Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

My 2013 in Books

I made it through an unusually large number of books this year, the increase driven both by heavy audiobook usage and trying to get through a lot of research. I've included the reviews that I wrote on Goodreads (this whole post is basically a Goodreads export) so forgive the length.

I read a number of these via audiobook, these have their titles in blue text.

The list is sufficiently long that I've put it all after the break to save space for those not interested.

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
The last of the Barsetshire novels, this is also one of the longer and more complex members of the series. At the center of the plot is an accusation that the impoverished Reverend Crowley stole a cheque for twenty pounds and used the money to pay his debts. All of the characters we've come to know over the course of the Barsetshire series have at least some part to play, and in that sense the book serves as a true capstone to the series.

Crowley himself is an interesting character, and I'm still trying to decide what I think of Trollope's portrayal of him. Tending towards pride and resentment, Rev. Crowley has been beaten down by years of extreme poverty (the result of a Church of England system in which the lowest paid clergy did the most work while living in penury) and from a modern point of view clearly suffers from mental health problems. He honestly cannot remember how he came to get hold of the cheque in question, and he alternates between defending his rights as the permanent curate of Hogglestock and a self-inflicted martyrdom in which he refuses to mount a sufficient defense. He is selflessly generous in his duties towards the poor in his parish, yet rigidly proud in refusing to accept similar help from others in his straights. The stresses that this puts upon his family, and the way in which they at the same time love and respect him but also try to work around his foibles which are all too well known to them, present a realistic (though at times painfully so) depiction of the way in which mental illness and faith and family interplay.

The only thing that holds me back from giving this book five stars is the resolution of the John Eames/Lily Dale romance which carried over from the previous novel Small House At Allington. Lily Dale continues as my least favorite Trollope heroine, as I find her motivations to be, at root, unbelievable. That I find her so, in contrast to Trollope's generally very well observed characters, makes me wonder what tropes of characterization in our own day we unthinkingly accept yet will, in future cultures, seem totally unbelievable at a basic human level.

Birds Nest in Your Hair by Brian Jobe

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne
Alistair Horne's detailed history of the nearly year-long battle of Verdun is both exhaustive and human in its detail -- much like his A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 which I read and very much liked last year. Most importantly, Horne does a good job of going beyond the too-easy (especially with WW1) tack of portraying the horrors of the battlefield and contextualizes Verdun in the French national self understanding. Price of Glory is part of a loose trilogy, which also includes The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71, which deals with the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to 1871 and also To Lose a Battle: France 1940 which deals with France's defeat at the beginning of WW2.

Horne's work is a useful corrective to a number of pop-history assumptions, both about how the Great War was fought and about the importance of martial glory in French self-understanding. It was specifically because France had taken so much pride in its all-out defense against Germany in the Great War that their sudden and complete tactical defeat in WW2 was such a blow to the national psyche -- a wound still very much in evidence in French handling of Vietnam and Algeria.

The book, which makes extensive use of first hand accounts from both French and German soldiers, makes for gripping reading.

The Last Lion 3: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-65 by William Raymond Manchester
I'd very much enjoyed the original two volumes by William Manchester, and Paul Reid makes a good job of the difficult task of completing the last volume of the late Manchester's work. If Reid falls at all short of Manchester's prose style, it is only very slightly. Like Manchester he provides us with a wealth of (sometimes contradictory) quotes from those who worked with Churchill, both positive and negative, and an even larger helping of Churchill's own words. Despite it's massive length it rips along with the urgency of a novel, and I found myself constantly trying to fit in a few more minutes with it.

The vast majority of the book deals with the war years, as is doubtless fitting. What we get from this is a fairly Anglo-centric and Churchill-centric account of the war, but still a very, very good one. There were a few places (as in parts of Volume 1 dealing with the Great War) where I felt Reid perhaps fell a tiny bit too much into a conventional account of the war and the holocaust, but I found those instances less glaring than in the first volume. The difficult balance in a volume like this is whether to provide a comprehensive history of World War II, which will necessarily not be the most brilliant history of the war ever done, or whether to focus primarily on Churchill himself and potentially leave out readers who do not already have an in depth knowledge of the war. I think Reid strikes about as a good a balance between these two as can be expected. Even if you know a fair amount about the war, you will learn more about it from Defender of the Realm, yet Reid sticks close to his subject and provides that history without losing sight of the man himself.

The last 10-15% deals with the post war years: Churchill's unexpected defeat at the hands of Labor in the 1945 election, his thinking on the Cold War, and his second stint as Prime Minister in the 1950s. There's a certain sense in which the book seems to trail off in the level of detail that it provides, though perhaps that is almost inevitable. Although Church's Premiership in the '50s was only a year and a half shorter than the one ten years earlier, there's necessarily much less of interest to the general reader, and the last ten years of Churchill's life from 1955 to 1965 are quieter still.

