24th of April: Little bit of variety

Not saying I get self-conscious about how many war books I read, but having a weekly (more or less) record of my reading on here does sort of make it obvious. So been trying to diversify a bit.

I like this song for lots of reasons. It doesn’t seem to have any concept of pace or dynamics or go anywhere, which should make it a boring five minutes, but it’s not. Also, even though I know who Bobby Womack is and can just about recognise his voice, there are several points on the record where he sounds more like Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder, which is cool. Finally, the lyrics are kind of ridiculous! Enjoy that.

Last Man in Tower – Aravind Adiga

Book choosing strategies by me, your humble book reviewer:

Step One: realise you’ve got books overdue despite living half an hours’ walk from the library and being mostly unemployed

Step Two: renew said books three times until you feel guilty/it’s sunny out and you need an Errand to validate your day

Step Three: Go to the library, go straight to the 20th Century History section, do not pass go

Step Four: Are there any paperbacks on WW2 battles you haven’t read and that don’t look terrible? Grab.

Step Five: Feel guilty that you only read tank books by old white men. Drift through the novels section and pick up any famous and/or colourful-looking novels, preferentially ones that tick some demographic boxes!

Step Six: Double-check the tanks section.

Aravind Adiga’s Last Man In Tower is a novel, has a colourful cover and is written by an Indian fella – result.

 

It’s also very good! It’s very pacey and entertaining, while giving you a compelling look at redevelopment in Mumbai and how those involved respond to the changing city. There’s enough pretty prose about flowers to make you feel like you’re reading some art, without being too tossy. It’s often quite funny.

It’s a story that feels very universal (to a certain extent it’s a gentrification tale like what we can’t stop talking about in London) and yet, through the protagonists’ religions and the particular practices of Indian construction moguls and residential societies, feels very specifically “Indian”. I don’t know if it is! Maybe it’s actually a weird pastiche of Mumbai life with terrible politics and I only enjoyed it because I know nothing about India. But it did that nice thing of making me feel like I understood completely different lives to mine a little bit better than I do now.

Good, imo.

Ghost Fleet – Peter Singer and August Cole

It’s not as good as Red Storm Rising, but it tries its best. Could leave it at that, really. Peter Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet portrays a well-researched version of how World War Three could play out, drawing on trends in military technology that are so integral to the book they have footnotes. The tech seems plausible to me, an almost-layman. I mean I cited Singer (it’s not the philosopher one) in at least one university, so I’m not about to doubt that side of things. There’s a lot of near-future war – killer robots, cyber-warfare, space warfare, etc. The near future setting allows this all to be described to contemporary readers – there are enough characters who were around in the early 21st Century and are suspicious of all these darn drones to justify explanations and comparisons. So you know, if it was just a more engaging way of examining how war might look tomorrow, that’d be OK.

But of course, it’s a thriller, and so it has to have all that goes with that. The hubristic enemy admiral who literally mutters/proclaims Sun Tzu quotes to himself throughout the book and the final battle. The officer with daddy issues. The gruff old sailor who knows the old ways are better. etc. etc. The literal femme fatale. The U.S veterans of Afghanistan who become guerrillas in their own home towns and isn’t this ironic. Nothing outright awful but there are a lot of pulpy clichés. The narrative itself, IDK how much I buy it. Red Storm Rising succeeded, as I recall, by making it clear that the whole thing was a desperate gamble by the Soviets that had to bring quick victory or complete defeat. So in that book, the “at first we lose but look through sheer American grit and force of will and good tanks we ultimately triumph” arc worked. I won’t spoil Ghost Fleet but TBH, I think that quote is a pretty generous characterisation of how it plays out.

Anonymous play a crucial role in this book, is all I’ll say.

IDK, it’s alright, I was reading it whenever I had a spare moment for a weekend, so it wasn’t terrible I guess but eh. Here’s an interview with the authors that might be as interesting in terms of technology and trends, really.

War Stories – eds. Sebastian Faulk and Jorg Hensen

Quite hard to review an anthology, it turns out! There’s good bits and OK bits, very few that I’d consider Bad. As a collection, it is very WW1-heavy, I don’t know why. Vietnam gets a big showing, and I think there aren’t any excerpts later than the Gulf War. There’s an interesting effort to avoid obvious choices. I’m not as well-read on war fiction as you might expect from this blog, so I can’t comment on all the choices, but, for example, the only Hemingway excerpt is from Farewell to Arms, and it’s not even one of the more military ones in there (I’d have expected the chaotic retreat scenes to feature over this one) – but it did have the side-effect of reminded me of the horrific ending to that book (rude). Similarly, Vonnegut only appears as the foreword to Slaughterhouse Five. It makes it much more likely that you won’t have read any of it, which is nice. There’s a fairly decent spread of perspectives and sides of the wars, including several translations, which is nice.

