Alexander the Great by Lewis Cummings

Many historians have fallen in love with Alexander, but Lewis Cummings remains cold-eyed and immune to his charm. Cummings sees him as a bloodthirsty tyrant, possessed of an impetuous and almost childish nature, whose military genius served only the evil purpose of conquest and imperialism. Yet not even the most hostile biographer can deny what an extraordinary individual Alexander was and the breadth of his grand if rather inhuman achievements. Not even Caesar or Napoleon were his equals, in my judgment. Yet I say this breathing thanks that there are no Alexanders on the scene today.

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Taking Stock of 2007: Books

I read about as much in 2007 as I did in 2006, but I wrote far fewer reviews. One of the perils of full-time employment. It also looks like a year of consolidation, rather than a year of discovery. Having polished off the lucky thirteenth in Lemony Snicket’s set in December 2006, I reached the end of 20 books with Aubrey/Maturin in January 2007. While in the course of the year I only re-read four books, I went back to the well with a lot of authors I knew I liked. Even the Stalin biography was by the same author. And just one book in German the whole year. Schade.

Among what was new to me in fiction, Cory Doctorow and Paul Park made the biggest impression. Doctorow needs little introduction in the blog-world, but his fiction is strange and interesting, addictive and just a little unsettling. Park is fooling around with the tenets of fantasy in a way that I like, and as soon as part part three makes it into paperback, I’ll gobble up parts two and three. (If your budget runs to fantasy in hardback, don’t tell me how it ends!) The fun factor was highest in Naomi Novik’s four novels. Napoleonics with dragons, what’s not to like? A few things, but it’s a series with promise.

Many more new voices and one-offs in non-fiction. Tom Reiss, Fritz Stern (ok not completely new), David Hackett Fischer (though I do wish he’d written the promised additional volumes). The Race Beat is terrific on the civil rights struggle in the US and the crucial role of the media, which was understood clearly by both sides. Ivan’s War deserves a full-scale review, though the private Soviet soldier’s perspective is summed up in three brutal sentences: “They called us. They trained us. They killed us.” The River of Doubt captures not only Teddy Roosevelt but much about early 20th century America, exploration and Brazil.

Complete list (in order read) is below the fold. Links are to previous writing about the book or author on AFOE.

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson
The Hundred Days – Patrick O’Brian
Blue at the Mizzen – Patrick O’Brian
The Orientalist – Tom Reiss
Fevre Dream – George R.R. Martin
A Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin
A Feast for Crows – George R.R. Martin
Five Germanys I Have KnownFritz Stern
Albion’s Seed – David Hackett Fischer
Iron Council – China Miéville
The White Castle – Orhan Pamuk
The Swords of Lankhmar – Fritz Leiber
Glasshouse – Charles Stross
Green Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Good Omens – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
The Atrocity Archives – Charles Stross
The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
The Race Beat – Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
Spin – Robert Charles Wilson
Salonica: City of Ghosts – Mark Mazower
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town – Cory Doctorow
The Armageddon Rag – George R.R. Martin
His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik
Overclocked – Cory Doctorow
Ivan’s War – Catherine Merridale
Toast – Charles Stross
A Princess of Roumania – Paul Park
Little, Big – John Crowley
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling
Innocents Aboard – Gene Wolfe
The Big Over Easy – Jasper Fforde
Castle of Days – Gene Wolfe
The New Life – Orhan Pamuk
33 Augenblicke des Glücks – Ingo Schulze
The Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi
The Fourth Bear – Jasper Fforde
The River of Doubt – Candice Millard
The Hidden Family – Charles Stross
Nature Girl – Carl Hiaasen
Europe East & West – Norman Davies
The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen
The Ladies of Grace Adieu – Susanna Clarke
The Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum
Throne of Jade – Naomi Novik
On the Field of Glory – Henryk Sienkiewicz
Black Powder War – Naomi Novik
Empire of Ivory – Naomi Novik
First Among Sequels – Jasper Fforde
The Dogs of Babel – Carolyn Parkhurst
Other Colours – Orhan Pamuk
Special Assignments – Boris Akunin
Young Stalin – Simon Sebag Montefiore
Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke
Dixie City Jam – James Lee Burke
Spook Country – William Gibson