I would definitely recommend the whole three volume set.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Don't be put off by its length and age, The Count of Monte Cristo is a thrilling read. Since I was listening to it in unabridged audio on my ipod, I found myself looking for extra chores I could do. I've had more uninterrupted time to listen than just my commute, and in the end I pulled the hard copy off the shelf and rooted myself on the couch until I was done.

(some mild spoilers follow, but mostly just at the cultural knowledge level)

Set roughly contemporary to its writing (it came out in 1844 as a serial) Count of Monte Cristo spans the years 1815 to 1838 and tells the story of a young merchant ship officer (Edmond Dantes) who, just as he is about to be made captain and marry the girl he is in love with, is falsely accused of political intrigue and imprisoned -- due to jealousies and ulterior motives on the part of a number of characters. He spends 14 years in a dungeon without even knowing clearly, at first, what he is accused of. In prison, he reaches the point of despair, but then comes secretly into contact with another prisoner, a learned priest who teaches him all their is to know from human wisdom, and also the location of a fabulous treasure. Through quick thinking and daring, Edmond later manages to escape the prison, find the treasure, and then seek vengeance against those who had him wrongly imprisoned, using a number of false identities but primarily that of the fabulously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo.

This is primarily an adventure story, and as such it's a blast. The elements that I found somewhat frustrating came in the latter three quarters of the book in which Edmond has come back to seek vengeance and fell into two categories.

First, as the Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond is in many ways presented to the reader as someone who has reached the summit of human wisdom and justice. And yet, he has a callousness towards even some of his closest associates which I found deeply off-putting. I think this would be an entirely believable character development of someone who comes into so much money and power with the aim of righting wrongs (particularly his own) except that the narrator does not necessarily seem to see things the same way. Edmond seems to have become, in some ways, a very distant and selfish person and yet I felt like I was getting that impression contrary to the assurances of the author, who did not seem to feel the same way.

This leads to my second area of frustration, which is that during this part of the novel Edmond at several keys points delivers himself of monologues on how he is the tool of divine justice sent to punish those who have done wrong. He compares himself to Christ taken up onto the height by Satan and offered all possible wealth and power, and says that in his case he took Satan up on the offer in return for the power to be a tool of providence in exacting justice against those who have done wrong. All this seems to suggest a big pay-off of the Russian novel variety, yet although Edmond does overstep in some ways (and regret those oversteps) this moral side of the story never really seems to be dealt with clearly. We have the signs of extreme arrogance on Edmond's part, and we have a few of his plans that get out of hand and some vague statement of his about needing forgiveness or having regrets, but this more human side of the story never really gets examined and resolved in detail.

The Beauty And The Sorrow by Peter Englund
Swedish writer Peter Englund presents a fascinatingly personal approach to narrating the history of the Great War with a book that follows the personal experiences (as recorded in letters, diaries and autobiographies) of 19 people swept up in the Great War. We meet a Canadian opera singer who had married a Polish aristocrat and found herself in the path of the German invasion of Russia, an Australian engineer with the Gallipoli landings, a French infantryman, a Hungarian cavalryman, a german schoolgirl, a Venezualan adventurer who ended up joining the Ottoman cavalry (because the allies wouldn't allow him to enlist), an English nanny to a Russian family who signed up as a nurse with the Russian army, and many more. Englund intercuts their stories so that we'll read about what one character was experiencing and then cut to what another character was experiencing that same day in another part of the world.

The book is fascinating and I found myself gripped by it like a novel. (Also like a novel, I kept wanting to flip forward to find the next section with a favorite character.) Englund also provides a lot of background history of the war, and in many places summarizes or narrates the experiences of the characters rather than quoting their words directly. I didn't find Englund's own writing as interesting as the characters he was presenting, and I could have wished that he'd presented more primary source material and less of his own voice. I also found myself a bit frustrated at the end that he hadn't researched (and revealed) more about what happens to the characters we've followed after the end of the war. In a sense, this just underscores how effective his approach is. I found myself shouting at the end, "What's it? The war ends and you're not going to tell us what happened next?" I spent a while hunting around the internet to try to find out what happened to some of these people later on, and I would be interested to read some of the primary source accounts drawn on as source.

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad
I hadn't realized, until a friend recommended this book, that Conrad had written any books that weren't set "in the colonies". Come that that, I hadn't realized that he was Polish, which, given that Poland had been divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary meant that he grew up under Russian rule. (His father was an agitator for Polish independence and so part of Conrad's youth was spent in Tsarist political prisons.)

Under Western Eyes deals with a Russian student, Razumov, who finds himself suddenly plunged into moral and ideological dilemmas when another student he barely knows appears in his rooms and announces that he has just assassinated a government official and is relying on Razumov to hide him and help him escape. The novel plays out at two levels: At the political level it deals with the corrosive effects both of tyranny and of revolution. At the personal, with conflicting desires and loyalties.

The story is narrated by an Englishman, a second-hand witness to events, and it is through his Western eyes (from which the title derives) that we hear about events. This helps a great deal as a device since part of what Conrad is trying to do is convey how different Russian problems are from the problems which his English speaking readers are used to -- that Russian authority is not like other authority and that Russian revolution is not like other revolution.

Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I by Michael S. Neiberg
I'm a little divided as to how to rate this book. It's theme is how people entered a war mentality at the beginning of the Great War, and it's thesis is that nationalistic hatred were a result of the war, but they did not exist prior to the war in sufficient strength to be a cause of the war.

This argument has, from what I can gather, a certain degree of merit. Ordinary people were certainly not universally demanding a war prior to hostilities. However, Neiberg pounds his contrarian points so hard that at times he seems to be pushing an equally unbelievable contrary point. Thus, for example, in his chapter on the initial mobilizations he is at pains to emphasize that not everyone welcomed war and quotes primary source after primary source to make this point. This is a good point, and one of the things that I liked very much about the book in general was the large number of high quality primary sources which it quoted. I added a lot of primary source accounts to my research reading list due to the this book and its copious citations. However, citing source after source on the fairly obvious point that "many people were horrified at the coming of war" he then briefly mentions as an aside: Yes, there were many people who cheering the coming of war and many demonstrations of strident nationalism as men marched off to war. Having the short backtrack after so many contrary examples left one wondering why he hadn't presented a more balanced spread of opinion rather that emphasizing one side all the way through and then mentioning the other in passing. In other words, I think the book would have been stronger if it had been a more general account of feeling at the outbreak of war (emphasizing how the reality differed from the stereotypes) rather than being a one-sided account in opposition to another one-sided account, with only brief references to the validity of the stereotypical view.

All that said, I think I flagged more notes for future reference in this book than in any other I've read on the war to date. I found the heavy use of primary sources very useful, and the notes and references are a treasure.

The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two by Piers Paul Read
I hadn't read a book on the Dreyfus affair before, and if you're in a similar position and would be interested in reading about the scandal which caused a political crisis in France in the closing decade of the 19th century (and whose reverberations were still being felt at least through the Great War and perhaps as late as WW2 and the Vichy government) this is a highly readable introduction. Read is a journalist and novelist, not an academic, and he writes in an enjoyable, novelistic style. Particularly helpful is that he situates the scandal (in which a Jewish artillery officer was wrongly accused of selling military secrets to Germany -- at first, arguably, by mistake but later kept in prison on Devils Island long after the military knew he was innocent because they were ashamed to lose face by admitting they were wrong) in the wider context of the French cultural and religious conflicts from the French Revolution through the Great War.

France and the Great War by Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau
Another from the World War One research stack, this is by the same authors as 14-18 which I also found very helpful. The authors are particularly good about going back to the 1914-1918 source material rather than accepting the narrative of the war which emerged in the mid to late 1920s.

As the title suggests, this focuses on the French experience of WW1. The chapters on the experience of civilians in German occupied France and on the 1917 mutinies were especially helpful. I've added a couple of Leonard Smith's other books to my to-read pile based on this: The Embattled Self deals with how war veterans dealt with their experience of the war through written expression, and the changes and conventions which writing a narrative imposed on many authors. Between Mutiny and Obedience deals specifically with the 1917 mutinies.

A very useful substantive read that pointed me towards a lot of good primary sources and helped me think through some of the issues involved in understanding the French experience of the Great War. Though not dry or dull, it's a fairly academic book. Not the sort of thing one would turn to first as a general reader, but very helpful for my current project.

The Mystery Of The Yellow Room: Extraordinary Adventures Of Joseph Rouletabille, Reporter by Gaston Leroux
This was recommended by a friend when I was looking for books written and set right before the Great War, so I went into it knowing nothing other than that it was written by the author of Phantom of the Opera (which I haven't read) and that it was a mystery published in 1908 and set in the 1890s. I'm no the hugest mystery reader, but I enjoy them, and this was certainly an interesting specimen.

The mystery is of the locked room variety. The basic set up is as follows: A scientist and his attractive 35-year-old daughter live in an isolated chateau where they devote themselves to studying physics and chemistry. During the warm months the daughter sleeps in a small room off the laboratory. One night she goes to bed at midnight while her father is still working. Half an hour later, there is a thud, a shot, and cries of "Murderer!" from inside the room. The scientist and his servant rush to the door, but it is locked. All the windows are locked. At last, they break down the door and find all the signs of a struggle and the daughter badly hurt from a blow to the head, but no murderer.

The young reporter/detective Joseph Rouletabille investigates and eventually comes to the highly complex and unexpected solution. Honestly, I would have marked it down for the solution being so intricate as to be unbelievable, but the author ups the ante with the last few sentences with some additional personal drama such that I ended fascinated rather than distanced. There were, apparently, a number of Rouletabille mysteries, though so far as I can tell only the next two have been translated into English. This is too bad, because some of the later Rouletabille mysteries sound fascinating, at least from a historical perspective. I wish I could read Rouletabille à la Guerre from 1914 and Rouletabille chez Krupp from 1917, since those apparently deal with the war.

