Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Books I Read in February

'A Feast for Crows' by George R.R. Martin
This book is where the television series begins to diverge significantly from what the books tell.  I can see why as this book is very much a 'filler', with very little happening.  Many of the multiple characters' stories are not advanced at all.  Characters that we saw a lot of in the previous book, 'A Storm of Swords 2: Blood and Gold' (2001) do not feature at all.  We see nothing of Brandon Stark, his brother and companions now they are North of the Wall; we see nothing of his half-brother Jon Snow despite him being in command of the Wall; we see nothing of Stannis Baratheon, claimant to the throne who went to the Wall to defend it and we are told that Ser Davos Seaworth has been executed; we certainly see nothing of Tyrwin Lannister despite him having killed his father and fled from Westeros along with Varys the spymaster; we see nothing of the advance of Daenerys Stormborn and dragons liberating cities in Esteros.  Theon Greyjoy who suffers lengthy torture in the series does not appear at all, despite coverage of his sister and uncles.

It is as if all the epic elements of the story have been left out.  Martin seems to have been compelled to write an apology at the end of the book explaining that he has not forgotten these characters.  He says that running parallel stories he decided to concentrate in this book on events associated with King's Landing.  We certainly spend too much time in the head of Queen Regent Cersei Baratheon.  She is a sociopath, she either sees people as a threat or as failures.  Her behaviour, uncomfortably resembles behaviour in too many UK workplaces.  However, it becomes tiresome to see her being paranoid and smug about everyone.  She becomes a dead weight and it is uncomfortable to keep returning to her with the story advanced minimally.  I do not know if Martin is trying to garner some sympathy for us by explaining how her sexual encounters with her husband were unsatisfactory.  We are told she has a range of lovers but clearly gets little pleasure from them as when she gives another woman an orgasm, she does not know what is happening.

At times I have said that Martin is really more interested in the world he created than in the actual narrative.  This particularly appears to be the case with this book.  As a result Brienne of Tarth is condemned to wander around the dreary, war weary landscape with little outcome.  Jaime Lannister gets a similar development as the book progresses, both end up going past places they have visited before with very little outcome.  Sam Tarly has a long sea voyage with a few interesting developments but mainly him vomiting repeatedly.  The child with him is different from the one in the series and we see him having sex.  It is all very jumpy and handled much better in the series.  We see Arya Stark apprenticed to the House of White and Black though her progress there is not half as exciting as shown in the series.  The election of a new king in the Iron Islands is interesting and the raids that they undertake.

Overall, this is a dull book that despite covering more than 800 pages does very little to advance the bulk of the stories.  It is often the case that when dramatised a book can be improved through resolving the anomalies in it.  This is certainly the case with this book.  I suggest you skip it and watch the programme instead.  A real disappointment after the previous book.

'Enemy of God' by Bernard Cornwell
This book is better than its predecessor, 'The Winter King' (1995).  We continue to explore the memoirs of Derfel Cadarn, sometime commander under warlord Arthur as he tries to bring peace to the kingdoms of Britain and adhere to his oaths.  The incompetence of young King Mordred and the duplicitousness of King Lancelot take up most of this book.  There is a lot of tramping around the British countryside, though ironically when Derfel accompanies the druid, Merlin to find the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn, one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, rather than being an epic quest it is found in a handful of days but soon stolen again.  Despite the treachery, especially from Guinevere with Lancelot, there is some happiness for Derfel.  Arthur comes to see that he is going to have to take the lead in running Britain if not the crown.  Throughout the attention to historical detail is excellent.  However, it is an incredibly dreary landscape in which they operate, despite the climate of the time warming.  They move through a landscape in which everything is a pale shadow of the supposed Roman glory.  The characters are well drawn, with appropriate motives for people of the time, but not with the problem often encountered with historical novels with them made to appear less sophisticated in their thinking and behaviour than ourselves.  I would not say that I liked this book, but I found it rather more engaging than the previous one and I admire the effort which has gone into it.

'The Crazy Kill' by Chester Himes
I mentioned Chester Himes last year when he turned up as a character in 'Black Hornet' (1994) by James Sallis rather than 'The Black Hornet' (2017) by Rob Sinclair.  Himes (1909-84) was highly appreciated in France where he settled in the 1950s.  Though being published 1945-98, he was most renowned for the books set in Harlem featuring 'Grave' Digger Jones and 'Coffin' Ed Johnson, published 1957-69. The books were unusual at the time for having two black police officers as the lead characters.  This novel was published in 1959.  Himes had left a USA still plagued by segregation and race plays a large part in his stories.

