winterbadger: (books)
Recently completed:

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby (1). A charming account of the author's initial captivity as a British officer in an Italian POW "camp" (a repurposed orphanage) and his wanderings in central Italy after the Fascist government surrendered. He recounts several months spent among the rough and poor, but amazingly kindly peasants of the region, who risked a tremendous amount to shelter and support escaped POWs like him. His descriptions of the people, the landscape, the lives of wartime farmers and herders, and his unsparing portrait of himself are fascinating and tremendously readable.

The Seven Wonders by Steven Saylor (2). The author of the acclaimed Gordianus the Finder mysteries was begged by hs fans to write prequles, tellign some of the oft-referred to experiences of his protagonist as a young man. This is (chronologically) the first, a series of short mysteries solved by the newly adult Gordianus as he follows his former tutor on a tour of the Seven Wonders of the World, from Greece to Asia Minor to Babylon and finally to Egypt. Bite-sized mysteries tied together with a "road trip" narrative and a little extra meta-story besides. Very enjoyable.

In process:
The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
The Philadelphia Campaign: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia by Thomas J. McGuire
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Little, Big by John Crowley
Eastward to Tartary by Robert B. Kaplan
Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid
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)
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: (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: (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
winterbadger: (film)
I just watched Age of Heroes, a WWII action film starring Sean Bean. On Netflix I rated it 3 out of 5, but I think that's a bit generous.

Sean Bean is the first indicator that a movie is likely to be dodgy. He's an action adventure hunk without a great deal of acting ability, and at this point (54), he's an aging hunk. He carries his age pretty well in this film, as he's not trying to look as if he's 30, But it's like seeing Bruce Willis's name in  an "coming soon" trailer: you can bet it's going to be a "check your brain at the door" popcorn fest.

And that's pretty much what Age of Heroes is. A serious attempt was made to give the costumes and props a period look and feel, and those help raise this a bit above the made-for-TV or direct-to-video realm. So does the cinematography; there's some quite good imagery, both panoramic sweeps and careful, detail-filled close-ups that are more than the standard action shots of a shoot-em-up movie. And the company sprang for location filming; quite a lot of the action really takes place in the story's setting, Norway (though in the hills of the southwest rather than the mountains of the interior where is supposedly takes place). And the training sequences look as if they might actually have been near the historic commando training grounds of the western Highlands.

The plot is straight out of a 1940s or 1950s military flick. A commando unit is to be inserted into the heart of Norway to raid a German radar installation, both to destroy the site and to seize as much of the German technology as possible, so as to reverse-engineer it and speed up British radar work. Many of the classic war-movie archetypes are present and accounted for: the tough and dedicated officer who tells his pregnant wife that he has to do "one more mission", the hard-bitten sergeant, the foreign liaison (in this case a Norwegian-American volunteer), the pretty girl, the misfit soldier who makes good, even the disturbingly clean-cut but sadistically evil German SS officer (of COURSE he is an SS officer). We start off with some backstory, show a bit of training to demonstrate that the boys are tough, get the Top Secret Briefing, move through the inevitable Something Unexpected that screws up delivery of our heroes to their mission, see them make their approach to the target, and then violence and explosions ensue. I won't spoil the ending for you, but suffice to say that the final shot is also one I've seen in many, many movies of this genre. So, it's hammering out all the tropes. But while on the surface it looks good, if brainless, there are some rather gaping flaws that shift this from a solid 3 to something just below it.

For one thing, let's start out with the mission. The commandos did make raids in Norway; in fact, several of their early raids went against targets in Norway. But the attack that this film is supposedly based on took place on the French coast. Why? Because that's where the radar emplacements were. The writers actually include a lot of detail about the German radars, and get most of it right (the name of the system, how it worked, how it contributed to defeating an early RAF attack on German navy bases). But for some reason, someone decided they needed to make the film in Norway, so the German air defense radars are in Norway. Not only that, but they are mysteriously being built in a valley in the middle of the Norwegian mountains (not even on the mountain tops!) where they would be completely useless. Then, to seize these radars and destroy them, a force of exactly eight men is sent in (the historical raid on German radars are Bruneval, France, featured 100 men). And they are sent in on a single, twin-engined aircraft. Of course, you say, because the target is in the middle of Norway--they could hardly be sent in by boat (as early commando raids, which took place against coastal targets, usually were). Except that they are slated to escape by rendezvousing with a submarine--within a day of the attack! So they could presumably have been sent in that way (using whatever seven-league boots are going to get them from the middle of the mountains to the coast). And since they are going to attack a radar primarily designed to detect air targets, sending them by airplane seems a poor choice. Add that when the commandos debate trying to reach Sweden and determine that it would take 2-3 days to walk there through the mountains, the geography involved becomes very...odd.

There's also a bit of confusion about the timing of this raid in the history of the commandos, too. The force already exists, clearly, as the major has been with the commandos for some time and has, at the beginning of the story, to retrieve one of his men who has gotten arrested by the military police and is in prison--so clearly the commandos are a force in being already. But, wait, we're told this is taking place shortly after Dunkirk (May 1940), and some of the motivational speeches during the Top Secret Briefing include the exhortation that "this raid will set the standard for all future raids". Really? The first commando actions took place in the summer of 1940, at about the same time Germany was capturing Norway; but the Germans at the radar site are clearly part of an occupying force that's been there for some time. (Oh, and the Wilhelmshaven Raid that was spoiled by German air search radar? Took place in December 1939.) For comparison, the Bruneval raid that the movie takes its inspiration from, took place in 1942, nearly two years after the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk.

