Ford, Michael Curtis. The Last King: Rome’s Greatest Enemy. NY: St. Martin, 2004.
I was very impressed by Ford’s first historical novel, The Ten Thousand, which combines an excellent grasp of the history with powerful and dramatic, but not florid, writing. This third novel is rather less successful. I learned about Sulla and Mithridates Eupator in first-year Greek & Roman, and I suppose I have a natural tendency to side with whomever was fighting Rome at any given time (Theodoric, Rah, Rah, Rah!), but — as both the king and the author say (several times each), history is written by the victors. Which means we don’t really know a lot about Mithridates the Great, a descendant of the Persian High Kings, except through the eyes of his enemies, who loathed his Hellenistic policies even as they admired (some of) his personal traits. Because, though Persian by blood and training, Mithridates was Greek by language and cultural inheritance. The king saw himself as the new Alexander, destined to unify Asia (i.e., Anatolia, the Levant, and the Black Sea) against the growing might of Rome. Since Rome was embroiled in its own civil war, he might have pulled it off — except that he made several key strategic errors of judgment, most of which boiled down to “Don’t underestimate the Romans.” The story is told through his son, Pharnaces, who, being illegitimate, is not a dynastic threat. All the potential exists for a fictional examination of what Ford calls the myth of Roman invincibility, with rip-roaring battle scenes and all the rest. Instead, the portrait we get of the king is not only larger than life, it’s cartoonish. Physically larger and stronger than literally anyone else in his kingdom, a champion charioteer, archer, swimmer, and swordsman (and glutton), a military near-genius (except when he screws up), possessed of an enormous harem, fluent in dozens of languages, this version of Mithridates is so over the top, it passes believability by the second chapter. Worse, it makes the character almost completely unsympathetic. You find yourself cheering for the Rhodians and the Romans, pleased to see Mithridates get his comeuppance. In my mind, I kept picturing a cross between Victor Mature and Jack Palance. I would have gone in the opposite direction and toned him down a little, or a lot. Ford has the potential for first-rate writing and I hope he gets things back under control in his next project. (9/30/09)
Perry, Anne. Execution Dock. NY: Ballantine, 2009.
This is Perry’s first new Victorian crime story in three years; don’t tell me she’s finally slowing down? If you haven’t been keeping up, the previous one, Dark Assassin, introduced William Monk Version 2.0. Having been booted off the Met years before, having become a private enquiry agent to make a living since then, having acquired a coterie of supporting characters (I especially liked Sgt. Evan), the author has suddenly put Monk back into uniform as a senior officer in the Thames River Police, thrown out everyone else except Hester and Sir Oliver Rathbone, and started virtually an entire new series. If she was simply getting tired of the characters, this is probably a good move, though. Crime on the river is certainly a world most of us know extremely little about. In this one, the main Bad Guy, Jericho Philips, is a noxiously evil supplier of very young boys to the pedophilia trade, working from a river boat. And where Perry Mason always had his big trial scene at the end, Rathbone and Monk have theirs right up front — and they screw it up rather badly, which leads to the accelerating plot that expertly fills the rest of the story. Perry has had a rather sloppy tendency of late to lose control of a sprawling narrative, and to repeat information unnecessarily, but she seems to have mostly gotten all that under control. There’s a minimum of domestic life this time — their starchy young maid, Gracie, doesn’t appear at all — and Hester’s free clinic is depicted almost entirely as it supports the investigation, rather than providing a stage for Hester’s social causes. Runcorn, Monk’s colleague/friend/enemy/rival, is mentioned in passing but is never seen. The focus is all on Monk’s detection, and on the suddenly awkward relationship between Monk and Hester on one hand and Rathbone and his new wife on the other — and the latter is very much part of the main plot, too. It’s a very good read and I hope Perry doesn’t wait so long for the next one in the series. (And what’s become of Thomas and Charlotte, anyway?) (9/27/09)
Connelly, Michael. Chasing the Dime. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002.
