While enjoying my second cup of coffee this morning I decided to check the Washington Post book section, which I had missed last Sunday. While I saw the usual mass of dated pieces (are they too afraid of depressing Jeff Bezos's profit margins to provide regular reviews anymore?), I came across an article by Michael Dirda about Walter Besant's The Revolt of Man. I'm among those for whom Besant was forgotten (no "virtual" about it, which is a sad statement about my English lit concentration in grad school), but after reading his article I intend to correct that by checking out a copy of his book. I'll let you know how it is once I finish it.
On the surface David A. McIntee's novel is a curious contribution to the "Past Doctor Adventures" series: a Doctor Who novel without the title character. Yet McIntee pulls it off superbly by drawing upon the rich collection of supporting characters that have been introduced over the years. Setting it during one of the Third Doctor's unwilling excursions on behalf of the Time Lords, it's premised around two seemingly unrelated events: a violent bank robbery and the crash of a jet containing the body of a junior governmental minister — one who is still very much alive in London. Called in to investigate the latter mystery, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart finds a substitute for the absent Doctor in the form of a husband-and-wife team with familiarity with the unusual: Ian and Barbara Chesterton, two of the Doctor's original companions.
Over the course of the book McIntee has to mix both the show's well-defined characters with his own original creations in a context that is unusual for a Doctor Who story. This is a challenge that he pulls off with considerable success, devising a novel that manages the difficult feat of offering an original mix of story elements that still demonstrates considerable fealty to his source material. And as successful as he is in depicting the portrayals of the Brigadier, Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor's other friends in the show, his greatest success is in capturing the Master in all of his Third Doctor glory. Though the character of the Master has been a longtime foe of the Doctor's he was never better than in Roger Delgado's original portrayal of him as the suave sadist. McIntee captures him in all of his arrogance and deviousness, making for a very different sort of dynamic than is possible with any of the Doctor-UNIT combinations. It all makes for an adventure that demonstrates the rich storytelling possibilities that exist in the Doctor Who universe, even with its eponymous character is absent.
I'm going to skim the rest of this book. It's an excellent military history, but I'm just not up for its detailed descriptions of battlefield maneuverings right now, especially after having read Wawro's book on the subject just a few months ago.
My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Peter Heather about his book on Emperor Justinian's efforts to reconstruct the Roman empire in the west in the 6th century AD. Enjoy!
Perhaps the first question that arises when confronted with a three-volume biography of the German emperor Wilhelm II is: "Why?" Specifically, why does the failed ruler of a fallen dynasty deserve such attention? For some, the question answers itself, given that Wilhelm's reign ended in a war that defined the 20th century and reshaped the map of the Europe. But does his life warrant the three substantial tomes John Röhl has written about it?
The answer is a definitive "Yes," because what Röhl provides is not just a finely detailed account of the first three decades of Wilhelm's life, but a close examination of the family politics surrounding them. In doing so, what he offers his readers is a study that encompasses Wilhelm's parents — the future emperor Frederick III and his English wife Victoria — and the politics of the German court and the imperial Germany. This context is of particular relevance in Röhl's view given the vision that Frederick and Victoria had of a more liberal Germany than the monarch-dominated empire constructed by Otto von Bismarck, and their efforts to pass along their values to their eldest son. Their total failure to do so is an important part of the story of the Second Reich, and one that requires explanation.
Providing it serves as the focus of Röhl's first volume. In it he describes a childhood of constant pressures, ones that increased after Prussia established the German empire in 1871. Yet Wilhelm faced the additional problem of a physical handicap resulting from a difficult birth, one that left him with Erb's palsy on his left arm. Unable to accept this, Wilhelm's family employed often painful medical procedures and corrective devices designed to "correct" it, yet this could only moderate the effects of the paralysis. While many have speculated on the impact of such a paralysis on his emotional development, just as important was how it defined his relationship with his parents at his early age, which Röhl considers in detail. Relying upon a Freudian approach, he diagnoses many of Wilhelm's subsequent issues as stemming from his flawed relationship with his parents, ones that were often exacerbated by their best efforts to aid their son.
As heir to the throne from the moment of his birth, both Frederick and Victoria devoted considerable attention to the selection of Wilhelm's tutor, Georg Hinzpeter, and insisted that he attend a gymnasium and university. Yet for all of their efforts, Wilhelm grew into a temperamental young man who reveled in masculine martial activities. Rejecting his parents political values, increasingly he gravitated towards conservative, even reactionary figures, who welcomed his interest for the opportunity it provided to advance their vision of Germany and the world. Their political maneuvering increased as the emperor, Wilhelm I, neared the end of his long life and Frederick's illness from cancer promised a short reign. With their deaths in 1888 Wilhelm was poised for a long reign with enormous consequences for the entire world.
