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Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister
Nicholas Shakespeare
The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 1: The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930
Robert William Davies
Progress: 56/512 pages
The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914
Richard J. Evans
Progress: 219/928 pages
Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888
John C. G. Röhl
Progress: 229/1016 pages

Reading progress update: I've read 143 out of 1016 pages.

Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888 - John C. G. Röhl

Sound familiar?

Not only did [Wilhelm's] intellectual achievements fall far short of original expectation, far more serous was the fact that various flaws in the character of the young Prince began to show themselves which, as he reached puberty, caused his parents and his teacher great consternation. He proved to be not only lazy, superficial, garrulous and lacking in concentration and talent, but to have developed an 'egoism almost as hard as crystal' which, in Hinzpeter's eyes, constituted 'the innermost core of his being'.

Their excuse was that they in a monarchy and stuck with him. We can't even claim that.

A detailed political biography of a legendary Chicago mayor

Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago - Roger Biles

From "Big Bill" Thompson to Rahm Emanuel, Chicagoans have had more than their share of larger-than-life personalities as their city's leaders. Yet even among this august group Harold Washington stands out for his dramatic victories and tragic end. Winning office in 1983 after an unprecedented mobilization of the city's African American voters, as mayor Washington faced an unprecedented series of political clashes with the city council that frustrated his efforts to implement his progressive agenda. Though Washington overcame these difficulties and won a second term in 1987, he died just a few months later, leaving much of the promise of his mayoralty unfulfilled. Roger Biles underscores the tragedy of Washington's tenure in his biography of the mayor, one that charts his dramatic rise and stormy tenure.

 

In many ways politics was in Washington's blood. Born and raised in Chicago, his father was a minister and precinct captain in the local Democratic Party organization. Even before he left law school Washington joined the organization, working for a local alderman. Elected to the Illinois legislature, he walked a fine line between loyalty to the political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley and a principled independence. His reputation was such that after Daley's death in 1976 local African Americans recruited him to run in the special mayoral election that followed, one which ended in his defeat. This did little to hamper his career, however, as Washington won election to the United States Congress in 1980, where he emerged quickly as a rising star in the House of Representatives.

 

As Biles notes, so promising was his future in the House that when he was approached to run again for the mayor's office in 1983 he set impossibly high conditions to do so. It was a testament to his stature that these were met, helping to pave the conditions for an unexpected victory in a three-way Democratic primary. Yet despite his historic win, from the start Washington faced opposition from a majority within the Democratic-dominated city council. Led by Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, the "Vrdolyak 29" prevented Washington from passing many of the measures he proposed during the election, and it was not until a federal judge forced a redistricting that led to the defeat of six of its members. The new council majority and Washington own reelection heralded the triumph of Washington's vision, his death from a heart attack just months after winning his second term brought many of his plans to a premature end.

 

Biles makes it clear that Washington's life was consumed with politics, and he has written a book that reflects this. His book concentrates almost entirely on Washington's political career and its context, passing over the details of his life before politics in a few pages. When it comes to politics, while Biles covers Washington's legislative career capably his main focus is on his time as mayor, which he addresses in considerable detail with analyses of Washington's reform proposals and the conflicts that characterized the "Council Wars" of Washington's first term. The juxtaposition underscores the sense at the end of the book of a mayoralty that ended before it could really begin, making for a biography that doubles as politically tragedy. It's a work that should be read by anyone with an interest in Washington's career or the dramatic politics of America's third-largest city.

Reading progress update: I've read 40 out of 1016 pages.

Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888 - John C. G. Röhl

In the end I decided to take the first volume of Röhl's Wilhelm II biography with me on my trip, and so far I've been rereading the chapters I got through the first time around. Mostly it's been about Wilhelm's difficult birth and mid-19th century's medicine's best efforts to treat his withered left arm, most of which read more like a mix of malicious torture and superstitious quackery (e.g. the insertion of the infant Wilhelm's arm "in a freshly slaughtered hare" for half an hour twice weekly) than an effective rehabilitation regimen.

 

As I read Röhl's description, I found myself wondering about the lengths the court went to in their efforts to restore Wilhelm's arm. It all seems less an exercise in compassion for the person than a need to ensure that the future occupant of the throne be as perfect as the kingdom he ruled imagined itself. Perhaps nothing less can be expected from the political culture of the time, but I can't help but think that more modern attitudes towards disability could have resulted in a less-traumatized and more emotionally secure individual.

