This weekend we went to my in-laws for our annual fall birthday celebrations. This afforded me considerable time to read in conditions like this:
But for the bugs, it would have been ideal
Between this and the plane flight I had plenty of time to read — and because of it, for the first time in months my "Currently Reading" shelf is now empty! It's giving me a heady sense of freedom, in that, with all of my immediate reading obligations finished it feels as though anything is now possible. I have to reread something for a discussion tomorrow, but after that I think I'll pull something off of my TBR shelf to read for this week. By the time I do that, the deadline for my next podcast will probably dictate what follows.
For women living in the West, the nineteenth century was one of considerable achievement. Though most lived lives defined by gender norms enshrined by class and tradition, a determined few sought to breach the barriers before them to gain greater opportunities across a variety of fields. This effort and its accomplishments is the subject of Linda Clark's book. In a series of chapters she surveys women's advancements across professions dominated by men, from the creative fields of art, literature and music to the increasingly professional realms of education, law and medicine. Though their numbers were limited, Clark credits them with making possible the careers of the hundreds, then thousands, of women who followed them in subsequent decades, making possible the opportunities heretofore denied them.
Clark's book is an informative account of the campaigns for women's rights at a pivotal point in European history. Her focus is almost exclusively on women at the upper ends of society, which is understandable as they were the ones with the means to wage such efforts. Yet their more clearly delineated lives can hamper her text, as at several points her text becomes little more than a series of biographies of remarkable individuals, with little in the way of analysis that draws out broader conclusions. This focus on the specific rather than the general extends to her coverage of national restrictions; while an understandable approach, rarely does she break from this to offer any overarching assessment that justifies such a Europe-wide approach. This makes her book a useful introduction, but one that leaves readers to draw their own conclusions as to the broader factors behind the march of women towards greater rights and equality of opportunity in the West.
In the aftermath of their experience on Seabase Four, the Doctor and his companions Tegan and Turlough arrive at a 1970s seaside town ready for a holiday. Instead they quickly find themselves entangled in an investigation into a gristly series of murders and violent episodes involving the local inhabitants. With UNIT on the scene, the Doctor joins their effort to unravel what is going on, quickly uncovering a fearsome new alien threat. But will the Doctor be able to figure out what is going on before the phenomenon overcomes the inhabitants of the town — and then, the world itself?
By inserting the fifth Doctor into an adventure set during the third Doctor's era, Mark Morris's novel offers something a little different from most of its counterparts in the Past Doctor Adventures series. In some respects it's a study in contrasts, with a different Doctor and set of companions mixing with the characters familiar from a previous era. It's a mix that Morris pulls off well, in part because of the situation facing them. As others have noted the franchise is never stronger than when it is showing its roots. Here the gruesomeness of the violence and the body horror theme owes more than a little to the works of H. P. Lovecraft, with the countervailing force of the Doctor added to ensure a happy ending. While everything is a little too tidily wrapped up in its final pages considering what preceded them, this is nonetheless a solid entry in the Past Doctor Adventures series, one that offers the sort of premise that justifies why such novels are written.
Done at last! That it's taken me over six months to read it is in no way a judgment on the book, as it's absolutely magnificent.
So far I'm a little disappointed in this book. Clark's topic is interesting: she's looking at the opportunities available to women over the course of the 19th century to succeed in the public sphere, which leads her to detail the various achievements of impressive women. The problem is that this reduces much of the text to a series of short biographies, without as much effort to analyze the examples and draw from them the important conclusions. I hope this changes once I get in further.
October is going to be a challenging month in terms of reading, as between work and interviews I have over a half-dozen books that I need to finish over the next few weeks. It shouldn't be too difficult, but it will cut into my reading time on my more personal choices, which I'm hoping to focus on as the year comes to an end.
It is possible to write an all-encompassing history of a subject, particularly when that subject is the largest battle in human history? This is the question that Christopher Lawrence's mammoth book on the battle of Kursk seeks to address. It is a massive tome of a book, coming in at a little under 1700 pages of multi-columned text generously supplemented by maps and statistical tables, all of which reflect the nearly quarter-century of labor the author and his associates put into compiling every available bit of data. This Lawrence then employs to parse the chaotic events of July and August 1943 in order to construct a comprehensive description of the battle. This is no small feat, and on its own deserves respect.
Lawrence's efforts are tinged with a degree of irony, for one of the points that emerges early on is that, for all its scale, the battle was in some respects anticlimactic. As he explains, the battle of Stalingrad forced a fundamental reconsideration of Germany's strategic goals on the Eastern Front, as it was uncomfortably apparent that with the destruction of the Sixth Army Germany no longer had the forces necessary to defeat the Soviet Union. With the prospect of a second front in France looming, German planners knew that 1943 would be the last year in which they could design a campaign without worrying about splitting finite resources with their comrades in the west. Yet the best that could be hoped for now was a stabilization of the front and consolidation of Germany's gains. An outright Soviet defeat was simply not possible anymore.
