winterbadger: (pooh tao)
So, January was very busy for me book-wise:

Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran by Roxana Saberi (1) Interesting account of an Iranian-American journalist who was arrested and imprisoned briefly in Tehran on trumped-up espionage charges. Listened to it on CD, read by the author. Because the book is primarily about her experience in the political section of Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, one gets very little perspective on Iranian society in general. But she does paint some interesting and engaging portraits of the interrogators and officials she deals with and, even more, of the other prisoners she encounters after her intitial period of solitary confinement. I read a number of the reviews of this book on Amazon after listenign to it on CD, and I found several good characterizations of it. I certainly agree with one of the commentators who grows restive with Saberi's whiny, self-pitying tone. She never endures any real hardship, and she seems inclined to overdramatize both her shame (after she initially decides to "confess" in hopes that it will get her released) and her heroism (when she subsequently decides to engage in hunger strikes to pressure her captors).

Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (2) Another novel by the excellent Furst, who is a great writer of historical thrillers set in the era before and during the Second World War and usually featuring some combination of espoionage and military affairs. This tells the story of the French military attache in Warsaw in the last few years before the outbreak of war, as he runs agents, conducts intelligence gathering himself, and romances a beautiful woman (or two). Mostly mellow (but not boring) with occasional bursts of chilling action, and full of convincing period detail.

The Monkey's Wedding by Joan Aiken (3) I'm always stumbling across new collections of Aiken's short storie, which I have been reading (along with her YA fiction and her novels) since childhood. This is a typical collection of her worK: some of the short stories it contains are whimsical, some gruesome, some mournful, and some simply odd. Lots of magical realism to be found in her stories, and a great del of fun as well.

FDR: The First Hundred Days by Anthony J. Badger (4) An excellent introduction to the subject, but for the novice a bit like drinking from a firehose. The names, dates, associations, and legislative histories come think and fast in this relatively short work (in recorded form it is just five CDs). While it's engaging, it only scrapes the surface of any of its subjects. I learned a great deal about the causes of the banking crisis, some of it quite different to the common conceptions of the origins of the Great Depression. The parallels to the Great Recession are many and startling; the biggest difference is the extensive cooepration that FDR got from his party and the Republicans. He was by no means popular with everyone, and resistance to the New Deal existed and grew during its lifetime, but he was always able to find sufficient legislative support for the policies he pursued. Part of that came from his strong support among Southern Democrats, cultivated over many years. (Blacks were more or less entirely shut out of the New Deal planning and implementation and hardly even considered at all during FDR's administration.) Part of his support came from a group almost unknown today, the Progressive Republicans who had backed his cousin Theodore Roosevelt; though not so much like those who call themselves progressive in today's politics, they were worlds ahead of the current mainstream of Republican thinking, being concerned to constrain business and industry far enough to make life fair and bearable for the working man.

Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift by Mike Snook (5) The second half of Snook's pair on the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, this tells of the British victory in the early stage of the campaign that served to leaven the disaster of the battle of Isandhlwana. The small garrison of a two-building supply depot guarding a river crossing managed to hold out against the reserve corps of the Zulu army. Snook examines the events immediately preceeding the "siege", the battle itself, the immediate aftermath, and the remainder of the campaign. Like any good storyteller who has given you deep and interesting portraits of a variety of chacters, Snook provides details of what happened to the major protagonists (and some of the supporting characters) throughout the rest of their lives. The book brings the invaluable perspective of a professional military man to examining the action. Snook has spent a good deal of time in the region, and he served most of his career in the modern descendant of the 24th Foot, the principal Regular Army unit invovled at both Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift. His officer's eye view gives the reader information and an understanding of the combats (and the campaign overall) that few (possibly none) of the other well known writers on the campaign could supply. On the other hand, he seems (to me) a little too ready to show solidarity with some of the actors and excuse faults or put the best construction on a situation in order to preserve the reputation of his regiment and of the Army as a whole. I'm also inclined to think that a professional historian would manage to supress his inclination to snipe at characters he dislikes a little better than Snook does. But this pair of books remain, in my opinion, both invaluable and long-overdue analyses of the opening stages of the 1879 campaign.

