Friday, May 21, 2010

The War of Wars: The Epic Struggle Between Britian and France (1793-1815), Robert Harvey

Editor's Note: My uncle told me he won't read this blog until there are more manly books featured. Upon further questioning, I learned that by "manly books" he means military history books. Since my fiance reads nothing but military history books I asked him to contribute a review.

Reviewer: Mr. Ewok

Rating: 3.75 Pierogies (Mr. Ewok ignored S-LYBC protocol of not quartering pierogies)
Review: Robert Harvey’s The War of Wars chronicles the conflict between Great Britain and France that began during the French Revolution and ended with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. This book is an ambitious undertaking and, on balance, Harvey performed his task quite well. Most popular histories of this period tend to focus exclusively on the main protagonists or on specific military campaigns and battles. Moreover, such works usually cover only the Napoleonic era itself while treating the French Revolution as a mere stage setting device. Harvey, however, gives the reader a fairly detailed overview of the entire period and the major players in both Britain and France prior to Napoleon’s entry onto the scene. He then seamlessly continues the story without allowing the French emperor to completely dominate the story (no mean feat).
Harvey is at his best in introducing the events, politics and personages of Europe during the tumultuous French Revolution. He does quite well in describing the factionalism and shifting political sands of Paris during the Revolution. Harvey also gives appropriate credit to a host of historical figures that are often overlooked - perhaps most notably Lazare Carnot and Charles Dumouriez, the founders of the French military machine that Napoleon so vigorously wielded. Likewise, Harvey does a good job introducing the relevant British statesmen, such as William Pitt (the Younger), and their reluctance to recognize the brewing threat across the Channel. Further, the author’s depiction of the various naval engagements between the British and French (and allied) fleets is compelling. Harvey paints a balanced portrait of the relevant players – with due regard given to Horatio Nelson’s personal flaws (mainly public infidelity and hubris) while singling out the actions of lesser known heroes, such as Thomas Cochrane, for well-deserved praise. This evenhandedness extends to Harvey’s portrayal of both Napoleon and Arthur Wellesley (Wellington). Indeed it seems not much has changed for male celebrities over the ages – as even the insufferably priggish Wellington pulled a Milledgeville or two in his day.

Harvey also adeptly handled the Peninsular and Russian campaigns by devoting an entire section to the conflict in Spain before moving on to address Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. Despite the overlap in events and the interrelated strategic picture in both theaters after 1812, Harvey shrewdly kept them separate in his book. This provides the reader with a more focused narrative that may have become muddled by a traditional chronological narrative.

So obviously I enjoyed the book yet it gets only 3.75 pierogies. That’s because unfortunately for Harvey I am somewhat of an authority on this area of history myself – albeit only a semi-literate yinzer authority. As such, this book inevitably failed to satisfy because as a general history perfect for the casual reader it necessarily lacks some of the historical detail and minutiae that appeals to readers with pre-existing Napoleonic conditions. This is particularly evident in the cursory treatment given to the many land battles. The Napoleonic Wars are punctuated with famous battles such as Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, and Borodino. If you are expecting a detailed blow-by-blow tactical account of these battles, this is not the book for you. To be fair, this was not Harvey’s goal and could have added hundreds of pages to an already thick tome – but in my view it was still a notable shortcoming to address major battles in mere paragraphs. And to the extent Harvey, a British author, betrayed any bias it was through the disparate treatment he gave to the land battles (dominated by France) vs. the sea battles (dominated by Britain). Even a minor engagement between a British frigate and its prey was often given more ink than a battle that resulted in tens of thousands of casualties and altered the balance of power in Europe.

