Thursday, May 15, 2008

This Week at the Library (15/5)

Books this Update:
- In at the Death, Harry Turtledove
- Fatherland, Robert Harris
- Garden of Beasts, Jeffery Deaver
- Playing for Pizza, John Grisham
- The Two Georges, Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss

My first read this week was In at the Death by Harry Turtledove, which completes his "Southern Victory" series that began with How Few Remain. As you might recall, "President" Jake Featherston of the Confederacy invaded the United States in 1941, only to realize that the Union isn't as big of a pushover as his electorate. The result is a war of economies -- one that Featherston cannot hope to win without superior technology, like bombs that can destroy whole cities. This book ends the series with two continents devastated by war and dealing with the dawn of the Nuclear Age.

In general I found the series to be enjoyable reading. As a student of history, I enjoyed looking for the parallels Turtledove attempted to draw to the real world and thinking about the world he was fashioning. I found that some things didn't make that much sense, but all in all I have no real complaints. I noticed that technology seemed to advance more quickly in this series than in real life -- specifically in terms of airplanes. An example of this is the advancement of bomber technology in the "Great War". In real life, bombers did little actual damage -- but in the books, even WW1 planes are capable of bombing cities into ruins.

Next I read Fatherland, which is an mystery novel by Robert Harris set in an alternate history setting. In Fatherland, Nazi Germany succeeded in winning the Second World War. This success came about partially because of Nazi Germany's triumph over the Soviet Union. I'm not altogether sure that this alone would have given Germany victory -- it failed to in 1917, when Russia withdrew from the Great War, surrendering most of the territory Nazi Germany gained in this fictional timeline. It's a moot point, though. The book is set in 1964. Nazi Germany controls Europe in the same way the USSR controlled eastern Europe, with the exception that western countries are allowed to pretend that they're free -- when in reality they're subject to Nazi Germany's every whim. A cold war exists between the United States and Nazi Germany, but the aging Hitler wants to ease tensions for a reason I've forgotten at the moment. U.S. President Joseph P. Kennedy announces a visit to Berlin, and this sets the stage for the book. A German police officer is startled to realize that a murder he is investigating is tied to a string of murders. All of the "victims" are former Nazi high-ups who are being eliminated for some mysterious reason. It is the job of Officer March to find out what.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, reading through it fairly quickly. The characters are solid, and the plot makes sense. I never felt lost. The book has been written with a great eye for detail, using actual historical documents as Officer March's evidence. There are lots of little touches: for instance, March mentions a symphony being conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who was in real life an Austrian national who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for many years. He was also a member of Austria's Nazi party, although I don't know how involved in it he was. Outside of the point of derivation, I didn't see any really questionable developments in world politics in this alternate-history setting, although I am curious as to how the aging Kennedy became president.

Next I read Garden of Beasts, which is a mystery novel by Jeffery Deaver set in 1936 Berlin. I found this book and Fatherland by doing a search at my local library for "Berlin". I'm interested in the history and culture of select cities, and found these two books in the same way that I found Philip Margolin's books while looking for information about Portland. In Garden of Beasts, a German-American hitman is hired by individuals working on behalf of the U.S. government to travel to Germany and eliminate the man responsible for Nazi Germany's rearmament. That I describe this novel as a mystery novel and not adventure should tell you that the above description is not nearly complete. I was thoroughly entertained by the book, and will look for this author more. 1936, by the way, is the year the Olympics were held in Berlin. As you can imagine, the Nazis are eager that nothing sensational should happen.

I should mention John Grisham's Playing for Pizza, which I read back in December but for some reason never thought to write about until I wrote about The Appeal. Playing for Pizza is a fairly short book, and was published right before The Appeal. As you might suspect, it is not a legal thriller. If you've read Bleachers or The Broker and liked either, you'll probably like this one. An American football player with reputation for screwing up under pressure finds an opportunity to play football in the unlikeliest of places: Europe, specifically Italy. Italy, like Europe and the rest of the world (except for the United States) is dominated by soccer -- with little demand for American football. There are clubs (or at least there are in Grisham's world: I don't know if there are in reality, but I figure Grisham wrote the book out of his shocked discovery that Italians played American football.) in Italy. The men playing in these clubs do so only for fun, but Rick (the aforementioned American) will be paid. The book is about Rick and his move to Italy and his acclimating himself to a new culture. This is why I figure those who like either Bleachers or The Broker will like Playing for Pizza. Bleachers is about football, and The Broker is set in Italy and features an American getting used to Italy while fleeing for his life. The highest praise I can give this book is that Grisham is actually able to keep me interested in a book about football. John Grisham is one of my favorite authors, and this book doesn't disappoint.