Röhl's book is an enormous achievement. Based on decades of research in the royal archives, it provides a careful examination of WIlhelm's personal and political development. At times the degree of detail can be wearying, and Röhl's reliance on Freudian explanations is a little questionable, but given the solid footing in the family papers it's impossible to dismiss altogether the arguments he makes. The result is a book that is unlikely ever to be surpassed as a thorough examination of Wilhelm's early years, one that lays a formidable foundation for the study of the reign that followed.
Now that I'm through the CIO period, it's probably time to shift gears from "reading" to "skimming." As interesting as this has proven, there are at least seven other books that I need to read over the next month, so it's time to clear off my "currently reading" list to make room for them.
A month ago I posted about the decision before me as to what book-related indulgence I should get myself for Christmas this year. While I ended up going with the fourteen volumes of E. H. Carr's "History of Soviet Russia" series, I decided to see if I could borrow a copy of my other option — Christopher A. Lawrence's Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka — through Inter-Library Loan so that I could inspect it for myself.
To my pleasant surprise, they were able to find a library with a copy they were willing to lend. It arrived yesterday — and the word that best describes it is "wow."
Over the years I have held more than a few books in my hands, but I have never handled one with this many pages bound in a single volume. To give you a basis of comparison, here it is with one of the books that I'm currently reading — which at 637 pages, is a mere wisp by comparison.
The book is so large as to be practically unreadable; it's impossible for me to imagine bringing it with me on a plane flight, for example (unless my goal was to weigh it down so much that it couldn't take off). And it's not exactly a quick read, either:
Though I've only skimmed it, so far it looks like my least favorite sort of military history, which is the aridly detailed "The XIX Corps moved thirty kilometers to position itself over the third ridge a hectare from the position of the defensive positions blah blah blah" variety. It's not totally uninteresting, but 1622 pages of it seems a bit much.
So while I will give this a read while I have it (because a book like this simply has to be reviewed), I know now that I made the right choice gift-wise. Because while it certainly looks awesome and is probably the sort of book that I would probably return to, to me it doesn't look like it's worth what I would have to spend to buy one: I like it, but I don't $250 like it.
Oh, and the library that supplied it was the Library of Congress. So that's pretty cool.
It turns out the problems facing the coal industry are not of recent vintage:
The economics of coal posed a myriad of problems for the UMW. . . Even with prices falling the relatively high cost of coal led such major coal consumers as the railroads, the steel industry, and public utilities to introduce more efficient methods of fuel consumption. Efficiency in fuel consumption caused a long-term decline in the demand for soft coal that was aggravated further by the competition of oil and natural gas for the domestic heating and light industrial market. In August 1921, John L. Lewis would have to have been blind to miss seeing the economic disease that blighted bituminous: too many mines and too many miners producing too much coal.
It's Labor Day here in the States (take that international socialists and British English!), which is the popular end point of summer for us. It's an ideal point to look back on the reading goals I detailed back on May Day (or Labor Day for most of the rest of the world) and judge how well i did in achieving them.
1) Reading modern European history. As I indicated, I started by reading Richard Evans's The Pursuit of Power. Four months later, I'm still reading Evans's book, though I read a few others for reviewing and podcast purposes that fit the category, as well as the first volume of the Wilhelm bio that I've been working my way through in fits and starts. If I were grading myself, I would probably give myself a D+, maybe a C-.
2) The Chaco War. This one was an outright fail. I acquired the books, only to de-prioritize them to the point where I realized I wasn't going to get them anytime soon, so back to the library they went.
3) The Hornblower novels. I ended up not reading more of Forster's novels, either, though this was largely because my decision a few days later to reread the early Star Trek novels. For the original assignment, another F; for the substitute, after 24 novels read or re-read, I believe I earned a solid A.
So in the end I did achieve more of my reading goals, though admittedly the bar was pretty low to start. Still, I enjoyed immensely nearly all of what I read — and isn't that the real goal?
Tonight after returning bloated from the potluck I attended, I decided to pick up my newly-acquired used copy of H. F. Saint's Memoirs of an Invisible Man. It's a book that I hadn't read in nearly thirty years (!) but i had retained fond memories of from when I had. It didn't take long for me to lose myself in its pages, and as I transitioned from browsing casually to reading in earnest, I found myself asking the question, "How well does it hold up today?"
To my pleasant surprise I found much of what I had liked about the novel still enjoyable. I remember being impressed with how well Saint had puzzled out the complications of someone suddenly discovering that he was invisible, and that element was still every bit as entertaining as it was even after a reread. The challenge facing the narrator from a team led by a supremely competent federal agent was also there and still every bit as gripping, even knowing what the outcome would be. What surprised me, though, was the build-up; I had forgotten that Saint spends nearly a quarter of the book building up to the event that turns his narrator invisible, and the middle of the book is taken up with the initial weeks of him simply working out how to survive.
And then I hit the sex scenes. And no. no, no.