Exploiting an underutilized resource

Web of the Romulans - M.S. Murdock

Ever since I watched the first series, I felt that the Romulans were the orphan stepchildren of the original Star Trek show. Appearing in just two episodes, evidently they were shunted aside in favor of the Klingons for the simple reason that the makeup for the latter was cheaper. Nevertheless, their first appearance (the superb "Balance of Terror") hinted at a long involvement with the Federation that went unexplored, which made them a promising source of material for authors when the original novels started rolling out in earnest in the 1980s.

 

Though M. S. Murdoch's novel wasn't the first in the Pocket Books series to include Romulans (a few were included in Sonni Cooper's Black Fire, published six months previously), they were the first in which the Romulans served as the main antagonists. When the novel begins theirs is an empire in crisis, ravaged by a plague that is decimating the population. Faced with their destruction, the Romulans embark on an audacious plan designed to obtain the cure from he nearest available source — a planet on the Federation side of the Neutral Zone.

 

As the first book to utilize the Romulans as the main antagonists, Murdoch has a good deal of latitude, and it testifies to her restraint that she doesn't overdo it. Her Romulans are true to their depiction in the original series, and point to the rich possibilities that would be developed by subsequent authors and in subsequent series. Yet this is offset by her incorporation of a subplot in which the Enterprise's computer falling in love with Jim Kirk, creating chaos aboard the ship as a result. While such a contrivance is necessary for the plot, the silliness of the concept Murdoch uses (which originated in a story she wrote for a fanzine in the previous decade) detracts from the gravity of the situation facing both the Romulans and the Federation, and might have been better saved for a novel lighter in tone.

Too many contrivances hamper this novel's strengths

Three Minute Universe - Barbara Paul

"The galaxy is on fire." With these words, James Kirk summarizes the latest threat the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is forced to address: an expanding wave of heat that has already annihilated an entire solar system, including the home world of the Zirgosians. Their investigation takes them to the remaining Zirgosian colony, where they find a massive spaceship in orbit controlled by the "Sackers," a species so physically repulsive that sentient beings cannot stand to be in their presence. The crew soon discovers that the Sackers are at the center of the mystery, with a plan that effectively holds the entire universe hostage unless their demands are met.

 

Barbara Paul's novel offers readers what is many respects a textbook Star Trek story: the crew faces a seemingly insurmountable challenge, then proceeds to save the day through a mixture of intuitive psychology and teamwork. It's an interesting tale both for the species she introduces and the unusual combination of Kirk, Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov working to deal with the situation in which they find themselves. Yet too much of the novel comes across as contrived, with the Sacker threat both epically dangerous yet in the end ridiculously easy to resolve. Squaring the difference between these two contrasts might have made for a truly excellent Star Trek novel, but as it is the book's strengths can't quite overcome its flaws.

The trailblazing Star Trek novel

Spock Must Die! (Star Trek Adventures, #1) - James Blish

While engaged in a surveying mission light years from Federation territory, the starship Enterprise receives word that the Organians — the advanced beings who enforce peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire — have suddenly vanished. As the begin the months-long journey back through Klingon space to investigate, Scotty develops a new version of the transporter, one designed to teleport a person across the galaxy instantaneously. When it is used to send Spock to the Organian homeworld, however, the transport fails, producing two indistinguishable Spocks. Captain Kirk is now faced with the task to deciding which one is the true Spock, and which is the reversed duplicate of his friend who must be destroyed.

 

Such is the premise of James Blish's novel, which is something of a historical artifact. Originally published in 1970, it is the very first original Star Trek novel written for adults, the progenitor of the shelves of novels, novellas, and short story collections that have been published since. In this respect Blish was blazing a trail followed by everyone since, which makes reading it from today's vantage point an interesting experience. Longtime fans will find more than a few idiosyncracies and anachronisms in its pages, while the story's resolution is so overblown as to leave the reader wondering whether Blish seriously believed that it would hold up. Such reactions, though, point as well to the underlying pleasure of the book, which bears virtually none of the weight of the overstuffed franchise and still holds value as a result.

Harlan Ellison, R.I.P.

The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective - Harlan Ellison, Terry Dowling

When I was growing up, there was nothing I enjoyed reading more than science fiction. I read dozens of books by a variety of authors, yet short story collections predominated. I don't know why they did, but in retrospect they were a far more prevalent part of my reading diet than the novels in the genre.