The next book I read was The Two Georges, a book set in an alternate history in which George Washington traveled to England on behalf of the colonies in the 1760s, obtaining a fair deal for the colonies. The result is a world radically different from ours, where the sun never sets on the British Empire. The Crown possesses North America, Australia, and India while keeping the Ottomans, Chinese, and Hawaii within its sphere of influence. Opposing it are the Holy Alliance (an alliance between France and Spain, with various holdings across the world including "New Spain" in Central America) and the Russian Empire. France's revolution was spoiled by one Lt. Col. Bonaparte. Although the book seems to be set in the mid 1990s (judging by a recent major earthquake in San Francisco and that a wine produced in the early 1980s is just now starting to come into season), neither Germany nor Italy are united. Technology has also progressed more slowly, it seems, and much differently. Cars, for instance, use steam engines and are referred to as "steamers". Strangely enough, electric cars are also mentioned. Airships are used for commercial flights, not fixed-wing aircraft -- even though the latter are available. Although the television is starting to become commercially available, telephone technology is very limited. These changes are largely unexplained. While I can understand the political developments of this worlds, the technological ones are beyond me. Why has technology in general progressed so slowly in this world? That I don't know.

The Two Georges refers to a painting that shows Colonel George Washington bowing before his sovereign, and is symbolic of the strong relationship between Great Britain and its dominion in North America, the North American Union. The NAU enjoys something in the way of autonomy, although its head (Governor-General) is appointed by the king. The head of the NAU in this book is one Martin Luther King Jr. Sadly, his father changed his name to Martin Luther in honor of said brute in this timeline, too. At the beginning of the book, the painting is stolen, leading Colonel Bushell of the Royal American Mounted Police (RAMs) across the continent as he searches for the culprits. The likely culprits are the Sons of Freedom, white supremacists who double as fanatical separatists. In general I found it a fun read, although I was able to realize the ending before Colonel Bushell.

Pick of the Week: Garden of Beasts, Jeffery Deaver

Next week: I am knee-deep in a variety of history texts, including two I mentioned last week (History of the Ancient World and Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization).

Friday, May 2, 2008

This Week at the Library (2-5-08)

Books Included in this Update:
- Only Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen
- Since Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen
- The Appeal, John Grisham
- The Center Cannot Hold, Harry Turtledove
- The Victorious Opposition, Harry Turtledove
- Return Engagement, Harry Turtledove
- Drive to the East, Harry Turtledove
- The Grapple, Harry Turtledove

I've waited a while to write this, as it will be my last library-related post from the University of Montevallo. At 3 PM today, I will have to vacate Napier and leave Montevallo behind. While I did not read nearly as much during the school year as I did in the summer leading up to my return, I did read quite a bit. As you can see from the listed books above, my reading for the past month or so has been dominated by schoolwork or the Turtledove series.

The Frederick Lewis Allen books come from my historiography class, where we examined history as an area of study. One of our assignments was a book review, and I asked to review The Making of the Middle Ages by R.W. Southern. I did not find the book all that interesting, as it was mostly about the development of the Christian church -- and I have zero interest in that, really. So I asked my professor if I could switch to another book. He gamely agreed, and I read Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s is a book that I started reading last term, but never finished. (I did, however, mention the book in one of these posts.)

Allen was an amateur historian working for Harpers magazine: his book is not written for academics, but for popular consumption. As such, his style is informal. In the prelude this is mildly annoying, but as the book progressed I found I liked it. Allen published this in 1931, so it was fairly recent. You can read the book online -- which is where I read it -- here.

The book moves through the 1920s, topic by topic. Some topics include the rise of crime (thanks in part to Prohibition), the rising hemlines, and the Red Scare. The topics themselves are smartly arranged chronologically, and Allen is careful to refresh the reader's memory from time to time to ensure that she or he is getting the broader perspective. It's a nice touch, I think. It was this book that my first university-level history instructor recommended to me when I asked him for book suggestions regarding the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, and I pass the recommendation on to you.

