Thursday, February 28, 2008

This Week at the Library (28/2)

The History of the S.S. (G.S. Grabel)
Washington's Secret War (Thomas Fleming)
The Trial of Madame Caillaux (Edward Berenson)
Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. (Christopher Hitchens)
How Few Remain (Harry Turtledove)
Naturalist (E. O. Wilson)
The Great War: American Front (Harry Turtledove)

The first book I read this week I found purely by accident. During a blackout a week or so ago, I walked to the university library, hoping that they had power. They did have emergency lights, so I walked upstairs and began to roam the shelves. I found myself in German history, and picked up a book entitled The History of the S.S., by G.S. Graber. The book is short -- 212 pages -- but thoroughly enjoyable, given the subject matter. Graber explores the S.S. -- its creation, the men who ran it, and its demise. The S.S. constituted Hitler's real power base. The "Schutzstaffel" grew from a protection detail (protection from the S.A, or stormtroopers) to a major organization in Nazi Germany. They oversaw the Holocaust (Rudolf Höß, the commandant of Auschwitz, held a high rank in the S.S) and some of the fighting on the eastern front, through the Waffen S.S., or "armed SS".

While I knew a lot of the general information presented in this book (courtesy of my German history course and a historical interest in both World War 2 and Germany), I was still surprised by much of the information within. Graber offers miniature biographies of men like Hendrich Himmler to illustrate the disturbing fact that the S.S. were not madmen twisted by wretched childhood -- they were ordinarily people who managed to twist their own minds. Graber's book covers the SS from its inception to its dominance over all other Nazi organizations (I've read elsewhere that Himmler intended for the S.S to be a state within a state, with sovereignty in the east) to its demise. Graber also mentions the fascination many people in the United States have with the S.S. (and posits that "It may mean nothing, of course, but perhaps it helps to illustrate how a previous generation could have been entranced by the paraphernalia of the SS, its mystic signs, its banners, and ultimately its special mission." (Page 212.) Were I to write a paper on the S.S., I think that The History of the S.S. would serve well as a key source.

The next book I read, Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, is by Thomas Fleming. As I wrote this current paragraph on Presidents' Day, I turned on C-Span to find the author moderating a panel of historians as they discussed the relationship between General Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. Timely! While I knew that Washington was not popular with some politicians (like John Adams), I was unaware of the extent of his unpopularity. In fact, it's rather hard for me to grasp, still. Washington is one of those figures of American history who is treated with veneration, so much so that he becomes a legendary figure, disassociated with the faults of real people. Robert E. Lee is treated the same way in the American south. The result of this (in Washington's case) is that it is hard to contemplate the fact that he had to put up with the same kind of politics that our current politicians have to deal with. This fact was demonstrated as I continued reading the book, and amused me for some reason. It was also encouraging in a strange way, I suppose. The political game, it seems, hasn't degenerated. The feud between Senators Clinton and Obama is tame, in fact, compared to the feud between Presidents Adams and Jefferson -- and petty defamations of character have apparently been a staple of American elections since there have been elections. Washington's Secret War was a thoroughly informative read.

The third book I read was The Trial of Madame Caillaux, by Edward Berenson. The title trial happened in France, in 1914. The wife of a French politician grows weary of a newspaperman's continual campaign against her husband and opts to shoot him. The murderer (Madame Caillaux) is put on trial for the murder, and thus the book begins. The book is divided into five chapters, each examining the role of a particular person in the trial and at the same time a part of French society that that person's case exemplifies. For instance, the chapter on Gaston Calmette (the unfortunate newspaperman) focuses on the role of the French press played in shaping popular opinion while looking into Calmette's motives for attacking Mr. Caillaux in the first place. In my opinion this was a splendid approach, and very well done. The book offered a look at life was like for Frenchmen in 1914, and I would recommend it heartily.