One last sticking point for me was Harvey’s rather odd justification for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The author pulls no punches in casting Napoleon as the power-hungry ogre that he undoubtedly was – from his buffoonish attempts at diplomacy and premeditated slaughter of prisoners outside Jaffa to his naked aggression against Spain. Yet oddly when it came to one of Napoleon’s most boneheaded moves, Harvey justifies the Russian campaign as a defensive war. Eh, maybe. It’s certainly true that Tsar Alexander had grown hostile to Bonaparte in the years since Tilsit, but this was largely due to Napoleon’s insistence that Russia participate in a costly self-defeating embargo against British trade and his inflexibility in meeting Russian diplomatic concerns. Moreover, it would seem Napoleon’s decision to conquer Moscow rather than contenting himself with a new frontier at Vitebsk or Smolensk belies such a defensive motive.

That said “War of Wars” is an immensely readable and well-balanced account of the conflict between Britain and France, which defined early nineteenth century Europe. It is the perfect book for readers seeking an introduction to the events and personalities of the age and a great jumping off point for further reading. In that spirit, here are some recommendations.

For a good general biography of Napoleon:
The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte - Robert Asprey

For a more detailed account of the invasion and retreat from Russia:
Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March - Adam Zamoyski

For a thorough diplomatic and military analysis of Napoleon’s defeat of the Second Coalition and the events that led to Austerlitz, see:
The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805 (v. 1) – Fred Kagan (of Iraq’s surge fame)

For those looking for detailed accounts of individual battles or campaigns, Osprey Publishing has an excellent series that covers the Napoleonic Wars. Each book includes a chapter on the modern layout of the battlefield for readers interested in historical tourism. Here is a partial list from the reviewer’s own library. These are great primers on the overall strategic picture of the Peninsular Campaign, with Austerlitz thrown in for kicks: Fuentes de Onoro, Vimiero, Badajoz (where the British army committed a full blown Roethlisberger upon taking the city), and Austerlitz.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Sparrow (1996), Mary Doria Russell

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 2 Pierogies

Review: I wasn't going to review this book. My feelings were too mixed, too complicated and I had no idea how to rate it. I was going to rate it "unrate-able" but after sleeping on it I think I can tackle this review now.

The premise of The Sparrow is spectacular, and I had not been so excited to read a book in a long time. Furthermore, book reviewers I trust and generally agree with LOVE this book. The story is told via two distinct timelines...

In 2019, a radio telescope in Puerto Rico picks up a broadcast of beautiful, hymn-like singing from a planet in a nearby solar-system. While the U.N. dithers about how to proceed for years the well-funded Catholic church secretly sends its own mission to the planet, called Rakhat. The mission is manned by an eight person crew, 4 Jesuit priests (all highly educated and experts in relevant fields) and 4 expert civilians. It is a rather annoying plot device that the civilians and priests are already a rag-tag group of friends who happen to have the perfect skill set for such a mission [eye roll]. One has to be willing to suspend disbelief when reading science fiction, but this was a tough pill to swallow. The author tries to use this as support for an argument by the priests that the mission is predestined and sanctioned by God. But....Eh....

In 2060, Father Emilio Sandoz (a member of the mission to Rakhat) returns to earth alone. Although 40 years have passed on earth, due to space travel time-relativity, only 6 years have passed for Father Sandoz. Based on earlier communications, those on earth know that the other seven members of the crew met horrible fates on Rakhat and Father Sandoz is implicated. He has horrifying injuries, his hands are maimed and he is too sick and traumatized to reveal what happened on Rakhat. Slowly, with the care of a small group of priests, he slowly recovers and shares his tale in a sort-of inquisition in large part to clear his name.

Sounds awesome right? Well, it is in alot of ways so I'll start with the good.

This book is addictive and will have you hooked because of the way the author introduces truly interesting mysteries and masterfully reveals the answers while simultaneously introducing new teasers. This might be the best book I have ever read in regards to the introduction, handling and resolution of mystery. There are also really really interesting and creative ideas in this book. Examining a world where sentient life is evolved from the relationship between carnivorous predator and herd-prey was really interesting and Russell's background in anthropology was evident in a good way. Furthermore, I thought the mystery of the damage to Father Sandoz's hands was darkly fascinating.

Now for the bad.

