Friday, July 27, 2012

Milady's Theory and Practice of Therapeutic Massage, by Mark Beck

I recorded this book upon request for the Malaysian Association for the Blind. The book is over 800 pages, and the recording ran to just over 50 hours. It is now the longest audio book in the MAB library, and I wish I felt that the book's value will justify the time.

As I read the table of contents, including sections on anatomy & physiology, ethical business practices, massage techniques, small business management, specialised forms of massage, and related therapies, I thought this book sounded marvellously comprehensive. After reading the phrase "not within the scope of this book" too many times to count, however, I realised its fundamental flaw:  It attempts to cover too broad a range of subjects and trips lightly over all of them, leaving the reader (or listener) having to go elsewhere to find adequate substance.

I laboured through describing the many diagrams of muscle groups and bones, wondering how a blind listener would benefit. Surely for a blind masseur, learning anatomy by touch is more effective, and I can only assume the same is true of massage techniques. It goes without saying that all the text about legalities and licensing issues in the United States (where the book is published) are irrelevant here in Malaysia.

The book did offer some good advice on gathering information from clients before the massage and on adding this intake sheet to the client's on-going record. Asking questions before providing massage may turn up problems that either require special attention or present a contraindication against massage. Malaysia's blind masseurs do not typically ask questions before providing a massage. In many cases, there is a language barrier, given the number of languages spoken here. All the warnings to examine a client's skin for bruising or skin disease, or to observe a client's gait for clues about tight muscles are lost on a blind practitioner. All in all, I fear I just spent half a year recording a very long book which will benefit no one.

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011, by Melvyn Bragg

Bookface has accepted a part-time job on the opposite side of Kuala Lumpur, which means an hour-long commute each way by bus. Lovely! That's about six hours each week blocked off for listening to audio books. I loved Melvyn Bragg's The Adventure of English, so I thought I'd give this a go. (Now if I can only read the notes I scribbled on the lurching bus...)

Sensibly enough, Bragg starts with the 16th- and 17th-century opposition to any translation of the Bible into English. Ensuring that the Holy Scriptures were available only in Latin guaranteed that it was accessible only to the educated, wealthy and powerful. It kept everyone else in his place at the bottom of the food chain, with "minds deliberately stunted". Early translators such as Wycliffe and Tyndale faced venemous persecution for their efforts to make the Word available in English. Bragg describes Tyndale as a humble, pious and erudite man with dangerously populist sentiments. One of the darker blots on the reputation of Thomas More was his fanatical persecution of Tyndale, the violence of which bewildered even his best pal, Erasmus. Tyndale and many others died martyrs' deaths for their efforts to make the Bible available in the local vernacular.

And, as it turns out, the royals and nobles in England had good reason to fear what might happen if the holy book were made available to the masses:  If they, the common people, were allowed to read it, they might in turn begin to think about and discuss it. Given the fact that only the wealthy had Oxford degrees, who knew what mischief the riff-raff would get up to.  Sure enough, when the riff-raff had reached its limits with royal corruption, they used verses from the King James Bible to justify arresting, trying and executing King Charles I. This was a stunning development, as it had previously been held that Kings ruled by divine decree, as was cited to no avail by Charles' defenders.

This is where Bragg first concedes the difficulty in using the Bible -- in any language -- to construct a legal system, to oppose slavery or social oppression, to advocate public education or women's rights, or to settle any number of other issues:  This great text is forever contradicting itself. The Yahweh of the Old Testament is often irascible; mercy is a word scarcely heard in the earlier books. Jesus' advocacy for gentleness, tolerance and kindness contrasts sharply with Leviticus' calls for smiting one's foes and neighbours. The debate over the fate of King Charles I was only an early example of both sides citing scripture to support their arguments.

Bragg devotes a chapter to William Wilberforce, a Christian convert who lobbied ferociously to end the British participation in the Atlantic slave trade, using biblical verses to pepper his arguments. He did succeed in the end, and the odds against him were steep, given the proportion of the English economy that depended upon shipping slaves from Africa to the Americas. Wilberforce's opponents, however, turned to verses from the Old Testament which either sanctioned slave-holding or gave examples of illustrious slave-owners. The same would be true in the United States when the abolition movement picked up there:  both sides of the argument found support in the Bible. So can we really credit abolition to the King James Bible and its Radical Impact? No.