Probably more of a “dip in and out” than a “read for three hours straight while you’re waiting to meet someone for a fun evening out” book, as it turns out the Holocaust is not good pre-drinks material. Who knew.

Leningrad – Anna Reid

OK so this was a war book but it was written by a woman at least, so there’s some sort of change at least.

I don’t know as much about the Eastern Front as I should! My previous attempt to rectify that was …not successful. Part of the issue, I think, is that while histories of the Western Allies are far from apolitical, there is so much of an agenda when it comes to discussions of the invasion of the Soviet Union. You feel constantly on the look-out for distortions, knowing that there have been several revisionist understandings of the war already. Reid points out and rebuts, for example, the Cold War efforts to excuse the Wehrmacht as an institution from the crimes it committed during the war.

Fortunately (and unfortunately), this isn’t a military history. I still don’t know much about Kursk or how the Red Army recovered from catastrophe to win the war or enough cool facts about the T-34. What I do know is that the siege of Leningrad was bloody horrific.

Attention tends to be paid to Stalingrad, for probably obvious reasons, but on the numbers alone, this is a different scale of horror. Reid estimates that between 1/3 and1/4 of the city’s pre-war population perished during the siege, or about 700,000 people. Most of these were from starvation.

Food, its absence, and how people tried to get hold of it, are at the heart of this book. Compellingly told through the use of diaries, memoirs, and interviews with survivors, Reid is able to give devastatingly personal stories of how the siege reduced people to shadows of their former selves. Poor planning, corruption, and a blockade set up with the deliberate intention of starving the civilian population created a nightmare situation over the almost 900 days of the siege.

It’s heavy reading, made somehow more bearable by all those diaries and memoirs. It’s a very human book, despite the horrors it recounts. You will obviously feel a little bit hesitant to ever describe yourself as “hungry” again.

The military side of things, as I say, is less effective. It might be because Leningrad wasn’t a decisive front, but there’s not an enormous amount of “this regiment attacked on this day with these tanks” stuff, which probably sounds like a positive to you fools. It makes it slightly harder to follow the overall situation of the war outside the city, however, and where Reid does focus on military bits, it’s a bit rushed and confused. That said, there’s one Wehrmacht perspective in the book, the diary/memoir of a German captain occupying outlying villages, and it’s pretty compelling.

Still. Good, depressing, more tanks required imo.

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13th of March: But who are the *real* criminals?

Solid bit of Mock The Week level humour there which you’ll get upon completion of the reviews. BBC3, you know where to find me.

Been a bit delayed this one, which does mean there’s a few books to get through, which is nice. Also the first war book I’ve ever given up on! And I’ve read some mediocre war books in my time. Feel like some nerd off a WW2 forum is going to march up covered in Nazi memorabilia (they’re always weirdly keen on Nazi stuff these lads) and call me a “fake nerd” now.

Song of the week was gonna be a Kanye one but they’re still not on YouTube (my free Tidal subscription ends tomorrow 😦 ). Then I thought of a new Dylan one I saw him play at work but it’s not on YouTube either (the Internet is an upsetting place here’s a live version at least). So have an old one, I guess.

video may be NSFW, it asked me to verify my age. 

A Man of the People – Chinua Achebe

There’ a very weird pull quote on the back of my edition of this one, from Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess – “probably the best book to come out of West Africa”. It gave me pause a little, but I could hardly feel too superior, as I probably wouldn’t have heard of Achebe if not for his status as The Great African Writer.

[This review almost got crippled as I waded into a debate over #problematic issues way out of my understanding, so I’m just going to straight jump to the next bit.]

Regardless, I felt like, tokenistic as it was, spotting A Man of the People on the shelves of my local library was a good way to take a break from war history books. And it was! It’s a short and fairly light-hearted little book (novella?), told from the perspective of an idealistic young teacher who gets involved in politics for dubious reasons and gradually disillusioned. Centred on the titular man of the people, a very entertaining corrupt politician, Achebe provides a more nuanced discussion of corruption than is common, condemning it while illustrating how it’s rationalised, etc. Women don’t do too well in the story, reduced to pawns in the central power game, but apart from that, it’s good.

The Road to Stalingrad – John Erickson

Christ this one made me want to pack it all in and go back to reading Batman comics. I was conned by the cover, which, being a re-edition, made it look like a vibrant new best-seller history, read-able and maybe a bit shallow. Instead, it’s a seminal 1975 work from one of the Anglo world’s leading experts on Soviet military history. and it is deathly dull.

