Passchendale

Passchendaele Book Cover Passchendaele
Robin Prior, Trevor Wilson,
History
1996
237

The carnage on the Western Front at Passchendaele, where 275,000 Allied and 200,000 German soldiers fell, was neither inevitable nor inescapable, the authors of this gripping book insist. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson here offer the most complete account of the campaign ever published, establishing what actually occurred, what options were available, and who was responsible for the devastation."The clearest and most balanced picture yet of a battle whose very name evokes the horror and supposed futility of World War I". -- John Grigg, The Spectator, "Book of the Year""The authors should be commended for writing a balanced, convincing work that reveals the devastation of the First World War and the failure of military and political leaders to recognize this horror". -- Virginia Quarterly Review"This book will appeal to both the scholar and the general public and belongs in every World War I collection". -- Agnes F. Peterson, History"Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson have written an excellent, carefully researched, and dispassionate history of the Passchendaele campaign.... It must now become the standard scholarly work on the grim battle of Passchendaele, integrating as it does, both politics and war". -- Tim Travers, Journal of Military History"The authors excel in their thorough use of original sources to provide a masterly account ... clearly related and supported by admirable maps". -- Brian Bond, Times Literary Supplement"Well-represented, lu

This book gave me an insight to the warfare around Ypres and especially for Polygon Wood, where a Great Uncle fought. Much was said and unsaid about this uncle and of the suffering of returned soldiers. While the book presents facts and historical information, it was written 80 years after the events and that perspective provided me with a sense of the meaning (or really not) of the warfare, the political systems of the time. It made me wonder how these people could possibly risk their lives to achieve – nothing.

Read it if you dare.

The chapter on Polygon Wood (Page 125) gives an idea of what my Great Uncle went through.

David and Goliath

David and Goliath Book Cover David and Goliath
Malcolm Gladwell
Decision making
Allen Lane
2014-05-08
320

'Gladwell's most enjoyable book so far. It is a feel-good extravaganza, nourishing both heart and mind' Financial Times'I devoured in a single reading' Richard E. Grant'When you read it, you feel like you can topple giants' Jon RonsonWhat if everything we thought about power was wrong? What if, in the ancient story of the shepherd boy who topples a giant, David actually had the advantage? This thought sets Malcolm Gladwell on an extraordinary journey that takes him from art to basketball, the brain to revolutions, along the way weaving unforgettable stories of misfits, outsiders, tricksters and underdogs who have faced outsized challenges and won. With his trademark warmth, humour and gift for showing us the world through new eyes, Gladwell lets us see why the powerful aren't always what we think they are - and that some of us have more strength and purpose than we could ever imagine.'Intoxicating, powerful and morally engaged' Guardian'Truly intriguing and inspiring' Los Angeles Times' Breath-taking and thought-provoking' The New York Times 'An energetic, counterintuitive exploration of why (and how) underdogs succeed' Guardian, Books of the Year 'Continuing to gently but persistently blow my mind' Lauren Laverne

So this is the fourth book I have read by Malcolm Gladwell. I read it in less than a day and it was genuinely hard to put down.

Sadly, I am not a big fan of the author’s style. I do like the core of his ideas but the writing style grates a lot. North America centric and what appears to be analysis that is overly rooted in middle class privilege. That is despite his subject matter looking at almost everything but that cohort of humanity. Or maybe not – I cannot decide and that is where my difficulties lie. The choices of example and how they are presented appear to me to be more like proselytising than an unbiased examination of facts. I find some of his arguments by example worrying.

I do like the subject matter and the footnotes a whole lot more.

The book makes a case for some counter-intuitive understanding of how and why the strong are beaten by the weak. The most important thing I got from the book is to make sure that any analysis of “weak” or “strong” is done from an independent standpoint and with a deep understanding of the circumstances that influence relative strength. The next best thing from the book was to understand that we have to work hard to understand ourselves if we want to get the best out of our lives. Something that should be obvious but is easy to forget when trying to live our daily lives.

Oddly, but at the same time quite common, this book refers to other books I have read recently. In this case Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Seven Pillars of Wisdom Book Cover Seven Pillars of Wisdom
T.E. Lawrence
Biography & Autobiography
Penguin UK
2000-03-30
712

Although 'continually and bitterly ashamed' that the Arabs had risen in revolt against the Turks as a result of fraudulent British promises of self-rule, Lawrence led them in a triumphant campaign which revolutionized the art of war. Seven Pillars of Wisdom recreates epic events with extraordinary vividness. In the words of E. M. Forster, 'Round this tent-pole of a military chronicle, T. E. has hung an unexampled fabric of portraits, descriptions, philosophies, emotions, adventures, dreams'. However flawed, Lawrence is one of the twentieth century's most fascinating figures. This is the greatest monument to his character and achievements.

