winterbadger: (pooh tao)
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by Jimmy Carter (26) Carter has always struck me as the best president in my lifetime. Not the "nicest" president or the "best person"--the best *president*. While I think he is a very *good* person, and a true Christian (as I was brought up to understand Christ's message), those are usually ways people diminish him, damning him with faint praise. "Oh, he was too honest to be president" or "oh, he was so much better as an ex-president". But, by implication, "he was an awful *president*." Nonsense. Far too many people have bought into the mythology of the Reagan era and the GOP fiction spinners who have run the White House for more than half the time I've been alive. This book (the recorded version of which, to my delight, is read by the President himself) chronicles one of his greatest achievements--the Camp David Peace Accords--but also the failure of subsequent US presidents to put the sort of pressure on all parties that Carter did, and the subsequent growth of unilateral, imperialist policy in Israel, scuttling the peace process because it can simply take whatever it wants, with the supine acceptance of the United States and the rest of the western powers. Carter is unsparing of his own naivete and ignorance, his optimism in hoping that Israeli and Arab leaders could be convinced of the benefits to be gained by working together to achieve stability. His conclusion is that, as much as Israel thinks it can simply create stability with guns and bulldozers, concrete and barbed wire, it will only continue to stoke the frustration and determination of Palestinians to resist occupation and tyranny. Both sides need to come together with honest intent before peace can be achieved; Carter is much more hopeful than I am that this will eventually happen.

Berlin Diary by William Shirer (27) Literally, Shirer's diaries of his time as foreign correspondent in Berlin from 1933 to 1940. Shirer concealed some names of persons and places to protect friends, peers, and sources in case his journals were seized by the Nazi government, but the names that remain include Edward R. Murrow (his co-worker and boss at ABC) and Joseph Harsch (an alumnus of Williams College I met briefly, who like Murrow and Shirer is one of the legends of wartime reporting from World War Two) as well as all the famous figures of European politics of the 1930s and 40s, large and small, whose deeds and words Shirer reports with unflinching candor and much insight and humour. Having read so much of went on in these days as dry history, I found it fascinating to hear the perspective of a reporter working in the middle of the events, recording day by day his perceptions of the events unfolding around him. Equally interesting, in a geeky way, were the insights one gets from his adventures about the technical side of radio broadcasting and the often remarkable lengths to which reporters had to go to get their stories on air (and the lengths that the German government would go to to control what news went out, both sly tricks--like using studio microphones that reduced background noise, so listeners couldn't hear the sounds of an air raid going on during the broadcast--to heavy-handed censorship.) Shirer saw daily life in Germany and neighboring countries before and during the war, from political riots in Paris to head of state visits in Italy, covering the Nazi seizure of Austria, traveling to Poland to see the fighting firsthand and to to France and the Low Countries to see the aftermath of the 1940 blitzkrieg. For much of the war, Shirer's wife and daughter lived in nearby, neutral Switzerland, and the contrast he observed in his visits to them between wartime Germany (literally darkened and under sever rationing) and the bright, bustling nightlife of Berne and Zurich was quite remarkable. I was glad that I had recently read Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days, as a number of personalities of the time get mentions here which I would not have understood as well if I hadn't been introduced to them already.

Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey (28 and 29) Re-reading some YA books I enjoyed in S. Still enjoyable light reading.

Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White (30) An old family favourite, this was one of Melissa's picks when we were scavenging an awesome used bookstore in Sidney, BC. I re-read it after she was done, and found it agreeable, but a little tiresome in its heavy-handed humour. Taking some ideas and situations from classic literature and re-applying them to a YA adventure: A+. Attempted satire: C-.