 

And of all the short stories I read, none of them made a more enduring impression than those of Harlan Ellison. While he was popularly associated with the "New Wave" SF of the 1960s (not the least because of his seminal 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions), I always associated him in my mind more with the "golden age," at least in part because of the Middle America nostalgia woven through so many of his stories. That was just one element of them, however, which typically mixed sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and social commentary into stories that were never less than forceful in their prose, packing more of a punch in a few pages than most authors could achieve in entire novels.

 

Nothing illustrated this better for me than the memories of reading his works that flooded back for me as I read news of his death yesterday at the age of 84. The obituaries reflect the outsized impact he made on American culture, not just through his short stories but his novels, essays, and scripts as well. In addition to his books he wrote for several television shows, including two of the all-time best episodes of the original Outer Limits series (which he later alleged was the basis of the original Terminator, a claim that led to him receiving acknowledgment in the credits), and the best Star Trek episode from the original series, "City on the Edge of Forever." The latter was famously rewritten by Gene Roddenberry much to Ellison's displeasure, though to be fair Roddenberry was far from the only one to incur it. Ellison was famously cantankerous, often suing to ensure due credit and using the pseudonym "Cordwainer Bird" when he didn't want it. Between this and his five marriages he seems to have been a difficult person in life, but he will be more likely to be judged by his words rather than his personality. By that measure he deserves to be regarded as one of the seminal writers of postwar America, one whose writings deserve every bit the acclaim given to authors such as Vonnegut and Bradbury. We are unlikely ever to see his like again.

I sense a conspiracy . . .

The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 2: The Soviet Collective Farm 1929-1930 - Robert W. Davies

For the past month I've been trying to accumulate the "Industrialisation of Soviet Agriculture" series. It hasn't been easy, as used copies of the later volumes start at $150. Still, I managed to find copies of the first and fourth volumes at reasonable prices, and both now rest snugly on my shelves.

 

But for some reason, the second volume eludes me.

 

This isn't because copies aren't listed for sale, or even that they are not reasonably priced. At the end of last month I found a seller offering a copy for $20, yet while I placed the order successfully apparently it was lost in the mail — this despite the fact that I had ordered another book from the same seller earlier that same day which managed to arrive successfully.

 

Last week I gave up on ever receiving the initial copy I ordered, and decided to acquire another copy that I found online. Though it was cheaper, I had passed on it the first time around because it was advertised as smelling of tobacco smoke. Deciding that an airing would probably fix it, I placed an order for the book.

 

Today, my package arrived in the mail. Inside was a copy . . . of the first volume.

 

Over the years I've purchased enough books online from used booksellers to expect the occasional mistake. When two happen with the same book, though, I start to wonder if there is a conspiracy to stop me from owning this book. Not that I will let it, of course — it will be mine!

The directions which the Star Trek universes might have taken

Echoes and Refractions - Keith R.A. DeCandido, Geoff Trowbridge, Chris Roberson

Having read the first and third of the "Myriad Universe" collections of Star Trek novellas set in alternate universes, I looked forward to reading the middle one. When it arrived, I dug in and wasn't disappointed by the stories inside, all of which involve major reimaginings of the Trek universes with which fans are familiar.

"The Chimes at Midnight" by Geoff Trowbridge Premised on a "what if" dating back to the animated series of Spock dying as a child, it imagines the role his replacement, an Andorian named Thelen, would have done during the events chronicled in the Star Trek movies. This was my least favorite of the three, in part because of the setting (let's face it, most of the original Star Trek movies were not the franchise at their best) and the story doesn't so much end as trail off.

 

"A Gutted World" by Keith R. A. DeCandido — This one takes the very premise of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series and runs with it in a different direction by premising a Cardassian discovery of the wormhole prior to their abandonment of Bajor. Using the entire series as a template, DeCandido then examines the impact of the discovery of the Dominion on an even less prepared Alpha Quadrant. It's a very grim story (which is part of the fun), though DeCandido's seeming need to name check dozens of characters from most of the various series and non-canon works gets tiresome pretty quickly.

 

Brave New World by Chris Roberson — Drawing together elements from throughout the Next Generation series, Roberson imagines a Federation in which Data was just the first of thousands of androids. This was my favorite of the three, both for the story itself (in which the Enterprise-E visits an android world) and Roberson's re-imagining of the Next Generation universe in which androids and the technology to create them is commonplace. His story hints at any number of rich possibilities, suggesting the considerable amount of thought the author put into realizing the world depicted in his story.

