May 15 2011

Alexander to Actium by Peter Green

I can’t possibly do justice to this monumental work in the short space allowed for Facebook book reviews, but I would just like to say that in additional to being informative and educational, this book was delightfully entertaining and enoyable. I am currently taking a course on the Hellenistic Age, but this book, combined with Green’s excellent biography of Alexander, has taught me far more about the subject than the class has so far. The neverending wars and political intrigues were confusing and a bit wearying, but Green’s discussion of Hellenistic art, literature, and philosophy was the highlight of this journey. The paradox is that although at this period Greek cuture was at its apogee of influence and penetration in the world, this was also a period that saw a distinct decline in the quality of that culture, although this was not something that the philistine Romans could have ever appreciated. For all Alexander’s martial glory, Hellenization is his only truly positive legacy.

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May 14 2011

1776 by David McCullough

This is really good stuff. Personal accounts and testimonies from those who were there. Yet it seems like a miracle that America was able to win its revolution. The campaign was botched and bungled from the beginning, and Washington was hardly a military leader of the first order. Providence certainly played a role in the outcome, for which I am forever grateful.

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May 05 2011

Premature Evaluation: Yalta by S.M. Plokhy

Did FDR give away too much at Yalta? Was Churchill sketching out percentages of influence in Eastern and Southeastern Europe with Stalin? How far did Stalin’s plans for annexations run? And was the Cold War inevitable?

In Yalta: The Price of Peace, S.M. Plokhy goes to the literature and the archives with these questions, and so far (I’m not quite halfway through) comes back with good arguments and answers. His most helpful point, to my mind, is to relocate Yalta as a wartime conference. He accompanies the negotiations and their background with details of which armies were where at what times. While victory in Europe looked certain for the Allies if they held together, it was by no means certain whose forces would reach key areas first, and it was even possible that the Grand Alliance would break before war’s end. It certainly would not have been the first time in European history that a coalition had foundered on the shores of victory.

Two quotations that bear on the overall argument:

Stalin’s words [in a discussion about creating the United Nations] were a reminder that the peace being negotiated at Yalta was not one between the Allies and the Axis but between the victors themselves. (p. 126)

On January 16, 1943, Moscow informed the Polish government in exile that it had decided to revoke a provision of their treaty recognizing the Polish citizenship of ethnic Poles who found themselves on Soviet territory after September 1939 [i.e., after the USSR had invaded the eastern parts of interwar Poland, in accordance with the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact]. From now on they would be treated as Soviet citizens. (p. 159)

British leaders, having gone to war against Germany over Poland found it difficult to leave that country in Stalin’s sphere of influence without protest. Stalin, having seen Russia and the USSR invaded twice via Polish territory saw a friendly Polish government (for Stalinist values of “friendly”) as a necessity. Besides, the Red Army was in Warsaw, and the London Poles were in, well, London.

I’ll be interested to find out how much post-war conflict Plokhy sees as inevitable, given such deep divisions among the Allies on matters of both principle and practice. On the other hand, both East and West made compromises at Yalta, so maybe he will argue in favor of more contingency than is usually credited.

The research is solid, the prose is brisk, the details colorful and the argument clear. Good stuff.

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Apr 22 2011

Infantry Attacks by Erwin Rommel

This book reads like a series of military field reports, which is basically what it is. Rommel displays his flair for aggressive command of infantry under extremely challenging circumstances in the First World War, and I suppose many might find his accounts of courage and resourcefulness under fire very inspiring. But reading this memoir gives one a look into the mind of a rather cold-blooded military man, and I find it rather disturbing. And in spite of all the action, Rommel’s emotionless, colorless descriptions of one engagement after the other render the narrative as a whole distinctly tedious. If war is too important to be left to the generals, so is the writing of history, even military history. Rommel ends the book on a patriotic and defiant note that suggests that he has learned many tactical lessons from the experience of combat, but no moral ones. His tactical brilliance…and lack of moral reflection…obviously made him an ideal candidate to lead Hitler’s army.

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Feb 11 2011

History of the Arabs by Philip Hitti

The author is a proud, patriotic, card-carrying Arab, deeply immersed in the brilliant cultural achievements of medieval Islamic civilization, and he argues persuasively that without the Arab contribution what we call Western Civilization would never have progressed beyond the Dark Ages. There are a few statements in this book that reveal how dated it is…”Lebanon is the most stable country in the Middle East”…”Suicide is rare among Moslems”…but it is rich in detail as it attempts to do justice to Arab culture. Israel and Zionism are omitted in this volume, although it goes up to the 1960’s, and the author takes a mild and objective view of Arab civilization’s relationship with the West, unlike many modern Arab intellectuals who are implacably hostile. A book like this could never have been written in the post-9/11 era, which makes me thankful that it is still in print. The book is an artifact of a bygone era when Arabs and Muslims were not yet the Enemy.