The strained German resources helped determine Germany's focus on the Kursk salient, as collapsing it would help the Germans to consolidate their lines. This was also obvious to Soviet leaders, who began concentrating their forces in the area as well. Thus when the Germans launched their offensive on July 5, their territorial gains were not followed up by the breakthrough that had characterized previous Wehrmacht offensives. Moreover, once the Soviets counter-attacked a week later, it was the German armies which suffered massive casualties and which were forced to retreat, signalling an end to the last major strategic offensive on the Eastern Front and the surrendering of the initiative to the Soviets.
Lawrence relates this in a book rich with detail. While incorporating the strategic dimension and quoting freely from personal accounts collected in the decades that followed the war, his focus is primarily operational, as he recounts the movement of units and their engagement in combat. Nor is his account focused on the ground war along, as his chapters on the fighting in the skies above explain the impact of the air campaign upon the battle for both sides. Throughout he engages in asides that offer brief biographical portraits of the main figures and consideration of longstanding issues about the weapons and their roles in deciding victory. Though the sheer mass of it can be daunting, this is an absolute must-read for anyone with a desire to learn about this battle in nearly every detail, with an analysis of the fighting that will factor into every subsequent study of the conflict. Just be sure to lift it with your legs.
I'm enjoying this a lot more than I thought I would. The credit goes to Sue Prideaux's writing, as she makes the life of an ailing academic much more engaging than it has any right to be. It's also been revelatory to learn of Nietzsche's friendship with the Wagners, which features prominently in the first half of the book.
My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview David Stuttard about his biography of the Athenian leader Alcibiades. Enjoy!
When Sarah Jane Smith discovers a picture from 1952 of the Doctor shaking hands with an East End mob boss, the two travel back in time to investigate events. They arrive in a London on the eve of an environmental disaster and a neighborhood on the brink of a turf war. But who is organizing the homeless young men into a new gang? And how is it related to the American priest whose sermons are galvanizing the community against the sin in their midst?
Given the Doctor's propensity to become entangled in key moments of British history, it was probably inevitable that at some point he would make an appearance during the Great Smog of 1952, when thousands of Londoners died as a result of air pollution concentrated by weather conditions. And by thrusting the Third Doctor (one of my favorite incarnations) and Sarah Jane Smith (easily the all-time best companion) into a situation mixing gangsters and aliens into a historical event, the stage is set for a memorable adventure. Yet in the end it's a mixture that doesn't quite catalyze. Perhaps this is because of the mobsters, whose involvement often distracts from the activities of the Doctor and the main threat he is addressing. Or perhaps it is the aliens Bishop creates, which prove a curious combination of power and triteness. But in the end it's a novel that doesn't live up to expectations given the elements involved and wastes a prime historical moment in the process.
During a layover at Starbase Twelve the Enterprise crew investigates suspicious activity surrounding a Klingon ore freighter which seems to be more than it appears. As they follow it into the Tau Eridani Cloud, the Klingon ship suddenly vanishes . . . with Spock still on board. And on Earth in 1867, a frontier businessman encounters an amnesiac stranger in the woods — one with pointed ears and green blood coming from his wounds.
Barbara Hambly's book is unique among the many novels in the Star Trek Pocket Book series. Unlike the others set in the Star Trek universe, Hambly situates many of the events in a different fictional world, that of the ABC television show Here Come the Brides which ran for two seasons in the late 1960s. To be honest I'm not a fan of such a conceit (and Hambly's insertion of thinly-veiled characters and references from other television shows and sci-fi franchises didn't help), but Hambly makes it work here, thanks to the strength of her characterization and her storytelling skills. There's also an underlying joke in her use of the series that proved rather clever once I understood what it was, and which highlighted the amount of work she put into realizing it. The overall result is somewhat different from most other Star Trek novels, yet it is that difference which makes it such a fresh and enjoyable read.
I had been looking for a copy of Barbara Hambly's first contribution to the Star Trek Pocket Books series ever since I began my Star Trek novel reading project this summer; I had first read it in the 1980s, and retained fond memories of it. Yesterday I found one while book shopping in Tucson and I dug into it almost as soon as I returned home. Re-reading it proved very interesting. The premise of the novel is that an amnesiac Spock finds himself in Seattle in 1867, where he meets up with Aaron Stemple. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably not because you recognize it from history but from television, specifically an ABC show that ran for two seasons in the late 1960s, albeit one premised on a real-life historical event. Normally I'm bothered by a time travel novel that sets events in fictional works rather than the actual past (and Hambly's insertion of thinly-veiled characters and references from other television shows and sci-fi franchises didn't help), but the strength of Hambly's story coupled with realization of her underlying joke helped me to move past that and enjoy the novel for what it was.
