Wednesday, May 12, 2010

{Review} Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold by Tom Shachtman

As a history of the scientific pursuit of ultra low temperatures, "Absolute Zero" is a fairly decent narrative for the general reader. The author stays away from formulas, detailed technical descriptions or diagrams of any sort. The book is really more about the people involved and their relationships with each other; there's a lot of backstabbing in the scientific world! The book however doesn't go fair beyond that. The author does throw in a bit of history of the commercial aspects of cold, like the ice sellers of the nineteenth century and the rise of air conditioning and the flash freezing of food, but these seem to be added as some padding for the book and only whet the appetite. I would recommend this book only for those who wish to gain some insight on the history but aren't looking for much in the way of science.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

{Review} Mission with LeMay: My Story by General Curtis E. LeMay (with MacKinlay Kantor)

LeMay's autobiography is a surprisingly readable book, considering how often autobiographies tend to lean towards endless philosophizing and finger-pointing at peers and contemporaries. LeMay, for those who are not familiar with him, is one of those larger than life characters who not only made a significant impact on the course of WW2, but for the next twenty years was a major factor in shaping not only the United States Air Force but also American foreign policy through his development of the Strategic Air Combat and the commitment to around the clock alert status for the nuclear armed aircraft under his command.

He was a member of the United States Army Air Corps during the 1930s and participated in some of the most significant events of the Corp during that time, such as the "bombing" of the USN battleship Utah and the locating of the liner Rex 800 miles off the coast of the USA, demonstrating the ability of the Army Air Corps to act as a strategic arm. He describes these activities, as well as his later WW2 and post war roles, rather well (you can read the Wiki link for LeMay for more info, it's really rather impressive).

LeMay's style as a first person writer (the contributions of Kator versus LeMay are not defined) is fairly readable, although there is a definite sense of someone who knows he is right telling the story. Towards the end of the book he does lose his talent for telling a story and instead indulges himself in political diatribes, so many may just want to skip the last part of the book.

Recommended to anyone who would like a very "I was there" view of some of the most critical command decisions of WW2 and the early Cold War.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Monday, August 11, 2008

{Review} The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Land Warfare: An Illustrated World View by Byron Farwell

Byron Farwell is an author well know to those of us with interests in Victorian armies, wars and leaders. Most of his books are narrative histories, well written and enjoyable. Surprisingly, this single volume encyclopedia is just as interesting (as encyclopedias go, that is) in it's own way. Open up the book to any random page, pick an entry and start reading. Soon you'll be jumping to entries referenced by the first, and soon an hour is gone as you read up on some obscure battle in some obscure war and now you'll just have to learn more about it! Very much recommended to anyone with an interest in the period.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Thursday, August 7, 2008

You know you are really out there when...

... you sort your LibraryThing library and find that that there are 104 books of which you have the only copy on LibraryThing. Hmm, I thought I had some unique books, but not over a hundred.

{Review} Confound and Destroy: 100 Group and the Bomber Support Campaign by Martin Streetly

During WW2, the Royal Air Force 100 Group provided electronic warfare support for the nightly British bombing raids over occupied Europe. This book is something of a history of the group and it's operations. I say something of a history because really only part of the book is a history of the operations, and it's rather dull. The rest of the book is composed of numerous diagrams and drawings of radio equipment, antenna installations, maps, and all sorts of illustrations that would be very much at home in a technical manual. This is most definitely NOT a book for someone looking for some exciting WW2 "war in the air" action. It is a serious, scholarly, technical look at the functions of the group. Even then, the book is not for the faint of heart. If you really, really want to learn more about WW2 airborne electronic warfare then it would be worth your time. Still, it is about the only really in-depth book I've found on this particular subject.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

{Review} Armed with Cameras by Peter Maslowski

As I have mentioned before, I like books about the"what", "how" and "why" rather than the "who" and "when". I also prefer books that cover subjects that are off the beaten track of popular military history. So I was delighted to come across this book. Maslowski writes about the photographers and cameramen of the United States armed services, their duties and equipment. He also related stories of their activities both at the front and also behind the lines. Military photographers often went in harm's way to get the stills and movies that civilians saw in their newspapers, magazines and in the newsreels, but rarely were personally identified or credited. Maslowski describes the subject of documentaries like San Pietro that stirred controversy for their frank depictions of the realisms of battle. He also touches on the more technical aspects of the profession, such as film quality and the development of lighter, better cameras as the war progressed.

