Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Progress of the War (Reading)

The ninth month of the year means ‘tis time to review how my Great War reading is shaping up. The summer has seen not only a terrific book on the Italian-Austrian front (The White War), but at least two books on the naval action, so two-thirds of my target areas have been taken care of. The war in the east is still a dark mystery, but an upcoming read (Collision of Empires) should address that nicely. Little of my reading has come from the possible list I drew up back in January, but  that’s quite all right – so far the year’s best read in this area has been an unexpected one, again The White War.  In the months to come I’ll be reading about the Eastern Front, and taking on The Great War in Modern Memory at the very least.

  1. The First World War, John Keegan
  2. La Feu (Under Fire), Henri Barbusse
  3. The Great War in Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
  4. The Great War at Sea, Richard Hough
  5. To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War, ed. Vincent O'Hara et al
  6. Wipers: A Soldier's Tale from the Great War, Jeff Simmons
  7. Forgotten Voices of the Great War, Max Arthur
  8. The Eastern Front, Norman Stone
  9. Rites of Spring: the Great War  and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins
  10. World War 1 Companion, Mathias Strohn, editor.
  11. Collision of Empires, Prit Buttar
  12. Silent Night,  Stanley Weintraub 
Conscience, Louisa Thomas
+  An Ice Cream War, William Boyd
+ The White War,  Mark Thompson
+ Castles of Steel, Robert K. Massie
+ The Red Baron,  Manfred von Richthofen

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Red Baron

The Red Baron
Manfred von Richthofen
© 1969 ed. Stanley Ulanoff
240 pages

The average man on the street may not know the first thing about the Great War, but he'll have heard of the Red Baron. Attribute that to a silly song, or a Peanuts comic trip, but in the Great War Germany had no hero like Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a true knight of the air.  Beginning as a cavalry captain, von Richthofen joined the air service and soon proved a frightful natural. The Red Baron constitutes his memoir through the war, and what cannot be told by his death is told by others, namely his brother and an English pilot.

Owing either to the author's military precision, German directness, or the consequences of translation, The Red Baron is short and to the point.  The memoirs open with reports from his time riding with the Uhlans in Russia before he announces that he is joining the air service.  His reports from time at the front are largely devoid of emotion, but they are aided by interspersed letters to friends at home in which the Baron reveals his joy at flying, his thoughts about his foes, and eventually  his fear about the inevitable. His record was exceptional; before his own death, the Baron was responsible for no less than eighty kills in the air. He expresses little pleasure in this, aside from a hunter's quiet pride in having gone out and gotten his quarry, and never rails against his foes. The French he regards with a little disdain because they prefer ambushes in the air, and experienced pilots are too wise for that approach to work long; the English are far more worthy opponents, even if they enjoy theatrics a little too much. (So says the man with a bright red 'crate').  But having dispatched so many opponents himself, and seeing Germany lose ground and his many friends dead, the Baron could feel death coming for him.   After expressing anxiety about what was to come -- and shoving it out of the way, knowing he must do his duty -- the memoirs end, followed by a narrative by his brother, the account of an English pilot, and an article about his burial.  The appendices are quite good, including diagrams of all the major fighter planes mentioned throughout.

The Red Baron takes a while to warm to a reader, being very staid for the most part and translated imperfectly, but it does have the virtue of being the thoughts of the man himself, and not just speculations and praises of him. That remains its chief selling point, though there are dashes of information that give interested readers a feel for what it might have been like to  fight in the air.

"We found Richthofen. His face, particularly peaceful, had an expression of gentleness, of refinement. Suddenly I felt miserable, desperately unhappy, as if I had committed an injustice. There could be no feeling of joy that there lay Richthofen, the greatest of all!   In my heart I cursed the force that is devoted to death. I gnashed my teeth. I cursed the war!  If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow". - Captain A. Roy Brown, RFC/RAF

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Sorrows of Empire

The Sorrows of Empire
© 2009 David Mack
464 pages

In the original series episode "Mirror, Mirror",  Star Trek heroes Kirk,McCoy Uhura, and Scotty inadvertently changed places with their counterparts in a mirror universe, alter egos who were agents of a galactic empire whose standard operating procedures tended more toward murder than peaceful negotiation. Surviving only by pretending to be imperial officers, the four managed to escaped back to their own universe -- but not before leaving an impact on the mirror universe's Mr. Spock, who was tantalized by the vision of a peaceful republic, governed by men of outstanding decency.   Convinced that his empire is rotting from within, being destined for destruction and a dark age, Spock decides to save it by effecting a coup and offering it a saving vision.  The Sorrows of Empire is a masterful introduction to the Mirror Universe books.

