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Emperor: A New Life of Charles V
Geoffrey Parker
Progress: 51/768 pages
The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
Brenda Wineapple
Progress: 238/576 pages

A wonderful guide to Austen and the city she knew

Jane Austen in Bath: Walking Tours of the Writer's City - Katharine Reeve

I purchased this for my wife after we decided to take a trip to Bath in order to explore the town which played such a major role in Jane Austen’s life. I ended up reading the book for myself as well, though, and I’m glad I did. In it, Katherine Reeve charts out a series of walking tours that help readers understand the city and its influence on the famous author. This is what I expected; what proved a pleasant surprise was how well they provide readers with a sense of the city itself. This Reeve does with four tours that are each manageable in a few hours and which incorporate both the highlights of the Georgian-era town as well as some less-well-known spots. She then interweaves into these descriptions a short biography of Austen during her years in the city, one that shows its impact upon her as well as her famous novels. It all makes for a book that is a must-read for Austen aficionados as well as anyone interested in getting to know this charming city at the peak of its glory.

More a homage than a history

Steaming to Victory: How Britain's Railways Won the War - Michael Wenn Williams

When Britain went to war in 1939, they did so by rail. For at a time when air travel was enjoyed only by the few and automobiles nowhere nearly as ubiquitous as they would become, railways were the dominant form of long-distance transportation in the country. This was underscored over the next six years, as trains were employed in a range of tasks from evacuating children from London at the start of the war to preparing for the massive D-Day invasion that ended it.

 
The role Britain’s railways played in the war deserves a history that details their wide range of activities while analyzing the extent of their contribution and describes how they made it possible. Unfortunately, Michael Williams’s book is not that work. While he details in it the many roles the railways played, he does so in a way that is more adulatory than analytical — so much so that a more appropriate subtitle for this book would be “A Celebration of Britain’s Railways in the Second World War,” for that would better capture the tone of his narrative. This is reflected best in his focus on the individual stories of the men and women who worked for the railways during the war, where they coped with straitened circumstances and the dangers of attack. Chapter after chapter contain tales spotlighting the heroism and sacrifice of railway employees, yet there is little effort to connect these episodes to any broader explanation of railway operations or assessment within the context of the overall war effort. This reflects his sources, as apart from a series of oral histories with the now-elderly survivors Williams bases his book on a limited number of previously-published accounts, most notably the self-congratulatory wartime histories put out by the “Big Four” railway companies immediately after the conflict. Expanding his research by consulting the archival records or by incorporating the vast body of literature about British mobilization would have made for a much stronger work that gave readers a more in-depth understanding of the contribution of Britain’s railways to the war effort.
 
Because of this deficiency, Williams’s book functions as more of an homage than anything else. This is particularly regrettable given the case the author makes within it for a good, thorough study of British railways that pushes past the myths and misconceptions that have accumulated around their role in the war to detail the many roles they played in it. In the end, though, what Williams provides his readers with is not a book that explains “How Britain’s Railways Won the War,” but simply salutes it as something to be assumed.

 

Looking forward to learning what the fuss is about

Hamilton: The Revolution - Jeremy McCarter, Lin-Manuel Miranda

One of the things that my wife likes to do when we're in England is to take in a show. The last time we were there we saw Oliver! which was fun and exactly the sort of thing one expects to see in a London theater. This time around, though, a preliminary look at the shows running didn't turn up anything that looked all that interesting.

 

Today, though, I started downloading a bunch of apps for our trip. Among them was one for London that included a list of the current shows. To my astonishment one of the shows playing was Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. It's a show that I've wanted to see ever since its initial debut four years ago, and I despaired of doing so after missing the opportunity when the tour passed through my town. Now, the idea of seeing an American musical in the UK may seem a little ridiculous, but considering that I saw the Chicago revival on a previous trip to London I seem to have a habit of doing this sort of thing.

 

Regardless of the roundabout way that I've taken to see it, I'm looking forward to seeing for myself what all of the fuss is about, especially as I won't have to rely upon cast recordings or the published script to do so. After all, plays are meant to be seen aren't they?

In stiches



Last night I discovered that all three seasons of Documentary Now!, the mocumentary series produced by a group of SNL-alums, are available on Netflix. I started bingeing it and I was hooked. My favorite so far is Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid, a sample of which is here. Check it the whole series if you can.