Henry Pierce is a crackerjack scientist, riding the cutting edge of nanotechnology with his small company in Los Angeles, living month to month on what money his business partner can raise, but knowing that he has a potentially huge fortune in his future — if he can just get this latest patent filed. On other fronts, though, he’s not so successful. His deep relationship with a woman who worked for his company until very recently, and with whom he was sharing a house, has come to an end because he was spending just too many long nights in the lab instead of with Nicole. So he moves out and into an apartment and gets a new phone number, . . . only to discover than it used to belong to an apparent prostitute and that the calls from men wanting a date just won’t stop. Then he begins to get the sense that something has happened to the phone number’s previous owner. And then he begins to get stupid. The plotting is pretty good, though the action drags somewhat in the middle of the story. The science is interesting. And the characters of Nicole and Lilly and Robin are well done. But Henry himself is kind of unbelievable. Nobody, no matter how cloistered away from contemporary life, could possibly get himself into so much trouble with the police. Messing around in an official investigation? Leaving fingerprints hither and yon? Moving the body, for chrissakes? How could someone be so self-destructively naïve? It’s also difficult to believe that a former hacker and highly educated chemist would cut himself off from the Internet the way Henry does, no matter how paranoid he is. When this book was written, there was already plenty of high-end security available. So it’s got problems but it’s still a pretty good book from a very good author. (9/24/09)
Perrault, Charles & Sarah Moon. Little Red Riding Hood. Mankato, MN: Creative Education, 1983.
“Little Red Riding Hood?” you say. “The children’s book?” Yes, the very one — and yet, not the same story at all. The words are Perrault’s but Moon, a highly inventive photographer, recasts the story with her images of a little girl running along the streets of a darkened city, caught in the headlights of a car, getting undressed to climb into bed with her supposed grandmother. The book only runs a little over thirty pages, but the subtext is a powerful modern fable. (9/23/09)
Fadiman, Clifton & John S. Minor. The New Lifetime Reading Plan. 4th ed. NY: Harper Collins, 1997.
The first edition of this classic came out in 1960 and I was given a copy the next year as a high school graduation gift. I was an ambitious reader even at eighteen and I tried to read one or another of the included titles every couple of months. There were around 100 authors, from Homer to Orwell, and I reckoned I could finish the list in maybe twenty years. Of course, I never did finish. But I read at least one-third of Fadiman’s recommendations and I’m definitely the better for it. This updated, revised, and expanded version drops some authors who simply didn’t become as “standard” as Fadiman expected them to, and adds at least a dozen new ones. The latter are a nod (an unnecessary one in my opinion) to Asian, Latin American, and African literary classics. I say they’re unnecessary because Western readers always have read certain key authors from non-European cultures. But we still favor authors who write about our own world and our own experiences. The chapters this time are arranged strictly chronologically by author’s birth date, which I frankly prefer to the earlier arbitrary topical groupings. Each essay is brief and to the point, which makes for easy serendipitous browsing. I’m apt to dip into this volume whenever I don’t know what I feel like reading next. A really nice added feature of this edition is a list of 100 second-level authors just in the 20th century — those who didn’t make the cut for the main list, or who are too recent for their staying power to be predicted. I was pleased to find that there were fewer than ten names on the list with whom I was not at least familiar, but there were perhaps twenty whose work I hadn’t yet read. Aha, another list! Still, it was bit sad to note just how many of those hundred who were alive at the list’s compilation a dozen years ago are now gone. And I can think of only a couple of new arrivals, people like Nicholson Baker and Jonathan Lethem, who might replace them. If you’re a collector, as I am, of “to read” lists, this one is first-rate. (9/22/09)
Stockwin, Julian. Kydd. NY: Scribner, 2001.