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan (31) A fascinating story of the first great forest fire after the creation of the national forest system in the United States. This revisits several characters whom I met in Edmund Morris's three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, like Roosevelt himself and his successor in the presidency, the hapless and feeble William Howard Taft. It even mentions William Allen White, who I'm sure was mentioned in Morris but who served as a central character in (again) Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days, given his role in pushing America out of isolation and towards participation in World War Two. But most of all, this book gives gives me a broader picture of Gifford Pinchot, advisor to TR and FDR and sometime governor of Pennsylvania, but first and foremost the architect of the National Forest system and the first head of the US Forest Service. This tale conveys his passion for forestry and conservation, stoked by his ealry mentor, John Muir. Much of the story deals with Pinchot's battles with the timber and railroad barons who wanted to exploit public lands for their resources and turn them into a vast patchwork of mines, factories, towns, and cities. Pinchot (under TR and, for a while, Taft) fought a losing battle against these predatory corporate trusts and their congressional allies, trying to preserve the wild beauty of the West for future generations. While the great fire of 1910 was a disaster of epic proportions for the western forests and the homesteaders and towns that lay in its path, Pinchot used the heroic deeds of the outmatched forest rangers who tried to fight it. With an astute sense of politics and public relations, Pinchot turned the tide of public opinion and forced through reforms that allowed the Forest Service to grow and assume a more powerful role. Ironically, however, the men who went on to lead the service worked hand in glove with the timber barons in a way that horrified Pinchot. And the lessons that the Forest Service chose to learn from the fire, that all fires, no matter how small, had to be fought to extinction, actually worked against the health of the forests, as it brought to a halt the cycle of cleaning and revitalizing burns that had kept the forest ecosystems healthy.

In Progress

Dark Star by Alan Furst
Wilson by A. Scott Berg
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Master and God by Lindsey Davis
1914: The Days of Hope by Lyn MacDonald
Learn Python the Hard Way by Zed A. Shaw
The Somme by Robin Prior and Trevor Williams
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2015: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles
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
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
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City Ed. by Joseph S. Tiedemann and Eugene R. Fingerhut
winterbadger: (books)
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olson (18) I need to come back and give this a proper review later, but it's another excellent book about America in the 1930s, which has broadened my appreciation of the politics and society of that period and provided more material for my ever-changing impressions of FDR. Like Blackett's War, this is not truly centered exclusively on its titular protagonists, as the action covers a much wider sweep of American and European personalities than even these two larger than life men constitute. As have many books I've encountered in the last few years, it gives me a pang of longing for something now long-dead, the liberal, progressive wing of the Republican Party, featuring as it does the few remaining hangers-on to the ideals of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, among whom I think Wendell Wilkie (a man I knew almost nothing about before encountering him in this book) should be numbered.

Wobble to Death and The Detective Wore Silk Drawers by Peter Lovesey (19) and (20) Two of a series of novels about a police detective in Victorian London. I remember seeing several of these stories televised in the 1980s. They're all right, but not great; they feature murders set in two of the popular sports of the time: long-distance competitive walking and (illegal) bare-knuckle boxing. I'm still trying to drag out of memory what the other detective series by a modern author set in the Victorian era was, since this wasn't it.

The Dragon Scroll by I.J. Parker (22) A detective novel of Heian-era (11th century) Japan. I'd read a selection of one story online and bought up a couple of copies of Parker's series cheaply on the strength of it. I'm glad that they were very cheap, as I find from closer acquaintance that not only is her style heavily dependent on that of Robert van Gulik (who she credits as her inspiration), but her writing is not very good and (this novel, at least) filled with attitudes, behaviours, and physical culture that seem entirely out of place in Japan, let alone medieval Japan. Most of her characters sound and act very much like modern Western people, which is highly disappointing.

Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East by Jared Cohen (23) A travelogue by an American postgraduate student wandering through the Middle East, meeting and interviewing young people in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Considering that the author had traveled through some pretty hairy parts of central Africa and was a Rhodes Scholar in international relations at Oxford, he seems to have been remarkably, astonishingly naïve and ill-informed about the places he went during the course of researching this book. That he parlayed his experiences into a job on the US State Department's policy planning staff and advisor to two Secretaries of State is even more amazing. Despite his quite remarkable lack of understanding of the places he went and the people he encountered, his book is nonetheless quite interesting and enjoyable, both for the insights it provides into popular culture and political discourse among young people in a pivotal region, but also for the simple human interactions he engages in with ordinary people throughout the region.

In progress:

Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Berlin Diary by William Shirer
Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
winterbadger: (coffee cup)
Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare by Stephen Budiansky (16) This was a fascinating 'read' (another recorded book from the library I enjoyed). It's a bit schizophrenic, as it starts out as if it were intended to be a dual biography of Patrick Blackett (a brilliant British scientist who was instrumental in the development of operational research during World War II, especially in its application to anti-submarine warfare) and Karl Donitz (a German naval officer who rose to command the German submarine forces and eventually the entire Navy during World War II). But, despite that biographical beginning and it's suggestive title, the book is less about Blackett and Donitz and more about the way in which the British (and later) American military recognized and took advantage of the benefits that civilian scientists could bring to military problems. In many cases it took long, hard lobbying or mandates from the services' political masters for Navy and Air Force officers to accept that non-professionals could contribute anything of value to their procedures. (Interestingly, there is almost no mention of the Army; I don't think that is because that service was unaffected; it may be the result of the author's personal interests/bias.)