Readers of the blog know I’m a big fan of war books. Love me some tank battles and analyses of manoeuvres. But I’ve got to confess, I fell asleep reading this one repeatedly. Turns out there are only so many times you can read detailed descriptions of command reshuffles and shifting of brigade positions in January 1940 before you throw a book at a wall.

I held out until Barbarossa was launched, assuming it’d pick up then, with one of the largest invasions of the war, a world-historic shock etc. etc. It didn’t. It was still boring even as millions of men and machines went to war. Got sick of it, packed it in. Next.

Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio – Misha Glenny

Another “I should stop reading about tanks and this has a nice cover” read, this one. It was also a book about Brazil by an author I vaguely recognised, so I thought fair. Also, gang/drug wars are not too far off my usual pursuits, so.

Nemesis is good. Pulpy, fast-paced and vividly written, with a fascinating subject and balanced analysis, it’s what you would hope for from this kind of book, mostly. It tells the story the rise and fall of ‘Nem’, one of the Rocinha favela’s most successful drug lords. It is based on extensive interviews, including with Nem himself, which helps capture the ambiguity of his status. In the absence of real state control of the favelas until very recently (and probably even today), the drug lords came to occupy a position of power over their inhabitants, which extended to providing some of the basic services we expect from the state. Glenny does well at capturing the difficulty of judging a man who is, on the one hand, responsible for a small and brutal private army, unelected and violent, but who also offered stability, peace, and protection for the residents of Rocinha.

It’s impressive he captures this nuance, because it’s a breakneck-paced book. Drug lords rise to power and are struck down in mere pages, and I stopped really paying attention to their names. Part of this is because, until Nem is in charge, Glenny does a bit of time-hopping, sometimes taking us on tangents that stretch back ten years before returning to the narrative. This can be a bit confusing if you’re trying to pay attention. He’s also a bit keen on Foreshadowing Dramatically – ‘little did he know these steps would change his life etc. etc.’ which fair enough.

It’s also fascinatingly like The Wire at times – there are parts that are almost identical to Season One, and I wish Glenny had done more on the police investigations.

It’s good.

The Big Short – Michael Lewis

Watched the film of this and finished the book tonight, but it’s not really going to be a film review because I don’t like or understand films well enough (it was alright, an entertaining, I didn’t understand the changes they made, but I liked some of the music).

The book is good! It’s very thrilling, despite being about the dullest, most fiddly collection of acronyms and interest rate swaps. By choosing the handful of outsiders to carry his story, Lewis humanises the baffling workings of the mortgage bond market. This works to an extent. It was still very confusing at times – to the point where he occasionally explicitly says “don’t worry about understanding this bit”. I think some knowledge of markets and trading stuff is required going in – I kept having to re-explain “shorting” to myself, which, admittedly, was probably an entry requirement for a book with this title.

There’s a politics to it, naturally (less so than in the film, which crowbars in some Meaning at the end and comes off like Owen Jones). It’s interestingly pitched, because arguably these are all awful bankers who all made millions for work of no social value and really, to the bin with them all, but, without obscuring the real social cost of their decisions, Lewis does successfully make the “underdog” millionaires sympathetic characters. Partly through some interesting but kind of cheap “look this guy has a puppy” humanising techniques, partly through this being a story set within the world of banks, traders, and brokers, it works! I stopped having Corbyn-y twitches about five pages in*

*apart from the absolute seething realisation of how much money was sloshing around these books and how I didn’t have any of it, which never really went away. I think I’d have hated banking, and the door closed on me anyway when I didn’t get on the career track aged 18.2, but man alive, these lads made millions and I was quite pleased when I got a 50p/hour pay-rise the other day.

 

 

 

so you see the joke was that, there were books on corrupt politicians, literal Nazis, and drug lords this week but maybe the bankers are the worst? I’m available for hire if you need someone to write the slogan for your next anti-austerity protest.

The Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson

The only way I could have read these books in a worse order was if I had gone fully backwards in time from Hitler’s suicide to the Battle of El Alamein. As it was, thanks to the vagaries of Islington Library stocks and Kindle sales, I went 2-3-1, which was sort of disorientating – the Allies got good at war and then really bad again.

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Richard Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy is really good. Essentially an account of U.S. participation (more on that later) in the war against the Nazis (the Pacific war goes basically unmentioned), it is well-researched and solid military history, but written by a journalist with some grasp of prose. So the whole thing is engaging and entertaining, and quite frequently almost beautifully lyrical. Generally the chapter openings and endings are more poetic, while the middle bits are mostly death and misery. Occasionally it’s both at the same time – there’s one passage in the second book that I immediately copied out to text to a variety of people I wanted to make glum.

