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Currently reading

The Sinews of Habsburg Power: Lower Austria in a Fiscal-Military State 1650-1820
William D. Godsey Jr.
Progress: 69/448 pages
Pandora’s Box A History of the First World War
Jörn Leonhard, Patrick Camiller
Progress: 346/1104 pages
The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914
Richard J. Evans
Progress: 219/928 pages

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!

Reading progress update: I've read 106 out of 280 pages.

Lloyd George: Statesman or Scoundrel - Richard Wilkinson

Part of me really wants to like this book. Wilkinson isn't a terrible writer by any stretch, and he is quite good at deploying telling quotes, even if they are from previous biographers. But I can't like a book that manages to be so tendentious, especially when its arguments are so poorly grounded

 

A case in point is his section on Passchendaele. Wilkinson summarizes the challenge facing Loyd George nicely, describing how after the failure of the Nivelle Offensive Lloyd George's credibility was shot, depriving him of the ability to resist further the demands of Haig and the other generals to mount their next big offensive. The result was 300,000 casualties for no real gain.

 

And yet, after explaining both Lloyd George's efforts to rein in Haig and the odds that ultimately opposed to him, Wilkinson goes on to declare that it is Lloyd George who should be regarded as the butcher of Passchendaele for failing to stop the offensive. It's as though Wilkinson didn't bother to read his own account explaining why he was thwarted in his efforts to do so. Moreover, Wilkinson provides zero examples of what he might have done further. Was he supposed to dismiss a publicly popular general who had the support of the king?  Announce a unilateral surrender? Run through No Man's Land waving his hands in the air while begging for peace? Wilkinson provides no answers, just a label which he already demonstrates Lloyd George had done the least of all the possible candidates to deserve.

Reading progress update: I've read 20 out of 280 pages.

Lloyd George: Statesman or Scoundrel - Richard Wilkinson

Two chapters in, and I'm already finding myself at odds with Wilkinson's argument. In his early chapters he's referred to Lloyd George as both a "sex-pest" and a sexual predator, yet provides no evidence of this beyond references to his well-known philandering. Does philandering make someone a sexual predator? Perhaps in the most literal sense of someone who actively pursues sex partners, but the use of "sex-pest" suggests that Wilkinson intends a far more pejorative application than that. The problem with that, though, is that he doesn't cite any examples (let alone sources) that Lloyd George's sexual advances were unwanted by his partners; to the contrary, he follows his use of the label by describing Lloyd George as "irresistible to women." It amounts to guilt-by-conjecture, and it's pretty disappointing to see in a book that aims for scholarly credibility.

One command's struggles against the U-boats

Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War - Steve R. Dunn

Over the past few years Steve Dunn has carved out a niche for himself writing books about various aspects of the First World War at sea that have often be overshadowed by its more dramatic personage and battles. His latest book is an account of the Western Approaches (the waters off of the south of Ireland) centered around the effective, no-nonsense figure of Admiral Lewis Bayly. When he assumed position of Senior Officer of the Coast of Ireland station in 1915, he took over a command that was struggling in the war against the U-boats. Like the rest of the Royal Navy it officers and men were working out how to respond to the deployment of this new weapon of war, a task made more difficult by the shortage of appropriate ships and the competing demands made on the available resources by the demands of war. As a result, sailors went to sea aboard inadequate vessels and pursued ineffective tactics such as trawling the Irish Sea in the (usually vain) hope that they might entangle German submersibles or force them to exhaust their batteries.

 

Upon taking command in Queenstown Bayly brought a renewed determination to the station. Focusing on the war, he set the tone for his men by curbing the social activities and customs that had endured from the prewar era. With the aid of new ships and more men he carried out his orders vigorously, protecting merchant shipping and hunted down U-boats by any means possible. In this his command received a boost in the summer of 1917 with the arrival of the first warships of the United States Navy. This proved Bayly’s finest hour as commander of the station, as he established harmonious relations with American officers as they worked to protect the vessels transporting the doughboys to the front. The esteem in which they held him was reflected after the war with their efforts to support and honor Bayly in his retirement.

 

Dunn’s book provides readers with a succinct and effective description of the war off of the Irish coast. Though he concentrates on Bayly, he does not do so to the detriment of his coverage of the many men who fought and sacrificed in their battles with the U-boats. While this comes at the cost of a degree of repetitiveness in his accounts of U-boat attacks and the efforts to sink them, it is a minor issue with what is otherwise a worthy study of a part of the war covered only in passing in larger accounts of the naval history of the First World War.

Reading progress update: I've read 81 out of 224 pages.

Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War - Steve R. Dunn

I had hoped to finish one of my other current reads before starting this, but a scheduling change for an interview made reading this my top priority. It's just as good as Dunn's last book (which I read for a podcast last year) and it's proving to be a quick read to boot, so I should have it well out of the way before I interview him on Sunday.

Podcast #105 is up!

Irvin S. Cobb: The Rise and Fall of an American Humorist - William E. Ellis

My one hundred and fifth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview William E. Ellis about his biography of the early 20th century American humorist Irvin S. Cobb. Enjoy!

The latest reading choice I'm facing

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

In a few weeks I'm traveling to my in-laws's farm for my summer vacation. I'm looking forward to it for many reasons, not the least of which is the uninterrupted hours of reading time I have while I'm there (my in-laws are generous in that way and many others). This, of course, then raises the question inevitable question of what to bring to read.

 

This time I'm not approaching it as a question of limited availability once I'm there; I have some books there left over from my last trip there, and I'll probably bring a paperback or two from my Star Trek novel stack. This time it's more an issue of what to prioritize among my current interests. Among them is the first volume of John Röhl's biography of Wilhelm II, which I started reading three years ago and DNF'd a fifth of the way in. t was a fine read, but its size limited my ability to take it with me to read while I was out-and-about and other priorities intruded. Miranda Carter's recent New Yorker piece about Wilhelm has definitely increased my interest, though, and with my desire to read more modern European history for the fall semester this seems like a prime opportunity to make this my main selection.