The Mirror Universe as seen in the original series and later in Deep Space Nine are worlds apart; in one, humans control a galactic empire; in the other, they are rebels persecuted by the Klingon-Cardassian alliance.   The Sorrows of Empire links the two together, delivering the story of how the Terran Empire came to be defeated in battle, and the humans turned from rulers to slaves. But whereas Deep Space Nine's  take was utterly cynical, advancing the perception that peace and goodwill cannot withstand against tyranny and malice,  Sorrows gives a different interpretation.  Through stages, and aided immeasurably by his soon-to-be-deceased-superior's secret weapon,  Spock rises to power -- first seizing the Enterprise, then building respect and assuming command of Starfleet, then finally eliminating the Empress herself -- and then engages on a long-term plan of Seldonian ambition.  The Empire is destined to fall,  democratic reforms or not -- so he arranges for an intentional defeat of the Empire, done in such a way that will simultaneously undermine its enemies and plant the seeds for the creation of a second Republic -- the realization of the other universe's dream-Federation.

The Sorrows of Empire is impressively executed;  while the Mirror Universe tends toward kitsch, the gratuitous violence and general vulgarity displayed in the Deep Space Nine episodes is absent altogether. Because so much time passes through the plot,  Trek fans will see it mature through several Trek episodes and a few movies. References to the greater universe abound in number, and range from the subtle to the obvious;  only the nerdiest could spot Lieutenent Xon, from the abandoned Star Trek: Phase 2,  but the many connections made to other Trek novels make a superb standalone novel even better. Not only does Sorrows integrate a lot of canon material into its narrative, but there are tie-ins to Trek literature as well, like the Vanguard Project. David Mack's arrangements of plot and characters succeed, too; despite the abundance of minor characters, most of whom are familiar, the tale never loses focus on Spock and his dream.

Although the logical Spock may be confused with the counterpart we know and love, his differences between our universe's Spock go beyond the goatee. The sheer weight of empire molds his character in ways Trek fans wouldn't expect, but  his efforts to avoid becoming the monster he's trying to destroy must be appreciated. Spock is tortured by desiring morality while at the same time having make hard choices, rather like Sisko in "In the Pale Moonlight".

On all accounts, Sorrows of Empire enthralls.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon
© 1929 Dashiell Hammeett
217 pages

"You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready."
"What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?” 

A beautiful woman whose life is in danger; a streetwise and world-worn private eye who will take on a globe-trotting criminal conspiracy to rescue her,  and a string of murders that implicates them both:   detective novels don't get more archetypal than this.  The Maltese Falcon is the original hardboiled detective story, and despite being nearly ninety years old it ages splendidly.

Sam Spade is a private investigator who is tasked with assisting a damsel in distress, but when his partner is knocked off on the first night of the investigation, and Spade's only clue to the woman's distress killed that same night, things get complicated fast. The police want to pin both murders on Spade, and just for kicks there are gunmen following him around. Despite initially giving Sam a line about being stalked by a sister's boy friend, Miss Damsel is involved in a high-stakes heirloom theft that will deliver either fortune or death to all concerned.

Granted, when I started reading this I was in the mood for a vintage detective novel, so my delight in reading it had a head start. Even so, I can't imagine not being impressed with the language and style employed here. Considering that this first debuted in a magazine, it's hard to believe that publishers gave Hammett  room to describe actions like rolling a cigarette with such articulation, but these sprinkled little diversions are like a pocket square;  they're small, but add enormous aesthetic appeal.   The characters are vivid, popping out in both appearance and personality.  The plot itself is a tangled whodunit that ultimately sees everyone a little frustrated, but displays that for all his cynicism, Spade is still driven by his own  very firm set of morality.  The Maltese Falcon is stylish, fast, and gloriously fun.