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The Second World War by Martin Gilbert

Except perhaps for Iris Chang’s *The Rape of Nanking*, no other book I have read captures the horror and brutality of World War II like this one. Martin’s trademark style is historical narrative intermingled with individual stories and anecdotes, and it is the individual accounts, replete with documented proper names and direct quotes, that convey the proper note of atrocity committed by the Axis Powers. There are daily accounts of Holocaust victims that should be enough to refute any Holocaust denier, and there are also recorded acts of selfless courage and heroism. No other book I have read on this subject expresses to this extent the madness perpetrated in the last century by two of the most powerful and advanced nations in the world. This is not a book for students of tactics and military strategy a la John Keegan, this is a memorial of human suffering in the most horrendous war ever fought. It is not exactly exciting, but it is appropriately appalling.

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The Fall of the Roman Republic by Plutarch

Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, and Cicero, all the major figures associated with the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, except maybe for Cato, who is included in another Penguin volume. A theme in this collection is the way in which the ambition of outstanding individuals can strain the fabric of a society and threaten to bring about its collapse. Rome had a system of checks and balances just like we do, but the Senate’s failure to deal constructively with the impending crisis practically made Caesar inevitable. Caesar is certainly the most impressive figure in this rogues’ gallery, although Plutarch seems to suspect that he was conspiring to bring down the republic almost from the moment he was born. Plutarch has many failings as a political historian, but he definitely has insight into human personality. These are some of the best of his profiles.

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The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by Robert Payne

I have read this book many times, and it never fails to fascinate. Hitler’s later career is well known to history; the really interesting part of this book deals with his youth. He appeares to have been an isolated dreamer, alienated from others but not totally devoid of human feeling. For much of his young life he drifted about aimlessly, unable to make anything of himself or even support himself. It wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he discovered his ability to speak. Thereafter the demons entered in. As a young man he was alienated but probably not altogether irredeemable; by the time he rose to power he was probably insane. It remains a profound mystery that one of the most civilized nations in the world could have followed him willingly into the abyss. This book is the biography of a madman who influenced world history more than any man before or since. It offers cautionary lessons, and it illustrates how fragile civilization is at its core.

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Brown shadows

One of the things that’s generally known about Germany, but not often spoken about for various reasons(1), is how much continuity there was between the Third Reich and the early days of the Federal Republic. A certain degree of continuity is inevtiable any time a government changes; even the Bolsheviks brought back a lot of Tsarist officials simply because no one else knew how things worked. But the questions for West Germany after the war are how many, for how long and at what level?

Over time, and thanks in no small measure to confrontations in the late 1960s, more and more German institutions have taken an honest look at who did what to whom during the Nazi period, and where they ended up afterward. The answers to the three questions have often been quite a few, for their whole careers, and at leadership levels. Several forces have gotten companies and institutions to be more truthful about their activities from 1933 to 1945, and the continuity between that period and the postwar era. One such has been the simple passage of time. People who would have been expected to pay a price are now retired, or dead. No doubt, knowledge is coming at the cost of justice.

The latest institution to undertake such an examination is Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, or BKA). Credit to the BKA’s current president, Jörg Ziercke. He didn’t have to do it, and he didn’t have to let it be done so thoroughly. What has turned up in a study by historians is a remarkable number of SS men who went on to leadership positions in the BKA. Files used by the Gestapo to harass and persecute Roma and Sinti were taken over by the BKA, and harassment continued well into the postwar era, in some form at least into the 1980s. The views on “criminal biology” formed during the Third Reich were still influental at the BKA into the 1970s. The essential stories are here, here and here, from the newspaper whose web site still could be better organized. (I had hoped to translate these for this post, but real life kept getting in the way. The story hasn’t really made it into English-language media yet.) There was also a Sunday article, complete with charts of who from the SS rose to what position in the BKA, but I can’t find it online. The English-language Spiegel online has a summary here.