The narrative style of Mystery of the Yellow Room is surprisingly complex. The story is narrated by a lawyer who is a minor character, but he repeatedly breaks off to includes sources written by various other characters from their points of view. The result is complex and entertaining, and, for my purposes, not a bad window into the period either.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Inspired by, though not based on, real events, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent deals with a botched attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The drama, however, is not of a secret agent type, rather it has to do with why the attempt is made and what results the attempt and it's botching precipitate on the bombers family.

It takes place among a somewhat hapless group of dissidents and revolutionaries and the police who watch over them. While I found these political and personal dynamics interesting, I thought it suffered by comparison to Conrad's other European-setting novel dealing with political dissidents, Under Western Eyes. Here the personal stakes seemed lower, while the cynicism ran a bit higher. Incompetence and chance produce something close to a dark farce at times, though Conrad is certainly not writing for laughs.

Intimate Voices from the First World War by Sarah Wallis
This is a history of the First World War made up entirely of selections of personal accounts: letters, diaries and memoirs. Editors Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis became acquainted with these sources (some of which had not previous been published or had not previously been available in English) while working on a BBC documentary, but the book is a stand-alone item. In some ways, the format is similar to the also readable The Beauty and the Sorrow by Peter Englund. However, while Englund follows a fixed number of narrators all the way through the war, Palmer and Wallis follow a larger number of people, some of them only for very short periods. Some of these fragmentary accounts are deeply memorable, as with the diary of an Italian alpine soldier which breaks off in mid sentence, and concludes with a note from another soldier who found the diary next to the body of a man killed by a shell fragment while he was in the act of writing.

Some of the selections from non-combatants are also deeply compelling, such as the diary of Yves Congar, the future theologian, who was an eleven-year-old French school boy living in Sedan when the war began, and thus experienced four and a half years of German occupation.

The book is divided into thematic chapters dealing with different aspects and periods of the war. One chapter deals with Gallipoli. Another deals with war in the middle east. One deals with the experience of children in Germany and France. Another with the war and sea. One fascinating chapter deals with the war in Africa, including one of the few accounts I have read by an African soldier who served in the French army in Europe, as over 100,000 did during the war.

Unlike The Beauty and the Sorrow, the editors of Intimate Voices provide very little narrative of their own. Since the authorial narrative was a serious weakness in Englund's work, I thought was generally for the good. The book will not, on its own, provide you with an in-depth understanding of the war's causes or strategy, but it does provide a very good window on the experiences of individual people who lived through the war, and others who did not survive.

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
I think it must be fifteen years since I last read Starship Troopers, so it was interesting coming back to it after so long. To my mind, this is pretty much the last book Heinlein wrote that was worth reading, and it isn't my favorite by any means. At various point Heinlein has the chance to either tell a story about characters and events, or stop and pontificate, and he always seems to choose pontification.

However, it's quite inventive in places and there's a certain bracing quality to the vision of the human race that he presents, flaws and two dimensional that it is. One thing that struck me reading it at this time is that Heinlein writes from an absolute conviction that the human race is worth having around, is worth fighting for and conquering new worlds for. That in itself is something of a breath of fresh are compared to increasingly prevalent visions of the future in which the existence of humanity is seen as at best an ambivalent thing, if not an actual affliction.

Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger
Ernst Junger volunteered for the German army when World War One broke out. He was through training and onto the Western Front by the close of 1914, and there he fought throughout the rest of the war (with pauses to attend officer training and to recuperate from wounds.) He fought in the Battle of the Somme and the 1918 Spring Offensive, and other smaller engagements as well as spending time with the routine of trench warfare. As such, he spent far more time at the front than the famous British war writers and poets. And unlike them, he believes it made him stronger and better.

Junger self-published the first version of Storm of Steel in 1920, but continued to revise it throughout his life, with several major revisions being published during Junger's lifetime (he lived to the age of 102.) Junger went on to be an essayist and novelist with a wide European audience, though many of his other works are hard to find in English.

Storm of Steel is tightly focused as a battle memoir. It opens with Junger's arrival at the front, and it tells virtually nothing of his activities away from the battlefield. The prose is often visually and occasionally emotionally powerful, but there is also often a dreamlike distance to it. Junger seldom talks about his feelings or those of others, and when he does he does so fairly tersely.

If you're used to the kind of World War One accounts one gets from Robert Graves and Sigfried Sassoon, or from the German novel All Quiet on the Western Front, Storm of Steel is a powerful contrast. Junger describes battle in all its visceral brutality (indeed, if anything, this is a far more violent book than other WW1 accounts I have read) but Junger also believes it is through struggles such as combat that one achieves a sort of hyper connection to reality. This is not the soldier-as-victim narrative that we are so used to hearing in connection with the great war.

The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World by Holger H. Herwig
Herwig's book covers not just the Marne itself, but the planning the underlay the German and French actions at the outbreak of war, the mobilization of both sides, and the Battles of the Frontiers which segued into the Battle of the Marne. As such, it is a detailed and readable account of the outbreak of the war through it's first month and a half. It makes extensive use of accounts both from official war diaries and from individual soldier's letters and journals.