The books have a fairly logical separation – it goes War in Africa, War in Italy, War in North-Western Europe. The only issue I have is where he starts the series – because of his focus on the U.S., the war ‘starts’ with Operation Torch, where the Allies landed in Algeria and Morocco. Montgomery and the Eighth Army don’t really appear until they approach Tunisia. Given the pivotal nature of El Alamein, this struck me as odd, although having read two books covering that part of the war this year, I wasn’t too fussed. Once the Allied armies are in the same theatre, Atkinson starts to pay them both the attention they deserve.

This often means extensive coverage of intra-Allied sniping, be it the Americans and the British squabbling, or the French being generally awkward. I think Atkinson gets better at reporting this as the series goes on. In the first book, there’s a prickly tone to how he quotes British criticism of U.S combat performance that is, on the one hand, kind of fair, they were dicks, but equally, sounds slightly petulant. Combined with an occasionally nauseating Band of Brothers-esque “they were boys on their way to becoming men/heroes etc.” tone, the books do toe the line of becoming jingoistic in that infuriating way. This is, I think, exacerbated by, again the U.S. focus. Atkinson acknowledges Soviet contributions, and covers the Big Three’s summits, including the desperate calls for a Second Front, but not much.

This is even more pronounced when it comes to the Axis perspective – where Beevor’s Ardennes gave over whole sections to the Kampfgruppe Peiper and its offensive (admittedly it’s easier to give narrative weight to an attacking army), the Liberation Trilogy dedicates limited space to the men across the battlefield.

Still, this isn’t as bad as three paragraphs of criticism makes it sound.

Possibly because of his journalist background, Atkinson is excellent when he focuses on the personalities of the commanders involved. This is one area where reading the books in order might have helped, as again, the way I read it, Eisenhower was a decent commander, a good one, then a newbie. But there is a real sense of how these men thought, interacted, and behaved, and how that affected the war effort. From the problems caused by inexperienced commanders in Tunisia to the heroics in Normandy, passing through the general “what” that was George S. Patton, there’s a lot going on.

As a frequent complainer about maps (I just really don’t have any sort of spatial logic I think), the maps in this are good – depending on the edition! The Kindle version was perfect, as you could zoom in on maps and all sorts. The first book came as a paperback with tiny margins, which was awful, and the third, paperback, had good maps but with the usual caveat that you have to flick backwards and forwards to find them – effort.

Just generally as a history of the Western front (loosely defined), you could do a lot worse than the Liberation Trilogy. It’s quite long, which means it doesn’t speed through any crucial moments, but you’re not spending three hundred pages reading about a battle, either. It’s not too nerdy (not enough tanks tbh), but it’s not shallow, either.

v.v.g. imo.

14th of February: Bad Day for a Comeback

Look, I know it’s been a while, and I’m sorry. I was super-ill, and then I was out in the countryside, and TBH I lost track of which blog I was supposed to be posting which Sunday. I’m back now, though. Naturally, I’m back on Valentine’s Day and also the much-awaited release of Kanye’s new album day (listening to it now innit). So if you’re reading this today I’m questioning your decisions on a number of levels. That said, thanks for your loyalty and that.

Song of the week* should be off The Life of Pablo really, but it’s exclusive on Tidal (fuming I actually subscribed [for a free trial]) and I haven’t quite absorbed it (good so far imo). So instead, blast from the (my) past. I don’t think Mando Diao ever really made it to the UK, but they were big for me around 17/18. This song has two separate chord changes that still get me and some absolutely nonsense lyrics.

Bonus! The only video on Youtube is from their super-weird MTV Unplugged DVD that I almost bought for a birthday gift until I realised that it was like £25 and no crush is worth that much. Good jackets though.

*I know I don’t normally do one with these posts, I’m not quite sure why I created that precedent

What a Carve Up! ~ Jonathan Coe

what-a-carve-up

I wavered on this book for about a hundred words in the middle (mostly because I had just bought a war book in a Kindle sale and it was pressing on my mind – more to follow) and then was ultimately gripped through to the end.

An early 1990s satire of the UK’s elites, born into money and taking over the various fields they choose to go into, Coe’s Carve-Up is amusing enough, but I think it might have been a lot funnier when it was written. Reading it now, it feels like the jokes are stale and all of the new absurdities he’s highlighting are just reality as I know it, if not well out-dated. The book is set just before the outbreak of the First Gulf War, and much like in Iain Banks’ work, as a child of the Second Gulf War, I’m always slightly perplexed at the dramatics early 90s authors manage to cram into Desert Storm. Coe also takes aim at bankers (ooooh), the media (aaaaah) and …. art dealers and industrial farmers. The last two aside, it’s very much “any episode of Mock the Week you find on Dave”. The farming chapter is genuinely upsetting, though in the same way “living with vegetarians(vegans for a month)” was, so I was slightly impervious.