I'll just bring up one other thing that bothered me quite a lot and that suggested that their military advisor/trainer (who got a lot of squad tactics right) was either asleep during the costuming conference or got overruled by a director with "vision". Because the commandos, in their approach march through German-occupied terrain, after already meeting and killing one enemy patrol, move across open snow fields. In daylight. WITH NO WINTER CAMO! A basic article of commando snow gear, from the first winter operation in Norway onwards, white coveralls were essential to avoid standing out like a sore thumb when moving across snow. That these fellows have been sent in on a carefully planned operation (where, despite "losing a lot of our gear when we landed", they all have their bergens) without snow camo is just silly. That they would try to move in the daytime without it in an area swept by enemy patrols (which all wear winter camo themselves) is crazy. Oh, and although they train in mountain climbing and carry ropes and other climbing gear with them, there's never any suggestion that the mission involves climbing anything. Bwuh?

So, yes, if this were a building project, a great deal of the story would consist of spackle, covering up holes and smoothing over things that aren't quite right. Again, just a fun story, right? Not supposed to be too serious. But it does rather make me wonder why someone would get the bits like Freya and the Wilhelmshaven raid right and then get so many other things wrong.
winterbadger: (candle)
I've been reading (listening to, mostly) to a good many books about the Second World War in Europe. Today especially, it seems to me worth remembering the tremendous upheaval and destruction that took place  ~ 70 years ago.

Standard estimates are that about 20,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen were killed or wounded just in the one or two days of the Allied invasion of Normandy that began on the night of 5 June and continued throughout the day of 6 June. That, of course, doesn't count civilians, and its estimate of German losses is sketchy. Allied air and naval forces brought over 150,000 men across the English Channel and landed them on the shores of Nazi-occupied Europe. No one was sure that the invasion would work. Innumerable things went wrong. Most of the German defenders fought back tremendously hard. If the landings had been defeated, it would have crippled Allied morale, cost countless lives and a huge amount of materiel, and the war (and Nazi control over Europe and all that entailed) would have gone on for many more years.

The invasion was successful, but the war still continued for almost another year.

There's a lot of talk these days about sacrifice and protecting "our way of life". I think that's a lot harder to be sure about with some of the murky wars we've been fighting in the last decade or two. But I think there can't be a much starker contrast between the world that America, Britain, Canada, France, and all our allies in World War Two were fighting to preserve (despite all its manifest faults) and the world that Hitler and his ilk wanted to construct.

God bless, chaps.

I love it!

May. 19th, 2012 12:58 am
winterbadger: (pants)
Battlefront (the company that produces the game Flames of War (FOW), not to be mistaken for Fire & Fury Games, who produce the game Battlefront: World War Two (BF:WW2)) are such manipulators.

Read more... )
winterbadger: (coffee cup)
Never let a civilian into or through your forward lines--if he's up there under fire, he's out for no good. Our fellows have got to remember that a kid or a woman may be a sniper that'll kill. Don't move out of the areas we control. If some G.I. goes wandering off on his own ... he may he picked off a few houses down the street. Stay away from women; we've had boys have their throats cut before. In villages, watch out for the [tall towers on religious buildings] —that is the [enemy's] favorite place to put a rear guard.
It may look timely, but it's actually
Read more... )
winterbadger: (judaism)
I gather tonight is the Oscars; I suck at keeping track of stuff like that.

I spent part of the afternoon finishing the second season of Rome, which I had borrowed from [livejournal.com profile] gr_c17 . What an amazing series! I'm so sorry they weren't able to make another season.

Tonight I watched Defiance, itself nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe. I can't speak much to the historical reality--I gather that some of the actions of the Bielski partisans may have been questionable, but when do partisans engage in war without some bad things happening? For a film about people trying to survive and fight back against a deadly enemy, and about Jews looking after each other when no one else will, I thought it was excellent, with good acting, a decent plot, and good cinematography. It's not one of the greatest movies of all time, but it's definitely a very good movie, IMO.

In unrelated commentary, I would eat more vegetables if they didn't go bad so damn fast. I also had to chuck a pound or so of ground lamb that I just wasn't able to eat soon enough. I would spread my grocery buying out more, but one of the reasons I don't cook often enough as it is, is that I end up working late and don't have time to cook. Add in more shopping trips, and I'll never be home to cook at all.
winterbadger: (UK)
Some time ago I found this wonderful WW2 US serviceman's A Short Guide to the UK linked from Straight Dope. I dip into it from time to time for a good laugh or a bit of a weep.... Read more... )
winterbadger: (TBB tally ho!)
<ahref="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11951642">BBC News article on 601 Sqn. of the RAF, aka the Millionaires, and the Battle of Britain

Decidedly not a Czech-book....
winterbadger: (UK)
the story of a brave para-dog!

(about halfway down the page)

Profile

winterbadger: (Default)
winterbadger

April 2017

S M T W T F S
      1
2345678
910111213 1415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30      

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Jul. 26th, 2017 02:44 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios