Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Books I Read In April

'A Rare Benedictine' by Ellis Peters
This was the last of the Brother Cadfael books I had to read.  It was anomalous, featuring three short stories.  The first is set in 1120 when Cadfael is an ageing soldier.  The other two are set in the mid- to late 1130s when he is established as a monk. The stories are fine.  They show Cadfael solving three crimes even when this means him going up against his employer.  They show him using his knowledge of Shrewsbury and supporting the course of true love, all elements that are the backbone of the Cadfael stories.  What seems to be missing, contrary to what Peters notes at the start, is a sense of that transformation from warrior to monk.  It would have been really beneficial to have had 2-3 other stories set in the 1120s.  This would have shown us more of the character's development rather than simply presenting simply some further examples of him behaving in the way regular readers of the series are familiar with.  It is not a bad book, but it could have been a great deal more.

'The Winds of Altair' by Ben Bova
Ben Bova was an author I first came across as a teenager and was very impressed by his 'The Dueling Machine' [sic] (1969).  However, too many of his novels appeared to be space opera which did not appeal.  'The Winds of Altair' (1984) is about colonists being sent to a remote planet, but is more about issues connected to colonisation and religious fundamentalism.  The colonisers make use of mind connection devices to use wolfcats - huge six-legged predators and white apes, to operate machinery on the hostile surface of Altair VI/Windsong to make it habitable for humans.  The story largely features those involved in this connection between the creatures and humans.  This connecting and the sympathy for the indigenous population are very reminiscent of elements of the movie 'Avatar' (2009) with a religious group instead of the military.  The book moves along briskly and handles the big issues well.  The casual racism jumps out until you realise that the religions have made Earth suffering with a population of 17 billion, a racially-segregated planet.  I enjoyed reading the book but then it ends abruptly as if Bova felt he had got his message across and there was no need for any more or the publishers said that he had reached his page limit.  The difficulties of the colonisation, the challenge of the religion and the development of the two romantic relationships are all concluded at speed, though in the case of the relationships, largely unresolved.  This abrupt end is a shame for a book which I otherwise enjoyed.  I may be tempted to find some more of Bova's books in the future, but hope they will end properly.

'The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918' by A.J.P. Taylor
This book was first published in 1941 and the revised edition I read came out in 1947.  This is important to note because people would not write a history book this way nowadays.  It is important to note that this is not really about the Austrian Empire or Austria-Hungary, but as the title indicates, about the Habsburg monarchy in this period.  It is written very much from a constitutional perspective and at times is very dry and complicated when discussing the nuances of political developments at the highest level.  The main flaw of the book is that it rushes through all of these elements very quickly with few breaks.  This leads the reader easily lost.  At times the analysis of the politics seems to be in a vacuum, detached from social and economic developments which form the context.  It improves when covering the first decade of the 20th century, but then with the First World War returns to the break-neck speed.  A slower pace and more summary would have improved the accessibility of the book greatly.

Taylor writes that he purged his misplaced wistful optimism for Austria-Hungary and what it could have been between the two editions of the book.  However, what is painful for a contemporary reader is the retention of his bigotry which too often colours what he is saying and imbalances his judgements.  He derides the Austrians and Hungarians perceiving themselves as the superior nations in the empire, with the Poles and to a lesser extent the Italians following on behind.  However, then he generally adheres to their hierarchy of the different nationalities.  He is painfully patronising when discussing the Slovaks and Ruthenes, even the Croats and Slovenes.  He presents a number of these nationalities as if they were infantile and is dismissive of any political or national perspectives they may have.  He is also explicitly dismissive of the French despite the importance of their government in successor states to Austria-Hungary.  I gather his attitude to the Italians was also shaped by the Second World War.  Yet, the problem goes beyond his own time.  His attitudes were old fashioned  even in 1947.  This is emphasised by his disparaging of the term successor states and his constant reference to 'Austria' in inverted commas, even after 1918 when it was a sovereign states.  Though Taylor writes in English in this book his perceptions are those of a German living in the late 19th century.  This handicaps him in making a fair judgement in terms of the various nationalities and distorts how he articulates what went on depending on which of the 'historic' nations was concerned.  The book is comprehensive but is best saved for reference which allows avoidance of its overly-frenetic narrative and the painfully bigoted attitudes towards many of the people being discussed.

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