The questions resonate in the present, as post-Communist countries continue to wrestle with the legacies of their dictatorships. Who rose to power? Who did they step on to get there? What are the demands of justice in a new era? Other European countries have their own debates, and indeed their comforting myths, about collaboration, about wartime acts, about the fates of fellow citizens.

There aren’t any easy answers, especially more than half a century later. One good side effect is that the revelations may prompt Germany’s main intelligence service, the BND, and the constitutional protection office (Verfassungsschutz) to examine their pasts. With luck, they will be as honest as the BKA.

(1) Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe was a key reason at the time. As years passed, additional reasons came to include embarassment, fear of personal consequences, unwillingness to bother the old folks and now the passing of people with firsthand knowledge and consequent general ignorance. Another is that Germany has turned into a reasonably well functioning democracy despite the Nazi pasts of many people in its institutions.

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More of Mr Potter’s Magic

Last night I was in the downtown bookstore to pick up some stuff for travel planning, and I glanced over at their bestseller rack. Number one was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In English. The German edition won’t come out until October.

The best-selling book in the store is in a foreign language. That’s some powerful enchantment, Ms Rowling.

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H. Potter and the Dearth of Regular Blogging

At least I’m not the only one.

Good discussions here, here, here, here and here.

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Future Shock by Alvin Toffler

This was an interesting read, especially since we now live in the time Toffler was making projections about. Some of his predictions have proven wildly off the mark, as when he writes of colonizing the ocean floor, but this was nonetheless an excellent treatment of how the world will cope with the dizzying and accelerating pace of change. Myself, I take a laissez-faire approach to such things, but he is right in pointing out that developments that seem immediately beneficial can have unintended negative consequences, and therefore some planning and foresight is needed. A science fiction writer could easily draw a lot of inspiration from the vast array of future scenarios Toffler grapples with in this fascinating work.

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Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern

Fritz Stern was born in what was then Breslau, Germany, grandson of Jews who converted to Christianity, son and grandson of physicians and researchers, at a time when medicine was truly becoming a science and Germany was leading the way. His godfather and namesake was Fritz Haber, who discovered how to fix atmospheric nitrogen, won a Nobel, led research into poinson gas as a weapon, and died shortly after his forced emigration from Germany.

Stern emigrated with his family to the United States in late 1938, in the proverbial nick of time. He rejected Einstein’s advice to stay in the family business of medicine and became a distinguished historian of Germany and Europe. Along the way, he also became an active participant in transatlantic relations, always retaining his liberal perspective.

The book begins with background on Breslau, the emancipation of Jews in the 19th century, industrialization, science and what all of these meant for his immediate ancestors. The five Germanys he has known are Weimar, the Third Reich, the Federal Republic, the GDR and the post-unification Federal Republic. He tells his stories vividly, mixing a historian’s detachment with a memoirist’s recollection and commitment.

My academic background is in political science and German history, so this is a bit of intellectual homecoming. I know the territoriy well, and the charm is in the details and the composition of the portraits. Stern is, in fact, something like an academic great-uncle. I’ve never met him, but the closer he got to the present, the more names he mentioned that I either knew, or knew at one remove.

The sixth Germany — the one his parents and grandparents lived in — is the one that I learned the most about. The turn to modernity is fascinating, and seeing how it happened in one family is a great way to understand the changes and disruptions involved. (The early essays from Czeslaw Milosz’s To Begin Where I Am strike me the same way.)

The five Germanys in 500 pages are as good an overview of the period as any, and a good deal livelier than a survey without the memoir. Plus Stern is a delightful, lively writer, and his life has been full of unexpected connections. Allen Ginsberg was a good friend from his first day of college, for example.