The actual plot centres on a slightly damaged author chap, and he’s charming enough, although it took me a fair while to care about him, and then he’s rudely Farewell to Arms-ed. Essentially, he’s hired to write the story of a nasty rich family, the afore-mentioned elites the book takes aim at, and the book jumps around chronologically through his life, their lives, and the lives of others their paths have crossed.

It’s alright if your Dad buys it in a charity shop and gives it to you to read on the train, I guess. That’s the score I’d give it.

Between the World and Me ~ Ta-Nehisi Coates

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It’s very hard to write anything of interest about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World And Me. Partly because the dust has settled on the thinkpiece back-and-forth that met its release, so there’s not so much of a ready-made debate to plug into. Partly because I’m a white English bloke, so there are limits as to what I have to offer in the way of useful commentary.

It’s beautiful and powerful stuff. Much more lyrical than most of his work at The Atlantic, it occasionally seems to try and move you beyond what the simple evocation of horrible facts would do. This is likely down to the framing device – Coates writes the book as a letter to his son. As well as his searing critique of structural racism in the States, there is memoir, and meditations on fatherhood, and more poetry than usual.

While it’s not a long book, I think it’s one that could probably benefit from re-reading, as it’s dense and heavy going. I’ve linked to excerpts in the blog before, I can’t imagine you’ll dislike it if you’ve liked his previous work.

Why The Allies Won ~ Richard Overy

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When will I learn that good books don’t have Niall Ferguson quotes on the cover?

Richard Overy’s Why The Allies Won isn’t bad, to be fair. Presented as a sort of myth-buster, taking an overall view of the Second World War to challenge conventional wisdom on the factors behind Allied victory. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to think it was inevitable, and I think one of the great successes of the book is essentially being a long “Actually…” but in a very valuable way. Popular mono-causal explanations for the outcome of WW2 are challenged with simple historical logic – if Hitler’s bad decisions were what lost the war, why did they bring victory for the first two years? If simple production capacity was what made victory inevitable, why wasn’t the Axis able to capitalise on the period where it had almost all of Europe’s production at its disposal? It occasionally strays into strawman territory, but the explanations he’s challenging are widespread enough that I don’t think he’s ever too unfair.

The main issue, I think, is a general repetitiveness. In part due to a tendency to over-summarise in a very “in the previous part we have seen x, we will now look at y.” kind of way, and in part just because everything he’s talking about is interconnected, there’s a slight tendency to cover similar ground several times in each part. Coupled with a fairly boring writing style, and it just became a bit of a drag.

Nevertheless, I’m quite glad I read it, I think, just because it soothes my general contrarian nature to be able to think “nah mate that’s a widespread misconception based on faulty reasoning” whenever I hear someone being wrong, and this fed that. It was just a bit boring.

And I know, I know, I can hear you, my girlfriend, my parents, and my librarian saying the same thing – “have you considered reading books that aren’t about WW2 you sound like you’re getting sick of them tbh mate”. First off, no. Second, tanks are good*. Third, I’m currently writing a standalone review post of a World War Two book series which was excellent, so there.

On the other hand, I’m now reading a book on the Eastern Front that is honestly sapping my will to live. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

 

*found out Airfix models of tanks are really cheap so that’s a dangerous discovery, especially as Amazon algorithms are now chasing me around the internet with £6 Sherman offers

13th of December: Look, I know

yes, it’s been a while. Tell me something I don’t know. I’ve been busy, alright? So we’re going to proceed as follows – I’m going to post reviews this week just to tide you over, and then, weekend before Christmas, I’ll put out a bumper reading list for you to take onto the trains and buses and planes home, and to read on the sofa, etc. etc., because I’m well thoughtful (and also I’m off work from the 18th)

State of the Art – Iain M. Banks

This, Iain M. Banks’ only short story collection, was a bit of a miss for me. Even in my recent string of underwhelming Banks books, they’ve been generally enjoyable until the end.

I don’t like to leave books unfinished, but I didn’t bother getting to the end of the centrepiece novella of this one, and I wasn’t overly impressed with the rest of the short stories it contained. Most leaned a bit too heavily on a gotcha twist ending, and many of them had a very transparent political subtext. The novella was given over to characters exchanging thudding monologues about progress and religion and the Holocaust and I eventually chucked it on the floor. Strong pass on this one, imo.

The Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin

Gave up on this one when I was a lad, and having finally gotten back to it, can’t really figure out why. I think it was something to do with the general bleakness of the middle sections, but I think it was mostly that I was a fool.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea sketches what seems like a fully-realised fantasy world with laws of magic and different kingdoms and customs and languages, while telling a pretty compelling coming-of-age wizard-y tale. It’s enjoyable, but it’s probably telling that I had to go up to the children’s section of the library to find it. It tends to blast along quite quickly, which is admittedly preferable to the last fantasy novel I read, Dance of Dragons, which really… doesn’t. But yeah, it’s as good as everyone says it is I guess.

Inversions – Iain M. Banks

Actually enjoyed this one, which is a relief, as I think it’s the last Iain M. Banks I hadn’t read. Interestingly, it’s not exactly a Culture novel so much as a sort of medieval fantasy*, so it moves along quite quickly without so much dawdling on the details of different future technology and AI societies. The writing doesn’t have as much of Banks’ wit as usual, possibly because the two narrators tend, a doctor’s assistant and a ruler’s bodyguard, are by design, less interesting than the characters they follow.

It’s decent.

*although this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems

The Innocent – Iain McEwan

Good, this. Somewhere in between a Cold War spy story and a romance novel, it follows its slightly bumbling English protagonist in very close detail, which I really like. It makes the unfolding of the plot more plausible and more exciting, as you can see the internal logic and impact of events (god this is reading like a school book report). This detailed narration extends to the romance side of things, which is by turns very explicit and beautifully elliptical. The two ‘genres’ clash and intertwine and it all unfolds a bit grimly, but the final chapters are rather beautiful things.

The Tank War – Mark Urban

Couple of weeks ago, I went to take books back to the library, intending to not get anymore and catch up on the Pocket queue. But when I saw this on the shelf, I did a little squeal, immediately ran to the checkout and withdrew it and sent a picture of the cover to my girlfriend. The Tank War!*

I’m not 100% where the tank-specific obsession started – think I got Niall Barr’s Pendulum of War, about El Alamein from a charity shop a while back and that book was just chat about tanks and tank armour and tank strategy for pages and pages and it became one of those ironic things that I loved tanks that actually became self-fulfilling.

Anyway, I mention Barr’s book because it’s a lot better, really, than Urban’s. The Tank War is structured around one regiment, which it follows from Dunkirk to Hamburg, 1940-1945, and it’s quite a clever idea. In some ways, however, it falls flat – for one thing, officers are promoted out and transferred in and out of the regiment, meaning you don’t really get quite the consistency of characters you’d need. Urban also cheats a bit – sometimes the 5th Tank Regiment wasn’t the most interesting one in a battle so he’ll talk about the 6th for a bit.

It’s a lot more popular history than some, so there’s limited discussion of strategy and that, which may be appealing to non-weirdos, I guess, but it felt quite shallow, and a lot of the tactical improvements that Barr identifies as crucial to the success in North Africa go unmentioned.

Still, the tight focus does give a sense of how the men involved handled war, and you do develop some attachment to specific individuals which can be quite affecting.

S’alright. Some decent photos of tanks and that.

15th of November: Mostly War Again

I, and the people around me, sometimes worry about my World War Two fixation – indeed, I’ve done so in these very pages. Regardless, two of the three books this week are related to WW2 and it is what it is.

The Last Two-Thirds of Sword of Honour – Evelyn Waugh

Difficult to expand on the previous review, especially as I read book one as a standalone and then discovered a combined, three-in-one edition (endorsed and written (AFAIK) by Waugh himself) of the next two. So cf. last time, I guess.

The subsequent parts of the Sword of Honour trilogy sort of lean into the quiet melancholy of the first instalment. I think it sort of accumulates as the story goes on. The protagonist, Guy Crouchback, is basically a good lad, but never really contributes much to the war, for various reasons. It sort of reminded me a lot of Catch 22. The trilogy spends a lot of time on the minutia of military deployments and redeployments and billeting and all that sort of kind of tedious trivial nonsense that you forget was probably a big part of what soldiers experienced. Problem is, Waugh doesn’t quite take it away from just being tedious trivial nonsense. The books aren’t light and comical enough to carry so much of nothing happening. Again, the Catch-22 comparison – Heller leans hard into that tedium and makes it sort of the main joke of the book, whereas, I figure out of almost-journalistic accuracy, Waugh is just kind of repurposing stuff I assume he experienced, and it never quite transcends that.