I’ve been a devoted fan of Napoleonic-era sea stories since discovering my father’s Horatio Hornblower collection in junior high. Since then I’ve read all of Forrester, all of O’Brian, all of Lambdin, and several other authors, plus everything I can get hold of by associated historians like Brian Lavery. But this first novel in the series by a retired Royal Navy enlistee and officer differs in one important respect from its predecessors: The protagonist, Thomas Paine Kydd, is a pressed man, a wigmaker from a country town who gets scooped up in 1793 in the frenzy following the beginning of the war with Revolutionary France. He certainly doesn’t want to be shanghaied (let’s face it — enslaved) and put under the Articles of War, but he’s enough of a pragmatist to try to make the best of things on the ship of the line where he finds himself. And then he discovers a natural talent for seamanship and a knack for the sailor’s life generally, so maybe things are looking up. This first volume, not unnaturally, follows him from his first stumbling experiences as a landman whose only ability is to tail on to a line without getting his feet tangled in it, to his first time aloft. Fortunately for Kydd, he acquires a couple of friends who look after him in the early stages — and without them to give him his first boost up, there really wouldn’t be much of a story, actually. The experience of his first sea battle, his battleship against a squadron of French ships trying to duck up the coast and slip into Brest, leaves him in a bit of a horrified daze, but he deals with it all manfully. Because it’s already clear that young Tom is destined to become of those rare individuals — only 120 during twenty-two years of warfare at sea — who, through exceptional merit, crossed over from fo’c’sle to quarterdeck. The dialect and slang are manageable, as is the thick jargon of the sea service — if you’ve read books like this before, at any rate. Because the author isn’t about to stop the narrative to explain things to you. You’ll have to pick it up as you go along, just as Kydd does. Though I have to say, he does seem precocious in the rate at which he acquires his new skills. It’s a good read, though, and it stands up well beside its prestigious predecessors. I’ll be hunting up the rest of the series to date. (9/20/09)
Connelly, Michael. A Darkness More than Night. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001.
Connelly is one of the best writers working today when it comes to the police procedural variety of murder mystery. His best known series features Det. Harry Bosch, but he has a couple of newer series going, too, plus several independent novels. But since all of them are set in Los Angeles, it’s no surprise that some of his characters have begun to appear in each other’s novels. Terry McCaleb is a now-retired FBI profiler, one of the best, whom we first met in Blood Work (which also was made into a pretty good film starring Clint Eastwood), and who is now trying to run a charter boat service out of Catalina while making it through his fourth year since the heart transplant that was the pivot-point in the earlier book. He’s brought in to consult on a case by a homicide detective with the Sheriff’s office who’s afraid she might have a serial killer on her hands. On his new wife’s insistence, and because of his new baby daughter, Terry has avoided such matters — but it’s what he does, what he is, and he deeply misses being involved. Meanwhile, Harry Bosch is just as deeply involved in the murder trial of a Hollywood producer accused of strangling a young actress during sex. Naturally, the two narratives drift slowly together, a process the author handles very adroitly. The details of Terry’s homicide case and of the producer’s trial will suck you in and keep you up late reading. Connelly is very skilled both at complex but understandable plotting and at painting four-dimensional characters with lots of history. Bosch, especially, knows the darkness almost too well. And the driven McCaleb isn’t always an admirable character. But they’re both “real” people. This is one of Connelly’s best. (9/17/09)
Robinson, Kim Stanley. Remaking History. NY: Tor, 1991.
