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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)
The Battle of Midway by Craig L. Symonds (30). I have seen the 1976 Hollywood film about the battle of Midway a number of times, and I've read brief write-ups of the campaign in histories of the war and in wargames. I've even played several games about the battle (out of the nearly two dozen around). But this is the first full history that I think I've read (heard) on the subject. Several things come through as striking, including the importance of radar (duh), the poor operational/process management practices of the opposing fleet air arms, the stunning lack of inter-service coordination, and the willingness of both sides (not just the Japanese) to sacrifice large numbers of men and equipment for very little gain.

I don't mean to to belabour all of these points in detail. But I was struck by how nearly blind naval forces were early in the war, compared to their modern equivalents. Only radio intercepts (if they could be read) and air search (by land-based or ship-borne aircraft) provided any advanced notice of the presence of enemy forces. Only the US Navy had radar, and it was in its infancy and thus very limited in effectiveness, clarity, and range. Both sides tended to employ stringent radio opsec, so it was difficult to locate enemy forces by radio triangulation. And spotters operating from aircraft often missed enemy ships and aircraft through the interference of weather, the limitations of fuel and range, or simply not looking in the right place or interpreting what they saw correctly. Add to all this that few ships had any sort of modern process or facility for analyzing and synthesizing data (like a modern ship's combat information center or CIC) and you have an image of a fleet commander more like Blind Pew feeling his way with a stick than anything else.

The decisions made by American and Japanese officers during this battle, which was fought mostly by aircraft from aircraft carriers and Americna land bases attacking surface ships, about when and how to arm and launch aircraft were pivotal and often seem to have been forced on them by poorly thought out carrier operations practices. Repeatedly carriers lauched strikes that were either uncoordinated, vulnerable, or rendered ineffective due to range because no one had done basic staff work to rationalize launch operations. Aircraft that took a long time to launch were launched last rather than first, meaning other aircraft fromt he strike force had to proceed without them or waste fuel circling while the slow aircraft were armed and brought up on deck. Not enough equipment or space was allowed to quickly change bomb loads suitable for one type of target to those suitable for another. American pilots from different services had no conception of how to operate together. Japanese doctrine made it easy for aircraft units form different ships to cooperate, but almost unthinkable to shift aircraft from one carrier to another to fill in losses or accomodate planes from a damaged ship on an undamged one. No one even seemed to have thought of practical issues when designing aircraft; the American fighters that needed to operate high above the strike planes they escorted used up a large proportion of their fuel just climbing to altitude, thus mismatching their range capability to that of the bombers they protected.

And more than anything, I was rather horrified by the casual way in which air group or air squadron commanders on both sides would send off strike groups to targets at ranges from which there would be no way to return, or decide that--when a strike force reached its maximum range without locating the enemy it had been sent to attack--they should just keep searching, even when it meant that all the aircraft would certainly be lost, possibly without ever having seen the enemy. This goes so comepletely against one of the basic military principles--economy of force--that it astounds me. Sacrificing a plane and pilot, even a group of them, to make an attack on a located enemy that you have reason to think would cripple him is a decision I could understand a commander making. But throwing away the resources represented by a squadron of aircraft--the training and experience (let alone the lives) of the pilots, the expense of producing and arming and fueling the aircraft, the cost of getting it to the theatre of operations and to a place where it might be able to attack the enemy--without any clear notion that you will reap *any* reward at all, tactical, operational, or strategic, is incomprehensible to me.

Symonds provides excellent background on the lead-up to the campaign, introducing the reader to all the personalities involved, the strategic and operational context of the battle. He explains the technical details of naval and air operations without overwhelming the reader. He narrates the battle and shows the critical decision points, explaining the significance of the outcome. And he provides the audience with a quick precis of characters' later lives, both during the war and, in some cases, after it. I'd recommend this book highly to someone looking for a glimpse of military and naval history, whether already an old salt or a rank greenhorn.

How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandhlwana Revealed by Mike Snook (31). I'm going to fudge and write this up now, as I have 16 pages to go and am sure I'll finish this in the next day or so. It's a terrific read (if you're interested in military history, especially of the Victorian era, or military operations in general). This is one of two books on the Zulu War by Dr Mike Snook. This covers the battle of Isandhlwana; the second the subsequent battle of Rorke's Drift. Dr Snook is a retired British Army officer who served in the Royal Regiment of Wales, the modern descendent of the 24th Foot, the principal regular army actors in the Zulu campaign. He has spent a good deal of time in the area of the battles (while serving as UK liaison officer/advisor to the South African Defense Forces) and knows the ground by heart. He has studied all the contemporary accounts, both of British survivors and Zulu victors, as well as the records of those who traversed the battlefield in its immediate aftermath and noted where the bodies of the British dead lay.

Taking all these pieces of evidence together, Snook recreates the events of the campaign leading up to the battle and then describes the stages of the engagement. While a good many books have been written about this famous action, Snook's military experience gives his account a new and interesting perspective, reinforced by his desire to take a fresh look at the sequence of events based on the evidence from the battlefield. I look forward to readin his book on Rorke's Drift.

In progress:
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)
Catching up before the year ends. I've already beaten last year's 21, but I'm nowhere near the desired 50.

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans (26)

The Rise of Islamic Capitalism: Why the New Muslim Middle Class Is the Key to Defeating Extremism by Vali Nasr (27)

Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding by Hussain Haqqani (28)

In Progress:
The Battle of Midway by Craig L. Symonds
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


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