This book goes to places so dark and horrifying and "out there" it is rather shocking. Even borderline ridiculous. In theory this makes sense because the story examines how and why we should believe in a divine plan and love God when there is so much horrifying and unfair suffering in the world (and in all worlds apparently). In order to make such a point, there must be alot of horrifying suffering in the the story. The problem is this question has been addressed in countless ways by countless people for the entirety of recorded human history. Indeed, our ancient religious texts examine this issue thoroughly as it the most ubiquitous and important theological question of all time. As such, if the author is going to take the story to such a horrifying place, the pay-off needs to be there in the end. There must be some new or powerful insight on this age-old question that justifies why you took the story to such a sick place. In the end, The Sparrow failed to achieve this in my opinion. It made me think about God and human suffering but not in a way new or different than a daily newscast on the Sudan would. This is where the book failed for me. The author was unable to justify why and where she took the story. As such, it came off sensational and lurid and lost much of its power. Perhaps I missing something, perhaps it affected me more than I realize. I'm not sure which is why this review is so difficult to write.

My other issues with this book are more irritants than anything else.

1. The writing is clear, precise and straightforward but only serviceable at best. There was not artistry in the writing. In some ways that is a relief as you don't have to concentrate at all to understand the story. It was like fast-food, no-long term nutritional value but hit the spot at the moment.

2. The dialogue was GOD AWFUL. Possibly the worst I have ever read. Clearly the author wanted us to view her characters as witty, smart and irreverent. The problem is the "witty-banter" between the characters was obvious and intellectually-lazy. The responsive gut-wrenching laughter from the other characters in response to such lame comments made me think they were tasteless idiots even though they are all supposed to be geniuses.

3. Although there was a ton of character development, the characters still same across as one-dimensional caricatures and I didn't care about any of them. This is amazing as I am a very easy person to manipulate emotionally. Furthermore, most of the characters actively annoyed me, namely Anne Edwards. We are supposed to love Anne Edwards and care for her; she is a mother figure to the other characters, affectionate, accepting and skillful medical doctor. I HATED her. I spent the entire book waiting and hoping for her to be dispatched. Although Anne is many great things but she is also the worst of things: an aging hippie. Granted as a medical doctor she is less worthless than most aging hippies but just as the aging hippies in my neighborhood terrorize me on a daily basis with their self-involved annoying bullsh^*#t, so Anne Edwards annoyed me through out the whole story. One of her first acts upon their space mission is to have loud, old-person, hippie free-love sex with her husband in full auditory "view" of four Jesuit priests. The characters in the book inexplicably found it funny and endearing, I found it self-centered, totally inappropriate and obnoxious (i.e. typical aging hippie behavior). Hey Anne! If the gay elderly dying Jesuit Priest leader of the mission (and the only interesting and likable person in the book) wants to die in the closet so as not to distract the crew trying to survive on a new planet, so as not to fundamentally alter his relationships right before his death and so as to generally die in peace without a big emotional event LET HIM. He is being humble, selfless and a good leader under the circumstances. It may not fit in with your aging hippie liberal agenda to force everyone to know, validate and experience everyone else's sexuality but you and the other aging hippies can learn something about the quiet dignity of not making a goddamn spectacle of yourselves all the time. You would think I would like this book to the extent shot a couple of aging hippies into outerspace on an asteroid to meet horrible fates but I still resent the time I had to spend with them.

I guess that is all I have to say. I don't know if I would recommend this book or not. There are parts that are so great, even brilliant, and parts that are just ...yuck. I'll give this book 2 Pierogies because I don't know what else to give it. I was going to read the sequel but the thought of reading more of this dialogue is insufferable. I'll read the plot summary on wikipedia instead (I guess I am still interested in the plot to an extent which is something).

FYI - Brad Pitt's production company bought the rights to The Sparrow several years ago and supposedly Brad Pitt will be playing Father Sandoz. Yeah, I'll totally see it although I'm not sure the movie can be very faithful to the book as it is too disgusting for film most likely.