I decided to read this book after viewing the “extras” on the remastered 70th anniversary edition of Lawrence of Arabia. It is a film I saw in the mid 60s and I remember clearly the quicksand scenes and blowing up of trains from my youth. The background to the film suggested a story richer than the film and so I ordered it from Paperchain in Manuka. Over the past two months I have read the book slowly, a chapter or so at a time. It is that kind of book. It makes you think. It leads you to do some research to fill the gaps in your knowledge that you suddenly realise should not be there.

I have really enjoyed the book. It is of the time and its casual racism and British Dominion language serves as a reminder of how thinking changes over time. The book goes a long way to explaining why we have the problems that we now see in the Middle East. 100 years and two World Wars (plus a half dozen localised ones at least) later the world has still not managed to overcome the consequences of colonial power broking and oppression dating from the Crusades and Ottoman Empire in the Levant.

The writing is heroic. It is also very British. If you did not know it was near as reasonable to fact then you would think it was a great adventure story. I have been appalled and amazed by the events described. I have felt resonance in the analysis of the region put forward in the book.

So many what-ifs are presented in the book (albeit often from the perspective of hindsight) that make you think of what might have been and how much suffering the world might have been able to avoid. Then, on reflection, I am reminded that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Capital

Capital in the Twenty-First Century Book Cover Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Thomas Piketty
Business & Economics
Belknap Press
2014
640

The main driver of inequality--returns on capital that exceed the rate of economic growth--is again threatening to generate extreme discontent and undermine democratic values. Thomas Piketty's findings in this ambitious, original, rigorous work will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.

As I write, I am reading the book and have got up to Part 2.

I bought this book because it links in well with Why the West Rule – For Now and it is something that has interested me for quite a while. If we can understand what drives economic and political thinking then we might be able to avoid a Collapse style catastrophe. I say we – because I think I need to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Small as that part may be.

The discussions on (in)equity and its drivers is particularly relevant given how things are going in Australia and the kinds of decisions being made. Deprive the poor and shift that wealth to a tiny proportion of the already wealthy.

I will update this post as I complete the book.

Why the West Rules – For Now

Why the West Rules - for Now Book Cover Why the West Rules - for Now
Ian Morris
History
Profile Books(GB)
2011
750

In the middle of the eighteenth century, British entrepreneurs unleashed the astounding energies of steam and coal and the world changed forever. Factories, railways and gunboats then propelled the West's rise to power, and computers and nuclear weapons in the twentieth century secured its global supremacy. Today, however, many worry that the emergence of China and India spell the end of the West as a superpower.How long will the power of the West last? In order to find out we need to know: why has the West been so dominant for the past two hundred years?With flair and authority, historian and achaeologist Ian Morris draws uniquely on 15,000 years of history to offer fresh insights on what the future will bring. Deeply researched and brilliantly argued, Why The West Rules - For Now is a gripping and truly original history of the world.

This is one of the most meaningful and powerful books I have ever read. It covers a broad sweep of my interests in history, anthropology, politics and economics.

The arguments put forward are powerful and convincingly argued. The factual and analytical support is outstanding. The level of analysis suggests the possibility of a realistic modelling of social behaviour in the near future. Therefore it is an inspiring book because it offers hope.

I read this book over the Summer and it definitely made me think hard about the likely future. It reconfirms in my mind that the things we most need to focus on are the classic “liberal” issues of:

  • Universal education to at least senior secondary level
  • Solve the current and escalating energy crises
  • Establish more equitable income distribution as a world goal

 

 

Enigma

Enigma Book Cover Enigma
Robert Harris
Enigma cipher system
Arrow
2009-01-10
464

From Wikipedia again...