Robinson is one of those authors whose novels are nearly always first-rate — especially the award-winning “Mars” trilogy — but whose short stories don’t always repay the effort of reading them. This collection is typical in that respect. It’s also not true to say he’s necessarily a science fiction writer, even though that’s how he, and this volume in particular, are marketed. One of the best in the lot, for instance, is the very first one: “The Part of Us that Loves,” which is about daily events in the existence of the community orchestra in a small town near Chicago whose origins were evangelical and utopian. And that’s it. Excellent writing and interesting characters and a nice little plot-turn — but not an alien nor a rocket ship in the bunch. “The Translator” is more what one might expect, about a human on a distant world trying to act as go-between for two other species, and also pretty good. “Before I Wake,” on the hand, goes nowhere and ends a bit strangely. The same is true of “A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations,” though it has some interesting things to say about how long people have been hanging around this planet. “Vinland the Dream” (about the Vikings who never were in Newfoundland, dammit) and “Rainbow Bridge” (about the difference of the Navajos) and “Muir on Shasta” (about John Muir and a vision of the future) are all well-written stories that could have easily appeared in New Yorker as in Asimov’s. “Glacier” is pure science fiction, though, about the coming again of the ice and its effect on everyday life. Then there’s “A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions,” an amazing and marvelous essay on the nature of historical causation and explanation that draws on Stan’s famous earlier story, “The Lucky Strike”; it ought to be required reading for first-semester grad students in history programs. The remaining several stories, unfortunately, are thoroughly forgettable. When he’s good, he’s really good, but when he’s not, . . . well, you can always hope for better the next time. (9/10/09)
Cherryh, C. J. Conspirator. NY: DAW Books, 2009.
It used to be that science and fantasy was created mostly in single novels, occasionally in trilogies. Nowadays, series in the genre go on interminably. There are dangers in this trend, that the reader (and even the author) may become bored with the characters, and that the plotting and the writing itself will become sloppy. But this is not necessarily the case, and Cherryh’s “Foreigner” series — of which this is the tenth installment, with at least one or two more coming — is the proof of that. It’s been a couple of years since I read the previous volume in the series, but from the first chapter I picked up on the atevi culture and psychology as if I had never left. The author has turned the very length of the continuing narrative into a virtue as it allows her to dwell in fascinating depth on minute political events — and the atevi are a very political people. And to explore the all-important personal relationships which are the key to everything in this world. Bren Cameron, the human paidhi, has acquired more and more authority over the years in his role as cultural translator between the small human enclave on the planet and Tabini, the aiji, and his government, to whom he is also a close political advisor. And he has gained prestige and a certain amount of personal wealth in the process. But he has also acquired very dangerous enemies among those clans and ethnicities and regions who oppose the aiji. Tabini’s son, whom we first met a couple of volumes ago, has a major role this time, getting himself into serious trouble (not all of his making). As does Ilisidi, Tabini’s own grandmother, and a power in her own right, both politically and personally. The atevi also have a highly formalized society (it reduces social friction) and their language reflects this, so the reader must deal with a variety of titles and social concepts — because Cherryh doesn’t cut corners. Personally, I enjoy a story in which the reader must pay attention or miss the subtleties. This series is very much worth the investment of time and close attention. (8/20/09)
Harrison, Kim. White Witch, Black Curse. NY: HarperCollins, 2009.
I don’t read vampire novels as a rule, but Harrison’s lengthening series (this is the seventh installment) about Rachel Morgan, Cincinnati runner (part private cop, part private detective) and kick-ass earth witch, is the exception. In fact, the popularity of the series has engendered several copycats. Forty years ago, in a parallel version of our own time and place, a manufactured virus got loose and wiped out a large part of humankind, with the result that the citizens of “Inderland” now constitute half of society. That means vampires (both living and truly dead), weres of all sorts, witches of several varieties, pixies, fairies, elves, ghosts, demons (who generally restrict themselves to the Ever-After), and a number of other nonhuman species. They’ve always been among us, well concealed, pursuing their own interests, but now we humans have to deal with them as equals whether we like it or not. And all their inter-species needs and rivalries have a political aspect that affects everything else. Rachel, who began to realize several books ago that she’s more than your average redheaded witch with great legs, has managed to quell social unrest among the weres and the elves, and she’s business partners with a very important (and gorgeous) vampire and a pixie with major attitude. She’s reached a sort of truce with Al, an especially cunning and grasping demon, and the few surviving (and extremely secretive) elves have decided she might be able to help them survive as a species, so they’re leaving her alone, too. She’s even learned to handle her own mother and older brother — most of the time. But now she has to help capture a banshee and her infant daughter, and a banshee is the apex predator, “like an alligator.” As always, Harrison paints her non-human characters and their society in multidimensional terms, and her plotting is satisfyingly complex as well. I could only wish her publisher would assign her a skilled developmental editor to assist with her narrative skills and frequently awkward word choices. And there’s one major no-no: Harrison introduces a key character (Pierce, the ghost) whom she implies has been part of the story all along — but he hasn’t. I thought I had somehow forgotten a big chunk of the earlier storyline, but I’ve been told the author only introduced this guy in a short story, which I haven’t read. That is definitely not playing fair. A warning to the reader, too: Don’t even think of starting this series anywhere but at the beginning. The back-story is minimal and you’ll have idea who these people are or what’s going on. (8/16/09)
Cherryh, C. J. Forty Thousand in Gehenna. NY: DAW Books, 1983.