As Bragg addresses the role of the King James Bible in all of these social debates in both England and the US, it occurs to me that the connection is tangential indeed. Yes, Christians were often the first to take up the cudgels for social welfare, education, and basic human rights, and the Bible was always a part of their weaponry or toolkit. But these chapters read more like a history of Christian beneficence than a history of the Bible's impact. Bragg also acknowledges that, just as there are conflicting texts in the Bible, Christian zeal has perpetrated a great deal of evil alongside the good.  These parts of the book are interesting, if not entirely topical.

For my money, Bragg's strongest points are the contributions of the King James Bible to the English language and literature. The text -- which went through various edits until the 1769 Oxford Edition -- is remarkably beautiful. By the 17th century, you and your had replaced thee, thou and thine in spoken usage, but the translators let the slightly antiquated pronouns stand to convey the august formality of the holy text. Bragg rattles off several litanies of now common words and phrases that first appeared in the King James Bible. Shakespeare was another neologist of note, but he too borrowed heavily from the old and new testaments, as have countless others since. Even those who don't consider themselves religious have been inspired by the style and content of the Holy Book -- William Faulkner and John Steinbeck are two recent examples. The Bible is itself fine literature, as Bragg points out, with stories of polygamy, war, infanticide, incest, betrayal, forgiveness, storms at sea, weddings, forgiveness, and of course love.  The Good Book is a great book, and the King James translation is perhaps the most elegant in our language. This is a somewhat rambling but highly enjoyable homage to its 400th year in print.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Vacant Possession, by Hilary Mantel

This is the sequel to Mantel's first book, Every Day is Mother's Day. Vacant Possession could stand alone as a novel, I suppose, but if I weren't reading the two in e-book format, I'd rather like them in a boxed set, tied up with a grubby, frayed bit of black ribbon.

Apart from Mrs. Evelyn Axon, whom Mantel killed off in the first book, all the characters return in this one, ten years on, and one of them, Evelyn's daughter Muriel, is intently focused on setting things back to rights. The problem here is that Muriel is rather insane, and her view of normality is shared only by fellow inmates at the institution, and not even all of them.

