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

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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

18th of October: Bad and/or Tory Books

It’s no wonder I’m not reading as many books when they’re all like this. Let’s get right to it.

Wings – The RAF at War, 1912-2012

I feel like a bit of an idiot. I once saw Dead Aid had a cover quote by Niall Ferguson and kept reading, and not having learnt my lesson, I just finished reading a book with an endorsement from James Delingpole.

Wings, by Patrick Bishop, is bad on a number of levels. It’s structurally flawed, purporting to be a history of the RAF from 1912 to 2012 but essentially just recounting its experiences in the World Wars and then dispensing with sixty years in about as many pages. As history, it is consequently pretty shallow, never really affording anything the time and consideration it deserves. As a consequence of that, it becomes morally really rather flat and stupid.

In particular, I think any work that touches on the role of the RAF during the Second World War can’t avoid addressing the morality of strategic bombing. Bomber Command was such a significant part of what the air war involved that it can’t be ignored. However, I think I would have rather Bishop hadn’t bothered. His assessment of the morality of strategic bombing and of those who criticised it is breathtakingly patronising and weak, and worth quoting in full just to marvel at it.




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“proof of the brutalizing consequences” indeed.

This is resolutely not the book to read if you want to be challenged on your feelings on Dresden, etc. – A.C. Grayling and Max Hastings (also Tory) have both published better work on it, with divergent perspectives.

This doesn’t fit into my unfolding critique device here, but it’s also a pretty Tory book. Military history is obviously pretty Tory, and you have to sort of take it as it is, but even within those limits, there has to be some sort of limit to the amount of times you can unironically refer to “the natives” in a serious work of history? And when your prose sounds like it could have been lifted from a Times editorial lionising the RAF on the anniversary of the Battle of Britain or something, take a look in the mirror, tbh.

Even when the prose isn’t politically nauseating, it’s pretty bad. At one point, he refers to a contemporary account as being written in purple prose and you have to sort of put the book down and go for a walk and just consider the cheek of it.

It takes a lot to stop me enjoying stories about bombs and soldiers and that. But this is A Bad Book. Shallow, badly written, morally suspect, and worst of all: Tory.

Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghan Campaign – Sherard Cowper-Cowles

Not been a great week for books, tbh. This one isn’t brilliant, either.

Essentially the memoirs of the former UK Ambassador to Afghanistan / Special Representative for Af-Pak, it’s sort of limited in a few ways.

Firstly, it’s not brilliantly written. Either I got used to it or he dialled it down, but the early chapters are burdened with try-hard description, suggesting Cowles was very keen to be Writerly and Literary, and ended up just a bit lame.

As history, I think it’s probably limited by the author’s proximity in time to events (it was written about a year after he left Afghanistan) and also his direct role in them – there’s a frequent sense of him trying to hedge his bets whenever he wants to criticise something or answer for failings of UK policy which is a bit unsatisfying. It’s a very name-droppy book, which is to be expected, as he was in frequent personal contact with Presidents and ministers but there’s no real bite to it. I kind of wanted him to, at least once, go “Yeah the US Ambassador in 2010 was a right bellend”, and he never did – which I guess is what makes him a diplomat.

It is in that last bit that I found the most value in the book, really. While its portrayal of the war and of the discussions etc. etc. might be a bit dishonest/very dishonest/idk, I think there is a fascinating insight into the struggles of this sort of high-stakes diplomacy and the day-to-day life in an embassy that I really enjoyed so now I just kind of need the Foreign Office to give us a ring, really. I’m waiting on the call.