Some snippets:

“There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness — those forces are miracle, mystery and authority.” Dostoevsky and Nietzsche taught me to better understand the complexitites and fragility of democracy — and the place of the irrational in politics. pp. 190-91

I lived in a cheap rooming house [in Munich in 1950] and spent most of my time in the university library, but despite my work and these friends, I felt lonely and displaced. Was I a hostile alien in what had been my native country? The city was still full of rubble and half-destroyed buildings, and American troops were omnipresent. … Casual conversations with strangers, who were full of self-pity and often volubly anti-American, didn’t help. p. 200

All three [of his subjects of The Politics of Cultural Despair], writing under different historic conditions, fastened on one root of evil: liberalism. They attacked it because it seemed to them the premise of modern society from which everything they dreaded sprang: the bourgeois life, Manchesterism, materialism, Parliament and political parties, the lack of political leadership. Moreover, they thought liberalism was the source of their inner suffering. “Theirs was a resentment of loneliness; their one desire was for a new faith, a new community of believers, a world with fixed standards and no doubts, a new national religion that would bind all Germans together.” … My three critics, whom great and gentle Germans praised because of their “idealist” attacks on modernity, fostered the mood of discontent that foreshadowed the National Socialist synthesis: its attack on the “rottenness” of modern German culture and the exultant promise of a great völkisch future. p. 227

To me American policy [in Vietnam] seemed a nightmare of mindless escalation: it recalled, on a lesser scale, the slaughter in World War I, when soldiers were sent to their deaths because “one more push” would prove decisive. And the war’s human and political cost was dividing us at home and estranging us from our allies abroad. It was not a time for passivity or private lament; I thought “moderates” needed to act. p. 246 [Stern is obliquely scathing about George W. Bush in numerous places.]

All of this [reasoning about the causes of the sudden outburst of virulent anti-Semitism in the 1870s] is hard to document and easy to exaggerate, but the paranoid underworld of politics in an age of affluence and cultural unease cannot be overlooked. p. 278

In March 1979, shortly before I went to Jerusalem for the Einstein symposium, Raymond Aron and I walked to an exhibition in West Berlin commemorating the centenary of the births of Einstein, Max von Laue, Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner. We passed bombed-out squares and half-decrepit mansions in the once-proud capital, talking of that earlier profusion of genius. Aron suddenly stopped at a crossing, turned to me, and said, “It could have been Germany’s century.” p. 303

“Our often pious generalities about human rights need at the core a specific statement of the minimal conditions that we think should be universally binding — such as the abolition of torture,” I wrote [in 1977]. Grim reading today. p. 356

After I finished at the [Institute for the Study of the U.S. and Canada, in Moscow, in 1979], I went to a playground opposite our hotel where I dictated notes into a tape recorder. I knew we were being watched. Once, a lightbulb in our hotel room gave out and pleas to the woman-spy who watched over our floor proved ineffective — but Peggy’s and my complaining loudly to each other in the room brought instant results. There are advantages to being bugged. p. 377

The German American groups were but one part of a rapidly growing international network, composed of well-known internationalists and new, younger people, too. Perhaps there was an excess of high talk and high living — I often mused that some of the world’s great hotels lived off world crises, real or assumed. But I note now that in the new century the decline of these public-minded efforts has perhaps added to international estrangement, while the corporate world has taken up the slack in the luxurious conference métier, serving narrower interests at higher costs. pp. 405-06

The dinner [in 1983] had a comic aftermath: thereafter, the White House, regardless of incumbent, sent me an official Christmas card, a minor privilege I shared with about a hundred thousand other people. Then, during George W. Bush’s first term, a million cards were sent out, and I was dropped off the list. Who, I wondered, edited the lists — and at whose expense? The removal was more flattering than the inclusion. p. 421

“I agree with every word of your statement, and I won’t give you a penny,” [said Richardson Dilworth, a distinguished investment banker and philanthropist]. Why not? “Because it won’t do any good. What this country [the US] needs is a great catastrophe.” My instant response: “Mr. Dilworth, I come from a country that had a great catastrophe. That’s why I think it’s better to act beforehand.” p. 453

Mrs. Thatcher received us graciously, and at lunch I sat next to her husband, Denis Thatcher, whom it was difficult to converse with. p. 468

Little could I have known [in 1990] that in a dozen years [Richard] Cheney would be determining policies relying solely on the ruthless and often incompetent use of power. p. 471

The [German newspaper whose web site really could be better organized] reprinted my entire speech the next day, omitting only this one sentence about the editor of a rival paper! Marion [Dönhoff] was angry at this, rebuked them, and mentioned it in a brief essay about me. So much for my hope for a more liberal culture of conflict! pp. 513-14

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