As with the other two collections, Echoes and Refractions offers entertaining storytelling that offers something refreshing for even longtime fans of the franchise. As with the others, I found myself wanting to delve further into the possibilities of the universes the authors imagine (well, DCandido's and Roberson's at any rate), but evidently the concept wasn't viewed as a success. For this, however, little blame can be attached to the authors, for their tales are never less than entertaining.

Reading progress update: I've read 145 out of 400 pages.

Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago - Roger Biles

Four chapters in, and my liking for the book has been tempered a little. Biles does a good job chronicling Washington's challenges in the first months of his administration (and I'm enjoying his recounting of the infamous "Council Wars" of the time), but his explanation suffers from the absence of an explanation as to exactly what the powers the mayor of Chicago possessed at that time. Knowing what they were would have made it clearer the extent to which Washington's ability to effect change really was effected by the opposition of the Vrdolyak 29.

Reading progress update: I've read 105 out of 400 pages.

Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago - Roger Biles

This is proving an excellent political biography, full of analysis and anecdote. Biles's recounting of the 1983 mayoral election was particularly interesting.

Revisiting an old favorite

The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins

This evening I asked my wife what she was was going to watch after dinner, and after briefly describing the program she was going to start she added, "Or we could watch The Moonstone." This is how I learned of the 2016 BBC adaptation, and the fact that we ripped through its five episodes in one evening is testament to how much we enjoyed it. The creators take considerable liberties in how they structure their adaptation, yet we both felt that most if not all of them were for the better.

 

As the neared the end of the final episode, it occurred to em that it's been a while since I last reread the book. So I took my copy off of my shelf and before I go to sleep I plan on skimming a few chapters. It really is one of my all-time favorite novels, and, if anything, my disappointment with The Woman in White has only increased my appreciation for his masterpiece,

Reading progress update: I've read 69 out of 448 pages.

The Sinews of Habsburg Power: Lower Austria in a Fiscal-Military State 1650-1820 - William D. Godsey Jr.

This definitely fits in the category of "difficult, but good."

A good assessment of a German statesman

Adenauer - Ronald Eckford Mill Irving

Twice in the last two centuries Germany was directed by an elderly man who exercised disproportionate control over their nation's development at a critical time in their history. The first was Otto von Bismarck, who created the German empire in 1871 and presided over its development for nearly two decades. The second was Konrad Adenauer, who became the first chancellor of postwar West Germany in 1949, guiding its transition in the postwar era from a collection of occupied territories through its postwar rehabilitation and subsequent emergence as a cornerstone of a more unified Europe. Much like Bismarck, Adenauer rose to power through unlikely circumstances, but unlike Bismarck he left behind him a governing system that proved more capable of enduring without him.

 

In writing a biography of Adenauer for Longman's "Profiles in Power" series, Ronald Irving faces the task of providing both an account of Adenauer's life and an examination of how he exercised his authority. This he succeeds in doing, providing an account that is understandably weighted towards analysis of his time as chancellor but still sets it within the details of Adenauer's long life. This balance is important to Irving's interpretation of Adenauer, whom he sees as a product of his early life as a Catholic Rhinelander in Wilhelmine Germany. By the time the Second Reich collapsed in 1918 Adenauer was already mayor of Cologne, an office he would occupy for the span of the Weimar Republic. Forced out of office by the Nazis, Adenauer returned to politics after the war determined to prevent a recurrence of the Third Reich by establishing a true representative democracy in Germany, first by creating a national conservative political party across confessional lines, then by serving as chancellor of West Germany for fourteen years.

 

Nearly three-quarters of Irving's book is spent on Adenauer's postwar career, giving him the opportunity to detail the scope of the chancellor's achievement. He is particularly good at explaining Adenauer's foreign policy — both the reestablishment of a sovereign Germany and his efforts towards greater European integration — and his role in West German politics. While some background on the context of Adenauer's times helps to fully benefit from the nuance of Irving's analysis, even people seeking an English-language introduction to Adenauer will find much to value in this short, insightful study.

Podcast #107 is up!

The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era - Christopher W. Schmidt

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Christopher Schmidt about his book on the sit-in movement that protested segregation of privately-controlled public accommodations. Enjoy!

Podcast #106 is up!

Nixon in New York: How Wall Street Helped Richard Nixon Win the White House - Victor Li

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Victor Li about his book on Nixon's years between his loss in the 1962 California gubernatorial election and his election to the presidency six years later (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!