This book is a narrative history and is rather anecdotal at times, but is an easy read for those who wish to learn more about the subject.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Monday, August 4, 2008

{Review} Nero Wolfe: The Archie Goodwin Files by Marvin Kaye (editor)

When a few days ago I reviewed The Nero Wolfe Files, I was rather uncomplimentary regarding the limited amount of content and the quality of the content itself. Well, I am very pleased to report that in this subsequent book editor Marvin Kaye has rectified these shortcomings quite nicely. The new book is twice the size of the other and contains a much better selection of articles from The Gazette, the official publication of The Wolfe Pack, a society dedicated to exploring the nuances of that remarkable detective, his sidekick Archie and the author Rex Stout.

The book is composed of four sections. The first is a collection of articles about both the character himself and associated subjects, such as the Post Office, love and marriage, legal aspects of the Wolfe plots, orchids, and even references to the theatre in the stories. My favorite article in this section is "Nero Wolfe: Logomachizer", which discusses the roles of books in the Wolfe stories [editor Kaye notes that Logomachize means to contend with words].

The next section contains articles about Archie Goodwin, including rather obvious subjects as Archie's love life, his relationship to Nero, and not so obviously, an investigation to discern Goodwin's likely birthdate.

The third section's collection includes exploration into the actual location of Wolfe's brownstone, the role of Lon Cohen in the stories, the secretaries (good and bad), and the possible origin of Wolfe's nemesis Zeck.

The final section contains three short detective stories, a stage play and a sonnet, all featuring Nero and company. The story "Firecrackers" is a special treat as we finally read about the first meeting of Nero and Archie.

With such excellent content I happily recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Nero Wolfe, or even in the detective genre in general. Fair warning however, the book does contain many spoilers, but then people who get this book will most likely have already read most of the stories anyway!

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Friday, August 1, 2008

A great quote

I was just adding American Watchmaking: a Technical History of the American Watch Industry 1850-1930 by Michael Harrold to my LibraryThing account and came across this wonderful dedication:
My father said that anything is interesting if you bother to read about it.
How true, how true...

Book reviews, Google and the Wikipedia

Just as bit of musing on my part. As I mentioned in a previous commentary about how I write my reviews, the availability of the Internet, Google and the Wikipedia have revolutionized the concept of a book review. For those who are old enough to remember not only the pre-WWW world, but also the lack of existence of mega-sized book retailers, detailed book reviews were often the only indication we could get to determine whether ordering a book was worthwhile. What did the book address? To what degree of detail? What about maps and illustrations? Of course my main area of concentration in those days, as it is now, is non-fiction. Novels you could find much more easily, but decent non-fiction, specially decent military history, was something very rare in the local small bookstore.

So book reviews had to cover all those areas, and also had to assume that the reader wasn't necessarily familiar with the subject matter, so part of the review had to educate the reader to some degree. My review of Byron Farwell's history of WW1 in Africa, which I have just posted below, would have had to contain some degree of information about the campaigns because it was quite probable that the potential buyer might not even have been aware of them and so would need to be at least informed about their existence and why a book about them would be interesting.

Fast forward to today. Do a search in Wikipedia for "WW1", then click on the "African campaigns" link in the table of contents and you get a link that directs you to the major article "African theatre of World War I". Now as a reviewer I could duplicate a lot of that information, but with time at a premium I leave it to the reader to go, at their option, to bone up on the history if they wish. So I leave to myself just the task of saying whether the book does a good job of covering the subject and to recommend what type of reader the book would appeal to.

{Review} The Great War in Africa, 1914-1918 by Byron Farwell

While many readers are familiar with actions on the Western Front in World War 1, far fewer are aware of the fighting that took place across the continent of Africa. In this very readable book, Farwell presents an overview of the campaigns fought by the Allied Powers to seize German colonies and outposts and destroy their forces. Many, such as the invasions of German Namibia, Togoland, and Kamerun, occurred quickly and efficiently, but the campaign for German East Africa lasted throughout the war as Allied forces chased an elusive German guerrilla army.

