Friday, 31 July 2015

The Books I Read In July

'Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars' by David Chandler
It might appear strange to read a dictionary right through.  However, its vignettes of individual commanders and descriptions of numerous battles plus essays on political and military trends of the time, it is an engaging book.  It was first published in 1993 (I read the 1999 edition) but the style of language is of a book thirty or forty years older than that.  Effort is made so as not to make all the accounts sound the same.  The author's prejudices in favour or against particular commanders is not muted.  What is striking is how the wars allowed men from very ordinary backgrounds to rise to the heights, especially in the French Empire.  It also highlights the hazards that they faced in terms of wounding or death.  Aside from the very partisan descriptions of the commanders, the most serious flaw is in the maps.  These have been brought over from Chandler's earlier book, 'The Campaigns of Napoleon' (1973) without modification.  Consequently the units indicated and especially the commanders shown on the maps do not correspond with the account of the battles included in this book.  As a result they add little to your understanding of the battle and in some cases simply confuse matters,  A reasonable book but one which has suffered from reusing too much material with updating it and ensuring it corresponds to being presented in a new book.

'The Headline Book of Spy Fiction' edited by Alan Williams
I do not know what it is about spy fiction which encourages anthologies of this kind.  I read something similar back in April 2013 - 'The Faber Book of Espionage' by Nigel West (1993): see  This one is equally as uninspiring.  Published in 1992, it covers extracts from novels, some very short, and short stories from 1845 to 1981, though most are from the early to mid 20th century.  John Buchan features a great deal as does John Le Carr√© and Graham Greene.  The extracts are grouped into categories to illustrate different facets of spying as covered in fiction.  Some of the extracts are very weak, notably from Desmond Bagley's 'The Freedom Trap' (1971) which is an epitome of a pot boiler with a terrible McGuffin and a poor chase over Iceland.  The extract from 'Kim' (1900-01) is the wrong one as it covers nothing about Kim's spying activities and simply focuses on his schooling.  Overall, despite some effort at diversity the collection shows the lack of variety in spy fiction and that even seventy years on from Buchan's work it still focuses on well-off white men, facing hazards and winning through.  This sorely neglects how it was often a genre to question imperial pretensions, not simply of the UK but in part the USA and USSR too.

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