I’m mainly just fuming because I had one of those half-waking nightmares, where you’re just drifting between your tedious pillow and your dull subconscious, literally entirely about billeting during WW2. Which I blame entirely on reading too much Waugh.

Idk, again, it’s a pleasant read, kind of vaguely Tory in an inoffensive way (apart from when he has to talk about women for more than a few paragraphs or the intermittent points where he has to refer to non-English people. And TBF I got the impression even this naked Toryism was sort of limitedly self-aware? IDK but I sort of hoped Waugh was better than writing naked condemnation of sexually active women but 1950s, I guess. I’ve seen Mad Men.)

As the books go on, the military thing becomes less of a central focus and other things start to occupy more space. Waugh himself seems to have been surprised at how much Catholic ritual started to become the main focus of the book as it went on, and he wasn’t wrong, because there’s a tedious section midway through what was book three. More characters than Guy Crouchback get involved in the narrative, for little real purpose.

I D K, lads. It’s good, I think. I’ve been told it’s good, and I wasn’t sick of it enough to stop despite it being a long-ass book, so that’s probably an endorsement of sorts.

Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble – Antony Beevor

I kind of wonder if Beevor knew, going into this book, if all of his efforts to portray the horror of the Battle of the Bulge would pale in comparison with the “Bastogne” episode of Band of Brothers. Feel like it would have given old Antony pause. Which would have been a shame, because Ardennes is probably good.

Real talk, this probably isn’t a blog for serious historiographical criticism of WW2 books or discussion of the arguments made. I’m still largely at the “read books about bits of the war I didn’t know about yet” stage, so even comparing two different authors’ takes is kind of beyond me.

However, Beevor has previously been my favourite of the popular WW2 historians. His gift for melding personal, individual accounts with a more general, firm account of divisions and battalions isn’t lost in this book. As ever, I spent more time than I’d have liked flicking back through the book to look at the maps (which are very good) to try and figure out which poxy Belgian village whichever American division was defending from which Kampfgruppe. Having criticised other war books here (and in my head) for the limitations of their maps, using Beevor as a comparison, I’m forced to conclude I just don’t have the head for that sort of description.

On the other hand, Beevor is kind of excellent at portraying several kinds of horrors. Firstly, the simple horror and difficulty of winter warfare. This is something that comes across in “Bastogne”, but I think the book does an excellent job of expressing how the cold made the men suffer and also how it made military stuff very difficult. It’s the sort of thing you read more often on the Eastern front, but that wintry horror is omnipresent in this book, and connects to the next point that is kind of dominant.

Logistics and artillery/air support end up the crucial factors in the Battle of the Bulge to an extent that is both unsurprising and yet kind of incredible – regardless of surprise, training, and morale, you get the sense early on that close air support and overwhelming artillery kind of make an Allied victory a foregone conclusion. Obviously, both of those were extremely subject to weather, so you know, transitions.

Speaking of which, I think Beevor does an decent job of balancing the sort of terror and tension of the Ardennes offensive with a) the SPOILERS knowledge that it failed and Hitler died and the Nazis lost and b) the Allies were never going to lose. You get caught up in reading the accounts of the battles and forget that things were kind of a foregone conclusion at this point. Now! I don’t know that they were! Beevor offers up, early on, Hitler’s end-game scenario for the Ardennes offensive, but you’re never really told whether a) the offensive could have worked on its own terms and b) whether that would have had any significant impact. Which, I think, kind of detracts from the whole thing. Whereas D-Day or Berlin 1945 have a sense of historic heft and almost epochal significance, this one is kind of important only insofar as you are aware of the personal suffering it contains.

There’s a futility to it, really. Which is obviously always an issue in war books because you can’t help being a bit John Lennon about it, and Beevor is very good at reminding you that “hey literally every one of those lads that is about to die in this next battle had a family and made jokes and did banter and I’m not telling you to be sad about it but…”. Which is Important and not just because it’s remembrance week. The casualty figures at the end come as a kind of sucker punch, so I won’t reveal them here but it’s just… upsetting, on both sides, that so many died for nothing. Again, very much Not An Insight, this. But I guess reading about that futile suffering in the context of WW2, The Good War, sort of accentuates it all.

Also kind of interesting in a more dispiriting way, is the kind of exhausting undercurrent of internal politics and, essentially, bitching, on both sides of the conflict. Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley. Hitler, [and other names what are less famous to me, sorry]. It’s never crucial to the history, but it’s kind of fascinating that these lads were all in command of tens of thousands of lives and the fate of nations and yet were kind of very petty children about it?

