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With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
David Stevenson
Progress: 30/752 pages

My review of Brooke's "The Saxon and Norman Kings" is up!

The Saxon and Norman Kings - Christopher Brooke

My second review is up on the Best Biographies of British Monarchs website! Please read and enjoy with my compliments.

OT Rant: My life in a "Parks and Rec" gif

— feeling unhappy

Yesterday morning I was puttering online when I lost my connection to the Internet. As a modern annoyance it was hardly a new one, and after calling my ISP they concluded remotely that it was my router and that I should bring it in for a new one. This I did, only to find when I returned home I was Andy from Parks and Recreation.




Call #2 to my ISP and they sent a crew out to diagnose the issue and address it. It didn't take them long to conclude that the problem wasn't the router, but the connection to the junction (they had a technical name for it, but that's what it is). An hour and a half later, they said that the entire connection needs to be replaced, which requires city permits, "staking" (which I doubt involves vampires) and some other things that will take them about a couple of weeks to arrange.


No, that's not a typo. A couple of weeks.


Now, I know enough about history that I am well aware that people were able to live their lives for millennia without an Internet. I've learned long ago, however, that our society today is determined to make that less possible than ever. My college, for example, wants desperately for me to teach online classes, with part of the sell being that I'm more available to my students. That, of course, assumes that I have a working Internet connection.


That's work, and I can deal with that. A more personal concern is my website project, which is still in its early stages. I'm using my cell phone as a hotspot (which is how I'm able to post my little rant here), but as my wife sagely observed it's meant to be a workaround and not a solution. I don't know how well it will work long-term, and I'm annoyed that I even have to find out.

A suspenseful contest for the fate of existence

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - Claire North

Thank you reading challenge! "Claire North's" book has been popping up as a recommended reading for me for nearly half a decade, yet the similarities between the jacket description and the plot of Ken Grimwood's Replay put me off from reading what seemed a highly hyped knock-off. With my local bookstore's summer reading challenge, though, I decided to check it out from the library to use as an option for one of the squares. While I ended up not using it for that purpose, having the copy lying around was the final incentive I needed to read it.


And I'm so glad I did, as it proved to be far better than the derivative work I was expecting. North's novel takes the premise of a person reliving their lives that Grimwood devised and takes it in some fresh and interesting directions. The idea of a community of "kalachakrans" or "ouroborans" (as the people reliving their lives call themselves) is interesting enough; what makes it so especially fascinating was how they create an existence that allows for communication across time. It turns the central conflict of the novel into a chess match that is all the more suspenseful for the stakes involved. My only regret by the end of the book was the sense that the rich possibilities of North's world had only begun to be explored. In a literary world overflowing with sequels and series, this is one where a follow-up would be most welcome!

Reading progress update: I've read 416 out of 416 pages.

— feeling tired
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - Claire North

While most people stay up late to finish a book, I managed to do the opposite. I fell asleep around my usual bedtime, only to wake up three hours later. After a few minutes on social media, I decided to try to get back to sleep by reading Claire North's book, which had been sitting on a table ever since I checked it out from the library a couple of weeks ago. That provide a mistake, as I stayed up past the break of dawn to finish it. Now I'm exhausted, without the benefits of getting a few hours of sleep before tackling my day.


Still, it was totally worth it.

Don't blame the Treasury!

British Rearmament and the Treasury, 1932-1939 - G. C. Peden

In the eight decades since the start of the Second World War, there has been an unending search of scapegoats to hold responsible for failing to prevent the greatest war in human history. For the British, one of the most persistent of these was the Treasury, whose "dead hand" has long been cited as a key factor holding back Britain's ability to adequately prepare for the threat posed by Nazi Germany. Were it not for the penny-pinching Treasury mandarins, the argument goes, His Majesty's army, navy, and air forces would have been in a better position to stop Germany, possibly even deterring the outbreak of war in Europe in the first place.


George Peden takes issue with this argument. In this dense but well-argued book, he makes the case that, contrary to the legend, the Treasury played a positive role in the rearmament of Britain in the 1930s. Drawing upon a range of documents from the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, and the service ministries (many of which had only been recently declassified at the time he wrote the book) he detailed the process of rearmament form the perspective of the Treasury, setting it in the context of contemporary perspectives and concerns. As he notes, throughout the 1930s the British were still grappling with the problems of the Great Depression, and while the economy was recovering steadily throughout the period it was of paramount importance to both politicians and civil servants to do nothing to jeopardize this. A major consideration in this respect was the argument of finance as the "fourth arm" of the British military effort, and the ongoing need to recover not just from the Depression but from the depletions of British finance caused by the First World War. Given these concerns, any rearmament efforts had to be measured ones.


