, but with more than a grain of salt.

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