As is typical of Farwell's books, the narrative is well paced and filled with interesting stories and characters. It is not an in-depth study but with the centenary of WW1 approaching this is an excellent introduction into these relatively unknown but fascinating theaters of war.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Thursday, July 31, 2008

{Review} The Nero Wolfe Files by Marvin Kaye (editor)

Back in the 1970, fans of the Nero Wolfe stories by Rex Stout joined together and formed an organization called The Wolfe Pack to celebrate the author and his world famous detective (and not to forget Archie Goodwin!). They started publishing a quarterly journal called The Gazette and held a formal dinner every year, among other activities. In this book Marvin Kaye has collected items originally published in The Gazette. They range in diversity from the menu of the first "Black Orchid" dinner to texts of speeches given at the dinners to articles about Wolfe and Stout by Stout's biographer, plus many other interesting tidbits.

Unfortunately this book feels rather underdeveloped for the price. While most of the items included are interesting to some degree, there is not enough content to really satisfy a fan or to engage a casual reader. It is certainly recommended to those who are Nero Wolfe fans, or aspire to that status, but I would suggest that you try to find it at a cheaper price than the listed $15.95.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

{Review} The Formation of Christendom by Judith Herrin

This is a scholarly work about a fairly obscure subject. It isn't about the spread of religion. Instead, the book deals with the transition of the various political entities of Europe from secular states into Christian ones. It describes the increase of the power of the Church as it fills the vacuum left by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Activities such as looking after the poor, maintaining public buildings and organizing and regulating commence became the domain of religious leaders. By undertaking these actions they gained the popular support of the people. They soon established the right of the Church to advise and even make demands upon secular leaders

This is not a casual beach book, but for those interested in European history it provides an interesting look at the transition from Roman authority to feudal suzerainty.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

{Review} The Chariot Makers: Assembling the Perfect Formula 1 Car by Steve Matchett

Steve Matchett is a former Formula One mechanic who has become a successful writer and currently is a commentator for Speed TV and ESPN. In this book, Matchett weaves a tale set in an airport bar, where he and a few others wait for hours and hours for a delayed trans-Atlantic flight. To past the time they discuss what would make up an idea F1 car and team. However, the book is actually much better than this rather tissue-thin back story would suggest, although Matchett swears that the events he uses in the back story did happen, although he did alter the time sequencing and people.

Once you get past the setup, most of the rest of the book is an enjoyable discussion of Formula One technology, construction techniques and race craft. Matchett does touch upon the historic background of many of the subjects, but mostly he deals with the modern era. His style is informative without being too wrapped up in techno-speak. And, just as if he was conversing with a group of people, there are questions asked by his fellow would-be passengers that allow Matchett to explain and illustrate points so that the layman could comprehend them.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes racing, has an interest in F1 and would like to find out more about it without having to delve into much more technical books. As is always true in F1, as soon as a book is published the information in is becomes out of date, but enough of the currently technology of F1 has been around since before Matchett wrote this book that it does have relevance to the current racing season. And Matchett is a good writer, dubious back story or not.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture by Ken Emerson

This is the story of Stephen Foster, who wrote so many songs in the nineteenth century that are considered American standards such as "Oh, Susanna", "Campdown Races" and "Swanee River". The book focuses on Foster as one of the first song writers to be benefited by the commercialization of music, in the guise of sheet music and copyrights. He became a well recognized figure based upon his fame as a popular music composer. Foster initially struggled to be a successful composer, then spend of good part of the rest of his life in court defending his rights and chasing "music pirates", to use a modern term. However, the book is not easy to read. The author goes on for page after page, chapter after chapter, relating how Foster did this and went there and said that and after a while it becomes a blur. Recommended only to those who really have an interest in the subject.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Spearheading D-Day: American Special Units of the Normandy Invasion by Jonathan Gawne

This book is a real find for those who love to wallow in the excruciating details of military operations.This is most definitely not a coffee table book. The author has investigated and thoroughly documented all those small units that assisted the landings of the Allies in Normandy, as well as examining not so much as "who" landed as much as "how" they were equipped and with "what". His emphasis is not so much on the people as on their equipment and operations. Examples? There are loading diagrams for the landing craft, showing where each soldier was positioned (or intended to be positioned). We shown in photos and text how different navy personnel marked their helmets and jackets to differentiate themselves from the men who were landing. We learn how soldiers packed their packs, what kind of uniform they wore, how they protected their weapons from salt water (plastic bags!) and what other items they carried.