Colin, Sylvia and their children are now living in the large house on Buckingham Avenue that the Axons had formerly occupied with all their malevolent spirits. Colin's spinster sister, Florence, still lives next door, and Colin's ex-lover Isabel Field lives with her banker husband in the same town. It's all so cosy in a deranged sort of way. Mantel again excels at capturing the mundane day-to-day existence of middle-class Britons in the 1990s. Colin just tries to keep the family afloat and out of  the newspapers; Sylvia attends adult education courses and volunteers here and there to get away from the children.
How nice it would be if she had a job, Colin thought. He was a Deputy Head; they scraped along. There were even luxuries, like Lizzie Blank the daily woman (Tuesdays and Thursdays). But the children ate so much, and left the lights on and the taps running; they needed outfits and treats, and dinner money and bus money and more money, they insisted, for day-glo paint and handcuffs and all the other stuff you wore to an Acid Raine concert. They wanted special diets and school trips, and a tent so they could sleep in the garden in summer; they wanted video nasties, and Claire -- it was reassuring, he supposed -- wanted a new Brownie uniform. Every whim cost cash down. For all he knew, they might be maintaining a heroin habit. It couldn't have cost more. When he opened his bank statements he felt as if he were being eaten away, month by month, from the inside out. But unfortunately, there were no jobs; not for anybody really, and certainly not for Sylvia. She was not qualified for anything. She was educated now, but not trained.
Colin and Sylvia's son, Alistair, is in a particularly ugly phase of teen rebellion, but then it is his room that the Axons had euphemistically called the Spare Room, kept locked up tight because it was inhabited by all the miserable spirits Evelyn had conjured up during her career as a medium. Even now, multiple coats of paint and primer don't suppress the large patches of mould that form on the walls. Or maybe Alistair is just a typically angry teen-aged boy. Schoolmaster Colin doesn't seem to think he's all that unusual.
But he knew a hundred children as bad as Alistair, a hundred worse; antisocial truants from broken homes. Theirs was not broken; only creaking a bit under the strain. The kids passed through his office every day, en route from brief rebellion to a lifetime's acceptance of their lot. They had silly hairstyles; beneath them, dull conformist little brains.
Muriel has spent the intervening decade in the asylum, which has suitably developed her vengefulness and violent tendencies, all the while teaching her enough life skills to blend in with the more normal people on the outside. And with the economy being a bit grim and social service budgets being cut, Muriel is indeed ruled one of the inmates most suitable for release. She can pass for normal. Well, almost. As long as you don't go inside her head.
Cradling the warm egg, Muriel dug in her fingernails to crush the shell. She did not go in for table manners; they wasted time. She began to peel the skin, wincing a little as she did so. She put her tongue into the salted gelid hollow and probed gently. The room behind her was dark, and full of the minute crackling her fingers made. She sucked, thought. Most of Muriel's thoughts were quite unlike other people's.
Mantel dances on that very nebulous line between sanity and madness, with several of her characters crossing it as casually as if they were skipping rope. Effie, one of Muriel's pals at the asylum,  presents herself as the Queen, but who doesn't put on airs from time to time? 
But next day Effie went on the rampage. She had a filthy tongue in her head when she wasn't giving regal addresses. She ran screaming and cursing down Greyshott Ward and out into the corridor. "I don't need hospital," she shouted. "I don't need nurses. I'm not sick. I may be daft but I'm not sick. I don't need getting up at six-thirty every day, Christmas Day, birthday, Queen's official birthday and every bleeding Sunday. I need to get up when I want and make myself a little cup of tea." Two stout male orderlies got Effie by the arms and brought her back to Greyshott.
Once ruled sane (or adequately so), Muriel is simply released upon the world. She finds lodgings that feel just right. Home sweet derelict home.
As soon as she saw Mr. Kowalski and his house, Muriel knew it was where she must live. It was a big house, rambling and damp and dark; a permanent chill hung over the rooms. It had been condemned long ago, put on a schedule for demolition, but it seemed likely that before its turn came it would demolish itself, quietly crumbling and rotting away, with its wet rot and dry rot and its collection of parasites and moulds.
Since she's not sure how to be normal in her own persona, Muriel decides to develop a few others. With garish makeup, a wig, tacky jacket and platform boots, she becomes Lizzie Blank -- yes, the part-time housekeeper or 'daily' for Colin and Sylvia. She's interested in devising some evil form of revenge on them for taking over her mother's house and disrupting what had been their utterly wretched but familiar life there. In the meantime, however, she's happy to watch the family self-destruct.
Alistair got up, muttered, and kicked his chair. He was muttering as he walked out of the room, and hauling up his sleeve, no doubt preparatory to injecting himself with some addictive substance. "I wonder why we bother," said Colin. "I wasn't aware that you did bother," [said Sylvia]. You've always been more concerned with the welfare of other people's children than your own." "Oh, teachers' children are always worse than others. Their parents know from experience that there's nothing to be done with young people, and when they get home, they're not even being paid to try."
Oldest daughter Suzanne comes home pregnant and distraught. Her parents and the father of her child all try to convince her that abortion is the best solution, but she will not veer from her belief that her pregnancy will convince her lover to leave his wife. To his horror, Colin learns that the father of Suzanne's baby is Jim Ryan -- the husband of Isabel Field, with whom Colin had had an affair ten years before.

A petty reader might accuse Ms. Mantel of laying on the coincidences a bit thick, but not I. She slips each one in so deftly that I gasped right alongside her startled characters, and the world is, after all, a small place. These interconnections, furthermore, are not simply devices for shock value. As we read of Colin, advising his daughter on the weaknesses and foibles of cheating husbands, we remember that ten years before he was having an affair with the now-cuckolded wife. We realise that even a brief frolic in a park can have unforeseen and ghoulish consequences. John Irving also plays this sort of game very adroitly; it's an art to pull it off well.

At the centre of both these novels is Colin, leading his life of quiet desperation.
Colin's expression was gloomy. Only a week ago, he had been a comparatively happy man. The holidays were approaching; if they did not promise a rest, there would at least be a break in routine. He was looking forward to some long early morning runs, and perhaps a game of squash at lunchtime, and then to having the house to himself in the afternoons while Sylvia was out and about on her various missions; to having his time free for some brooding, for some quiet introspection. This is really what I am, he thought: a quiet man in pursuit of a coronary.
As Vacant Possession approaches its climax, Colin takes charge of his life. It's a thoroughly exhilarating experience, very new to him. Sell the house! We'll move, we'll put our lives into some new sort of order.  And they do. As the story nears its end, the big house on Buckingham Avenue is sold. That vexing, mouldy wall has been painted over (at least long enough to impress the buyers), and all their belongings have been cleared out.  Colin follows the moving van in his car; Sylvia is to follow later. 