Over the course of the half-century existence of the Doctor Who franchise the Doctor has been joined on his many travels by a succession of companions. Most last for a period of time, then move on with their lives after some event or development leads to a parting of the ways. On the show this usually involves a formal farewell of one sort or another or, in the rare case when a companion dies, a degree of mournful reflection. Occasionally, however, a companion abruptly disappears with barely an passing explanation and a new companion appears to fill the void. Though she was not the first to suffer such a fate there was nobody less deserving of such treatment than Liz Shaw. Introduced at the beginning of the seventh season. as a brilliant scientist she quickly proved to be a more than a capable associate of the newly Earth-bound Doctor, and played a vital role in his adventures. Yet when the eighth season began she had already decamped back to Cambridge, to be replaced by someone new.
Gary Russell's novel provides readers with a story of the events that led up to her departure. In it she is drawn into a conspiracy involving C-19, the government department tasked with overseeing UNIT operations in the United Kingdom. At the same time a new group of Silurians emerges near a seaside town, leading the Doctor to embark on a solo mission in the hope of avoiding the tragedies of his previous encounter with humanity's predecessors. Amidst all of this the Brigadier is forced to cope with a shrinking budget and a marriage on the verge of collapse, none of which he can allow to interfere with his job of keeping humanity safe from the extraordinary threats it unknowingly faces.
If all this sounds a little busy for a relatively short novel, you would be right. While Russell handles it fairly well for the most part, oftentimes characters and settings pass through the book's pages in such a rush that they often move out of the story before any sense of who they are is successfully established. Giving the characters more time to breathe might have made for a better book, especially as doing so might have given their many deaths (for a Doctor Who novel, the body count is surprisingly high) a greater impact than was otherwise the case. Yet in the end the story itself is entertaining enough, and Liz Shaw gets the dignified departure her character so richly deserved. For many fans of the series, this will be reason enough to read the book.
Today as I drove my son home form my parents' house he started talking about how he and his friends were reading Alex Milway's Operation Robot Storm together. It took a few questions and a conversation with my wife to piece together what had happened: he took his copy of the book (which I had read to him a couple of years ago) up to school, and he read it to two of his friends. So now they are reading it together!
When I had gotten the gist of what had happened, I made him an offer: I was willing to help him get two more copies of the book so he can give them to to give to his friends, then they can all read it at the same time and then talk about what they were reading. He took me up on the offer immediately, and the copies are on there way.
And just like that, my son is in his first book club!
Veracity might be a funny thing to expect when reading science fiction, but it's something that matters a lot to me; it's just easier for me to accept the fantastic elements when I'm not quibbling over the real-world details. So while reading this Gary Russell Doctor Who novel, I stumbled across this on page 24:
Mike and Liz had shared a couple of tense situations, and while Liz would never claim they were close friends, she did feel a certain bond with the young sergeant.
She remembered that the Brigadier had already asked for her opinion on Yates as possible captain material. If honesty, integrity and reliability were essential requirements for a military promotion, then Mike Yates fitted the bill perfectly.
I'm sorry, but in what army can someone be promoted from the rank of sergeant straight to that of captain? I know that promotion is possible from the enlisted ranks to the officer corps, but that results in the person becoming a lieutenant, not a captain. Perhaps there's an explanation for this later in the text, but I haven't so far and I suspect it's more a reflection of Russell's ignorance of military ranks and how promotion works more than anything else. It's the kind of thing that really sours my ability to enjoy the overall book — because if he can't get the small stuff right, how can I trust him with the bigger issues?
Today I was asked about interviewing the author of a forthcoming biography of Denis Diderot. It was hinted (in a way that even I could understand) that this one would be good for the site, so I agreed to do it. Plus, I've never read a biography of Diderot, and given how regularly I mention him when covering the Enlightenment it was probably time to read one.
As I was doing the sort of preliminary work in advance of receiving the book, however, I discovered this book: a 900+ page biography of Diderot, written almost a half-century ago. It's the standard academic work on the man, one that was the life's work of a longtime scholar who received awards for it. All these reasons make it virtually irresistible for me.
The problem is, I have exactly zero need for it. Soon a package will be arriving on my doorstep containing a brand-new Diderot biography, one that I'm required to read within the next couple of months. It should by any measure offer me everything I need to learn about Diderot. And it's not as though I don't already have plenty of other massive tomes weighing down my shelves, ones that will all be a greater priority after I read someone else's book on the exact same subject.
And yet it's over 900 pages! Through! Praised! Available in good condition at an affordable price! How can I not pas this up?
Such is my problem. Admittedly it's small and very much of a FWP, but at least it prevents me from thinking about the ugly shit going on right now.