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: (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

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