30 November 2013

Books Finished Since November 1

book icon  Dogs of War, Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox
This is a graphic novel I found in the teen section of Barnes & Noble, but the stories are suitable for adults as well. There are three tales within: the story of Marcellinus "Donnie" McDonald, who is serving in the trenches in the first World War, along with his border collie Boots, who's been trained as a rescue dog. Separated from  his adopted father, he and Boots stumble into the trench of the Irish Fusilliers, and have some terrifying encounters on the battlefield. Loki is a trainee sled dog in Greenland during World War II who looks like he might be a dead loss, except for a trainer who has faith in him. Can Loki make a difference with the Nazis on their tail? Sheba is a soldier's best friend in Vietnam—but can her handler ever leave her behind, physically or mentally? It will take a small boy and a misbehaving beagle to find out.

All three stories are good, but the Vietnam story definitely packs a punch. Please note: this is a graphic novel about war, not some cutesy comic for little kids. There are deaths and blood portrayed. But the rewards at the end of each story are great.

book icon  The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan
The usual summary of the years before the first World War, that "War to end all wars," typically talks about a long golden summer of peace, punctuated by a few national rivalries, and exploded by an assassination in Sarajevo. But the peace was only on the surface; long-simmering discontentment from each nation involved had simply come to a boiling point, and Sarajevo was just that final, proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

MacMillan does an excellent job of laying out the individual situations that became the trigger of World War I, beginning with a summary of Europe in 1900, and then examining, country by country, alliance by alliance, and finally event by event every step that led to the final declaration of war. Her narrative is highlighted by distinctive personalities: the Kaiser with his deformed arm and bombastic personality; avuncular Edward VII and later his son George V, the first of two kings in a row who had not expected the British monarchy to fall upon them; Nicholas of Russia, an autocrat with poor advisors whose personal life partially led to his undoing; the aristocratic Emperor Franz Joseph; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who hated Hungarians and Serbians, yet his assassination killed a man whose opinion might have turned the tide against eventual war, as well as their advisors, ministers, and other military officials like Britain's Admiral Jacky Fisher and Otto Von Bismarck. Events outside of Europe—in Morocco, Libya, and South Africa among others—also contributed to the breakdown of relations.

This is not a difficult, obtusely scholarly book. Its prose is precise and understandable, but because of all the actions going on "behind the scenes," it is a dense book, and one that must be read with an attention to detail so that all of the actions and how they led to war can be grasped. If you are looking for a simple overview of the causes of WWI, this is not the volume for you; however, if you are interested in the period and can give your total attention to the text, it is illuminating and rewarding.

book icon  Dark Invasion, Howard Blum
Long before the United States entered World War I, we were still providing supplies to the countries of the Triple Entente (Britain, France, Russia) and not to the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy), and also not allowing German ships already docked in the United States to leave port. The Germans, chafing at these restrictions and knowing of the large German-American communities in the US who might support them, began a campaign of sabotage, particularly on the East Coast, run by German handlers living undercover. In 1915, mysterious explosions in munitions ships at sea convinced authorities to put New York police inspector Tom Tunney on the case.

I had heard of the infamous "Black Tom" explosion in New Jersey before, and knew there had been sabotage, but had never read about the subject in much detail before, and for that reason found this book fascinating. While the German objective was simply to keep supplies and transport animals from reaching the front, people were being killed as "collateral damage." Blum chronicles the exploits of some of the agents for Germany, including Frank Holt, a man who'd murdered his wife, disappeared, and then built a new identity for himself, and Paul Koenig, the security officer of the Hamburg-American shipping line, and the efforts of Tunney and his German-speaking agents to track them down. Particular details were both amazing and frightening: Agents built small bombs that looked like cigars into cargo holds, which often did not only start fires, but blew holes in the hulls so that the vessels sank, and men sneaked into stables at night to inject the germs of anthrax and glanders (a truly frightening-sounding disease) into the nostrils of horses and mules bound for Europe. One man even infiltrated financier J.P. Morgan's stronghold and shot him.