This shirt gets me

I really should get one of these.

Reading progress update: I've read 54 out of 320 pages.

The Motoring Age: The Automobile and Britain 1896-1939 - Peter Thorold

This is proving a quick read, rich in anecdotes while containing some excellent points that I hadn't appreciated before (such as the origin of the "red flag men"). This is one of my favorites:


At the start [of the automobile age], however, even the experts did not anticipate the pace at which motor technology would advance. In 1937, speaking on the BBC, Charles Jarrot recalled a banquet given to celebrate Emile Levassor's victory in the 1895 race, Paris to Bordeaux and back, accomplished at an average speed of 14mph. At this dinner one of the speakers predicted that a speed of 20mph would be attainable in the course of the next few years. Monsieur Levassor's comment was, 'There's always someone at this sort of banquet who makes some ridiculous remark.

 

Podcast #153 is up!

Albert Gore, Sr.: A Political Life - Anthony J. Badger

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Anthony Badger about his biography of the American politician Albert Gore Sr., father of the former vice president and Nobel laureate. Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 15 out of 250 pages.

Persuasion - Jane Austen, Gillian Beer

On the travails of the impecunious Elliot family:

Sir Walter would quit Kellynch-hall;⁠—and after a very few days more of doubt and indecision, the great question of whether he should go, was settled . . . There had been three alternatives, London, Bath, or another house in the country. All Anne's wishes had been for the latter . . . But the usual fate of Anne attended her, in having something very opposite from her inclination fixed on. She disliked Bath, and did not think it agreed with her⁠—and Bath was to be her home.

So now I can add "inventor of the First World problem" to the list of Jane Austen's achievements.

Vacation book time!

Currently our household is abuzz with the building anticipation for our upcoming summer trip. This year we're going to Texas to drop off the kiddo at the farm with the grandfolks, then we're flying to the UK for two weeks in Bath, the Cotswolds, and London.

 

No trip is complete without the perfect reading material, of course. Since we're traveling light, I'm just taking a couple of paperbacks and planning on replicating my experience from my last overseas trip of simply ditching the books when I'm done with them (someone in the Underground may soon stumble across a special find!) and buying another book there when I finish what I've read. The first book I'm taking is a history of role the British railway played in the Second World War, which looks engaging and a quick read, but which also means that I may finish it before I can make it to a bookstore, so the second book really needs to be a good one.

 

Given our destination, I thought that book #2 should be a nice, fat English novel, preferably a classic. And when I think of reading a nice, fat English novel, my thoughts immediately turn to Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, which I have had on my shelf for years and have long been wanting to read. Of course, I was loath to ditch my nice new Oxford World Classics edition, so I spent the past couple of weeks popping into local used bookstores searching for a cheaper copy that I could abandon in England without a tinge of regret, before realizing that I was being a fucking idiot about it and that I should just get over it and just use the copy I already own.

 

When I went to my bookshelf to pull it down, though, I spotted these two:

 

 

 

Galsworthy's novel has been sitting on my shelf for so long I forgot I even owned it, which in combination with its subject matter would make it a perfect addition to my trip. And yet Vasily Grossman's novel is one that I have wanted to read for years, and I doubt strongly that I will finish it before I have a chance to peruse the used bookstores in London. So I have a decision to make, and hopefully it's one that I can make before our ride shows up to take us to the airport.

The challenges of online book shopping

The People's Railway: The History Of The Municipal Railway Of San Francisco - Anthony Perles

Last month I was shopping at one of the used bookstores in town when I came across Anthony Perle's history of the San Francisco Muni. I wasn't interested in reading it (well, not that interested), but my dad is a huge fan of books on railroads and of books about the Bay Area, so I figured that this one was a double bulls-eye. It was also fifty bucks, though, so I decided I would go online to get it cheaper.

 

Sure enough, I found a copy in "VG" condition for nearly a third less. I ordered it in the expectation of receiving it in time to make it a Father's Day gift, only to receive an email from the seller a week later apologizing for not processing the order in the window provided on the site and asking me to reorder. I did so, only the book arrived two days after Father's Day. Worse, when I opened the box it took me all of five seconds to find part of the text had been highlighted.