I found it very helpful.

With the Armies of the Tsar: A Nurse at the Russian Front, 1914-18 by Florence Farmborough
In the summer of 1914, Florence Farmborough was an English governess working for the family of a Russian surgeon in Moscow. With the outbreak of the war, she signed up as a Red Cross volunteer nurse -- first in Moscow and then a few months later with a field hospital at the front. She spent the rest of the war (with a few short visits "home" to Moscow) at the front tending the sick and wounded. With the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Russian armies, she then had to figure out how to get out of Russia, a problem which eventually saw her taking the Trans Siberian Railroad across the continent in winter, and finally setting sail for England via America from Russia's Pacific Ocean port at Vladivostok.

This book is a consists of her diaries that she kept throughout her war experience. It was apparently cut down in length by about half when she went to publish it in the 1970s but otherwise it is unchanged. Florence has a keen eye for description and personal detail, which makes this much more absorbing reading than many diaries of people dealing with historic circumstances that I've read.

Three Armies on the Somme: The First Battle of the Twentieth Century by William J. Philpott
Philpott's detailed and readable account of the Battle of the Somme takes a wider view that most accounts you will read of one of the Great War's most infamous battles.

Firstly, it deals extensively with the experiences of all three combatant nations engaged in the Somme battle: French and Germans as well as British.

Secondly, it spends considerable time on the way in which the fighting of the Battle of the Somme represented an important turning point in the Allies understanding of how to fight effectively on the modern battlefield. The French had, as of the opening of the Somme on July 1, 1916, already learned how to fight primarily with material rather than manpower: heavily concentrating their artillery and limiting the scope of their objectives and the speed of their advance according to how quickly they were able to move up artillery and prepare the ground. The British expended a record number of shells in preparation for the Somme attack, but they did so along a very long front, and thus ended up using a lower density of fire than they had at some of the battles in 1915. Thus, while the French saw fairly consistent success on the first days of the battle, meeting their objectives with low casualties, the British famously had men marching on positions in which the machine guns were still very much in place. During the course of the slogging months ahead, the British learned how to emphasize material instead of men, and began to achieve more with (comparatively) lower casualties -- bringing the German army to a point of near collapse by the time that the weather made further campaigning impossible in the fall.

Thirdly, Philpott spends considerable time on how historical and cultural understandings of the Somme have formed and developed in the time since the battle. This section on meaning and mourning I found particularly interesting.

Once An Eagle by Anton Myrer
I can see why the War College reprinted this for class discussion, as Myrer has a lot to say about what makes a good officer versus a bad officer. It did draw me along, and some of its combat scenes are very well drawn. Its characters tend to be very, very simplistic, however. And there are some bits of historical naivete (particularly about the Chinese communists of the 30s to 50s) which don't internally interfere with the story but make one question the author's historical analysis quite a bit. This is exacerbated by the authors tendency to pontificate at length through his characters -- both having bad characters lay out the worldview he opposes at length, and having his good characters give stirring speeches telling us what it all means. These are not themselves badly written, but I think as a writing choice it's not a very good one.

THEY SHALL NOT PASS: The French Army on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Ian Sumner
A brief history of the French experience in the European theater of World War One told primarily through excepts of primary source material: letters, journals, contemporary journalism, memoirs.

Although as a history this is fairly short and limited in scope, Sumner has done a very, very good job of putting together a huge array of sources to make this an illuminating read.

French Poilu 1914-18 by Ian Sumner
[research read]

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse
Henri Barbusse's war novel Under Fire war written while the Great War was still raging. Barbusse had spent 1914-1915 in the trenches and was then wounded enough to be assigned a desk job. A prolific writer before the war, he wrote this novel, which provides a French enlisted man's view of the war, during 1915-1916 and it became an immediate best seller in France and (in translation) in England and America. Soldiers recommended it as a realistic portrayal of the war. This new translation out from Penguin apparently is somewhat earthier and less weighted down with British-isms than the original 1917 English translation which was current before.

The novel is told by an almost invisible narrator who is a stand-in for Barbusse himself -- a writer who plans to write about the war. The novel is low on plot, and the characters are hard to keep track of an not very well rounded. It's very much a day-in-the-life kind of novel, and what sticks with you is some of the description, the images and the incidents. As such it's not a rapid read all the time. You're not very wrapped up in worrying about what happens to the characters. I sometimes had difficulty in telling them apart. But perhaps the distance is almost needed given the subject matter. It does certainly give a very realistic on-the-ground view of the war, and it ends on an interestingly open note as the characters discuss whether the war is worth it. Barbusse himself seems not to have reached an answer on that question yet when he wrote it.

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson
This book on "the world before the war" takes the approach of profiling 20 cities around the world, providing a brief view into what was going on in each. Drawing extensively on travel memoirs and period travel books, it gives one the feel of having taken a world tour the year before the Great War.