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Jan 11 2011

Dreams by C.G. Jung

I made a good faith effort to read this book from beginning to end, and I feel severely taxed for having endured such a load of nonsense. The idea of the unconscious is not altogether implausible, but Jung takes it to levels that Freud never dreamed of. Jung’s pretense to “science” is outrageous; there is nothing remotely scientific in this work, even by the standards of Jung’s time. Jung should be read as a literary figure rather than a scientist, and even in respect to psychology he is clearly more interested in mythology and mysticism than the workings of the human mind. There were many interesting dreams recorded in this book, but I am convinced that Jung grossly misinterpreted most of them in the light of his flaky theories. Dreams are a fascinating subject, but I learned nothing from this book.

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Jan 11 2011

Taking Stock of 2010: Books

Undemanding reading, with one or two exceptions, appears as the hallmark of 2010. Belated reaction to the economic crisis? Lack of initiative after spending several months with Count Tolstoy in 2009? Hard to say.

The exceptions: Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian, a survivor’s testimony from the time of his arrest in 1915 in Istanbul to his eventual escape into Central Europe in 1918; and in a completely different vein The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, a retelling of Arthurian legends with the Grail quest a nuisance, all of the swordplay off-stage, and the men in general of secondary interest.

Most-read author this year just passed: Alexander McCall Smith. Authors new to me I want to read more of: John Biggins, Raymond E. Feist, Jo Walton, Hillary Mantel. Books read aloud to the eldest child: should be obvious from context. Best tale of the Austro-Hungarian navy: Tomorrow the World by John Biggins. Disappointment from a Nobelist I otherwise quite like: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. Best novel of first contact in medieval Germany: Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. Books in German read: none, for the first time in many years.

Full list is below the fold, links are to earlier posts on the title or author. See also 2009, 2007, 2006.

Continue reading

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Dec 22 2010

Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow

Considered to be the definitive book on the Vietnam War. I had read this book many years ago, but I’m glad that taking the Vietnam War course at LSU forced me to reread it. Despite my professor’s hawkish pronouncements, after rereading this book I don’t see any way we could have won in Vietnam, short of invading North Vietnam, which surely would have provoked the Chinese to intervene, or blasting North Vietnam to bits with nuclear weapons, which would have been inhumane and would have caused an international uproar. The enemy we were facing was simply too determined to prevail at all costs. An enemy that can maintain morale despite sustaining such huge losses cannot help but provoke admiration. Vietnam, IMHO, remains a tragic but cautionary tale about the limits of U.S. power that is just as relevant today as it was then.

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Nov 11 2010

Four Hours in My Lai by Michael Bilton

My instructor assigned this book, but he mostly glossed over it in class. This is not a book to gloss over. The professor sees My Lai as an aberration, an exceptional case, but I think the lesson to take home from it is that under the right circumstances even decent and honorable people can become monsters. The My Lai incident is not widely remembered by the American public, but that is unfortunate, because it has been thoroughly investigated and meticulously documented, and it deserves to be remembered even though the military and the Nixon administration did their best to sweep it under the rug. Winston Churchill is cited in this book as saying that a nation without a conscience cannot survive, which is why I think ordinary Americans need to take a good hard look at My Lai and stop sleepwalking through history. I believe in American exceptionalism, but I don’t buy into the whatever-we-do-is-right theory of American history, and this book illustrates what is wrong with that theory.

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Nov 04 2010

The Soul of China by Amaury De Riencourt

My exposure to Chinese history has mostly been disappointing thus far–but this book was FASCINATING. The author writes in the colorful and subjective style that today’s politically correct historians are afraid to write in. He is not afraid of making judgments, which is refreshing given that modern academicians are steeped in relativism. The core theme in this book is how at a very early point in its history China created a stable civilization that changed very little for thousands of years, and how this cultural petrification led to a crisis when China came into contact with the energetic and innovative West. In the end China embraced Marxism-Leninism as a way of rejecting elements of Western civilization that did not fit with Chinese culture, such as individualism, Christianity, and democracy, while embracing those aspects which were undeniably positive, such as science and industry. I have to say that this book saved me from a hopeless ennui regarding Chinese history.

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