Four by Jonathan Gash. He's a writer of mysteries centered around an antique dealer, Lovejoy, who lives near Colchester in Essex. He's an expert in many fields of the antiques trade, a diviner (able to suss out true antiques, whether he can analyze them or not), perpetually skint, and a cheerfully sexist womanizer. The stories follow a predictable pattern. Someone involves Lovejoy in a hunt for a specific treasured antiqu; he is or becomes invovled with one or more women; violence ensures--usually someone close to him is killed or injured and he goes out looking for revenge and the antique; more violence happens--Lovejoy getting his revenge...and the antique. Curtain. So, formulaic, but the stories are kind of a delivery mechanism for the things that Gash has learned about hunting for--or faking--antiques, which is quite a lot and certainly interesting. There's usually some location that we learn about too, often as part of the climactic events.

The Judas Pair (6): in which we learn about flintlock weapons, especially duelling pistols. No specific location.
Gold From Gemini (7): in which we learn about Roman Britain, especially coins. Location: the Laxey Wheel on the Isle of Man.
The Grail Tree (8): in which we learn about religious relics, especially a cup that may be the True Grail. Location: Colchester Castle.
Spend Game (9): in which we learn about early railways. Location: a fictional failed railway, possibly modeled on the Colne Valley Railway.

In progress:
The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
winterbadger: (books)
Forgot one and finished another...

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (9) Another re-read. A classic, perhaps the classic spy novel. From everything I've read about MI6/the SIS, this and the TV show The Sandbaggers are terrifically true to life, while rubbish like James Bond is just colourful fantasy. Again, as with most books, what keeps me coming back to le Carré's work is his art of writing characters. The plotting is well done, and the understated way in which things are often implied but rarely stated very much appeals to me as well (Dorothy Dunnett was the pinnacle of writers in doing this, IMO), but it's the people and the sympathetic and clear-eyed way in which he portrays all of them, whatever their role in the story, is what I love. I'm sure I will read this again and again for many more years. The film adaptation from 2011 was very good, both for its selection of actors and for its period staging (the opening sequence in Czecho is especially exciting), but for my money Sir Alec Guinness made the perfect George Smiley and the 1979 TV adaptation was definitive.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (10) A re-read, but from many, many years ago. TI is a book I remember reading as a child, or perhaps even having read to me. I don't think I've ever seen a film adaptation, so my vision of it is purely that of the author's words. I don't think that, until today I had even ever seen any of the Wyeth illustrations for it other than that of Blind Pew (a wonderfully evocative one). It's a great adventure novel of a rather dated sort; I'm sure there are things about it that the fuddy-duddys and PC people would take exception to today (though not as much as the John Buchan books I also loved), and its replication of post-Golden Age piracy may not be perfect, but I don't take exception to any of its details. RLS was a regular in our household when I was little; I remember The Black Arrow and Kidnapped and A Child's Garden of Verses particularly.

In progress

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in World War I by Arlen J. Hansen (Some fo COl. Roosevelt's family worked in the American Hospital in Paris, which is mentioned here.)
The Captain From Connecticut by C. S. Forrester (several chapters in; odd to read Forrester wiring about an American)
French Napoleonic Infantry Tactics, 1792-1815 by Paddy Griffith
Enter Jeeves by P.G Wodehouse
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy (Learning all sorts of interesting stuff about the influence of pre-Islamic Persian religion on early Christianity)
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783 by William M. Fowler, Jr.
winterbadger: (Napoleonic_shakos)
This is a lot of toy soldiers!

Incidentally, I was watching an episode of The Sandbaggers (a late 1970s drama from Yorkshire Television about British spies) last night. The British spies are tracking one of their own guys who is visiting a psychiatrist without telling anyone, a psychiatrist who turns out to be a former citizen of an East Bloc country who has a string of other British senior civil servants and military officers visiting his establishment. "Well, it turns out his problem is that he likes playing with toy soldiers," one of the spies says, disgustedly. "What, as in war-gaming?" asks one of the others, "That's what these other chaps do--they all play war-games!" Apparently the clever Hungarian is recruiting 'moles' in the British security hierarchy by running a wargames club! :-)


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