 

Now, I'm pretty fussy when it comes to the condition of the books I order, especially when I intend for them to be gifts for other people. But an even bigger pet peeve for me is when I receive books that aren't in the condition described. Nowhere in the description did it mention the highlighting, which, had it been there, would have saved me the trouble of dealing with this whole mess. As a result, I initiated a return. Fortunately most sites nowadays have pretty good return policies, and I followed this steps I received from this one and took it to the post office this morning. A couple of hours after doing so, however, I received an email from the seller apologizing for the error and offering to let me keep the book at a discount.

 

This got me thinking about the whole situation. Needless to say, this wasn't the first book I've purchased because the book didn't match the online description, nor was this the first time the seller offered to let me keep it for a reduced rate or even for free. I can't help but wonder if all of this is actually a strategy, with the seller exaggerating the condition of the book in the hopes of getting a sale and believing that once the buyer gets the book in their hands they'll see for themselves that the condition isn't so bad and just keep it ⁠— or that it's simply too much trouble to return it. My wife suggested the latter might be more true, as evidently a lot of people don't like to deal with returns or simply can't be bothered.

 

How does all of this square with what you know about shopping online? When it comes to buying books on the Internet, do you also find there's a gap between the description and the condition? More generally, do you or people you know often keep merchandise they're dissatisfied with rather than go through the process of returning it?

(Oh, and in case you're wondering, I did go back to the used bookstore to buy their copy, only to walk out empty-handed. Someone actually laminated the dustjacket cover, which is just all kinds of no for me, especially for a $50 asking price).

The War of the Worlds, as read by Spock

 

Yesterday's post about 25 essential books left me reminiscing about the abridged audiobook version of War of the Worlds I enjoyed when I was a kid. Realizing that I had never listed the edition as one of my reads, I began a search for it online, which proved interesting. For some reason, it doesn't seem that the audio cassette version that I had as a wee lad is available anywhere, nor can find an ISBN for it. Evidently it was originally released on LP back in 1976, and the audiocassette version must have been some subsequent knock-off of that.

 

In the course of my searches, though, I found something else: the audiobook is available for listening on YouTube! Some civic-minded individual took the time to digitize it and upload it (ssh, lest the copyright lawyers find out!) and listening to it took me back to the days of enjoying it in my room on a hot summer afternoon. It's available in two parts; here's the first part and here's the second. Feel free to judge my tastes in audiobooks accordingly.

My 25 Essential Books

When I opened up Booklikes after a few days away (thanks to work and my Arrowverse binge) I saw that my feed was filled with readers posting their list of their 25 most essential books. So here are mine, along with a short explanation as to why I rate them as highly as I do.

1. War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. When I was a kid the only thing I wanted to read was science fiction. Wells's classic was one of my favorites, in no small part to the audiobook version read by Leonard Nimoy that my parents gave me; to this day, I can't read the "ulla ulla" sound the Martians make in it and not hear it in my mind in his gravelly tones.

 

2. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I first read this in middle school, and every time I return to it I find new things to appreciate about it. It can be read on so many different levels, and unfortunately we always find new ways of demonstrating the truths he talks about in it.

 

3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was assigned a lot of the "great works" of American literature when I was in school, all of which I enjoyed to one degree or another. But this is the one that I appreciated the most at the time for its greatness, and one that I still enjoy rereading.

 

4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I'm convinced there is a great book to be written about the emergence of PKD as the dominant literary figure he is today. In his own lifetime, though, this was the book for which he won the most acclaim and it's one I always enjoy reading as an ur-text of alternate history.

 

5. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict form 1500 to 2000 by Paul Kennedy. At the risk of dating myself, I'm old enough to remember the hype this book received when it first came out. And though a lot of it went over my head when I read it, I still took a lot from it that I still find insightful in understanding our world today.

 

6. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro. I started reading Caro's volumes in college, when I was in my "learning more about the big names in contemporary American history" phase. While I've read a lot about LBJ since then, it has only deepened my appreciation for the scale of Caro's achievement with these volumes. I'm convinced that, like Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, they will become the enduring nonfiction work of our time in that they will be debated, criticized, and read long after most of the other nonfiction books on my list have been forgotten.

 

6. Howard's End by E. M. Forster. I read this around the time that the Merchant/Ivory adaptation came out, and while I can't remember whether I did so before seeing the movie they both exist in my mind as a intertwined capsule of everything I love about Edwardian England.

 

7. A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt by Geoffrey C. Ward. I have long regarded FDR as one of the greatest American presidents, but I don't think I fully appreciated him as a person until I read Ward's book while I was in college. It's the second of a two-volume work, and while the first volume, Before the Trumpet is good, it's the second one (which covers FDR's life from his marriage to Eleanor Roosevelt to his successful campaign for the governorship of New York in 1928) that is truly brilliant. Credit is due not just to Ward's skills as a writer, but the insight he brings to FDR's life as a fellow polio victim. After reading it it's impossible not to appreciate the role the infliction of the disease played in making FDR who he was as president. 

 

8. The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. In the U.S., the First World War is overshadowed by its successor for many reasons. In the process, though, we Americans miss the more profound effects of the First World War upon the times in which we live. This was something I didn't appreciate until I read Fussell's book, which shows how it was that war more than any other single event which made the age in which we live, not in terms of politics but in terms of its impact upon our culture (a point that another author builds upon in one of my later selections)

 

9. Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. This wasn't the first work by Twain that I read, but it's the I read at the point when I first began to appreciate why he is such a great author, as opposed to just being told that by my teachers.

10. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo. If you need to understand why Americans were reluctant to get into the Second World War, this is the book to read. Trumbo captures perfectly the sense of disillusionment they felt, one informed by a character who spoke for the dead of the last war.

 

11. Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. This was a book that someone got me when I was in grad school as a joke. I have never been more grateful for a joke gift, as Loewen's book really gets to the heart of the problems we have today with how we teach American history in this country.

 

12. The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon by Stanley Kutler. Watergate is one of those things that's the historical equivalent of a literary classic, in that it's something that everybody talks about yet nobody really knows. I didn't really understand this until I read Kutler's excellent book, which is the product of the many years he spent gaining access to the Nixon tapes. Though he downplays the role of the media (Woodward and Bernstein are side players) and he published his book before Mark Felt was identified as Deep Throat, it still is the single best book for understanding what Watergate was and why it matters.

 

13. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins. This is a great compliment to Fussell's book, as Eksteins shows how the war catalyzed prewar modernism to make it the dominant culture of the Western world.

 

14. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson. A wryly funny love note to a curious land. I can only imagine how it will read in the years to come.

 

15. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge. Though I first learned of this book from John Keegan's list of fifty essential books on the Second World War, it wasn't until it received the post-Band of Brothers hype that I sought out a copy. I quickly grew to appreciate it for its powerful account of a sensitive man who experiences the changes brought about by war.

17. Replay by Ken Grimwood. This is a book that I approached as a science fiction novel, but it was only as I read it that I appreciated it as something much more: a broader meditation on life and what we make of it.

 

18. The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. Growing up the Vietnam War was another of those omnipresent things for me, as the country was still coming to terms with its involvement with it. Because of this, I steered away from reading all of the "essentials" about it until much later, when I finally picked up a copy of Halberstam's brilliant book about the incredibly smart men who together made the incredibly dumb decision to involve the country in a war it could not win. Like Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly, it's a book that should be read to understand how disasters are created gradually.

 

19. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. I've posted before about this book, and my comments then explain why it's on my list. I don't think there's a better book out there about the depth of the losses people suffered during that war and how unprepared they were for them.

 

20. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Part of me wonders if this book ranks so highly for me because of its association, as it was the book I read the (largely sleepless) night before my wedding. I suspect not, though, as it was the book that convinced me that Victorian fiction wasn't just the sometimes turgid paid-by-the-word prose that I was used to from reading Dickens and Joseph Conrad.

 

21. Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie. I grew up in the shadow of the 1960s, which was the defining decade in the minds of the baby boom generation. It wasn't until I read this book, however, that I fully realized that it was the 1970s that was truly the pivotal decade of the postwar world, when several socio-economic and political trends took effect that are still playing out today.

 

22. The War for America, 1775-1783 by Piers Mackesy. For all of the accounts there are of the American Revolution, it is truly amazing how few of them incorporate the British perspective on the conflict. This is what Mackesy does by detailing how the British state approached the war, unveiling in the process both a conflict on a far different scale than is often appreciated and how that larger scale was a key factor in why Americans won their independence.