As always, when I encounter discussions of the theory and implementation of operations research, I'm fascinated by the ideas it tackles, the things it looks at, and the ways it's used to solve military problems. But when I go off to look for ways to learn more about it or find out more about it, I meet such a blank wall of higher mathematics that I give up. At least nowadays, it seems that OR and the related (and to me intriguing) world of modeling and simulation are just not very welcoming to people without advanced maths and engineering training.

The Chrysanthemum Chain by James Melville (17) In this, the second Superintendent Otani novel (apparently I shifted it one place out of order), our self-effacing Japanese police official is confronted with some very tricky situations arising from the murder of a foreign resident. A substantial portion of the novel actually takes place from the point of view of a British consular officer dealing with the murder, as he gets embroiled in the seamy side of Japanese society, where politics and organized crime mingle. The novel also includes one of Inspector Otani's rare victories (small though it is) in his perpetual war with Ambassador Tsunematsu, the Foreign Office official reponsible for dealing with foreign nationals resident in Japan, especially those of interest to the shadowy security services (which, in practice, tends to be most of them, just by virtue of their being foreigners). There's also the first mention in the series of the burakumin, the outcaste people of Japan.

In progress:
The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City Ed. by Joseph S. Tiedemann and Eugene R. Fingerhut
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olson
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
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
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

more books

Mar. 13th, 2015 01:30 pm
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
The Chinese Bell Murders by Robert van Gulik (11) Another interesting set of Chinese mysteries from the Dutch Sinophile and diplomat van Gulik. Judge Dee handles a crime of passion, a gang of smugglers, an ancient feud, and a suspicious monastery with the help of this two trusty lieutenants and his dependable sergeant.

Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War by Michael Dobbs (12) It would take some time to give this book a proper review, but as an opener let me say that I found it much more satisfying then the similar work by Michael Beschloss that I recently listened to. Some of the difference is doubtles due to the latter having been an abridged version (I hate those), but I find Dobbs to be, among other things, simply a better writer. That said, what stands out is the richness of detail and the vivdness of the character portraits he provides, things that might well be compressed in an abridged edition. Likewise, the breadth of the topics touched on is incomparably to the advantage of Dobbs's book. One fair point of comparison, I think, is that while Dobbs introduces a good many of the people invovled in the events of the period, from US Ambassador Averill Harriman and Soviet FM Molotov right the way down to the American and Russian soldiers meeting for the first time along the Elbe River, his focus remains on the principals: FDR (and later Truman), Stalin, and Churchill. Beschloss spends a tremendous amount of time and attention on Henry Morgenthau, Jr. While he was an important advisor to FDR and a major player in the considerations behind Allied treatment of postwar Germany, it makes little sense to pay more attention to him even than to Roosevelt, especially given that his plan for the occupation, though an important chip in the three-power game of poker, wwas never implemented.

The Wages of Zen by James Melville (13) and A Sort of Samurai by James Melville (14) I've started rereading Melville's Superintendent Otani mysteries, enjoyable stories about a mid-ranking Japanese police official in the city of Kobe. Otani, who served briefly in World War Two, is in middle age when we meet him in these tales, set in the 1970s. Otani-san is ably assisted by two colorful characters, Kimura-san, who handles the department's contacts with foreigners, and Noguchi-san (informally known as "Ninja"), who deals with Kobe's underworld denizens. Otani's wife, Hanae, often figures as a supporting character, and his radical-turned-solid-middle-class daughter and son-in-law are never too far away. In The Wages of Zen, the police are called in to a Zen temple to investigate drug smuggling that isn't but soon find a murder has taken place. In A Sort of Samurai, Kimura's language skills and debonair charm are required as the police investigate a suspicious death and some related unpleasantness. Melville (real name R.P. Martin), an Englishman, spent many years in Japan in various diplomatic and cultural positions and was well able to give Western readers a glimpse into the world of postwar Japanese culture. I imagine that his Kobe of the 1970s and 1980s might seem almost as foreign to today's younger Japanese as it was to European and American readers when the novels were published. Melville's stories are entertaining and enlightening without being hugely demanding; his characters are genuine and full o f personality, well rounded rather than simple cut-outs.