Within those constraints, however, Peden sees the Treasury as playing a vital role in shaping rearmament efforts. Much of his book is about the role the Treasury played in this process, both in terms of policy formulation and in its implementation. Not only did the Treasury exert considerable influence in determining the amount of money budgeted for the military, they also played a role in determining on what that money would be spent. As Peden shows, much of this was done consultatively, taking into consideration the views of the respective service departments and the military professionals who headed the three branches. This forced the officials involved to determine their priorities in light of means, which, Peden concludes, "ensured that essential elements in Britain's defences were completed first", leaving the country better prepared for the long war that came about than it otherwise would have been.


By shedding light on the sometimes opaque process of fiscal policy formulation and implementation, Peden provides readers with a valuable study of how Britain readied for war in the 1930s. In the process, he makes a convincing case for a more nuanced judgment of the Treasury’s role, one that gives it due credit for its efforts to prepare the armed services and the national finances for the conflict that followed. Though some of his related judgments can be harsh (his treatment of Stanley Baldwin is a little cold-blooded), his book is necessary reading for anyone interested in learning about a vital aspect of British rearmament in the years before the Second World War, one that is no less important for how little attention it receives.

Podcast #155 is up!

The Life and Legend of James Watt: Collaboration, Natural Philosophy, and the Improvement of the Steam Engine - David Philip Miller

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview David Miller about his new biography of the 18th century scientist and inventor James Watt. Enjoy!

The review of Humble's "The Saxon Kings" is up!

The Saxon Kings - Richard Humble

My first review is up on the Best Biographies of British Monarchs website! Please read and enjoy with my compliments.

Announcing my new review site: bestbritishbios!

After months of pondering, procrastinating, and fretting, I am happy to announce that my new site, Bestbritishbios, is up! I've spent the better part of the last couple of days setting up the basics, and while I still have a lot of work left to do on it I'm ready to start the fun part of writing and posting my reviews. Much of the credit goes to a good friend of mine who's a professional web designer and walked me through some of the do's and don'ts of setting up a website. Without him I never would have gotten this far with turning my idea into an electronic reality.


I also want to thank everyone here who gave me feedback on my initial site design, as you helped me make what proved to be the best decision. And I want to give a special shout-out to Themis-Athena, who shared her hard-earned experiences with review websites. You gave me a lot to think about, and it's helped me decide what it was that I wanted to do with this.


So if you're interested in biographies of British monarchs, please bookmark my page and check back regularly. I'm planning to post 3-4 reviews a month, which with the number of biographies that I have to read means that I have a good 5-6 years of reading ahead of me.

Reading progress update: I've read 71 out of 227 pages.

British Rearmament and the Treasury, 1932-1939 - G. C. Peden

So I'm reading George Peden's book on the Treasury's role in responding to the rising threat posed by Nazi Germany, and I come across this passage on page 70:

This failure to give the taxpayer timely warning of the sacrifices that might be required of the nation was no fault of the Treasury. From mid-1934 [Neville] Chamberlain spoke frequently, at least for a Chancellor of the Exchequer, of the need to fill gaps in the country's defenses, and in October 1935, just before the General Election, he quoted Adam Smith's dictum that 'defence is better than opulence' at the Conservative Party Conference. In planning the election campaign Chamberlain had urged [Prime Minister Stanley] Baldwin to meet pacifism squarely by taking 'the bold course of actually appealing to the country on a defence programme', but it was apparently not in Baldwin's nature to be bold.

Peden follows this upon the very next page by noting that the hopes of the head of the civil service that some of the increasing revenue could be spent on defense "received a blow from Baldwin's refusal to be outspoken about the country's danger," and I thought, "Damn! That's pretty cold-blooded." Peden makes it clear from the start of the book that he wants to exonerate the Treasury of any responsibility for Britain's failure to adequately prepare for war in the 1930s, and he certainly makes a good case that the mandarins running the department were hardly the reality-denying penny-pinchers subsequent accounts portrayed them as being. The problem is that blame has to be placed elsewhere, and in these two pages Peden makes it clear that he is throwing Baldwin under the bus for the dilatory nature of Britain's rearmament. As someone who believes that the proverbial buck stops at the top I can't fault him, but he does it in a way that's pretty harsh even given what followed.