 

23. Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame. As omnipresent as Abraham Lincoln is in American history and culture, it took me a long time to appreciate his greatness. Then I read Michael Burlingame's massive two-volume biography and I discovered new depths of my appreciation. Burlingame takes practically everything we know about Lincoln's life and uses it to understand why he did the things he did.

24. The Hundred Years' War by Jonathan Sumption. This is history at its finest: a sprawling four-volume account (with a fifth one to come) of a conflict between England and France that stretched from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries and explains in careful detail why developments took place the way they did.

 

25. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command by Andrew Gordon. This is a book I steered away from for years because it sounded like such a narrow topic. And it is a narrow book, but one that explains why one of the most anticipated battles in modern times proved to be such a non event ⁠— not because of tactics or technology, but of the development of a cautious culture within an organization with a long reputation for aggressiveness and dash. In that respect it's the best sort of history, one that teaches us about ourselves today as well as our ancestors in the past.

Podcast #152 is up!

Phoebe Apperson Hearst: A Life of Power and Politics - Alexandra M. Nickliss

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Alexandra Nickliss about her account of the life of the American reformer and suffragist Phoebe Hearst. Enjoy!

Off-Topic Rant: DC's Legends of Tomorrow, or why I hate Thomas Carlyle

 

After doing some reading online I decided to switch my bingeing from Arrow to DC's Legends of Tomorrow, and I skipped the poorly-reviewed first season in favor of the second. It's resulted in some highly enjoyable TV viewing thanks in no small part to a great cast of actors ⁠— whoever thought to team up Neal McDonough and John Barrowman as villains is a certifiable genius ⁠— but there's also something about the show that is really starting to bug me, which is the way it endorses the "great man" theory of history.

 

If you're not familiar with the show, it's about a group of superheroes who have been recruited by a time traveler to fight villainy throughout human history. Most of this consists of journeying to various points in (mainly western) history and ensuring that the past turns out as history records it. Given the nature of the show, that involves a lot of one-on-one interactions with the famous names and events of human history, which the writers and showrunners have tweaked slightly for 21st century sympathies. Yet throughout it there's a constant theme that if this one person doesn't do something or does something wrong, everything will turn out differently. And that's just all ways of wrong.

Take the second season premiere episode, "Out of Time." In it, some bad guys detonate an atomic bomb in 1942 New York, which is all well and good as a premise. But the whole thing pivots around one scientist (and if you think it's you-know-who you're partially correct) who can somehow singlehandedly whip up an atom bomb. Setting aside the requirements of building an atomic bomb in the 1940s, which I can forgive given the limitations of the show, the idea that events can be changed by just one (typically white) person just doubles down on the sort of thinking we have needed to divest from for a long time now. Unfortunately it's one that the show returns to at least three more times so far in the season (I'm about 3/4 of the way through it at this point), which suggests that it's a trope that the writers fall into far more often than they should. We need stories about the past that posit change as dependent on more than one special individual, no matter how familiar the name of that individual might be to audiences.

Doesn't come together as well as the best Lew Archer novels

The Ivory Grin - Ross Macdonald

When I began reading Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels last year, I built my acquisitions around the three-volume collection published by the Library of America. These bring together many of the Archer novels that Macdonald published over the span of a quarter century, encapsulating nicely the corpus of his work. The collection is far from comprehensive, though, which led me to search out copies of the novels missing from them.

 

The Ivory Grin was my latest find. It begins when Archer is approached by a woman asking her to locate a nurse hiding in a small California town. This soon results in a series of encounters that hit the marks familiar to readers of Macdonald's novels, with murders, clashes with local law enforcement, and encounters with a cast of sharply-written characters. Yet while an enjoyable read there is a reason why it didn't make the "best of" collection published by the LoA, as the elements of the story don't come together as well as they do his other novels. It just goes to prove that, no matter how good they are or how effective their formula is, not even the best writer can produce a great work every time.

My reading lull

Over the past few weeks I've had a pretty good run of reading, both in terms of rate of reading and the quality of the books. In the last couple of days, though, my pace has slowed. A big factor in this is my discovery of Arrow, which I now just want to binge watch. Part of it also, though, is my desire to immerse myself in a nice thick book on my interest of the moment, which unfortunately I don't possess for either of the books I'm currently reading.