This isn’t really one of Cherryh’s better books (it’s certainly the most awkwardly titled), but it’s not bad and it fills in some holes in her ongoing narrative about events in the Alliance/Union universe. Planets habitable by the human species, or by any intelligent species, are exceedingly rare. Gehenna is such a world, located on the fringes of Alliance-controlled space, and Union decides to sabotage any efforts its enemies might make to colonize by rushing in its own people. Union produces “azi” — humans who are creche-bred and “programmed” for certain types of tasks based on intelligence and psychological type (read Cyteen for everything you ever wanted to know about azi) — so they naturally pack up 40,000 azi, along with fewer than 500 citizens, and drop them on the planet. The ships are supposed to return in a very few years with medical supplies, educational tapes, and birth labs for making more azi — but they never show up. And pretty soon, the azi and their non-programmed children and grandchildren are running things on Gehenna. That’s the set-up: What might happen when wild humans have to survive on a wild planet with only the rudiments of technology (which disappear as parts and fuel sources run out), and especially when the dominant native species turns out to be intelligent in a far different style than anyone could have guessed. Cherryh is an ex-English teacher, not an anthropologist, but she’s especially good at creating exceedingly alien species. The vaguely reptilian calibans — think Komodo dragons — have no audible language and no opposable thumbs, and they have a thought process so strange in type and scale it takes a truly weird human to understand it, but they definitely have a society. And the azi-descended have to deal with that society if they hope to survive. The story stretches over the first couple of centuries on Gehenna, actually, as humans divide into a couple of warring cultures (one male-dominated and aggressive, one female and accommodational), and as Alliance rediscovers them and establishes a monitoring post. The characterization is rather weak except for the last quarter of the book, which is almost a separate story, and the details of the timeline and so on don’t always agree with what we learn about the “Gehenna scandal” from other books in Cherryh’s future universe. The calibans are fascinating, however, and the book is worth reading for that reason alone. (8/12/09)
Cherryh, C. J. Regenesis. NY: DAW Books, 2009.