The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945—The Last Epic Struggle of World War II by Bill Sloan (15) My reading of this follows my reading of Sloan's book on the battle of Peleliu, Brotherhood of Heroes. Since the two campaigns followed each other as well, many of the US Marine Corps men familiar from that book appear here as well, almost like old friends. Reading Brotherhood was wrenching, a tiny glimpse of the horrific conditions of fighting, even living, in the conditions that Marines suffered under in that battle being enough to turn one's stomach. The same can be said for Ultimate Battle, which conveys the brutality, the awfulness, the bitterness of losing friends and comrades, the horror of warfare, the frightful conditions on the ground, the mixture of fear and adrenaline rush of fighting off kamikaze attacks at sea, the stolid determination of the Japanese military (who knew they could not win the battle in any sense of the word) to inflict as much damage as possible on their enemy before they died, and of the destruction and terror of the native Okinawan noncombatant population, truly the shrimp crushed in the battles of the whales. Even the aftermath, in which is detailed the end of the war and the last attempts by fanatics to hold out in Japan, even to the extent of trying to overthrow the wartime government and the emperor in order to keep fighting, is fascinating. And the recounting of the postwar lives of the men who survived the fighting, who have become familiar to the reader, is heart-warming in its assurance that so many were able to find purpose and live on to ripe old age, many of them being interviewed by Sloan for the book, sixty years and more after the war.

In progress:
Blackett's War by Stephen Budiansky
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
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
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: (toy badger)

The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss (10) An abridged version of Beschloss's 377-page book on the US invovlement in World War Two under FDR and Truman. I really dislike abridgements, and if I had realized that was what this was, I would have skipped it. I feel as if I get no good sense of the whole book from listening to little bits and pieces, even if they are chosen (and, in this case, read) by the author.

That said, these had the feel of a workmanlike but not stellar piece of work. Beschloss has doubtless done his research, as he presents the perpectives of a number of different figures, but the writing is stilted and wooden, lacking any colour or style, filled constantly with passages of quotations, often from the same person from the same conversation, which feels odd. By which I mean something like: George said, "I would rather ride than drive." George said, "I do not like driving." George said, "Riding is more agreeable." I'm not sure why one would write this way. The characterizations of the different actors are likewise wooden and bland.

That said, no one comes out of this book very well. FDR seems at his worst: feeble, grasping at straws to appear in control, promising different things to different people and following through on none of it, telling tales behind everyone's backs. Truman appears brisk, capable, and confident by comparison, but also parochial and bigoted. Morgenthau, FDR's Treasury Secretary, long-time friend and NYS neighbour doesn't come off well; at first afraid to press Roosevelt on the Holocaust, he seems finally pushed to do so by friends and supplicants and is transformed into a bitter, angry man, fixed on counterproductive eye-for-an-eye vengeance on Germany. Hnery Stimson, FDR's Secretary of War, seems a very prim, fussy traditionalist, and Cordell Hull, Roosevelt's Secretary of State a feeble, unhealthy man in a comic-opera role, responsible for executing America's foreign policy but shut out of all top-level diplomatic business by a president who didn't seem to trust him. Hull, while out of touch, had intelligence and principle; Stettinius, his replacement, is such a duffer that his staff hoodwink him into signing documents he hasn't read and doesn't suppport.

It will be interesting to contrast this (abridged) book with Michael Dobbs' history of much the same period, which is my next audio selection. It's already proved much more fascinating because it goes into tremendous detail about the preparations for the Yalta conference. Dobbs's portrait of Churchill makes him out to be both impossible, infuriating, and charming--rather like FDR, but with more backbone. It leaves me sorely tempted to try the Manchester bio of Churchill, which comes as a mammoth three-box set of CDs weighing something like five pounds. :-)

In progress:
Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War by Michael Dobbs
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
The Chinese Bell Murders by Robert van Gulik
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
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: (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: (pooh tao)
I realized that in my last entry I left off a book. I've also finished another since then.

Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam by John A. Nagl (24) Originally his doctoral dissertation, this book by John Nagl (a lieutenant colonel in the US Army and former Rhodes Scholar) compares the organizational learning behaviors of the British Army during the Malayan Emergency and the US Army during the Vietnam War. As a reworked thesis might be expected to be, it's a bit dry for the casual reader and a bit academic for the average military history reader, but nonetheless it does a good job of douign what it sets out to do--documenting how different organizations adapat to situations that they're not accustome to, in this case armies fighting a different sort of war than they have been prepared to fight through training, doctrine, and equipment. The British took a few years but adapated and successfully developed the capability to fight a counterinsurgency campaign. Nagl suggests that this has a lot to do with the sort of conflicts that the British had historically fought, though I think he discounts the historical focus in the regular Army on conventional warfare. The American Army, even with the experience ot the British Army in Malaya to call on, did not adapt to the challenge of dealing with unconventional warfare, continuing to try to fight guerrillas in the jungle using equipment and tactics developed to fight the Russians in Germany and ignoring the political element of the conflict as long as they could.

Roman Blood by Stephen Saylor (25) The first (both in order of publication and chronologically) of Stephen Saylor's novels about the detective Gordianus the Finder, set in late Republican Rome, starts the reader (if not Gordianus's career, which is well underway when the story opens) off with a bang. A brutal and gory murder, political intrigue, incest, and the introduction of an unknown advocate, one Marcus of the Tullii, named Cicero, make this an exciting introduction to this wily and charming investigator. Decent and honest but cynical and world-weary, Gordianus will appeal to most readers. He's clever, but not too clever, and he may take advantage of the wealthy and corrupt, but he's kind and fair to those less fortunate. A good mystery as well as a good read, the plot keeps twisting right up to the end. I've read this before, but I enjoyed it jsut as much the second (or third?) time around.

In progress:

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans
How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandhlwana Revealed by Mike Snook
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
The Teeth of the Gale by Joan Aiken (20) The third of Aiken's YA "Felix" trilogy. Entertaining account of Felix, who rejoins a friend from an earlier adventure, venturing into the murky world of early 19th century Spanish politics. Ever the young caballero, Felix journeys to help a beautiful lady in distress and has more adventures in the desolate mountains of northern Spain. Enjoyable while not terribly deep, this story neatly rounds out the trilogy of tales about the young Anglo-Spanish nobleman.

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (21) I first encountered Emma Bull when I read the novel Freedom and Necessity, which she co-wrote with Stephen Brust. That novel is based in history; this, written ten years earlier, is one of her best-known novels, a classic urban fantasy, with a young woman being dragooned into joining a war between two supernatural factions. Romance, music, knights of faerie--it's all here in an enjoyable story draped in what felt to me like charmingy dated 1980s aesthetics (written in 1997, so that last is a little misleading).

The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert van Gulik (22) van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat, writier, and musician. Born in the Netherlands, he spent most of his life in East Asia, first growing up in the Netherlands East Indies and later serving in the Dutch foreign service in Japan and China. Van Gulik loved Asain traditional culture, especially Chinese art, literature, and jurisprudence. He translated a traditional Chinese novel, of a genre somewhere between the mystery and the police procedural. Quite taken by this Chinese genre, he wrote new novels in this form, using historical settings and legal cases taken from his research, hoping that these would appeal to modern Chinese and Japanese readers, who at the time (1950s) were very taken with Euro-American detective novels. The novels proved even more popular in the West, and van Gulik eventually published over a dozen of them, which appeared in English, Chinese, and Japanese translations.

This is the first novel he wrote himself (though not the first in in-story chronology). It illustrates some of the characteristics that van Gulik found most interesting about the original Chinese style, including the simultaneous unraveling of several different plots; the pattern of the central character being a magistrate who investigates, prosecutes, and judges his cases; the importance of the public nature and ceremony of examinations and sentencing of prisoners; the importance of maintaining the symbolic unity and propriety of Imperial rule as a means of ensuring it's practical stability. The one element he reportedly changed was that traditional Chinese "detective" stories employ an inverted format, where the details of the crime are known ahead of time and the dramatic tension come from the investigator's own growing understanding of them. Van Gulik thought that readers would prefer the method more traditional in the West, of allowing the reader to discover the facts of the case as the same time as the investigator.

I found this quite enjoyable. I was able to find a cheaper copy in the Apple (book)store; it has van Gulik's pen and ink illustrations, but is produced from an older edition with fewer bells and whistles and the occasional typo, but for what will likely be a one-off reading, I can justify the cost of a $5 e-book of an old edition more easily then the $9 cost of an e-book of the most recent printing.

Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944--The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War by Bill Sloan (23) This deserves a fuller review than I can provide right now. But I will say that it strikes me as an excellent history of a military action, as it provides strategic context, a factual narrative, thorough and careful detail of tactical, doctrinal, and practical issues that someone not intimately familiar with the subject may not know, and it also engages the reader by providing a lot of personal/human context by skillfully weaving in the accounts of individual soldiers involved in the battle. It left me feeling as if I had gotten a clear and detailed look at the events of the battle and gotten to know many of the participants.

I also began listening to, and then stopped and returned, John Mosier's Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I, 1914-1918. I have to say, frankly, I detest his work. He represents what, to me, are some of the worst traits of amateur military historians. He wants to be notorious, controversial, iconoclastic, and for the most part always comes off, to me, as shallow, self-important, and sloppy. He starts off Verdun by trying to convince the reader that French geography is confusing, idiosyncratic, and impenetrable, that it confused and confuses most military officers and historians, both from foreign countries and even from France itself. His evidence for this is that wartime documents and postwar histories of the Verdun battle use terms like "the Argonne" or "Lorraine" or "Burgundy" that were not specifically delineated entities with legal borders. That's like saying that a history of Virginia is confusing because it refers to the Peidmont and the Tidewater, which are not legal entities (today, "Lorraine" definitely *is* a legal and administrative entity, which makes me wonder if it wasn't in 1914 or if Mosier screwed that up too). He complains that authors frequently mean different things by referring to "Verdun"--sometimes the city, sometimes the Région Fortifiée de Verdun. Well, yes, sometimes names mean more than one thing; but I'm unwilling to beleive that most historians of the conflict are unable to clearly indicate which they mean.

In progress:
Roman Blood by Stephen Saylor
How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandhlwana Revealed by Mike Snook
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
winterbadger: (afghanistan)
Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary (13) This is an excellent history of Afghanistan, more or less from the 18th century to the present day. It's written by an Afghan who has spent most of his adult life in the US but has many family connections to the pre-Communist elite that tried to bring modern, Western ideas to Afghan government and culture. He writes a very clear-eyed account of the ways in which Afghan history has featured an eternal tension, sometimes rising to a struggle, between its traditional, clan-based, agricultural conservative society and each generation's crop of reformers and liberalisers. Overlaid across these tidal movements are the occasional massive disruptions caused by foreign actors seeking to bend Afghanistan to their will.

Ansary's work is comprehensive in its scope, but not so exhaustive or academic as to be boring to the casual reader. For me, it filled out and knit together passages that I knew a little about (the First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars that I've read about and the years of the Soviet invasion that I experienced through the nightly news) with other periods just as fascnating that I knew nothing about (the founding of Afghanistan by Ahmed Shah Durrani in the 1740s or the rule of "the Iron Emir" Abdur Rahman Khan, of the too-western King Amanullah, and of the figurehead Zahir Shah and his Richelieu-ish uncle Nadir Shah). I listened to it (as I do many books these days) while commuting, and I have to say honestly that I looked forward to my drive every day. On a recent theme of other reviews, Ansary reads the book himself, and he does an excellent job. He reads--or, really, speaks--with animation and charm; his rendition of his book is a pleasure to listen too, and having the author reading makes the passages where he speaks about his own experiences or those of his family members even more engaging. I would recommend this book to anyone who has even a passing interest in the topic, especially if you can find the recorded version.

In progress
Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel by Max Blumenthal
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
Recently completed

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers (6). A re-read of an old favourite. I've gotten to the point that, after maybe half a dozen to a dozen rereadings of this, I don't forget the plot in between :-) and even begin to find the author telegraphing it a bit. But I love the character portraits all the same, and the interaction of the players. Peter Wimsey the clever man playing the fool so as to put other people at their ease; Mervyn Bunter the tireless and loyal servant, firm in command of his employer where he feels he has the prerogative to be so and kindly and affectionate only when he knows it will be unseen and unheard and create no tension in the delicate balance of class and respect and comradeship he shares with Lord Peter. Charles Parker the intelligent, thoughtful, educated man of the middle class, neither filled with inverted snobbery nor lacking the ability to be polite and courteous to those he meets of whatever standing, and fully conscious of his abilities without either deprecating or inflating them. Yes, these are all characters I admire and wish to emulate, each in his own way.

