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Jerusalem: A Biography vs. Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944

January 8, 2012

You think you’ve had a bad day?  Try living in Jerusalem (pick a time period!) or Leningrad during the 1930’s and 40’s. 


Jerusalem: A Biography  by Simon Sebag Montefiore 

The word “biography” in the title threw me off.  I don’t know that I’ve ever read a biography written about a city, or a country, or a continent before.  I knew this wasn’t about some guy named Jerusalem.  No decent parents would name their kid Jerusalem because the kid would never be at peace with himself. 

At least the title is short.  Nonfiction books have very long titles nowadays, so it’s refreshing to see a nonfiction book with a three word title.  Instead of Jerusalem: An Impartial Chronicle of Man’s Inhumanity and Cruelty to Man in the Guise of Religious Fervor, the title is simply Jerusalem: A Biography

I read this book, but I don’t remember much, and maybe that’s my fault instead of the author’s.  I remember the phrase “Roman swag” early in the book because it stood out.  It’s like an anachronism with words.  When discussing Romans sacking (ha ha… sacking) Jerusalem, the author probably should have used a less colloquial term like “Roman booty” (ha ha… booty) or “newly acquired Roman possessions.”  The word “swag” just seems out of place in the historical context of the biography. 


This book is very bloody, in a clinical way.  It describes people getting slaughtered, massacred, tortured, crucified, burned alive, put to the sword, shot, blown up, anything that a sadistic mind can take pleasure in.  It’s not a pleasant read, but that’s part of the author’s point. 

It’s kind of like reading The Iliad, only without the (kind of) redemption at the end.  The point of the story can be lost with the constant bombardment (redundancy alert!) of violence.  The Iliad has page after page of who killed whom in battle, so much so that readers get bored and move on to The Odyssey (not a good move, in my opinion).  Jerusalem: the Biography has so much murder and mayhem that the reader might get bored and turn on the television to a news channel (not a good move either). 


Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944  by Anna Reid 

I had to read this book in short doses.  It’s not a military book, like most books about World War II.  This account focuses on civilians in Leningrad and the effects that the siege had on them (usually painful death or near starvation).  Instead of the laundry list of faceless carnage (as seen in Jerusalem: A Biography), this book uses diary entries and narratives of people who experienced the horrors of Leningrad.  Horrible things happened to pretty much everybody in the book, and you have to be prepared for that.  It’s easy to read (from a reading standpoint).  I learned a lot about the siege of Leningrad that I didn’t already know, but I was uncomfortable reading a lot of it. 

Yeah, this review is short, but it’s almost impossible to write a light-hearted response to Leningrad



Read Leningrad if you feel like being depressed (or don’t care if you get depressed).  Read Jerusalem if you don’t want to feel anything. If I had to choose one, I’d rather feel depressed while reading a book than feel nothing, so I’d choose Leningrad.

From → Literary Combat

One Comment
  1. crape myrtle permalink

    Oh crumb. Now you’ve peaked my interest about Leningrad. I hate feeling depressed, but I love a book that makes me feel something. Oh well, I’ve got a gift certificate for stuff at Amazon, so if I feel depressed I can blame the giver. I feel better already.

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