I commented in my review for class that Allen's tone may have changed had he written this book ten years later, after the Depression was revealed to have been a long-term issue for the world and not just a temporary panic. In order to see if this was the case, I checked out Allen's sequel to the book, aptly named Since Yesterday. This book follows the same style and has the same inherent readability, so I again recommend it to those of you who have an interest in this era. The style is very informal, but not so much that the reader would feel insulted. The only dull part of the books I remember is a chapter on land speculation in Florida in Only Yesterday. The chapter about the Bull Market wasn't all that interesting, either, but then again I am not an economic historian or even a student of economic history. My favorite kind of history is social history, and these books provide that.

I received John Grisham's The Appeal for my birthday. Grisham is a favorite author of mine, although I'm not exactly alone in claiming that. The Appeal, as you might be able to guess from the title, is based in the field of law -- which is a return for Grisham. His early works (A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, etc) were all legal "thrillers", but then he started varying from that with titles like A Painted House, Skipping Christmas, and Playing for Pizza. That didn't hurt him, as far as I'm concerned. All of those non-legal books are well-written and entertaining as well. What follows is an introduction to the book, not a plot summary. The Appeal is principally about a chemical company that has been caught disposing of toxic chemical byproducts in ravines, poisoning the water table and giving the county the name of "Cancer County". The chemical company is sued by a married law couple, who nearly go into bankruptcy trying to afford the costs of the trial. The chemical company pins its hopes on a successful appeal -- to a friendly court. This is where the book's drama really begins, as people working on behalf of the chemical company will attempt to influence local elections to affect a change in the make-up of that court: specifically, attempting to replace a moderate judge with a conservative one. I'm not sure what Grisham's intention was with this book, other than entertainment. I personally think that it conveys a message about the power of corporations and the danger of easily-influenced voters.

I also continued reading the so-called 'Southern Victory" series by Harry Turtledove. Since Turtledove's style is about the same throughout the series, I won't bother commenting on each book one by one. Turtledove's style, you might remember, is to tell the story through the eyes of viewpoint characters. The characters in this part of the series are varied -- legislators, soldiers, sailors, dictators, death camp commandants, civilians caught in the middle, etc. The only comment I will provide other than a plot summary is that while there were sex scenes in the first three or four books, Turtledove eases off on them later on. Turtledove's sex could never match Jean M. Auel's caveman erotica, but it was still a bit strange. The later books are all about social history and military conflict. I left off at the end of the Great War. Considering the progress I've made since, it's pathetic that it has taken me this long to bother writing. If you plan to read this series and do not want anything to be spoiled, read no more.

Blood and Iron finishes the Great War. The United States and Germany are victorious, and inflict brutal peace terms on their vanquished foes. I rather enjoyed seeing the South get the same harsh treatment as Germany did in the real world, and seeing the same results -- the rise of radicalism, which is where The Center Cannot Hold probably gets its name from. As people living in France and the Confederacy deal with crippling inflation and the indignity of Versailles-like treaty conditions, they become easy prey for demagogues. Far-right conservatives seize power in Britain, France, and the Confederacy, and the world is pushed toward war.

Jake Featherston, Turtledove's answer to reality's Hitler, remilitarizes the south and prepares the Confederates for a war with the United States. There's a difference between the two, because the South (or Germany in the real world) could have rearmed without going to war. Turtledove's road to war follows the "real" road to war pretty closely. At the beginning of the 1940s (in Return Engagement) Featherston declares war against the United States and moves in, winning early victories. He fails to force the United States to capitulate, though, and is left with a war. (The Drive East, The Grapple). Even as he is fighting the United States, he is also engaged in a "final solution" of his own. During the Great War, a red revolution instigated by ill-treated blacks drained some Confederate troops from the front line. The United States would have emerged victorious regardless, but because of the "revolution", it was easy for Confederates to blame blacks for their woes. Finding a scapegoat is always easy.

The war is currently going south for the South. Every world power is trying to develop the bomb: the United States and Germany seem to be closest. I only have one book left in the series, and I believe I will be starting it this next week. I don't know what the result will be, but I'm rooting for the Confederacy's utter destruction.

Pick of the Week: Only Yesterday, Frederick Lewis Allen

Upcoming Reads:
- In To the Death, Harry Turtledove
- Daily Life in Rome
- The Roman Way
- Modern Germany
- France Since 1815
- History of the Ancient World