British readers will of course know the meaning of the title, a legal term that may be unfamiliar to those of other countries:

vacant possession: "Empty. On completion of a sale a seller is obliged to deliver the property with vacant possession which means clear of occupants and of objects which are not included in the sale."
We've all vacated one home and moved to another. Do we ever leave it entirely empty? And can we ever leave it entirely behind?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Quicksands: A Memoir, by Sybille Bedford

I had never heard of Sybille Bedford until recently, when I stumbled across a glowing review of her life's works, the critic insisting that they were essential reading, that she is the ultimate "writer's writer". That turn of phrase has always puzzled me. Does it mean that an author is only accessible to elite corps of fellow wordsmiths? Maybe she has nothing to say to readers who don't dwell in literary circles themselves.

Undeterred, I bought Quicksands, the memoir she published in 2005, the year before her death at age 95. She wrote a half dozen or so highly autobiographical novels during her life, but this is pure memoir, written with the dignity and calm of a literary nonagenarian. As for her writing style, a Guardian article says of Sybille Bedford:  "English was not her first language, and she treated it with respect, writing harmoniously, with great care and precision, plus a disturbing undertow of otherness... There will always be people for whom her books are part of their mind's life, and people who are discovering her for the first time as if entering a lighted room."

Born in Germany to cultured but not entirely stable or compatible parents, Sybille bounced between Germany, France and Italy as her parents drifted about. As a young child almost entirely unschooled, she voiced the desire to become a writer, and her mother seized upon the opportunity to dispatch her to England to acquire the language in which she'd decided she wanted to write. In the 1920s, children were less pampered and sheltered; she boarded a train in Italy with a placard around her neck by which her caretakers in England would recognise her.  Her father died suddenly in Germany; she chronicles her mother's slow and painful deterioration as a morphine addict, cared for til the end by Aldous and Maria Huxley. I suppose it's the mark of a highly civilised couple that their most violent disagreements flared up over food, especially when aspects of German and French culinary culture clashed.
Now my mother, if she liked good things -- she too, if much later learned how to put hand to pot -- often disagreed with the way my father held they must be done. She was apt to be distraite at table and did not take too seriously his axiom that two items, flour and water, ought to be rationed in a decent kitchen. While my mother was with us, we had a full complement of servants. All but one vanished when she left (leaving bricks and mortar but no money). The cook of the old regime was female and north German. Our chief manservant was French. Flour, like sugar and animal fats, never seems to be rationed in the north of anywhere. The cook, unlike the Frenchman, was on the mistress's side. There were sides. And so food, the one thing my parents had counted on for pleasant daily safety, turned out to be what they quarrelled about tenaciously and often. I can still hear the altercations about my mother's having ordered cauliflower covered in white sauce. 
Although she was very close to the Huxleys, and befriended Klaus and Erika Mann (children of Thomas), Martha Gellhorn and other luminaries, Ms. Bedford never drops names ostentatiously, and she certainly never indulges in salacious gossip. The years between the two world wars happened to be a time when writers drifted across Europe, forming cliques and salons here and there. 
One source of diversions (incurious) was a nest of young American writers, some already in limelight, some not at all, squatting at another small hotel off the other side of the boulevard in rue de l'Universite: Jane Bowles, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers with companions and one elder and better, Eudora Welty. Allanah [a friend] and I spent many of our evenings in their lair. We called them the nail-biters, because this was what they did, sitting in a row in one of their hotel bedrooms when we had assembled, clutching a glass or a toothmug, for a session, always too long, of pre-dinner drinking, biting their fingernails in despair over world affairs. How right they were. Allanah and I shared many of their views if not their habits, were captivated by their writings, deplored their drinking -- bad stuff mostly, and too much of it -- Allanah on principle, I for the delay of dinner. 
I love this particular passage. Although I'm familiar with all these American writers, I'd never have pictured them in one scene as Sybille has worked it. And she is obviously not their sycophant although much younger and still unpublished. At 95, she obviously knows of the stature they achieved yet still remembers her impatience to get to the table.