 

Unfortunately my interests as always spin in multiple directions at one. I also have a biography of Georges Clemenceau that has long gathered dust on my shelf, and which has the added virtue of greater portability, as well as one of Raymond Poincaré right next to it which might be an even more important read. David Weber's book on Spain's empire in North America is also looming large given my upcoming Southwestern history class, and there are also a couple of other titles on German history which seem appealing. Fortunately I still have some time to work all this out, but I'm hoping to do so before it becomes one of those last-minute panic issues.

 

So, which book would you be most interested in seeing reviewed?

My one-hundred and fourth podcast is up!

 Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Science and Politics - Lisa M. Walters

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network! In it I interview Lisa Walters about her study of the thought of the 17th century writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 114 out of 256 pages.

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

I wanted to read this book in order to learn more about an aspect of the civil rights movement that I knew very little about, and so far it's fitting the bill nicely. Schmidt has a nice summary of the protests and looks at a number of different aspects, such as the way they represented a break from the general direction of segregation opposition until then (though I think he overstates this) and the reaction of older African Americans to the student-driven effort.

 

But the most interesting chapter so far was the one on the opposition to the sit-ins. This was because, as little as I knew about the protests, I knew even less about the response. And it was absolutely fascinating for the almost comical response of the groups. Simply put, most whites wanted someone else to respond: the business owners didn't want to take a position that would alienate some portion of their customers, the police couldn't act without a formal complaint, local leaders wanted to avoid controversy that made their communities look bad to outsiders, and state leaders (who were the most powerful pro-segregation actors) passed laws that foundered on the reliance on the business owners to initiate action — something which they had already demonstrated an unwillingness to do. It underscores for me just how much of segregation was maintained by sheer inertia, and how the unifying achievement of the various strands of the civil rights movement was the disruption of that inertia.

Wall Street as a road to electoral triumph

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

One of the first things that readers seeking a book about Richard Nixon will find is that there are no shortage of options available to them. Soon after his emergence on the political scene in the 1940s Nixon received enormous attention, resulting in a considerable and ever-growing library of books about him. Yet the sum total of these works provide an uneven examination of his life, concentrating mainly on his early years in politics, his campaigns for the presidency, his time in the Oval Office, and his ignominious fall from power. The result is that some periods of his life are surprisingly fallow, awaiting attention for the insights they might offer.

 

Victor Li's book is an example of what bounties lay with such a focus. In it he examines Nixon's life between defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election and his election to the presidency six years later. These were years in which Nixon had ostensibly forsworn further runs for public office and went back to his earlier profession as a lawyer. Moving to New York City, he became a public partner at Mudge, Stern, Baldwin & Todd (subsequent renamed Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, & Alexander), a respectable legal firm that was regarded as stuck in its ways. Drawing upon his political contacts, Nixon soon brought in new clients who admired the former vice president and who calculated that association with a possible future president might pay dividends later on.

 

Theirs was hardly a gamble, as Nixon soon demonstrated that he still harbored presidential ambitions. Li traces Nixon's ongoing campaigning, from his positioning to emerge as a compromise candidate at the 1964 Republican National Convention to his appearances on behalf of candidates in the 1965 and 1966 midterms. Here he demonstrates how this provided Nixon with ideal opportunities to collect favors and test out campaign themes, receiving credit for victories won while accruing no blame for candidate defeats. These efforts were supported by his firm, who benefited from the increased profile he supplied. When it came time to assemble his own campaign staff for his second attempt Nixon then drew from the ranks of the firm to staff it, most notably by naming a new partner, John Mitchell, as his campaign manager.

 

By focusing on Nixon's employment on Wall Street Li demonstrates the role that the firm and his time there played in Nixon's life and political career. As a lawyer himself, Li brings to the book an understanding of the world of legal firms that is lacking from other coverage of Nixon's life during this time, which helps to clarify many otherwise obscured or ignored details. The result fills a longstanding gap in our understanding of the life of America's 37th president, and should be read by anyone interested in learning about it or how he recovered from defeat to win the nations highest office.

My one-hundred and third podcast is up!

EuroTragedy A Drama in Nine Acts - Ashoka Mody

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Ashoka Mody about his history of the euro and its impact upon the economies of the countries in the region. Enjoy!

My sudden reading re-orientation

The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico - David J. Weber

One of the things I love about my job is the breadth of subjects that I'm called upon to teach. Though my area of specialty is modern British history, over the years I've taught everything from early Asian civilizations to post-1945 U.S. history. Recently, I thought that they were running out of new courses for me to undertake.

 

Then I received an email yesterday proving me wrong. One of my co-workers gave up a course he taught on the history of the American Southwest, which is one of the last classes in the catalog that I haven't taught. Though I work with someone who is probably better qualified to teach it, he passed on the opportunity, which means that I have a new course to put together over the next few months.

 

As disruptive as this is of my plans, I really do enjoy the challenge of prepping new courses, not the least of which is the reading that I get to undertake for it. Not only does this bump a couple of books that have long been on my shelves to the top of the TBR stack, but I will be adding a few more to it in the months to come.Of course this will come at the price of some of my other reading goals, but if there's one thing I've learned about life it's all about the trade-offs.

Podcast #102 is up!

Kurt Eisner: A Modern Life  - Albert Earle Gurganus

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Al Gurganus about his biography of the German journalist Kurt Eisner, who overthrew the Bavarian monarchy and served as its premier during the German Revolution. Enjoy!