I remembered that coping with loneliness was one of the central attributes of Saint's narrative, and thus was generally well done. But there are two scenes (I'll leave out the details) where the narrator commits what amounts to sexual assault. I had completely forgotten this part, and rereading the passages was more than a little shocking. It's hard for me to imagine a book like Saint's becoming so popular today with such passages, no matter how well-written it might be.
My ambitious plan to read biographies of three labor leaders for the Labor Day weekend are foundering on the twin rocks of outside events and the length of the books. Though I'm chipping away at Dubofsky and Van Tine's book, it's size and tonight's upcoming potluck mean that if I'm going to finish it by Tuesday I need to stop typing here and get to reading.
From the mid-1880s until the early 1920s Samuel Gompers dominated organized labor in America. As the longtime president of the American Federation of Labor (AF of L), he played a major role in creating the first enduring national labor organization, an achievement even more remarkable given the considerable challenges facing such efforts during that era. In this short overview of his life and times Harold Livesay credits Gompers's success in his efforts to his pragmatic approach to the problem, one that, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, sought to create a labor movement that confirmed to contemporary society rather than seeking to remake it according to a utopian ideal.
As Livesay explains, Gompers came to this conclusion after years as a laborer and union activist. Born in London, he learned the trade of cigar making before emigrating to the United States with his family. As a member of the cigar makers union, Gompers flirted with socialism but was steered away from it by Karl Laurrell, a former Marxist whose cynicism about the movement rubbed off on his young protégé. Nevertheless, Gompers advocated a more inclusive vision of unionism then he would pursue later in his career, encouraging unions to accept workers of all skill levels as well as women and African Americans into their ranks.
What limited Gompers's advancement of these views was his belief in local control. As a time when many labor organizers pursued the chimera of a nationwide union of laborers, Gompers preferred to create a national association of local unions. A firm believer in the "federation" in the AF of L's name, he accepted their autonomy as necessary for their flexibility of action in response to their particular circumstances. While this contributed to the AF of L's success, it came at the price of limiting their scope mainly to craft-dominated trades, where workers were less endangered by industrialization than their counterparts in industries where automation led to the replacement of highly skilled craftsmen with unskilled laborers. Because he did not threaten the ability of manufacturers to control their labor force, Gompers was tolerated by the leaders of the new industrial order, with the benefits brought by unions restricted to a skilled minority of the American workforce.
Livesay describes the events of Gompers life in a narrative rich with analytical insights. A business historian rather than a specialist in labor history, his situation of Gompers's activities within the context of the broader currents of the Gilded Age American economy is a particular strength of his book, one that helps to explain both his subject's achievements and the limitations he faced. Though the work is dated and marred by a few errors, this book nonetheless remains a first-rate introduction to the famous labor leader, one whose life reveals the possibilities and constraints American workers faced during a transformative era in their nation's history.
My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Mark Harrison and Stephen Wheatcroft about the book they co-authored with R.W. Davies and Oleg Khlevniuk on the Soviet economy in the late 1930s (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
For a biography of a 19th century union leader, I'm finding this to be a surprisingly relevant book. Take this passage, for example:
In other ways Gompers exhibited the enduring American faith in mobility. His whole program of economic improvement aimed at elevating the living conditions of American workers to the point where they enjoyed the same amenities as the country's middle class. He believed too in upward mobility from generation to generation: "Children of employees should be kept from factories, workhouses, and mines." This would enable them to stay in school, and, through education, "our children should be superior to the present generation." He tried to follow this policy within his own family. "[We] wanted our children to have opportunities denied us, and sent the to school as long as we could."
This faith in mobility is being sorely tested today to be sure, yet what struck me is Gompers' evident passion to have his children avoid following his path into industry. It may be an exaggeration, but it seems different nowadays, with the idea of wanting children to do better replaced by the idea of industrial laborers wanting their children to follow them into the factories and mines. When did that change? Was it when the first goal was achieved and those workers attained middle-class status after World War II? The 1960s, when parents resented the choices their children made? Or was it even more recently than that? I feel as though there was a divergence here that could shed some light on many of the political and social issues we face today, only I can't quite pinpoint where it was.
This is the first of my labor history reads for Labor Day, and even though it's a short book I'm already learning a lot from it. What I've found most interesting so far is Livesay's explanation of the role Ferdinand Laurrell played in Gompers' intellectual development. I didn't know that Gompers, the orthodox/conservative labor leader, had flirted with socialism. Laurrell was the reason why I didn't know this, as he steered Gompers away from that early on. It shed some light on a question that I've long grappled with: what makes one person a zealous ideologue and another a cautious pragmatist? Are the differences about how people are "wired" from the start or is it about a key point in their lives when they adopt the blinders of belief or season everything with skepticism? Livesay doesn't address, let alone answer, this for me, but his description of Gompers's course does give me further food for thought.
My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Rupali Mishra about her study of the governance of the East India Company and its relationship to the English state. Enjoy!