winterbadger: (books)
Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland (24) Though this author's work is a cut above I.J. Parker's (there seems at least a modicum of recognition of Shogunate Japan being a different place and time, with a different culture and sensibility), there seem still a woodenness of character and an overabundance of exposition and explicit internal dialogue than I would say characterizes good fiction. If I'm conscious that I'm sitting outside the character, watching him or her declaim their impressions and reactions, rather than be immersed in the character feeling and seeing those reactions from the inside, something is wrong, to my way of thinking. The plot was fairly predictable, the characters believable but not overly engaging. I'm not going to pursue these authors.

Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst (25). This is the fourth of Furst's novels that I've read (unless I'm losing count), and it's as enjoyable as ever other has been. It describes the events before and after the entry of Greece into World War Two, as seen through the eyes of a Greek police officer in the city of Salonika. What I find compelling about Furst's writing includes his characters, his settings, his narrative and structural style, and the overall air he imbues his stories with. His characters are usually sketched out in what looks on the surface like a rough, superficial way; but the author conveys a great deal about his people by their reactions to events, their interactions with each other, and the way they live in the world. Instead of telling you about them, he shows you them. Though they are sometimes introspective, their internal thoughts sound convincingly like the thoughts any one of us might have, rather than being self-consciously dramatic monologues, rehearsed and broadcast clumsy soliloquies. His settings are perfect; I'm not a student of the physical and social culture of mid-20th century Europe, but these convey a sense of place and time that gives every appearance of being both genuine and not overdone. Sights, smells, sounds flow into you from the page; you absorb the sentiments and attitudes of the people and cultures the characters wander through.

And all of Furst's novels that I've read so far have something of the air of "a day in the life"; they do not usually begin with a dramatic event or end with the finality of a completed epic. They introduce you to a protagonist well along in their life, established with a past, traveling toward a future. And while the events of the story that the book involves are generally wrapped up within its pages, there is no feeling that those characters are done. They have the rest of their lives (long or short) to go on with; you have walked together this far, and now it is time to part. But not an ending.

And I wish I could describe better what it is that I find so perfect about his stories, but the best I can do is this: they are fiction, but they feel true. They're stories, but you feel almost as if these characters were doing, have done, will do all these things whether you pick up the book and open it or not. They're your glimpse into someone else's life. I wish I could write so well.

In Progress

Dark Star by Alan Furst
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Berlin Diary by William Shirer
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by Jimmy Carter
Master and God by Lindsey Davis
1914: The Days of Hope by Lyn MacDonald
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: (coffee cup)
Inside the White House During Fukushima

NSC senior director for East Asia talks about administration reaction to last year's nuclear crisis in Japan.

Poker Lessons from Richelieu

A review of a new bio on the pivotal French leader.

KONY 2012 and the Prospects for Change

Three researchers explain why the response from Africa to the West's sudden discovery of the evil of the LRA has been less than wholehearted.
winterbadger: (coffee cup)
I don't want to short non-English poetry. Here are a couple of pieces by the master of haiku, Matsuo Basho. Read more... )

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