The Harlem setting would have been unfamiliar to many readers beyond portrayals of night clubs and speakeasies of the 1920s.  Himes puts immense detail into portraying the context with a lot of information about what people are wearing, eating and drinking; he makes use of the jive language employed by the people living there.  For a modern reader this might seem unnecessary as we are more familiar with the setting not least from blaxploitation movies of the 1970s so of which were based on Himes novels.

The book is short (144 pages in my edition) but feels laboured.  It features the stabbing of a gambler at a wake for another gambler.  The suspects are the men and women at the wake, who are largely gamblers and their wives/girlfriends, so better off than many of their contemporaries in Harlem.  While it might be set in a city, the book is like a country house mystery.  Some bits jar, notably the pastor being pushed from the window into a bread basket on the street and then returning to the wake unharmed.  After the murder not much else happens.  The various characters spend a lot of time in discussion with each other, laying down accusations and trying to find out secrets behind that may be behind the killing.

These stretches of the book are pretty repetitive and tedious, so that by the end you do not really care who killed the victim.  It is a shame as from the reviews I had expected a gritty crime novel.  However, I think that for Himes, as was suggested in 'Black Hornet', crime was really simply a hook for Himes to exploit black lives in the USA at the time.  Thus, read now it is more a historical curiosity; a social commentary on particular people in a specific time and place rather than an engaging murder mystery.  I have two more books from Himes's Harlem series to read, one of which I have seen as a movie already.

'Dream Story' by Arthur Schnitzler
I got this book from a friend's brother who is into pretentious novels.  This is billed as an 'erotic' book and I was concerned that it would be pornographic.  In fact aside from some naked women dancing at a strange club, it is simply pathetic.  It features a doctor in Vienna at some time in the late 19th century, the reference to the project to build a railway in Anatolia, suggests early 1870s.  He meets various women he is attracted to an inveigles his way into this secret club, the members of whom threaten his life and compel the suicide of a woman there who supports him.  Not having any sexual encounters with any of the women he connects with, not even a prostitute, he flips from despising his wife to feeling he should be more candid with her.  That is it.  The descriptions are reasonable, but it comes over very much as a vanity project, the author trying to get some frisson from what might have happened to him if he had been an adult in those days.  It is not clear if the whole book is not a dream.  The introduction to my edition is terrible.  It rattles on about things unrelated to the courses of the book and neglects information or even opinion about the book itself.  Overall, very dull.  Do not be misled that this is either 'erotic' or a book of quality; it is highly over-rated.

'The Failure of Political Extremism in Inter-War Britain' ed. by Andrew Thorpe
This book consists of four sections.  The ones by Thorpe and by Bruce Coleman look respectively at how the Labour Party and the Conservative Party effectively neutralised the extremes of the left and right.  In the other two sections, Harry Harmer looks at the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM) and Richard Thurlow at the British Union of Fascists.  The NUWM was the most successful front organisation of the British Communist Party, but failed to politicise even the unemployed, with it largely dealing with benefit appeals cases; furthermore it put the Communists into a ghetto of the fluctuating unemployed rather than, ironically, building its strength among workers.  For the BUF it is shown how fragmented and often corrupt it was and that its profile largely came from brief newspaper support and rumour rather than the construction of a solid political party let alone one which could take power.

While at the start Thorpe cautions readers against the view that there was something inherent in British society which dampened support for extremist views even compared with democratic France, let alone further afield in Europe, we end up being shown a number of particularities about the British system which had this effect.  The relatively light impact of the Depression with some regions barely touched by it; the electoral system which predicated against burgeoning parties, indeed as the period progressed, against an third party, and the breadth of the umbrella of the Labour and Conservative parties that were able to accommodate some of the more radical views while at the same time, explicitly and actively in the case of Labour; in a more nuanced way with the Conservatives, kept radicals from challenging the mainstream direction of the party and also denying sympathisers to extremists beyond the party bounds.

