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).

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