The Korean War by Max Hastings (7). Recorded. A good book, though dated (1987) in some of its comments 'in light of contemporary events'. Hastings is quite an unrepentant British jingoist and Tory, and that shows clearly when he deals with the battle of the Imjin River, where a small British contingent fought a valorous retreat against tremendous odds. A heroic battle, but he devotes about the same amount of time and space to that battle of a few thousand UN troops (which had no tremendous impact on the war) as to the allied landing of 40,000 men at Incheon, one of the pivotal events of the campaign. The voice actor perfectly reproduces the snide sneers that I would expect to hear from Hastings himself, which sort of adds to the entertainment value. :-) The section on POWs (UN and Communist) is fascinating and touches on something that I knew literally nothing about. I'm sure that is comments drawing parallels between Korea and Vietnam and his open-eyed assessment of the US Army's poor performance in Korea raise some hackles, but I think by and large they are quite on point.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris (8) Recorded. I enjoyed this a great deal, but the recording I was able to get hold of was, to my dismay, of an abridged version of the book. The third volume of this trilogy, which I heard earlier in the Spring, was 700-some pages printed and 20-some CDs. This was 920 pages in print but only 8 CDs. I really detest the recording of abridged versions of books, but sometimes they are the only version available. To the extent I can gauge from what is left, this is a thorough and comprehensive description of the early part of Roosevelt's life and career, from his birth to his ascent to the presidency on the death of President McKinley.

The sheer drive and determination of Theodore Roosevelt are quite astounding (especially to a slug like me); he was nervous and unhappy when he wasn't working furiously. At the same time, he seems to have had the most amazing polymath personality, being intrigued by and building up an encyclopedic knowledge about everything he encountered from birds to the history and practice of naval warfare, from Classical authors to public administration. He was also a hugely prolific author, though I have to wonder somewhat about the quality of his writing--he once wrote a life of Cromwell in a month, while vacationing. I can't imagine a professional historian feeling he could properly research the life of Oliver Cromwell in a single year, let alone research and write it in a month while sitting on the verandah of a summer house on Long Island.

What's also remarkable (as I may have remarked after finishing Colonel Roosevelt) is how some fo the same issues and patterns of political and social life that were prevalent aroudn the turn of the 19th/20th century are still front and center: the corruption of the electoral process is front and center in this book, as Roosevelt made great use of the machine politicians of his day, who were all funded and at the beck and call of Wall Street corporate interests. Remarkably, he managed to both use them and remain (to some extent) independent and even advocate and push through reforms that would make the election of legislators and the actions of government much less corrupt.

In progress

Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
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)
Everyone gushes about Waterloo, but the battle of Leipzig, which took place in mid-October of 1813, was both much larger and, arguably, much more important. BBC News have an article on the reenactment of it on its 200th anniversary, but it's so full of twaddle that you'd be much better off just looking at the pretty pictures. Reenacting friends: look at the shot of the crowd: it looks more like the crush at an Open or Masters golf tournament than a reenacting event!
winterbadger: (editing)
I'm listening to John Ferling's Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. Right at the beginning of the book, he remarks that Jefferson, traveling from Charlottesvile to Georgetown and then on to the Federal City, crossed into the District of Columbia when he took the ferry across the Potomac into Georgetown.

No. No, no, no. He crossed into the District of Columbia when, after watering his horses at a tavern in Falls Church, he travelled east across the land that would be incorporated as the County of Alexandria in 1801. This area, formerly part of Virginia, had become part of the District on the latter's creation in 1790 and it's surveying in 1792.

Prof. Ferling is unquestionably an outstanding scholar of early American history. Anyone can make mistakes. And this is a pretty small one. But it's also a bit of a howler.
winterbadger: (orkney)
Here's something for my friends who are into Arctic exploration (and I know there's at least one of you!)

Stromness is lovely in the autumn--at least I think so!
winterbadger: (books2)
I haven't been keeping track of books this year, so I'm probably going to miss out a few titles. But, then, if I'm not remembering them, they can't have made that much of an impact, right?
Read more... )
winterbadger: (books)
This post in the awesome Boston 1775 blog brings together a number of threads. First of all, I find its simple content quite fascinating. And, of course, it also connects my love of history, the 18th century, books, Boston, and even the junction of all of these things--my first real job out of college--selling books on the corner of School and Washington Streets in Boston, across the road from the Old South Meeting House.
winterbadger: (books2)
O Internet, how I love thee! Let me count the ways.

Connected Histories: Sources for Building British History, 1500-1900

ETA: Except that these seem to be all "subscriber only" collections. :*-(

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