A new book by Cherryh is always worth waiting for, and that’s especially true when it’s the “long-awaited sequel” (as they say) to the Hugo-winning Cyteen, which I still regard as her very best novel. When I bought this one, I didn’t even unwrap it until I had dug out my slightly battered copy of the earlier work and reread it for the third time. Turns out that’s the only way to proceed, too, since Regenesis picks up within a week or two of where Cyteen left off. I repeat: Do not try to read this sequel without first reading the first book. Otherwise, you won’t enjoy it one-tenth as much. Also, Cherryh has published a great many books in the intervening two decades, including the lengthy “Foreigner” series, and yet she manages here to replicate the relatively simple, straightforward style of her earlier career. The result of all this is that the two books constitute a single very fat novel, and that’s how you ought to read them. So what is the book actually about? When we last saw her, the eighteen-year-old Ariane Emory, a “Personal Replicate” of the earlier Ari (who was one of the founders of Union, of which Cyteen is the capitol world, and a “Special” — a genius in the area of applied genetics and personality construction) had just taken control of Reseune Administrative Territory, which is where azis — clones, both physically and mentally (sort of) — are bred and “created” for specific predetermined purposes. Now young Ari has to hold on to what she’s taken control of, has to continue to learn from her predecessor’s detailed instructional program, and has to learn to be a somewhat different version of her predecessor. Because the earlier Ari was coldblooded, loved no one, and often was a “user” in the worst sense, and the young Ari thinks she can do better. So that’s one plotline, the key one. But there are several others. There’s another Special in the story, Jordan Warrick, who confessed to murdering the first Ari, and who returned from nearly twenty years of exile at the very end of Cyteen. But we’ve been pretty sure all along that Jordan was covering for someone else. Maybe it was his “son,” Justin, who is actually his own Parental Replicate, his clone, and who was thoroughly messed up by the first Ari in an uncompleted psychiatric intervention. Justin has been living his entire life since the murder under a cloud of suspicion, being regularly hassled by Reseune Security, but he’s also become increasingly close to the young Ari — rather against his will, considering his experiences with her predecessor. And there’s the overarching world-spanning plotline involving the Military directorate versus the Science and Citizens directorates, which is Cherryh at her geopolitical best. Naturally, the characters, even the minor supporting figures, are drawn in three and four dimensions — always one of Cherryh’s key strengths. In fact, the best thing I can say is that Regenesis may be regarded as the Parental Replicate of Cyteen, and I hope and fully expect that it will win its author a matching Hugo. (8/04/09)
Keegan, John. An Illustrated History of the First World War. NY: Knopf, 2001.
I have a pretty strong academic background in military history, but mostly of a much earlier era. Longbows, not howitzers. And I confess, I’ve never quite understood the Great War. I mean, it seems to have begun almost by accident, it bogged down almost immediately — at least on the western front — and there was no resolution worth mentioning. And a generation later it all had to be done again. If the war had been created as the plot of a novel, the book would have been remaindered. Keegan, on the other hand, whether or not you agree with all his opinions, is noted for his ability to explain the complex forces behind historical events, and in those terms, this is the best attempt to explain the war I’ve come across. It was mostly a war among three European-controlled empires, and also a struggle between old-style despotic rulers and new, constitutional ones. The old style definitely lost in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Even more, it was something of a family fight among several descendants of Queen Victoria. Beyond the competing grand strategies, Keegan lays out the variety of tactics and weapons in use and the competition between old methods (cavalry charges) and new ones (machine-guns), as well as the similarities and differences among the troops on both sides. What really makes this book, though, is the more than four hundred illustrations, which I’ve spent many hours studying. This isn’t the only book on the war you will want to read, but if you’re a beginner in the subject, you could do much worse than to make this the first book you pick up. (7/20/09)
Fagan, Brian M. (ed). Discovery! Unearthing the New Treasures of Archaeology. NY: Thames & Hudson, 2007.