A few weeks ago I watched The Four Horsemen on Google Video, which is a conversation between the "Four Horsemen" of rational thought today (R. Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom have written books on rationality v. religion recently). I thought it would be funny if I were to write a library post where I read a book from each of the "horsemen". I went to my university library's website and found books for three of them, the exception being Mr. Harris -- and that was no problem because I've already read both of his books. When I went to the library to fetch these tomes, my plans quickly changed. There is a reason I have never read one of Daniel Dennett's books, and that reason is that his books are intimidating. Perhaps one day if I find myself stranded on a desert isle I'll have the time it would take to read and comprehend one of his books, but not this week.

While looking for one of the Dennett books, though, I happened upon E.O. Wilson's Naturalist. E.O. Wilson is a name I know from one of my skeptic podcasts; Point of Inquiry, perhaps. After poking around in the book, I decided to give it a go. The library had one of Dr. Dawkins' books that I hadn't read, Climbing Mount Improbable. I have watched him give an excellent lecture on the same title, though, so I hoped I would have a head start on this book. As much as I like reading Dawkins, I don't have a head for biology and find it difficult to finish some of his works-- like The Selfish Gene, which I've tried twice with no success. Christopher Hitchens is considering one of the "Horsemen" because of his work God is Not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything, but he has written on other subjects. The book I chose to read by him -- and the first book I would read out of my "horsemen" selection -- was Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.

Hitchens' work focuses on President Jefferson's role in shaping American history, particularly his influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase. While the subject matter was generally interesting, Hitchens' tone is a bit stuffy. This is the first book I've read by him and I failed to read any reviews of the book before I read the book itself, so I don't know if this is a common aspect of Hitchens' work or if anyone else picked up it. My lack of historical enthusiasm for the Revolutionary War may also interfere with my enjoyment of the book -- but then, I did enjoy George Washington's Secret War. Read the book (if you are so inclined) and judge for yourself.

I then started on Naturalist but a friend of mine recommended I read Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain. Dr. Turtledove writes historical fiction -- alternative history, in fact. I have read a book by Turtledove before -- Guns of the South. In Guns of the South, Turtledove depicts the Confederacy winning the Civil War after they are assisting by time-traveling white supremacists who equip the rebels with AK-47s. In How Few Remain, he again proposes an alternate history where the Confederacy wins -- this time, by taking care of one of Lee's mistakes. Lee's orders for his 1862 invasion of Pennsylvania were intercepted by Federal troops, which allowed Gen. George McClellan to not lose the battle of Antietam. In How Few Remain, the intercepted orders are NOT intercepted, and Lee manages to deal the Army of the Potomac a fatal blow. England and France recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate nation, and the United States loses. This is a rather unfortunate turn of events for the slaves.

The above is actually the prelude to this book. The actual plot of this book concerns a second war between the states. The Confederacy, led by President James Longstreet, buys two of Mexico's northern provinces. The United States objects by declaring war, and that is what the book is about. This book is actually the prelude to a series of books that build off of the premises established. The viewpoint characters are historical figures -- Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and so on -- whose characters have been shaped by this interesting new history. Lincoln is not offed by a disgruntled ex-Confederate, and survives to become a Marxist, universally despised in the United States for losing the war and half the country. Teddy Roosevelt doesn't lead the Rough Riders up San Jan Hill -- he instead invades Canada. Despite my distaste for the idea of the Confederacy winning the Civil War, I enjoyed the book. It is as I said the prologue to Turtledove's alternative history series, and I've decided to read the series through.

After reading How Few Remained, I returned to my planned reading. Naturalist, by E.O. Wilson, is an autobiography of E. O. Wilson's life and career as a zoologist. I didn't realize that Dr. Wilson is from Alabama, but he grew up in the Mobile area during the depression. I haven't read any accounts of growing up in Alabama during that time, and so enjoyed that first part of the book the most. There are some parts of the book that weren't quite so interesting to a non-biologist like myself -- but in general it was an enjoyable read. Wilson is a good writer, and even when I wasn't sure what he was talking about I wanted to keep plowing through. Wilson has had a long and interesting life -- traveling the world over while doing his research and meeting people like James Watson.

