Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 August 2009 05:13
FORGE OF EMPIRES by Michael Knox Beran
Free Press, October 16, 2007, 496 pages
Much like Jay Winik’s recent book, The Age of Upheaval, this book attempts to track a pivotal, (or revolutionary), time in history and the leaders driving that change. In parallel this author chronicles Otto Bismarck and the unification of Germany; Tsar Alexander II, who “freed” the peasants and brought a rule of law to his “Mother Russia”; and Abraham Lincoln and his role in the American Civil War and the end of slavery – over a the 10+ year period of 1861-1871. Each of these “developments” was critical in their own right and collectively set the world stage for the 20th Century and beyond.
Sounds fascinating but you’ll note I used the word “attempts” in the above paragraph. The author has written two previous books which I have read on Robert Kennedy and Thomas Jefferson. Both shorter and more limited in scope than Forge of Empires and read as “Reflections” on their subjects, incorporating anecdotes, quotes, etc. to make a point and which works reasonably well. Unfortunately this same writing style doesn’t work in this book – the characters, topic and thesis are too broad – and what begins as a collection of interesting facts concerning each of the leaders and their times quickly becomes minutiae, drowning the reader in details on attire, mistresses, palace furnishings and dining menus including wine lists. Granted there are some fascinating tidbits here but they’re too few for the effort and unfortunately obscure the focus of the book.
Pass on this one.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 August 2009 14:38
THE PLAYER – CHRISTY MATHEWSON, BASEBALL, and the AMERICAN CENTURY by Philip Seib
When I was given this book, the gift-bearer informed me that it was the perfect gift for me, "... a book about baseball and U.S. history.” Being the grateful recipient of said gift I of course bit my tongue, didn't respond, "How do you separate the two?", and accepted the gift in the spirit it was given. Now, after reading it, I realize how smart my niece is. The book is indeed about both, and without wandering too far from its subject, (Christy, in case there is some confusion), is a very engaging read. Similar books about this time period in baseball tend to get repetitive and somewhat choppy to read by piecing together newspaper reports and box scores. This author alleviates that problem by also tracking events in the U.S., (and the world as 1914 approaches), while Christy pitches his way through his baseball career. This is recommended for baseball novices, hard core fans and anyone in between as it's a nicely written book.
A WORLD UNDONE by G.J. Meyer
If you're looking for an excellent history of The Great War or simply a great non-fiction book you've found it. In a nutshell what makes this book work is its balance, not necessarily in its handling of events and personalities - the author has no problem critiquing policies, people and decisions - but in the flow of the narrative. Meyer does an excellent job jockeying among the battlefields, world capitals, politicians, civilians, soldiers and generals, economies, technologies and much more with excellent writing, using long and short chapters, (the latter used almost as footnotes to elucidate a point), without becoming bogged down in details or losing track of the narrative. (Just trying to describe how well the author succeeds in doing this is proving difficult.) Without getting too carried away I found the writing and this book very Catton-esque. Highly recommended.
Last Updated on Monday, 20 July 2009 16:22
A VERY THIN LINE by Theodore Draper
This is a book I’d been meaning to get to for years. In a nutshell the author has reviewed the voluminous data, (transcripts, interviews, personal logs and diaries, etc.) and has written a coherent and engaging book documenting an extremely convoluted and complicated foreign policy initiative, (actually several initiatives) during the Reagan presidency. Aid to the contras, weapons sold to Iran and the diversion of funds from those weapons sales are tracked from inception to implementation to the exposure of these "affairs". This includes all the high hopes and noble causes, the "zeal" of the Americans involved, the greed and corruption of the middlemen used for the transactions, and at times the sheer incompetence which led to the inevitable exposure of what was really happening behind the scenes.
This last item being the crux of the book - the hijacking of US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central America by a handful of men, (at times overworked, completely over their heads and out of their league), outside of any purview, oversight or review by the White House, Cabinet or Congress. As for who knew what and when, from President Reagan on down, the author also does a very good job documenting this time line and each of the major players involved. (As an aside, Sec. of State Schultz's involvement, or really conscious lack thereof, was an eye opener for me.) As for the timeliness of re-visiting this affair 20+ years later and any lessons to be learned, if any, .... All I know is I found this book both fascinating and a little scary.
Last Updated on Friday, 10 July 2009 05:19
WITH WINGS LIKE EAGLES by Michael Korda
(Above right – British Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding)
If you are somewhat reluctant to pick up a military history book because of a lack of familiarity, (or interest for that matter), in weapons, technical terminology or military jargon but still like your war history then this is a book for you. Without jeopardizing any of the historical import of The Battle of Britain while not bogging the reader down in military detail, the author has written an engaging and informative military narrative by focusing on the personalities involved and their actions/decisions. The key players are of course Churchill and Hitler but there were other major characters and the author does a good job incorporating their stories and contributions into the narrative.
An example - British Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding, the chief architect of the British air defense which included building up its fighter force, centralizing Air Force HQ and its communications, dividing his country into defensible zones, setting up a network of “watchers”, (many of them women), for advanced warning and most importantly, installing radar towers along the coast-line. This was all done against immense resistance from both the British government and Dowding’s peers. For instance Dowding got on Churchill’s bad side when he continually disagreed with sending British air fighters and pilots to France before its surrender. (This controversy makes for some interesting reading in Churchill’s War memoirs as Dowding was right and Churchill was wrong - something Churchill never took well under any circumstances.)
The Battle of Britain started July 10th, 1940. To put things in perspective remember that Germany’s invasion of Poland, the beginning of WWII, was the previous September. After Poland’s fall there was a quiescent period, (called the Phoney War at the time), then a clash of British and Nazi troop in Narvik (Norway) in April 1940. Churchill becomes the British Prime Minister in early May just before the Nazis invade France (May 10th, 1940). At the end of May the British army evacuates ion of the British army from Dunkirk and finally the fall of France on June 22nd. The speed of events especially after World War I where soldiers fought in the same trenches for four years shocked everyone including Hitler and Churchill. Because of this Hitler believed that Great Britain was very close to capitulation and was convinced that the German Air Force could bring about its final demise.
Fortunately for humanity Hitler underestimated Winston Churchill and the will of the British people and over-estimated Herman Goering’s Air Force. This is a very good book if you are interested in this topic.