I would have been very surprised a couple of decades ago had someone told me the pace of archaeological discovery would accelerate — and not just technological innovation leading to better interpretation, but actual new discoveries in the field. Fagan is both a first-rate archaeologist and a thoroughly experienced author of popular works in the field. He’s been doing this stuff for a long time and he’s pretty good at it. But this book suffers from trying to cram too much information about too many topics into too small a space. There are sixty-two very brief essays, mostly no longer than two or three pages (including pictures), gathered into seven rather artificial sections — ancient cities, marine research, tombs and graves, ritual and religion, etc. The authors of the essays are often the original investigators themselves — presumably those capable of writing for the general public. There are some interesting sections, especially those on new work in the Valley of the Kings, breakthroughs in deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs, and uncovering the colonial fort at Jamestown. There’s a basic “Further Reading” list but you’ll probably have to resort to Google to pursue anything you find of particular interest. (7/18/09)
Strassler, Robert B. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
I wish I’d had this fat volume back in the 1960s, when I was first making my way through Thucydides in my Introduction to Greek and Roman class. We used the Jowett translation — admittedly a classic, but painfully slow going. I had read the first several chapters of this book before I thought to check what translation it used, and I was surprised to discover it was Richard Crawley’s work of 1874. It certainly reads much more modern than that. There are explanatory footnotes crowding the bottom of every page, providing context for the history and the language. It can break up the flow of the story if you allow yourself to keep glancing back and forth between the text and the notes, but I’d rather have them on the relevant page than gathered all together in the back. The eleven appendices provide in-depth discussions of the Athenian and Spartan social and political systems, the role of religion in the 5th century BC, naval warfare, calendars, currency, and so on. I really have only one small complaint, which is the general uselessness of the many small, black-and-white situational maps scattered throughout. They’re often repetitive — it was a pretty concentrated theater through most of the war — and each one comes with a “helper” map, to remind you exactly where Greece is. And many of the footnotes refer to locations on the maps, an inch or two away, which is unnecessary. I would have been happier with a single, large, color map with all the details and ancient place-names in one place. But it’s an excellent book nevertheless. (7/16/09)
Hardy, Robert. Longbow: A Social and Military History. NY: Arco, 1976.
The man-high wooden bow and a bundle of “cloth-yard” arrows were sort of the secret weapon of the British during the seven or eight generations preceding the concerted development of cannon and more portable firearms. It was an infantryman’s weapon (cavalry were limited by circumstances to much shorter compound bows) and it required a lifetime’s training and regular practice — which was why the French, especially, were never able to develop their own armies of bowmen. They weren’t willing to put in the time and the effort. Archers weren’t “gentlemen.” They didn’t wear serious armor, they didn’t the money for big horses. Mostly, they were yeomen, and foresters, and more than a few pardoned criminals. And Edward I and Edward III and Henry V knew exactly what to do with them, at Crecy and Poitiers and Agincourt, and the French nobility never, ever learned. Hardy, who was both a talented actor and a skilled longbowman, as well as a very entertaining writer, combines history, anthropology, military science, and more than a little physics in this excellent introduction to the subject. Because my own interest is medieval warfare and politics, the middle third of the volume is the most interesting and useful to me — after the survey of Roman origins and Welsh development, and before the tales of hunting big game and the American reinvention of the bow. There are several highly technical appendices which, I admit, rather went over my head.. Nevertheless, this remains the best book in its field. (7/13/09)
Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Miracle at Philadelphia: the Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.
Madison, Washington, Franklin, and many of the other gentlemen who took part remarked on it: It really was a near miracle that so politically disparate a collection of politicians could come together for one short summer and produce a document that they all knew wasn’t perfect, that included sections and clauses all of them could and did consider wrongheaded — they disagreed on which sections those were, of course — and still end up with the underpinnings of a completely reinvented form of government for their struggling nation. It was obvious, to most of them, that the Articles of Confederation were fatally flawed, that the separate states were simply too independent from one another, that each would have to give up some of its jealously guarded sovereignty in order to survive at all. All the delegates arrived in Philadelphia (those who showed up; Rhode Island’s never did) with instructions merely to revise the Articles. As a result, secrecy was everything. The delegates couldn’t allow anyone outside to discover what they were really up to, finally. Bowen leads the reader carefully through all the major arguments, drawing vivid portraits of the participants, showing why Washington’s presence as chairman had a major impact, and delineating the few issues that simply were too divisive for some of them. You can practically hear Madison’s razor brain ticking over as he listened and took his copious notes; he never missed a single session, fortunately for us. And you can hear the groans as Luther Martin of Maryland got up to attack, again, any idea of “nationalism,” as opposed to what he regarded as true “federalism.” And Bowen is also careful to explain the differences when the language and terminology the delegates used in their debates have evolved away from those meanings. For that reason alone, every conservative who regards himself as a strict constructionist ought to read this book; he might discover that the delegates would be horrified at the notion that their many compromises are regarded by some today as holy writ set in stone. But this is the kind of book that any thoughtful American should read every ten years or so. (7/12/09)
Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. NY: Viking, 1976.