I mention all this in part because this is what I think histories of Brexit are going to look like in about forty years time: book after book that are mainly exercises in absolving responsibility and shifting blame. I don't envy the poor historians who will have to sort through all of the finger-pointing for a crisis in which nobody has really distinguished themselves by their leadership.

The "fun" of building a book-reviewing website

After months of puttering about with the idea, yesterday I took the plunge and began building a website focused on reading biographies of English monarchs. This is something that I would only describe as fun is there were such a thing as sarcasm font that I could use for the word, as doing so has required a series of stressful decisions. Each of them is relatively minor, but cumulatively they add up to a sense of being locked onto a certain vision of the site without any sense as to whether it is the best one.


And here I was hoping for some input. I'm working up the design now, and I'm trying to decide which way to go. My initial thought was to go with a background image of a throne room, which resulted in a background that looked like this:




While I'm pleased with how the columns lined up, it feels like it may be a little busy, which is why I'm wondering whether a plainer background like this one may be the way to go.



Alternately, I could go the "books background" route that I could create with a lineup of biographies or an image of old tomes like this one:



I thought I'd solicit everyone's judgment, as I've learned from seeing everyone's Booklikes page that just about everybody has a more tasteful aesthetic judgment than I do, especially when it comes to web pages. Feel free to sound off on which you think is best and why, or propose something beyond what I was able to come up with. 

Reading progress update: I've read 238 out of 576 pages.

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation - Brenda Wineapple

I still remember the moment of eagerness I felt a little more than two months ago when I spotted the copy of Wineapple's book on display at the Barnes & Noble that I had driven to in order to find it. I also remember the satisfaction I felt when I opened the book and began reading it. But all of that has been overwhelmed by the irritation I have felt ever since with her unsubtle efforts to make the story of Andrew Johnson's impeachment into a parable for the Trump age. The parallels may indeed exist, but she strains to turn Johnson into a 19th century version of our Twitler and the story of his impeachment as a model to follow, which is why it's been two months since I last made any progress in it. I'm probably going to just DNF it at this point as I just can't bring myself to spend the time to plow through the rest of it, though I'm annoyed with myself about it as it prevents me from posting a full review with a clear conscience.

What's in a (domain) name?

Back in February I wrote about my idea to start a review site dedicated to a systematic read of biographies of English monarchs. After many months of procrastination I'm finally working on it, only I find myself dwelling over the very first step: the domain name.


This is something I'm very anxious to get right. It would be easy to choose something like "livesofenglishrulers.com," only if I ever wanted to do anything more with the site than just post reviews of English monarchs it would be a little limiting. Something broader, like "justonebook.com" (which reflects my end goal with each monarch of identifying the one books to read if you only have time for one) might be better, but I'm still not satisfied with it as a long-term option. What appeals to me most is a more general name that gives me opportunities to expand my focus and my approach like "bibliovorereviews.com," only when I go there I start encountering websites like this one, which raises concerns that I might get angry emails from someone threatening nastiness for adopting their site's title.


As a result, I'm open to your thoughts. Does anyone have experience with this sort of thing? Am I worrying unnecessarily, or is this a legitimate issue? And might it be a better idea to adopt a narrower name as a way of establishing an identity, as opposed to going with something vanilla that it's easy to get confused? Please message your thoughts or post them in the comments.

Off-Topic Rant: Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood


Yesterday I went with my mother to see Quentin Tarantino's latest movie. Tarantino is one of those filmmakers whose movies I find myself making the effort to see in the theater on their initial release, and this one looked it would be particularly intriguing. His love for the Hollywood of old is writ large in every one of his films, and the idea of a film set in and about Tinseltown promised to be indulgent. And it was, though in ways that I didn't fully appreciate until I saw it.


If you've missed the trailers and the reviews, the movie is about Rick Dalton, a television actor in Hollywood at the end of the 1960s going through a mid-career and mid-life crisis. His television show has been cancelled possibly because of come combination of ill-defined decisions and his alcoholism, his effort to break into movies didn't succeed, and now he finds himself guest starring as the bad guy in a succession of television shows that won't survive the decade. His only friend is his stuntman, Cliff Booth, who serves as Dalton's driver and dogsbody largely because an event in his past prevents Booth from finding work otherwise in his chosen profession. The film chronicles a few days in their shared lives, in which appear Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, and the Family, largely because the house Polanski rents is next door to Dalton's.