I also think that Britain having a kind of semi one-party state, with the National Government, cross-party coalition in force from 1931 into the war, pursuing a policy of appeasing dictators up to 1939, effectively undermined the position of those who sought the suspension of democracy to resolve the economic and international situations.  Again it mopped up those who might not have been ardent advocates of a right-wing dictatorship but might have given backing to such a development if it had been allowed to seed.  Instead anything of that nature was thoroughly marginalised as to be of no real effect on British politics, bar perhaps, strengthening support for appeasement.

'Explaining Munich: The Search for Motive in British Policy' by Donald N. Lammers
I was advised to put a picture of the front cover in this review as it was felt to be the best thing about this book.  In some ways I am grateful for this book, published in 1966, for reminding how deeply Marxist perceptions of history, even among US historians, penetrated in the 1960s and 1970s.  Lammers confesses to being a Socialist at the start of this book.  However, his politics blinkers his historical analysis to a painful extent.  The book is less a 'search' for a motive of why British politicians behaved the way they did in the lead-up to the Munich Conference of September 1938 and more a man with some answers trying to force them on what he finds.

Lammers's dogmatism is embarrassing as he keeps on insisting that the prime motives for the British dealing with Hitler over Czechoslovakia were their anti-Soviet stance and their defence of middle class if not upper class values in Britain.  In fact he keeps finding evidence to oppose both of these viewpoints, especially in looking at the statements and behaviour of the politicians.  Still he hammers on, certain that somewhere, if he digs deep enough, he will find evidence for his approach, even though, ironically, he is critical of Eastern bloc views of the events.  Attitudes towards the Czechoslovaks themselves, let alone the whole Versailles process, are sorely neglected.  Lammers patronises the Czechoslovaks as much as the appeasers did themselves.

Lammers does make some interesting points about the attitude of other parts of the British Empire, especially Canada, to Britain being involved in a war in Europe.  However, his skewed perception of the whole event, heavily shaped by the Cold War persisting when he wrote this book, means he does not provide anything fresh or indeed insightful to the whole affair.  I am sure there are Marxist historians still publishing today but I imagine no publisher, especially an academic one, would allow any of them these days to get away with such a distorted analysis of any historical events.

I see that second hand it retails for US$9.90, so maybe I should sell my copy.

The cover:

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Wars to End: What If? Stories of the First World War

Wars to End: What If? Stories of the First World War
This is the latest in my what if? short story collections.  It seemed apt, with the centenary of the end of the First World War coming this November to focus on alternatives for that conflict.  This is the first collection I have organised on a chronological basis with stories in the book stretching from June 1914 with no assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to April 1940 approaching the anniversary of the success of the Gorlice-Tarlow Offensive in a world with no Second World War raging.  As is the case with my what if? collections, there is no attempt to provide an overarching history.  Instead, each of 22 stories starts from a different alternative.  Some stories see no First World War or a more restricted version breaking out; others see an even more devastating or longer version.  In this book, in contrast to other collections I have produce, the story is typically set just a short time away form the divergence from our history rather than decades or centuries later.

The changes vary in scope.  At the simplest level is a single assassin missing.  Then there are local changes, such as British mutinies spreading further and to a greater extent; an earlier German assault on the Verdun fortresses at a time when the French garrisons had been thinned greatly or the German plan to draw out British cruisers working better leading to a more conclusive Battle of Jutland.  There are changes at a strategic level, for example adherence to an earlier version of the German invasion plans which involved marching through the southern Netherlands rather than leaving it neutral and pulling back on the Lorraine Front to draw French forces further from Paris or in 1918 launching a more co-ordinated Kaiserschlacht so forcing the British back.  These were decisions that could have been made by the generals or their commanders.  Some others stem from geopolitical alterations, such as Italy remaining loyal to the Triple Alliance and invading French territory; the Japanese being an ally of the Germans rather than the British or Romania entering the war earlier and participating in the Brusilov Offensive or the Ottoman forces going into Egypt sooner than in our world.  Others have a technological alteration, such as the British developing tanks two years earlier; the appearance of biological weapons and the kinds of gas and tanks that were planned by the Entente to continue the war in 1919.

I hope that this book shakes off the attitude that tends to be so common especially in Britain, that 'it had to be that way'.  Some alternatives, such as Kaiser Friedrich III living into the 20th century are just from a twist of nature, but many could have arisen from influential people making different decisions at the time based on the information they had then so could have easily occurred.  Even if you disagree with the outcomes that I suggest in these stories, I hope this book will interest you and provoke thought and debate about how different the First World War might have been and, indeed, that it easily may not have occurred at all.