I suppose it's necessarily the case that a book of this sort will be a bit surface level, and this one is. I found it interesting, but not gripping. Nice background, but not viewpoint changing.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
Cruel Beauty draws inspiration from Beauty and the Beast and (more so, I think) from the myth of Cupid and Psyche. The setting is a world under a solid, paper-like sky, whose inhabitants have been separated from the wider world for many centuries. The culture is a mix of Victoriana and ancient Greek names, religion, etc.

Nyx has been raised, from birth, to marry and defeat the Demon Lord who rules over her world. Her father had long been a member of a sect seeking to overthrow the Demon Lord and rejoin their own world to the wider one from which it was sundered so long ago. Yet when her father and mother were unable to have children, her father struck a terrible bargain with the Demon Lord: they would have twin daughters, but one of them would have to marry the Demon Lord. Nyx is the chosen daughter -- a sacrifice to her parent's desperation to have children and a hope for those who believe that the Demon Lord can by slain and the world freed.

Although I enjoy fantasy, YA is not generally my genre. However, I did enjoy the novel a great deal. The main character has all the emotional tempestuousness of her age and the conflicted upbringing, but she's both likable and believable. One thing I thought was done particularly well was working through the emotional implications of Nyx's upbringing. She does not read like some generic teen-aged girl who's been thrust in a strange conflict, but rather her character is strongly formed by having grown up with the understanding that she has (since before birth) been intended as a sacrifice. This leaves her both hating her family and yet also wanting to fulfill her purpose and save them.

I was an enjoyable read, and although the novel will doubtless be primarily marketed to the young teen girl set, I think it's certainly enjoyable for a wider audience.

[Yes, it's not coincidence that I share a last name with the author, so take this for what it's worth from an older brother.]

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth
Roth's novel, written in the 1930s, is set in the closing days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in some ways the empire itself seems as much a character as the human ones. It follows the lives of the three members of the von Trotta family: The grandfather is elevated to the nobility after he steps in front of the younger emperor Franz Joseph and stops a bullet that would have hit him in the Battle of Solferino. The father becomes a regional administrator, more accustomed to his class than his father had ever been. The son becomes a cavalry officer, but become increasingly disillusioned with his military career and the empire. In his disillusion, he has a romantic (if frustrated) desire to return to the agricultural existence of his ancestor's prior to the family's sudden rise to the nobility.

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
Zweig's last work is half-memoir, half cultural history of the Viennese intellectual culture in which he lived. Zweig (who was Jewish) wrote the book while living in exile during World War II, and he traces the history of himself and his homeland from the late 19th century through the Great War, the inter-war years, and into World War II.

I found the mix of personal history and cultural history fascinating to read. It's too personal, perhaps, to be your only reading on the period, but so long as you have a basic knowledge of the events he's talking about getting a view which is definitely from one person's point of view is interesting and Zweig himself is a very enjoyable writer.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
It's about two years since I last read War & Peace, and doing so again allowed a deepening sense of it all. The two things that particularly struck me this time through:

1) The tone of the novel shifts a great deal in the second half (dealing with the invasion of 1812.) The historical and philosophical digressions, culminating in the second epilogue in which we see nothing of the characters and hear a great deal about Tolstoy's philosophy, all come in during the second half. The first half is entirely a character-driven novel.

2) A degree of alienness in the characters struck me. I realized that I have a tendency to think of characters I like as overly like me, but this time Prince Andre seems much more like his father, Pierre (whose drinking and womanizing Tolstoy alludes to only coyly) seems much more the Russian bear, though a thoughtful and impressionably one, and in general the whole thing feels much more "other" than before.

The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War by David G. Herrmann
Herrmann's Arming of Europe deals with the developments in weapons technology, tactics, army size and organization in the ten years leading up to World War One. Herrmann argues, convincingly, that it was the relative changes in the armies of Europe which provided one of the major triggers of the war. In 1905, the Russian army was not an effective war fighting force, having been so badly mauled during the Russo-Japanese War that it was recognized by all European powers that Russia could not intervene militarily in a crisis even if it wanted to. Germany and Austria-Hungary took advantage of this to force several situations in the Balkans to go their way, spurring Russia to begin a program of full-on military development, which in turn scared the Germans into the belief that they would have to fight Russia eventually and would have to do it sooner rather than later.

Herrmann also spends significant time on the tactical doctrines of the various powers, showing that leaders in all armies were indeed working to figure out the impact which machine guns and rapid firing artillery would have on the modern battlefield, though the conclusions they drew from the example of the Russo-Japanese War and the Boer War were mostly wrong.

The book will probably be of interest mainly to specialists, but I found it highly useful.

Hussar's Picture Book by Pal Kelemen
Kelemen's war memoir is excerpted in Peter Englund's The Beauty and the Sorrow but I'd wanted to read the whole thing. The book is well written and evocative, but highly episodic.