Jericho is a doctoral student of the mathematician Alan Turing at a Cambridge college. When the war starts Turing and other professors disappear, recruited as code breakers by the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS). Eventually Jericho is also roped in, at the invitation of Atwood who is professor of ancient history at the same college. At Bletchley the code breakers are an eclectic academic set, under pressure to break the Enigma code used by German U-boats wreaking havoc on British and American shipping in the Atlantic. The tension is magnified by internal turf rivalry between the allies over the cryptography effort, with the Americans of the opinion that the chummy common-room efforts of the British operation cannot sustain the decryption speed and volume required to win the Battle of the Atlantic. In the book Turing himself is absent from Bletchley, on a trip to Washington D.C.

On a train en route to Bletchley, Jericho happens to meet the attractive Claire Romilly who works as a clerk at one of the huts, temporary buildings on the park grounds housing the growing code breaking effort. Jericho helps Claire finish the Times crossword with ease and the two strike up a friendship. Claire's upper-crust manner reflects what Baxter (a code breaker with leftist views) terms as the organization of Bletchley Park along British class lines. Society debutantes are chosen to handle sensitive transcription whereas the more mundane tasks are delegated to young women from working-class backgrounds. As Jericho gets closer to Claire, he also discovers a weakness in U-boat Enigma protocol that leads to the U-boat code being cracked, thereby establishing his reputation among the code breakers. One night Jericho is stunned to see intercepted (but still encoded) signal transcription forms in Claire's bedroom, a serious violation of security procedure. Confronted with the forms Claire reacts in an emotionally wounded manner, which also signals the end of Jericho's romance with her. However Jericho does not report the incident or the security breach. In the following days Jericho desperately attempts to meet Claire once again, and slowly tips himself over the edge of a nervous breakdown. He is sent back to his college to recover.

When the Germans change the Enigma naval code book, the Bletchley Park code breakers lose their back door and are forced to bring Jericho back. This is in fact how the book begins. Thereafter the plot unravels to answer a series of questions: What are the papers in Claire's bedroom? Is she a spy? How much can Jericho trust Kramer, an American naval officer and one of Claire's many lovers? What is the role of the supercilious upper-crust investigator Wigram? How much does Claire's room mate Hester Wallace know? Are Jericho's hut colleagues Atwood, Pinker, Puck, Baxter ... jealous of him? Will Jericho break the code for a second time as one of the largest convoys steams across the Atlantic pursued by U-boat wolf packs?

Apart from the plot, the book is notable for its grim descriptions of winter in a war-torn Britain.

The book, though fiction, is criticised by people who were at Bletchley Park as bearing little resemblance to the real wartime Bletchley Park.[1]

With Alan Turing as a background character, Robert Harris recreates the Second World War intelligence gathering machine at Bletchley Park that is the scene of a spy/crime investigation that shows the exposed heart of Britain’s class system as it ceased to be the dominant world power. There is quite a touch of Brideshead Revisited in this book as well as plenty of references to the social patterns of Edwardian times changing to a post imperial one that fully emerged in the 1950s.

The description of how complex encryption systems could be broken by exploiting human behaviour using mechanical (soon to be electronic) number crunching is fascinating. The crime and love stories were good too. Still, the lives and times were the real stars in the book.

The Spies of Warsaw

The Spies of Warsaw Book Cover The Spies of Warsaw
Alan Furst
Military intelligence
2009-01
328

An Autumn evening in 1937. A German engineer arrives at the Warsaw railway station. Tonight, he will be with his Polish mistress; tomorrow, at a workers' bar in the city's factory district, he will meet with the military attache from the French embassy. Information will be exchanged for money.So begins THE SPIES OF WARSAW, with war coming to Europe, and French and German operatives locked in a life-and-death struggle on the espionage battlefield. At the French embassy, the new military attache, Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, a decorated hero of the 1914 war, is drawn in to a world of abduction, betrayal and intrigue in the diplomatic salons and back alleys of Warsaw. At the same time, the handsome aristocrat finds himself in a passionate love affair with a Parisian woman of Polish heritage, a lawyer for the League of Nations.Colonel Mercier must work in the shadows, amidst an extraordinary cast of venal and dangerous characters - Colonel Anton Vyborg of Polish military intelligence, last seen in Furst's THE POLISH OFFICER; the mysterious and sophisticated Doctor Lapp, senior German Abwehr officer in Warsaw; Malka and Viktor Rozen, at work for the Russian secret service; and Mercier's brutal and vindictive opponent, Major August Voss of SS counterintelligence. And there are many more, some known to Mercier as spies, some never to be revealed.