Naturalist took me longer to read than it should have, because I was distracted by the next book in that alternate history series I began this week -- The Great War: American Front. The United States has managed to lose two separate wars against the Confederacy at this point, and has been abandoned by the two greatest powers of the world at that time -- Britain and France. One of How Few Remain's viewpoint characters was Alfred von Schlieffen, author of the German plan for fighting a two-front war. Turtledove is evidently a fan of Germany's General Staff (the elite core of officers that determined military policy in Germany until Hitler and his goons arrived), as he has von Schlieffen elaborate on how careful Germany is when planning for war -- as opposed to the United States' and Confederacy's prewar planning, which is negligible. The Great War: American Front picks up on a promise made by American (that is, northern) officers to go to Germany and learn their ways of conducting a war.

The book begins in 1914. The United States and Germany are bosom buddies, as the U.S. is a member of the Triple Alliance, along with Germany and Austria. The Confederacy is part of the British-French entente. Socialism is taking hold in the United States, and the two Americas despise one another. The Great War begins the same way in this book as it did in real life -- with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The United States and the Confederacy declare war on the other's alliance and thus begins the book. The viewpoint characters in this book are apparently going to be the staple core of characters used for the rest of the series, and they're all new. None of them are historical figures, not that I've seen anyway. There are historical figures in the books -- the U.S. President is Theodore Roosevelt, and the Confederate president is Woodrow Wilson -- but the story is never told from their point of view.

The evolution of warfare is the same in this version of the Great War as it is in real life -- US and German offensives lose steam and then settle into bloody trench warfare. Airplanes are used to gather intelligence, and then used as fighters -- which fits the pattern I've observed while studying the rise of air forces in various countries during the Great War. While the book (and the entire series, I think) is dominated by warfare, both books have been about more than war. They've been about how these societies develop, their economies, how their very cultures are fashioned by the differing chain of events. While I do have a number of quibbles, overall the series has been enjoyable and I find the connections he makes to be generally plausible. I am not convinced that Britain and France would have sided with the Confederacy in the first place, though.

That concludes this week's reading.

Pick of the Week: The History of the S.S. was extremely well-written and quite informative.

Next week, I will finish R. Dawkin's Climbing Mount. Improbable, and will continue my reading of the Turtledove series. I think my next history paper will be about France's role in forging the European Union, so I might read something along those lines.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Best of 2007:

While I do enjoy writing about the books I read (writing in general, really) and sharing my thoughts, the primary purpose I have for this blog is to keep track of my own reading. It occurred to me today that perhaps I should look at some of the books I’ve read this year; as I plan on maintaining this for myself for years to come, I can make it an annual tradition. This first year is a bit off, of course, and will be incomplete since I only started this series on my MySpace back in May. I have read my past entries and compiled a list of my favorite books from the year 2007. These are not the only books I enjoyed this year, of course, but they are the ones that stick out.


The Know-It-All: Author A.J. Jacobs chronicles his attempt to read the entire Encylopaedia Britannica. The book is packed full of interesting trivia and humor. Jacob tries out for Who Wants to be a Millionaire and speaks with Alex Trebek.


Universe on a T-Shirt: Dan Falk talks about science as a way of understanding the world around us, and tries to tie the history of science together and point out that all throughout civilized history, we have attempted to find the ultimate truth of why the universe is the way it is -- and why it even “is” to begin with. He does this by providing a history of science, tying together various disciplines like biology, cosmology, and physics.


Before the Dawn: This is an anthropological work by Nicholas Wade that focuses on humanity as we began populating the globe and began transitioning from hunter-gatherers into settled creatures. I commented at the time that it reminded me of Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

Phantoms in the Brain: This book by V.S. Ramachandran covers neurological abnormalities, like phantom limbs. While I had long since forgotten what I learned in psychology or anatomy classes, I understood the book and thought it was one of the most interesting things I had ever read.

The Stand: Given my distaste for supernaturalism, I do not make a habit of reading horror books. This book was highly recommended and I was in the mood for a end-of-the-world scenario, so I checked it out. The book is about a super virus that decimates western civilization (and through military officials, the Soviet Union and China). While I did enjoy much of the book, I wasn’t a fan of the religious overtones. Quite enjoyable overall, though.