The 1950s found Ms. Bedford living in Rome again and in one gorgeously crafted paragraph she portrays two new friends and the allure of her new city.
Among my more recent local acquaintance were two Americans, two very brave, very difficult men, who had spent the war in Italy underground. One of them, Peter Tompkins, a young, newly married US Army officer who had been parachuted after the Anzio landing beyond the American lines where he led a perilous existence as a wanted man contriving daily, hourly, against the odds to pass himself off as an Italian inhabitant for what turned out to be month after month until the liberation of Rome by the Allies. His survival had left him farouche, both resourceful and immature, thin-nerved, contemptuously unreliable about money, affectionately protective to women, obstinately inclined toward esoteric pursuits. His compatriot, Donald Downes, middle-aged, full of knowledge, given to rages, an Epicurean, very good company when he chose to, had no less dangerously spent his Italian war as an agent of an American organization less open than the Army. Both men spoke Italian like Italians; both had chosen to stay on and live in Rome. Rome had gone into their blood. As it was beginning to get into mine. 
Distraite. Farouche. There are no precise English synonyms for either of these, and the casual way in which Ms. Bedford employs them to perfect effect does not reflect years of formal education. In fact, she had virtually none. She simply grew up polyglot by virtue of her nomadic life. She learnt to write late in her childhood, and her handwriting was never legible. An eye disorder meant that glare caused her to wear an eye-shade whilst reading and to write on green paper. This woman had a lot of obstacles on the way to a writing career, especially one in English, her chosen but not her native tongue. She was adamant, however, that being multilingual was the best means of expanding one's consciousness.
To remain monolingual reduces the mind to the confines of a tramline. The civilized mind needs alternatives for its expression. ... Any language acquired opens song-lines. How I repent not to have learned a little Greek and Russian, not to have attempted at least one Oriental path to thought.
She did learn to type and carried a series of portable manual typewriters with her. When staying with the Huxleys in the French Midi in the 1930s,  Ms. Bedford discovered the perfect writing room.
Soon after ten, Aldous got up without a murmur and went to his room; the door shut behind him. It was a good-sized room, square, with well-shuttered windows on two sides and book cases up to the ceiling. the floor was red-tiled and bare. There was a roll-top desk with a swivel-chair, a very long chaise-longue and one deep armchair. Here, on a small typewriter, he wrote Brave New World, Music at Night -- perhaps the most serene of his books -- Beyond the Mexique Bay, and large parts of the far from serene Eyeless in Gaza. It was a good room, with its easy privacy and pacing space; it had all a writer needed, including the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Once during some winter months when the Huxleys were away, I was allowed to work in that room myself, and I have never known a better. 

farouche (adjective): 1. sullen or shy. 2. socially inept.
[C18: from French, from Old French faroche, from Late Latin forasticus (from without), from Latin foras (out of doors).

distraite (adjective): (of a woman) inattentive because of distracting worries, fears, etc.; absent-minded.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Whole World, by Emily Winslow

After reading the Goebbels biography, I decided to detox with a some good, escapist fiction. So what do I do? Get suckered by dust-jacket propaganda.
At once a sensual and irresistible mystery and a haunting work of psychological insight and emotional depth, The Whole World marks the beginning of a brilliant literary career for Emily Winslow, a superb, limitlessly gifted author. Set in the richly evoked pathways and environs of Cambridge, England, The Whole World unearths the desperate secrets kept by its many complex characters—students, professors, detectives, husbands, mothers—secrets that lead to explosive consequences.
 This isn't a bad book, nor a notably good one. The Delacorte Press publicist who wrote the glowing synopsis, however, does deserve some sort of award for hyperbole. Maybe the Goebbels Prize?

I'm afraid I will not be haunted by the novel's "psychological insight and emotional depth". I found it lacking in both. It's a pastiche of a story, cobbled together from a half dozen narrators, and each narrative shift left me frustrated. Yes, it moved the story along briskly but in a vessel with a shallow draft, not unlike a punt on the Cam.

The "richly evoked pathways and environs of Cambridge" of the synopsis had also appealed to me, and there too I came away hungry. A postcard is as evocative.