A Hungarian cavalry officer when the war broke out, Kelemen spent time on the Russian/Polish front, in Serbia, in Italy and in Belgium, thus putting him on nearly every European theater. You'll get very little of a historical overview of the wider war, and not even a whole lot of descriptions of battles, but instead a series of often highly evocative incidents which struck Kelemen at the time.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings
Max Hasting's first book on World War One stands at an interesting point between existing books. It doesn't fall neatly into the existing genres of books focused entirely on the causes of the Great War, nor histories of the whole war, nor histories focused on a single battle.

Even at the three quarters point reading it, I wasn't sure how this was working out. It is good on the start of the war (it was the Germans' fault) and on the initial battles of the Frontiers and Marne, but I've read other books which are as good on those topics. However, as I reached the end I came to the decision that doing a medium-depth survey of the entire first calendar year of the war, from its causes through the Christmas truces in the trenches, is a valuable and unique enterprise. I would strongly recommend the book, and to general readers as well as those particularly interested in World War One.

Living By Faith, Dwelling in Doubt: A Story of Belief, Uncertainty, and Boundless Love by Kyle R. Cupp
Living by Faith is a slim volume which is in parts devastatingly effective writing. It is part memoir, part philosophical/religious testament.

To my mind, the former is the stronger part. Kyle tells, in nested narratives, both the story of his whole life, and interspersed within that the story of the short life and Kyle and Genece's daughter Vivian, who was prenatally diagnosed with anencephaly, and who they thus knew would live only a few hours after being born (if she survived to birth at all.)

Kyle's observations about his developing faith and understanding as a child, with parents of different faiths who later separated in divorce, are well drawn and interesting. (I hadn't realized till reading the book that Kyle also spent his youth in California. We even experienced some of the same earthquakes.) We tend to think of divorce and religiously divided relationships from an adult vantage point, but Kyle explains the way in which the experience of these divisions shaped his understanding of faith and truth for the rest of his life.

The sections on Kyle and Genece's difficult pregnancies, miscarriage, and particularly about Vivian's short life are particularly well written. As a parent, having experienced miscarriage and the early loss of close family, I had just enough in common with Kyle's experiences to feel fully how much deeper he had drunk of that bitter cup. Kyle is honest, unpretentious and frank about the sufferings of a parent going through loss. There were times when I had to set the book aside for a moment until my eyes cleared, but I'm very glad I read it. The human honesty of these segments is powerful, and his love for his wife and for his faith (which he clings to even as he questions it at times) is inspiring, but never mawkish.

The more philosophical and religious sections I in some ways found less involving. One of Kyle's primary points, which he returns to throughout the book, is that faith is an act which one may make definitively, but that faith is also always in the context of doubt, because we know neither the whole of the truth about what we believe nor can we fully know the extent to which our choices (including the choice to believe) are pure.

My own reaction is somewhat like the scene in the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radioplays where Arthur Dent responds to the news that the Earth was built by mice as a giant science experiment by saying, "This explains a lot of things. All my life I've felt that there's something terribly wrong with the world but that no one would tell me what it was." To which Slartibartfast replies, "No, that's just completely normal paranoia. Everyone has that."

Kyle is at great plains to express his doubt and uncertainties, but many of these uncertainties strike me as necessary ones and I can't escape the feeling after reading the book that Kyle is actually a somewhat more devout fellow than I am -- for all his protestations of doubt.

For example, Kyle writes:

Nevertheless, in the domain of my religious faith, I prefer to cast certainty into the outer darkness. But first, maybe I should define what I am rejecting. I reject the unwillingness to allow that there may be truth beyond what I know or think I know. This kind of thinking is especially dangerous in the spiritual realm because the spiritual is unseen and ultimately ineffable -- otherness is its essential feature. (pages 89-90)

This doesn't strike me, however, as setting some unusually high standard in living with doubt. Indeed, it seems to me that anyone who does not "allow that there may be truth beyond what I know" is setting himself up as God, since only God can actually know all truth. Slightly later he expands:

We can speak of truth as one thing, as it is in itself apart from all thought about it. We can refer to truth in this way, but in practice, no such truth enters our experience. We perceive reality from where we stand and interpret reality by way of our dispositions, presuppositions, and ideas about it. We then take these limited perceptions and interpretations and formulate them into words based in part on our purpose and our audience. (page 105)

Again, this may be phrased in a somewhat post-modern way (and I know that Kyle is a big reader of post-modern philosophy) but what he's saying about the relation of our experience of truth to truth itself is something one could get from Plato as well. Kyle talks a great deal about having to accept his doubts and embrace uncertainty, but I mostly get this impression that this is only in relation to a sort of certainty which no one can have (or ought to think he has.) It's right and important to recognize the limits of our knowledge, as Kyle does, but I'm not sure that doing so needs to be such a source of concern. I'm not clear that it's a dangerous choice so much as our only choice.

Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918 by Istvan Deak
Deak, whose father was a Hungarian officer in World War One, writes a highly readable book on the social history and operation of the Austo-Hungarian officer corps.