Theories for Everything: Theories is an overview and history science. I was quite taken by this book, and it is one book I want to have in my personal library. The book has several authors, each experts in their respective fields. All of them were able to convey the details of their disciplines in a manner easily understandable by someone with an average understanding of science like myself.

A Man Without a Country: Kurt Vonnegut’s final work expresses his thoughts on a number of subjects, and his humanistic idealism shines through in many the essays, particularly in the latter half of the book. I share some of my favorite quotations from it here.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: I gave in to the numerous friends who were badgering me to at least give the first book a chance and read the book. As it turns out, I really rather loved the book. In this book, Rowling introduces her world of wizardry and witchcraft and begins weaving the story that she will finish years later (or in my case, a month later) with The Deathly Hallows.

The Rising Tide: Jeff Shaara’s latest book is the first in a planned three-book trilogy on the European war. Shaara attempts to write the story of the second world war through the eyes of the men who fought in it, borrowing his father’s style that worked so well and achieved such acclaim in The Killer Angels. I enjoyed this book as I have others written by the Shaaras, although since he uses near-contemporary characters like Roosevelt and Hitler I felt it necessary to use fictional portrayals of those characters (like Roosevelt’s portrayal in Pearl Harbor) when picturing the book’s scenes in my head.


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Second in Rowling’s Harry Potter series, this book introduces plot elements that will be revealed in The Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. The plot of this particular book, though, dealt with a monster in the bowels of Hogwarts School preying on the students. Harry, of course, triumphs.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban : Third in the series, and one of my two favorites in the series, Azkaban sees Harry learning more about his parents and introduces several main characters.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is sixth in the Harry Potter series, and the second of my two favorite books. Half-Blood Prince is in many ways a direct prolouge to The Deathly Hallows. Harry and Professor Dumbledore begin to attack Lord Voldemort by seeking out and destroying Horcruxes that contain bits and pieces of his soul.

Pale Blue Dot: I need only to reveal the author of this book (Carl Sagan) to indicate that I very much enjoyed this book. I enjoy pretty much anything by Carl Sagan. I daresay I would be enthralled by his doodles. Sagan writes about humanity’s future role in regards to space. The introduction to this book has been set to video, and remains my favorite YouTube video.


The Darwin Awards: Darwin Awards are awarded to humans who remove themselves from the gene pool (before reproducing) in particularly stupid ways, thus improving the gene pool by removing genes prone to excessive stupidity. (I think family life and environment contributes more to stupidity than genes, but ignorant parents often breed ignorant children so I suppose it’ll work.)


Great Tales from English History, parts one and two: both books are a collection of short chapters. Each chapter deals with a particular tale that deals with medieval English history -- the influence of Joan of Arc, for instance, or the story of Queen Boudicca. I enjoyed both books very much and look forward to the day that they are added to my personal library.

The Hundred Years War: I checked this book because I was then in the process of writing a paper on Jeanne d’Arc. Desmond Seward’s book is an excellent review of the Hundred Years’ War, and helped me understand the background of Jeanne’s story. I found out in the course of writing my paper, though, that she is really overrated. England lost the hundred years’ war when they lost their alliance with Burgundy. Unfortunately for my paper, I figured this out too late to do a revision. I managed to get an A, but I could’ve done much better.


The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operation Air War: This was my main source when writing my second term paper on the Luftwaffe. The book is well-written, and the author seems to have researched the topic for a number of years before writing the book. The book cleared up misconceptions I had. I enjoyed it quite well.

Meditations: Written by Marcus Aurelius, these musings reveal the mind of Emperor Aurelius. He was a tremendous Stoic and I found his thoughts to be personally inspiring.

That concludes my favorite books from the period of May to December ‘07.

Nonfiction to Fiction Ratio: 13:6. The bulk of my favorite fiction reading consisted of Harry Potter books, though.

This Week (Month?) at the Library

It's been well over a month since I last sat down to write about the books I'm reading, for whatever reasons. I have gone through a few books in that time, although not as many as I would've liked or as many as I would have ordinarily expected. While on Christmas break, I checked out a variety of books on Rome, Greece, France, and Germany. I would only end up reading one of those, being distracted by the holidays and a Civilization 3 game.