I read this book to find out what happens at the end. I didn't find myself especially jolted by the "explosive consequences", but I did keep turning the pages until I reached them. If I felt compelled to examine the novel in detail, I expect I'd find dozens of flaws -- places where facts don't line up, where timelines clash, and so on. Ms. Winslow, I think, spent too much energy on constructing an elaborate plot when she might have sat back, reflected, and given fewer characters much more depth.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Goebbels: The Mastermind of the Third Reich, by David Irving

When I mentioned to friends that I was reading this biography, most of them asked me why. For the same reasons I read any other biography, I suppose: I wanted to know what made Joseph Goebbels tick. He was indisputably one of the most influential people of the 20th century. Why would anyone not want to read about him?

This particular biography, which I spotted and downloaded on a whim, turns out to have a controversial history of its own. In the preface, the author states that Jewish organisations protested the book's publication in the US and won. Irving chose to self-publish the book in the UK. It was not the book's content that caused the furore, I discovered, but its author. If you look up 'Holocaust Denial' on Wikipedia, you'll find a photograph of David Irving. I was about 1/3 of the way through this book when I discovered that, and it gave me pause. I needed to learn more about the author's reliability as an historian before continuing.  I'm still a bit bewildered, to be frank.

Reputable reviewers, including historian Stephen Spender, have declared Irving's research to be meticulous, extensive and important, and this biography reflects that. I found his portrait of Goebbels very balanced and copiously annotated. He has no qualms pointing out the Nazis' foibles. He found and reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of Goebbels' diaries (mostly in Russian archives now), and matched them with other sources to check their veracity -- and by doing so, he often found the Propaganda Minister to be deceiving himself in his own diaries. In short, this is no hagiography.

So what about this holocaust denial issue? I have not read Irving's other writing, and I don't feel inclined to go off on that particular tangent. I wanted to learn about Goebbels, and I was trying to gauge the reliability of my guide. What exactly is Irving denying? How much can a rational person reasonably deny? With my admittedly limited knowledge of Nazi history, I know  the Nazis committed very little to writing of their decision to build extermination camps. In this book, Irving concedes that the Jews suffered dreadful persecutions, deportations and death in high numbers. What he appears to deny is that the Nazis ever established facilities for mass murder. He acknowledges that the Nazis deported vast numbers of Jews, who were subsequently killed by Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Latvians, etc. He writes that Auschwitz was a slave labour camp but maintains that Jews died there from overwork, malnutrition and disease. He does not admit the existence of gas chambers or crematoria. This is where I scratch my head: Irving concedes that the Nazis sent vast numbers of Jews to their deaths after robbing them of their businesses and belongings, and his choice of adjectives -- brutal, ruthless -- suggests that he does not approve. Does it matter whether they met death in a purpose-built gas chamber or in a Ukrainian forest?

Goebbels certainly didn't think so. He just wanted them all dead. At times, Hitler stepped in to tone down his Minister's rabid anti-Semitism. Where did this hate-filled man come from?

A good Catholic household, it turns out. As a boy, Joseph was very devout, his teachers praising his "religious fervour". He was also a very small man -- he would reach only 5'6" and would never exceed 100 lbs. in weight, inviting comments about a Napoleon complex. He had a club foot, which cost him much teasing as a child and pain as an adult; it was his leg brace which allowed witnesses to identify his charred corpse at the end. Both friends and enemies referred to him as 'the little doctor'. (He earned his PhD in Literature from Heidelberg). Goebbels is a text-book case of the bullied weakling who later uses his intellect to deadly effect.