Why would you want to read a book on such an abstruse topic? The Hapsburg officer corps is a fascinating topic because it was a truly multi-national organization that functioned, and indeed was one of the few institutions in the paralyzingly diverse empire that did. Officers were required to learn the national languages of their troops, which were often from a wholly other part of the empire. To a great extent it was the officer corps and the army they controlled which held the empire together, and when the empire fell apart after WW1 they were the ones who found themselves truly stateless.

The Eastern Front 1914-1917 by Norman Stone
Norman Stone's account of the Eastern Front during World War One remains the standard work on the subject forty years after it's publication.

In some ways, the book is showing its age. This is mostly an account of command level strategy and conflict, with less of the soldier's-eye-view material which has become standard in war histories. It also has the difficulty of tackling a vast, though under-discussed, topic in one book. I found myself wishing that each battle was covered in more detail -- though this is probably unrealistic in a one volume length. I also wished that the command and strategy of the Germans and Austrians had been covered in as much depth as that of the Russians, which I think probably is a realistic hope.

Stone makes an editorial decision to cut his work off with the end of active hostilities, but I wish very much that he'd covered more of the Russian Revolution and the effect that it had on the front, and the way in which both the German/Austrian occupation of parts of Russia affected their ability to fight in 1918 and then the collapse and emergence of nations in central Europe in the wake of the Central Powers' defeat.

All of which is to say that my main qualm with Stone's work is that I wish that he had written an even longer book which explored the edges of his defined topic more. This book is good, but will leave you wanting a good deal more. Unfortunately, this is a field in which there are still not a huge number of books available.

Boxers & Saints  by Gene Luen Yang
Yang's graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion and the search for cultural and political identity in turn-of-the-century China at first appears to be two almost independent stories that touch at only a couple points, but in the end the stories prove to be deeply connected. This is the sort of historical fiction which makes past events come viscerally and painfully alive, letting the reader identify deeply with people who for reasons that seem irresistibly compelling end up on opposite sides of a vicious conflict.

Volume One, Boxers, tells the story of Little Bao, a youngest son who becomes a leader among the "boxers" or The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, who use kung fu and the magic of the the Chinese gods to fight against the injustices of the "foreign devil" Europeans and their followers the "secondary devil" Chinese Christians.

Volume Two, Saints, tells the story of Four-Girl, an unwanted daughter who isn't even given a proper name by the family patriarch. A series of events, and her belief that she needs forgiveness for a terrible crime, leads her to embrace Christianity, where she receives a real name for the first time at baptism, becoming Vibiana. However, as stories of the violence of The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist against Chinese Christian converts spreads, Vibiana struggles to decide the meaning of her identity as both Chinese and Christian and also the meaning of a series of dreams she begins to have in which she sees a Christian warrior girl.


Donald R. McClarey said...

I sense a Great War theme in this list! World War I is a vast historical phenomenon that is still too recent in time for us to grasp.

You have probably already read these but my suggestions for further reading on this subject:

1. Goodbye to all That-Robert Graves' memoir of his time as an infantry officer in France during the Great War is simply a marvel as he had a front row seat to the ending of an old world and the birth of a new.
2. Churchill's World Crisis-The one volume condensed version should be passed by in favor of the multi-volume full work. Self-serving, the Gallipoli sections should especially be read with a skeptical eye, it is filled with insights that only a master politician and a master historian could provide.
3.Hew Strachan's To Arms, the first volume of his exhaustive history of World War 1. His one volume history of the War is also worth reading as is anything he has written. Strachan is able to see both the forest and the trees in complex historical situations, a rare gift among historians.
4. Martin Gilbert's First World War. The last major history of the War with lots of interviews with participants. Gilbert gives a compelling account of how the British Army went from a national police force army to a huge professional mass army in four short years.
5. Seven Pillars of Wisdom-Half crazy like its author T.E. Lawrence, but a classic erudite meditation not only on the War in Arabia, but also on war in general by a man who would have been much more comfortable in the 19th century than in the 20th.
6. Infantry Attacks-Erwin Rommel's account of his time as an infantry officer in France and Italy. Fascinating portrayal of how the Germans overcame the defensive advantages of trench warfare with their development of stosstruppen infantry tactics.
7. The Real War, 1914-1918-B.H. Liddell Hart-The volume that changed perceptions about World War I and developed the thesis that most World War I generals were mindless cretins devoted to frontal attacks. I think the thesis is historically a worthless cartoon of what actually happened, but Liddell-Hart's volume is invaluable for understanding how the War was misremembered by succeeding generations.

Darwin said...

Thanks, Donald.

Yes, there is a bit of a World War One theme going on.

I've read Graves and am currently reading Strachan, but the others I haven't read. I should look up Rommel, that sounds like it would be really helpful.

My reading is a bit skewed in that I feel that that British Great War novel genre has already been tried by better hands than me, so I'm framing things up with French, German, Austrian and Russian storylines, but no British storyline. I figure at least that way I'm tackling something a bit more unfamiliar for an English speaking audience.