One of the most enjoyable books I have read. The foreboding of the second World War is there the whole time. You know what horrors are about to befall Poland. You know the people in the story are doomed in one way or another. You know that people who are involved in espionage are asking for trouble and causing death and destruction to others. Yet, I had sympathy for most of the characters and could place many of the locations in Warsaw.

It made me want to go to Paris to see the places mentioned there as well. The period setting and those associated values remind me of much of my grandparents generation.
Alan Furst is compared with Robert Harris and that is fair. The story telling from the first person is similar and so is the history as a background/canvas style. I just find Alan Furst’s writing more compelling.

Very worth reading.

Fatherland

Fatherland Book Cover Fatherland
Robert Harris
Alternative histories (Fiction)
Random House
2009
386

It is April 1964 and one week before Hitler's 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin's most prestigious suburb. As March discovers the identity of the body, he uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich.

This is a terrifying book in some ways. Yet it almost seems normal in the context of Nazi Germany. That is why it is terrifying.
The story is almost a “normal” crime novel about a privileged class murder except that the privileged class is one of mass murderers. The premise of the what-if question posed by the novel is easy to believe; also hard to understand. It touches on:
• the nature of power
• the way International relations almost require turning a blind eye to atrocities
• the control of information
• propaganda and its insidious influence on popular thought
• suppression of ideas and free thought
• career vs principle
It is a very good thing to think of what might have happened if only a few things in the past were different.

Pompeii

Pompeii Book Cover Pompeii
Robert Harris
Aqueducts
Random House
2004
397

This latest "New York Times" bestseller by the author of "Archangel" chronicles the suspenseful last days of the legendary ancient city nestled below the slopes of the volcano Mount Vesuvius. "[An] intelligent, engaging historical novel."--"The Washington Post Book World."

This is the first Robert Harris book I read. It started me on a reading journey that I have not regretted.
What I love about this book is the way it tells a story of immense scale and impact (eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum) with the history and well shaped cultural insights being a background to a love story and tale of Imperial values, in what is arguably the peak civilisation outside the past 200 years.
I highly recommend this book and author.

The Ghost

The Ghost Book Cover The Ghost
Robert Harris
Ex-prime ministers
Arrow
2008
400

Britain's former prime minister is holed up in a remote, ocean-front house in America, struggling to finish his memoirs, when his long-term assistant drowns. A professional ghostwriter is sent out to rescue the project a man more used to working with small time celebrities.

From Wikipedia, because I am lazy...

Most of the action takes place on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, where Lang has been holed up in the holiday home of his billionaire American publisher to turn out his memoirs on a deadline. Other scenes are set in Notting Hill, New York and Whitehall.

Lang's former aide Mike McAra has been struggling to ghost his master's memoirs but, as the novel opens, McAra drowns when he apparently falls off the Woods Hole ferry. The fictional narrator of The Ghost, whose name is never revealed, is hired to replace him. His girlfriend walks out on him over his willingness to take the job: "She felt personally betrayed by him; she used to be a party member". He soon suspects foul play and stumbles across evidence of possible motive, buried in Lang's Cambridge past. Having located what may be the lethal secret, the replacement ghostwriter begins to fear for his own safety.

Meanwhile Lang, like his real-life counterpart, has been accused by his enemies of war crimes. A leaked memorandum has revealed that he secretly approved the capture and extraordinary rendition of UK citizens to Guantanamo Bay to face interrogation and torture. One Richard Rycart, Lang's disillusioned and renegade former foreign secretary (loosely based on Robin Cook), who before and during his early days in office made much of his wish to adopt an "ethical" foreign policy, is now at the UN, in a position to do his former boss serious damage. Unlike Blair, Lang thus appears in imminent threat of indictment at the International Criminal Court.

The narrator tussles to reconcile his obligation to complete the ghosting job with its attendant abundant payment on the one hand and, on the other, the pressing need, as he sees it, to reveal Lang's true allegiances. The action really heats up when he contacts Rycart. The narrator comes under increasing jeopardy: romantically and politically, as well as physically.

I wonder how Robert Harris got away with this. It seems to cut to the bone and it is clear that he has some inside knowledge of the workings of the political system in Britain.

Conspiracy theories are one thing. Grand International conspiracies with one Government manipulating another major power is another thing again. Then add the thinly veiled likenesses to current politicians and it is more than a little concerning. You almost wonder if the accusations are not challenged then they might be true.

Regardless, the book is a compelling read. It seems to me that Robert Harris has taken his method of historical fiction writing and applied it to contemporary political life.