As a young man, Goebbels was passionately -- but chastely -- obsessed with many women. He wrote them effusive letters and poetry, and he authored a number of highly romantic plays. None, alas, was published. If Hitler was a frustrated artist, Goebbels was a frustrated author. The main publishing houses were, of course, run by Jews.
Perhaps he still derives most pleasure from the anticipation, the plotting, and the romantic language of an affair. His girls are bowled over by the literary style and the intensity with which he woos them. He sets Else and Alma to copying out his articles and verses. But his writings are universally rejected by the big Jewish publishers like Mosse and Ullstein in Berlin... The more the products of his festering intellect were rejected by unseen editors, the more he saw the Jews behind his torment.
When Goebbels finally got round to embracing the National Socialist cause, madly inspired by Hitler, he realised his true potential as a propagandist.
In his hands, he would write, he found that the soul of the German working man was as soft as wax, and he could knead it and mould it as he desired.
Although his writing and speeches could move multitudes, his personal relationships (or the absence of them) vexed him throughout his life. He remained a virgin until he was in his 30s, and when women did pursue him in later years, it was quite possibly because of his position and the prestige attached to it. He was frequently distressed to find that people he had counted as friends actually despised him.
He found it hard to make true friends. He found his Alsatian dog more likeable than many a human being... His romantic escapades left him filed with self-hatred too. Else now rarely wrote to him, having found him juvenile and adolescent. He had started a parallel relationship with another girl, Elisabeth Gensicke, but nothing came of it. "From year to year," he reflected, "I shall be more and more lonely until I end up all alone without love and without a family." That was his dread.
His own sexual life was a mixture of prudishness, rapacity and hypocrisy. He married a divorcee, Magda, and with her produced six children. He had at least one highly-publicised and disastrous affair with a Hungarian actress, and dalliances with many more women, yet he espoused chastity and wholesome family life.
[Goebbels grew] profoundly indignant when he saw Hamburg's red-light district around the Reeperbahn, with the half naked hookers standing in their doorways. A local Party official later recalled that one keen young S.A. man asked, "Doktor, what'll we do with streets like this after the revolution?" and Goebbels snarled in reply: "We shall sweep them away like the garbage that they are!" He went on to develop a picture of a Germanic youth elite unexampled in purity and virtuousness since the days of the crusades and monastic orders.
The one staunch and devout love of his life was for his Fuhrer.  He sometimes disagreed with Hitler, but his concerns were shrouded in polite euphemism in his diaries. From the beginning of their friendship til the end (Goebbels was the only one of the top Nazi brass to be with Hitler in the Berlin bunker at the end), and throughout the periods when Hitler excluded him from much of the decision-making, Goebbels professed love and admiration.
That day he and Hitler drove up to Stuttgart to speak at two meetings and again Hitler flung his arms around him. "Adolf Hitler," the young man wrote mushily in his diary back at Elberfeld, "I love you: because you are great and simple at the same time -- what we call a genius."
Goebbels' relationship with Hermann  Göring, however, was more erratic and fraught. In the early years,  Göring was battling a morphine addiction. Goebbels, who embraced socialism with a passion, decried the large man's wealth and greed. He soon discovered, though, his own lust for powerful Daimler-Benz automobiles and opulent homes, and again his own hypocrisy seemed to elude him.