There's a lot of greatness in the film, and much of the credit for that goes to the two leads. As a reviewer elsewhere pointed out, they're two A-list stars playing C-listers on their way down, and they're magnificent in selling it. DiCaprio is especially good, and I wouldn't be surprised if he gets nominated for the role come awards season. The other actors are nearly as good ⁠— Tarantino has never had a problem attracting quality actors to his films ⁠— and there isn't a bad performance in the movie.


The problem comes with the plot Tarantino has given with his actors. Much of Tarantino's film is a love note to a glittering fantasy that ignores a dark side that was there long before Charles Manson's followers shattered the illusion by murdering Sharon Tate. And that seems to be Tarantino's issue: the bursting of his bubbly with her murder by three members of Manson's cult. Given that it's in the trailer, it's not a spoiler to say that the movie climaxes with the events of August 8-9, 1969, only Tarantino rewrites history in the cathartically violent way familiar to anyone who has seen Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. And it is So. Disappointingly. Predictable.

It was when I was watching that sequence that I realized the common theme of violent revenge that runs through nearly all of Tarantino's films (Jackie Brown is the major exception, and it's probably not a coincidence that it's the only film that is based on material by another writer). What was a component of his early films has increasingly become the dominant theme: putting bad people to a deservedly bloody end. Everything leading up to that point becomes little more than justification for the violent denouement, never mind that the villains he chooses are so over-the-top evil (serial killers, Nazis, slaveowners, murderous cultists) that their villainy in the film itself is largely gratuitous. But then gratuity has long been Tarantino's hallmark when it comes to violence, which too many of his fans excuse because of his skills as a filmmaker and the feeling that his targets really, really deserved it.

It's especially unfortunate, as for much of the film Tarantino was offering a much more interesting story about a middle-aged actor facing the downhill slope of his career and his struggles to cope with this. The way he ends the film, though, is similarly escapist, as though when faced with the prospect of maturing and said, “Nah, I think I’ll stick with the violent masculine fantasies; they’re in my comfort zone.” Clearly it works for him financially, but it really does suggest that he is incapable of saying anything new as a filmmaker, in which case his long-promised retirement may not be such a bad thing.

Smart sci-fi done right

Rosewater - Tade Thompson

Kaaro is a resident of Rosewater, a community that grew up around an alien biodome that emerged in Nigeria in 2055. Unlike most of the residents he possesses certain psychic abilities, including the ability to read people, locate things, and enter the "xenosphere" that exists because of the dome's emanations. An unwilling member of a secret government agency, he discovers that an unknown cause is killing "sensitives" such as himself. As he is drawn into a fight for his survival, he uncovers secrets that change his world and reveal the true nature of the alien presence that defines his life.


Taro Thompson's book is one that I decided to read based on the considerable praise he received, and in this instance the book lived up to the hype. HIs premise is an interesting one, and from it he builds a world of considerable complexity that manages to be different while still remaining plausible. Part of his success in this regard is in how he teases his information in a way that just enough is provided for the nature of the story, without all of the information dumps that too many authors clumsily resort to in books like this. Yet it's the characters who make the novel worth reading, particularly the central figure of Kaaro. who for all of his abilities proves to be just as human as anyone else. It makes for a great example of smart science fiction done right, and I'm already looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

Reading progress update: I've read 300 out of 390 pages.

Rosewater - Tade Thompson

I think it's a testament to Thompson's skills as a writer that I'm taking so long to read his book. I find a lot of novels to be skimmable in parts, but Thompson writes in a way that makes me want to take in every word. Still, I need to finish it today, as I still have those two other books I need to complete soon for upcoming podcasts.

Reading progress update: I've read 98 out of 390 pages.

Rosewater - Tade Thompson

Thompson is a good writer in a way that I hate. A third of the way into the novel, he drops a casual mention about an element of his world that I am practically dying to learn more about. As I have poor impulse control when it comes to these things, I skimmed the rest of the book in five minutes to discover 1) that the reveal is near the very end of the novel, and 2) that it is only a partial reveal, which means that I have to read the next book in the series if I want to learn more. Well played, sir.