The book I did read was Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World by Paul Lachlan MacKendrick. The book itself was a beautiful thing, a sight to behold. The copy I had was a hardcover, dark green. A silk ribbon was sewn into the book's binder as a bookmark. The pages themselves were amply decorated, with pictures often serving as the background of the page. The book is a collection of essays dealing with Rome and Greece, as you might have already reduced from the book. The most memorable essay saw the author retracing Odysseus' footsteps (or…oar-beats?) , using etymology and geography to sort out what Homer's colorful descriptions were actually about. Heretofore I had dismissed the vast majority of those tales as simple myth, but the author made some plausible connections to reality, even finding a way of giving the Cyclopes some shadow of truth -- figuring out what the Cyclopes might be an exaggeration of. It's been a month and a half since I read the book, though, so I can't remember anything specific. The book itself was put out by the National Geographic Society, which would explain how impressively it was done.

The second book I read was France 1814 -1919: The Rise of a Liberal-Democratic Society. I checked this book out to help me prepare for my French History class, but was unable to understand it at first until the semester began and terms like "Ultras" were actually explained. In this case, the class helped me understand the book; quite the reverse of what I had intended! Persons less distracted than myself (once the holidays were over, I actually made good progress in reading this one) and interested in French history should find this book quite interesting. I wish I could elaborate more.

While my reading tends to be dominated by nonfiction, I did happen to read a work of fiction -- The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer. I found this book through "Unshelved", a comic strip set in a library. The strip is a daily strip, but every Sunday the strip is used for "The Unshelved Book Club" -- where essentially they recommend a book. Here's the "Book Club" strip for The Confessions of Max Tivoli.

That essentially explains the gist of the book. As you can see from the characters' clothing in that advertisement, the book isn't set in the present day. Max is born in 1871 and lives through the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco as well as both world wars. The book is principally about Max's lifelong love for Alice, and his difficultly in living with his strange condition. The premise of the book is very interesting, and the book itself is in my opinion beautifully written. My only problem with this book was that it was rather tragic. It's definitely one of the most interesting books I've ever read, though, so I'd recommend it. I returned the book yesterday without writing down some of the more beautiful bits of prose, but I did write down the following two weeks ago when it snowed here in Alabama -- and appropriately enough, I read about a freak snowfall in San Francisco.

"The day that Father disappeared, long ago in San Francisco, I awoke from my unmade bed to find another, formed in snow outside my window. Like a health-crazed mother who feeds you on a steady diet of grains and crackers but one morning produces a sugared white cake just because she's missed it for too long, the world had happily shrugged off all expectations and given me a snowy day. I had read about it, and heard my father's recollections of the castles and dragons carved from the banks of creamy Danish snow, how he and the other boys would slide on wooden boards all the way to Prussia, but I was not prepared for the real thing. I thought it would be like a toy left in the yard; I was not prepared for snow to erase the world completely and leave a crisp, blank page. I stared out at the mansions that were not there, the horses, the surreys, the work-bound men I was so used to seeing. There was no sky; there was no city. I gasped as we always do at the unnatural. [...] They say the most that fell that day was a foot of snow in Golden Gate. About three inches fell in the city itself. I have since learned in my travels, especially during a hip-high whopper in Colorado, that this is nothing; this is a mere extravagance of frost. But for us it was thick and bright as luck. " - Andrew Sean Greer, The Confessions of Max Tivoli

The last book I read was Sinister Touches: The Secret War Against Hitler by Robert Goldston. The book focuses on American and British intelligence operations against the Axis powers -- from attempts to steal Enigma (the Nazi military coding machine) to sabotage of infrastructure. I checked this book out in high school but never read it, so when I spotted this last week in the local library, I knew I had to check it out. It was most enjoyable.

Pick of the Week: The Confessions of Max Tivoli. Tragic, but beautifully written.

I'm currently reading two books. The first is Washington's Secret War by Thomas Fleming, a book focusing on George Washington's attempts to defend against attacks on his character and competence from Congress and some French allies. The second is a book about the formation of the SS in Nazi Germany, although I can't remember the title offhand and can't seem to find it in the University library's system, even though that's where I found itT