The most effective thing about the book is the structure of the middle sections – once the Ardennes offensive kicks off in earnest, Beevor breaks the narrative down day-by-day, with a chapter for each day across the whole front. This makes it easier both to follow all the various battles and sub-offensives and also emphasises the evolution of the battle as time carries on. Very propulsive, too.

IDK how I feel about Beevor’s treatment of war crimes. While Nazi crimes seem to have been far worse, he does seem to emphasise and castigate them (fairly) far more than he does those of the Allies. Hard to judge this one, though, because it’s the difference between reporting some SS soldiers massacring a village in person, and American artillery levelling that village with its inhabitants under it. Beevor sort of glosses over the latter, and you kind of get it but I was a bit uncomfortable with it. There’s also a horrific undercurrent of violence against prisoners of war that escalates in a tit-for-tat way and is, again, possibly under-condemned by the author? I don’t know what value there is in a historian sitting in 2015 and going “that was bad imo” but I would have been happier with more of it somehow.

Like if you are into war and that, you probably didn’t need me to tell you to go out and get Beevor’s latest because you’re not a mug. If you aren’t, then I admire your tenacity in getting this far. If you’re honestly kind of torn “is war actually good” then Ardennes isn’t the book/Beevor book I’d recommend you start with. So that’s that.

Absolutely fuming I didn’t manage to cram a Company of Heroes reference in here though.

Cronica de una Muerte Anunciada – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I tried reading some Garcia Marquez in high school as part of a kind of obligatory ‘practice Spanish’ effort. Didn’t get on well with him. Still, thought I’d try again, if only so ten years of studying the language aren’t immediately put to waste.

S’all right. It’s about a hundred pages long, and is written in quite an entertainingly conversational way, with the narrator both recounting events as he experience them and reporting the testimonies of others as well as things that happened. Consequently, the narrative jumps around a lot, but not in a confusing way. Even though the titular announced death is left in no doubt from the start of the account, Marquez builds an impressive amount of unease and tension as the book proceeds, and I almost missed my stop trying to get through the final pages.

If you want to read it in Spanish, it’s not too difficult to read. IDK if it’s worth reading in translation as I assume it’s nicely written (I am blind to prose).

1st of November: Not Even Going To Bother

Men at Arms – Evelyn Waugh

Really kind of unsure what to make of this one.

I think Evelyn Waugh’s books are held up as sort of capital-C classics. Generally, when reading a Classic, I expect to come away with a degree of “oh yeah wow definitely” or a flat “what did I miss”. Men At Arms is, I reckon, good. Not spectacular – quite rambly in parts, and generally just sort of there, but in a pleasant way. The protagonist is some sort of Tory noble and the novel charts his attempts to join the forces at the outset of WW2, and then his experiences once he gets in. I don’t really know how accurate any of it is, it strikes me as very well-observed and clearly aware of what things were like in London in 1940, which is no surprise given it was published ten-odd years after the war, but it’s possible the Halberdier Corps was more fictionalised than not. [googled: It was made up]

Regardless, as a sort of historical thing it’s very interesting, not least because it’s so centred on part of the officer class, which, oddly, is not an experience I’ve read much about. So it had that sort of Full Metal Jacket boot camp vibe, except much more Tory and comfortable.

The writing itself is always fluid and pleasant and occasionally beautiful to the extent that you actually stop and go “good, that”.

It’s part of a trilogy, which is annoying, as it sort of kicks up a notch in the last fifty pages and now I need to source the rest of them in a public library, which tends to be a recipe for frustration, but there we go. [update, found an edition in the main Islington library with all three books compiled. A+ ]

The Hydrogen Sonata – Iain M. Banks

Sort of a futility to reviewing these Iain M. Banks books. They’re not all the same, but they kind of are, and the differences, positive and negative, tend to only really make sense if you’re already knee-deep in Culture novels.

Still.

In this, I think the final ( L ) Culture novel, Iain M. Banks goes deep on the notion of Subliming, which had previously been quite implicit. I’m not sure how, but he fixes the tedious passages of Mind-to-Mind conversations that dominated Excession, possibly just through the simple technique of not giving them all indistinguishable phrase-length names. The twist isn’t as crucial as in Look to Windward, so it kind of doesn’t matter that it’s predictable. There’s too much time spent chatting about the epononymous sonata, but that’s allowed. The protagonists are a bit too scattered, even for an M. Banks novel, which poses problems for the pace and focus of it – there’s only one obvious candidate for main character, but she loses a few chapters to a character who is almost identical, diluting both of them.

IDK, as ever, they are what they are. I think I’ve just borrowed the only two Culture novels I haven’t already read from the library, so we’ll see how they go. Past couple of years have been disappointing, in terms of M. Banks. A shame.