I recently finished Bernard Cornwell’s lengthy series about Rifleman Richard Sharpe and the Napoleonic wars — the last volume of which focuses, naturally, on Waterloo — and then followed that up with Cornwell’s newest, about the nearly mythical Battle of Agincourt. So it seemed time to reread Keegan’s much praised first book, half of which is dedicated to a ground’s-eye view of those two battles. The third battle he covers in detail is the Somme in 1916, where some of the fighting covered much the same ground as Henry V’s army in 1415. Keegan was an academic military historian at Sandhurst for many years (he was prohibited from military service for medical reasons) and some of his considered opinions about the nature of strategy and related matters have been deeply unpopular in certain military quarters. He has also been a vocal supporter of Bush’s war in Iraq. But those are political issues and they do not change the fact that this volume is a masterpiece of military inquiry and interpretation from the point of view of the ordinary infantryman. (Although his personal opinions permeate his writing here, too.) His analysis of effectiveness and the consequences of the wide variety of types of combat at Waterloo — infantry vs. cavalry, infantry vs. artillery, cavalry vs. cavalry, etc — is especially illuminating. The third section, on the Somme, is a different matter. I admit my knowledge of World War I is relatively limited, especially compared to medieval warfare, but the greatly increased pace of social change and technological innovation during the 19th century seems to make the Somme so very different — in the geopolitical aims of the participants, in the kind of men who served both as privates and as officers, in the major change in the role of the commanders (from war leader to office-bound executive), not to mention enormous differences in communications, transportation, and medicine — that it’s difficult for me to identify a single point of comparison. It’s like comparing Phoenician exploration in the Mediterranean with the Space Program. The final section, “The Future of Battle,” since it was written more than a quarter-century ago, is best read as an historical curiosity. Keegan is still around, of course, and still writing books, but back then he had not the slightest idea of what warfare would become in the early 21st century. He laughs a bit over the U.S. Army’s introduction of Specialist grades to replace privates and corporals, but the contemporary junior soldier must be (and is) far more technically sophisticated than his counterpart even in Vietnam, much less at the Somme. Keegan is an excellent analyst of the past, and the book is highly recommended for that reason, but he has never proven to be much of a prognosticator. (7/10/09)
Barker, Juliet. Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England. NY: Little, Brown, 2005.
There has been a small resurgence of interest in Agincourt in the past decade and this splendid volume is one of the best things to come out of it. Barker is not a military historian but an academic expert on chivalry and tournaments, but she has done a remarkable job retelling the story of the last major battle of the Hundred Years War, one which had attained a nearly mythic status within a generation of its conclusion. Barker begins with a close examination of just who Henry V was and what he wanted from life. Then she escorts the reader through the whole of the brief, unpleasant campaign, from the English landing to the enervating siege of the port of Harfleur, to the attempted progress to Calais which turned into a forced march inland and, finally, the confrontation between perhaps six thousand Englishmen (the majority of them archers) and five times that many French. The latter included several thousand of the aristocracy, come to get their share of revenge on the English, but who mostly died or were taken prisoner. Barker does an excellent job of analyzing the leadership and strategy on the English side and the total lack of either element on the French side which led the latter to such a shattering defeat — and for the third time, too, and in much the same way. Did the French really have no memory of what happened when they faced English longbowmen at Crecy and Poitiers? The bibliography is very extensive, especially of secondary sources. In fact, my only real complaint is that Barker includes only one map, of and that’s of Aquitaine. How can you describe a campaign or its concluding battle without maps? (7/03/09)