I might have liked this book a bit better had not two things bothered me. One was that I found the author's writing style a bit "choppy." The sentences did not seem to flow for me as well as they could have. The other was the habit of Blum referring to his protagonist by his first name, while everyone else is referred to by their last name. Why "Tom" and not "Tunney"? It felt as if Blum was trying to get me to feel chummy toward Inspector Tunney. However, neither problem interfered with my learning further facts about German sabotage in the First World War.

book icon  The Heir Apparent, Jane Ridley
I first became interested in the history of Edward VII after seeing the British drama Edward the Seventh in 1983. "Bertie," as he was known to the family, was, although she would not admit it, much like his mother, Queen Victoria: not much of a scholar and fond of amusements. But Victoria had fallen under the spell of her workaholic husband Prince Albert, and came to look upon her firstborn son as a pleasure-seeking wastrel, especially after he is caught consorting with a prostitute. When Albert died soon after this event took place, Victoria blamed her son for making his father ill, although Albert had surely been seriously ill before confronting his son about his indiscretion. This left Bertie with nothing to do but seek pleasure, as his mother refused to give him the responsibilities that the heir to the throne should have been entrusted with.

Ridley makes no apologies for the Prince of Wales. His affairs of the heart hurt his Danish wife Alexandra and showed the monarchy in a bad light, the very thing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were trying to eschew, as their own royal pasts were riddled with sexual scandals. On the other hand, he was badly served by a mother, who continued to insist, even into his middle age, that he was irresponsible when she never gave him anything responsible to do, even though in his public appearances he generally made a positive impression to the public, who was growing tired of the Queen's isolationism after the death of Albert.

Not only a biography of Edward VII, this is also a portrait of the British monarchy at the time of Victoria and later Edward, and a view of society during that era: the elaborate country house parties at which huge quantities of food were ingested and appalling numbers of animals were hunted, the covert lives of the aristocracy, the complicated politics of Great Britain's relationship with the countries of Europe, especially after the ascendancy of Victoria's eldest grandchild, the man later to be known as Kaiser Wilhelm. Victoria's machinations of her own children's lives are vividly portrayed, and even as you shake your head over "Bertie's" excesses, you also consider his bleak childhood ruled by strict tutors, knowing that he was never favored over his more clever sister Vicky. Briskly, compellingly written and full of interesting facts and character portraits, this is an excellent biography.

book icon  Down But Not Quite Out in Hollow-Weird, Geoff Gehman
Today Eric Knight is known chiefly for his authorship of Lassie Come-Home, but in the 1930s he was lured away from his film critic job in Pennsylvania to work in Hollywood. Knight deplored the state of film in the era and hoped, as so many other writers have, that he might make a difference in the movie industry, but he immediately found his way blocked by uneducated studio executives who appeared as if they had never read a book in their lives. Knight expressed his frustration at these annoyances in long letters to his wife Jere, who soon joined him in Hollywood, and his friend Paul Rotha. Later, when World War II breaks out, Knight attempts to partner with Frank Capra in the "Why We Fight" series of films.

Like most people, all I know of Knight is Lassie Come-Home and mentions of his This Above All and The Flying Yorkshireman; I didn't realize he'd worked as a film critic or in Hollow-Weird, as he came to call the place, and I never realized he worked on "Why We Fight" (and indeed his credits were pulled from most of the project), so it was a great glimpse of someone whose name I've known all my life without knowing anything else about him besides that he loved dogs. I'm not sure I would have bought the book if I didn't have any interest in Knight.

book icon  Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch
I have to admit what called me about this book was the big maple tree on its cover!

These are essays and excerpts and even some poetry about the autumn season, ranging from the Book of Ruth in the Bible to The Rural Life by Verl Klinkenborg. One of my very favorites was an essay about autumn leaves by Thoreau. Klinkenborg provides an essay about October and there is also an excerpt from May Sarton's House by the Sea. I was very surprised that there was nothing at all from Gladys Taber, as this appeared to be the perfect volume to highlight some of Taber's essays!

I'm sorry to say that what with being sick and vacation, I wasn't able to give this volume all the attention it deserved. I hope to revisit it next autumn.