Hitler was well-known for pitting members of his innermost circle against each other, so there was constant and shifting friction between Goebbels,  Göring , Himmler, Speer, Ribbentrop and others. While he was enormously effective at delivering rousing speeches live and on radio, those who met the Propaganda Minister had a range of reactions to him.
He was now thirty-five, his life already three-quarters spent."Goebbels" wrote one official English visitor at this time, "has charm and a captivating smile and manner”surprising, he felt, in one described as the cruellest man in the whole movement. The Englishman detected in Goebbels something of an intensely enthusiastic undergraduate, but also a dangerous fanatic. Franz von Papen was struck by the wide mouth and intelligent eyes. General Werner von Blomberg, Hitler's new defence minister, felt that Goebbels was convinced of his own superiority. Goebbels' staff would find him a disagreeable employer. He rarely showed gratitude, and preferred cruel sarcasm to measured criticism. "A man with many enemies," concluded Blomberg, "Goebbels had no friends at all."
Goebbels was the tyrant of German culture during the Third Reich. No aspect of artistic life escaped his opinion or control.
His ministry would eventually sprawl over fifty-four buildings in Berlin alone... Henceforth, German art was to be pure. The chamber of music prohibited the playing of atonal,"Jewish" and Negro music; surrealist art, cubism, and dadaism were among the prohibited genres...
Corrupted by power he was becoming more autocratic, even dictatorial. He arbitrarily forbade his adjutant to touch alcohol for six months. He punished radio station directors for going on a binge. He ordered a careless bus driver arrested.
Goebbels' greatest influence, of course, was on the press, all forms of which he treated as his personal (or rather the Nazi party's) mouthpiece. He blatantly and openly contorted facts to suit his agenda. Goebbels was, after all, the author of the credo that any lie told often enough and with enough conviction will be believed. When the Nazis wanted to annex Sudetanland (then part of Czechoslovakia), Goebbels focused on stories about Czech attacks on Sudetan Germans, many of which were purely manufactured.
This did lead to local difficulties... press chief Franz Haeller objected to one particular story about Czech attacks on Sudeten Germans pointing out that this was his own village, and it enjoyed particularly good ethnic relations. "Tell me," retorted Goebbels, grinning, "how big is your village?" Haeller told him. "Right," said Goebbels, grinning evilly. "So three hundred people know we are lying. But the rest of the world still has to find out!"
Music also fell under Goebbels' authority and control.
He decided to appoint Karl Boehm to the Dresden opera (Boehm was one of the many top Nazi musicians who would effortlessly perform the volte face necessary to stay at the top after the coming war).  
Irving credits Goebbels with inciting the destruction and chaos of Kristallnacht. He cites numerous documents which indicate that Hitler not only knew nothing about it beforehand but castigated Goebbels for it later. Not, mind you, because he was more compassionate, but he was more aware of the pogrom's effect on foreign opinion.
What of Himmler and Hitler? Both were totally unaware of what Goebbels had done until the synagogue next to Munich's Four Seasons Hotel was set on fire around one a.m.
According to Julius Schaub, the most intimate of his aides, Hitler "made a terrible scene with Goebbels" and left no doubt as to the damage done abroad to Germany's name. He sent Schaub and his colleagues out into the streets to stop the looting.
Philipp Bouhler, head of the Fuhrer's private chancellery, told one of Goebbels' senior officials that Hitler utterly condemned the pogrom and intended to dismiss Goebbels. Fritz Wiedemann, another of Hitler's adjutants, saw Goebbels spending much of that night telephoning to halt the most violent excesses. Rudolf Hess's staff also began cabling, telephoning, and radio-ing instructions to gauleiters and police authorities around the nation to halt the madness. But twenty thousand Jews were already being loaded onto trucks and transported to the concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Oranienburg. Hitler made no attempt to halt this inhumanity. He stood by, and thus deserved the odium that now befell all Germany.
The fiasco that was Kristallnacht, which cost German insurance companies a fortune, severely damaged Hitler's trust in Goebbels; henceforth, the Fuhrer limited the information he shared with his Minister, much to Goebbels' frustration.
Irving makes several references to a plan Hitler considered to round up all the Jews and relocate them to Madagascar. In the meantime, however, they were being shipped out of Germany to neighbouring countries, where they met their ends at the hands of non-Germans. Only once does Irving mention gas chambers, and he claims that Goebbels attributes that to British propaganda.
Ugly rumours were already circulating abroad, fuelled by British propaganda. The Daily Telegraph quoted Polish claims that seven thousand of Warsaw's Jews were being killed each day, often in what it called "gas chambers..."
When reading a biography of someone who is generally judged to be evil, I keep an eye open for redeeming qualities. Irving found very little in his subject that's praiseworthy, apart from his unflagging loyalty to and admiration of Adolph Hitler. At first it seemed that Goebbels was very devoted to his children, but it appears they were little more to him than photo props.
His new press expert Rudolf Semler found himself wondering sometimes however whether the minister really did love his children. He seldom showed them true affection, noticed Semler, and only rarely saw them now. He refused to lower himself to play trains with little Helmut; with his precocious oldest daughters Helga and Hilde the minister either flirted outrageously or tested their intellect to the point of tears. The others he virtually ignored except for photo calls.
Although several people offered to take the children to safety when the Soviets were closing in on Berlin, Joseph and Magda insisted that the six children die with them in the bunker. A doctor sedated the children with morphine, and Magda then broke cyanide tabs into their mouths. The parents then went out to the garden together to end their own lives.

I mentioned to an English friend that I was reading this book, and he sang the following ditty, which was popular amongst British troops during the war:
Hitler has only got one ball,
Göring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim'lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.
It's ironic, as Goebbels stuck it out til the very end in Berlin with the Allied air raids crashing round the chancellery and the Soviet troops closing in. Göring and Himmler fled. Goebbels, however, displayed the fortitude for which the British royals earned so much praise. He functioned relatively competently even as Hitler began to crumble. He believed in their cause til the last moment. He was not cowardly, nor stupid. He was bitter, hateful and cynical. Was he, as Irving's subtitle says, the mastermind of the Third Reich? He couldn't have amounted to much except in Hitler's shadow, but conversely, Hitler would never have gone as far as he did without Goebbels' machinations.