Friday, August 22, 2014

The Age of Steam

A Brief History of the Age of Steam
© 2007 Thomas Crump
288 pages

For most of human history, transportation over land has been prohibitively expensive, limited to highly lucrative goods like silk. Trade grew from the rivers, as did civilization. But in the 18th and 19th century, the advent of industrial technologies, often utilizing steam,  radically transformed society. Not only did wood- and coal-fired engines free factories from the need to locate  beside rivers that powered watermills, but the advent of steam transportation knit cities across the landscape together, creating boundless opportunities for economic expansion. A Brief History of the Age of Steam focuses mostly on steam transportation,  first on boats and then on the rails.  Not surprisingly for an author who also penned A Brief History of Science, it places a lot of emphasis on technical details, like the mechanical workings of the steam engine.  As a rail history, it doesn't compare well to Christian Wolmar's work, since he incorporates both social and technical aspects, but it's a rare history of river steamboats and the rise of oceanic steamers.  A strong point is the close relationship between railroads and imperialism, which he develops.  Even though the writing focuses more on mechanical operations than the human element, the history reads well.  I'm still on the lookout for a naval history of steam transport, however.


Monday, August 18, 2014

This week: TBR progress

This past week I was positively underwhelmed by The Bishop in the West Wing, a mystery novel by Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest.  I’d hoped the novelty of a priest writing about a priest solving mysteries could make for an interesting read, but as with other Greeley novels I've tried, I just couldn't get into it.  I finished this one because it was short, the book is being discarded, and the plot unfolded in the White House.  Essentially the President is an Irish Bill Clinton from Chicago, who is being plagued by a poltergeist and invites his buddy from the old days, now a bishop serving the cardinal of Chicago, to drive it away.  Blackie Ryan, the lead, doesn't do a lot of sleuthing; he just spends several days hanging around the White House while the president eats and has mock-abrasive arguments with his precocious teenage daughters, until eventually Ryan decides the poltergeist is being generated by the malicious lady vice-president.

Well, OK then.   This week I’ll be reading a history of steam transportation that I bought a couple of years ago pursuing an interest in steamships.   It’s a to-be-read extra. I’m also getting back into Richard Fortey’s Earth, a geological history of the planet.

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol
© 2008 Ian Gately
546 pages

"We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them." 
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

A substance that a third of the world institutionalizes as a religious sacrament and another third expressly forbids  on religious grounds is one to be reckoned with. Since time immemorial, humans have been getting themselves sloshed in one way or another, putting their ingenious minds to work creating alcoholic beverages from whatever plants were available.  Drink is a sweeping history of the potent brew in its many forms, created and consumed by every culture and on nearly every continent.  It's a social history of a sociable subject -- for when people drink, they rarely do so alone. 

Alcohol's roots extend to the beginnings of civilization itself;  where there were grains, there was booze. Wheat rendered beer and rice, sake, and both beverages were the staple of many civilizations' diets. This owes not only to the human race's fondness for getting itself knackered,  but to the fact that bacteria-killing alcoholic content made beer a safer source of water than water itself.  Processing wheat products into potable beverages extended their lives, and sometimes gave people an edge, especially as distillation created drinks with long shelf lives. 

Beyond economic contributions, the communal consumption of alcohol created social ties as well. Not only was wine considered a doorway to inspiration from the muses -- a place later assumed by absinthe -- but drinking it together at feasts loosened tongues and allowed for more honest conversation. Not for nothing did the Romans say "in wine, there is truth.”   Not that true and alcohol were steady partners; mead-drinking also went hand and hand with vigorous boasting about deeds in battle. 

Abuse of alcohol has existed since  its cultivation,  something it lends itself to in affording an escape. Early industrial mill workers steeled themselves with ale to ensure the day, and the Romans were absolutely riotous. While the prevailing  view expressed by people throughout the book is that alcohol is an exquisite complement to life, in moderation,  in view of its power some have attempted to ban it altogether. Islam, for instance, forbids it, and has for centuries. Far less successful was the west's own attempt at prohibition, which led to the rise of organized crime and contempt for government.  

Drink, like those who have imbibed a bit too much, is outstandingly ambitious in trying to render a comprehensive history of alcohol and culture. While he's most thorough covering  the western world,   recurring chapters also address alcohol in China,  Japan, the middle east, and South America.  A 'cultural' history verges on the literal, as Gately examines alcohol's depiction and relationship with art, literature, and the movies.  Yet for all the ground to be covered, Gately does rather well;   the book's bar is well-stocked with stories, and if one doesn't suit your taste another setting and different subject are right behind it.

A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage.  A history of the world as told over wine, beer,  coffee, tea, rum, and Coca-Cola.