There is even a detailed (heck, everything in this book is detailed!) chapter about the combat vest that was used only on the Normandy operation and not by all troops, who made them and how they were made (and how the US Marines tested it and decided against adopting the vest for their landing troops).

This is not to say that the book overlooks the operations carried out by these units. Their actions on D-Day are described in detail and often we are also informed of their subsequent actions through the end of the war.

I have at times described books as "lavishly" illustrated, but this book requires a stronger adjective. The included photographs and drawings are simply incredible in detail and abundance. There are many photos of objects from museums or collections, expertly placed and photographed for clarity. There are even posed photographs of re-enactors to show off different equipment and uniforms.

You don't have to be a D-Day fan to enjoy this book. I would very much recommend it for any military history enthusiast who revels in the details and minutiae of military accoutrements and equipment.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Intervention!: The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913-1917 by John S. D. Eisenhower

This is the story of the United States interventions into Mexico in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Eisenhower tells the story as a narrative without evaluation or moralizing and delivers a pleasantly readable history that moves along well without bogging down in details, yet does tell the story that at times goes down to the personal level of the participants. Most histories of this period confine themselves to the Pershing expedition, but this book also thoroughly examines the American seizure of Veracruz in 1914, probably one of the provocative and ill-considered military operations ever undertaken by the US against our neighbor to the south. Strongly recommended for those with interests in military and international history.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

A simply brilliant history of the political rise to power of Abraham Lincoln contrasted against those who were his adversaries, would eventually run against him in the election of 1860, or supported his opponents. All would eventually be part of his cabinet. It concentrates on the four main characters who would were his competitors and adversaries then eventually his allies; Chase, Bates, Seward and Stanton. While normally I'm not a big fan of political histories, the storytelling ability of Doris Kearns Goodwin is so successful that I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book. The narrative flow is easy to follow, well paced for the more casual reader but is still insightful and thoughtful in it's evaluation of Lincoln as a great mediator and team builder. Very happily recommended for those with any interest at all in American history.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} America's Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945 by Stephen L. Mc Farland

In some of my reviews I have used evaluations such as "scholarly study" and "academic history". This book is solidly in that camp. Sadly it's a very dry and uninspired history of the development of precision bombing capability by the United States Army Air Corp and Army Air Forces over the period noted. The data and evaluations and observations are all no doubt valid and of great interest to the serious aviation and military historian, but it took much determination on my part to get through this book. Only recommended for those who really, really want to study this subject.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} Hitler's Grey Wolves: U-Boats in the Indian Ocean by Lawrence Paterson

This is a narrative history of German U-boat operations in the Indian Ocean during World War 2. Germany, in an effort to war against Allied merchant shipping, reached an agreement with Japan to establish a base in Malaysia, with other smaller bases in Indonesia. German subs would transit out from their bases in Europe, attack allied shipping in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, then refit and rearm in the Far East. Ultimately the campaign was doomed by the overwhelming logistical challenges, the improvement of Allied anti-submarine efforts, and the lack of support and sometimes the barely contained hostility of the local Japanese commanders. It's not exactly a fun read, but it's more easy going than a scholarly study and can be enjoyed by those with an interest in naval history, especially the lesser known aspects of WW2.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

{Review} The Los Angeles Metropolis by Howard J. Nelson

I come across unusual books on at times and get the wild urge to order them. This book is more like a textbook about the history of Los Angeles and it's environs. It is not a narrative history, but instead chapter by chapter covers subjects such as climate, traffic, urban sprawl and ethnic diversity. It's not a bad book and for someone wishing to learn more about the region it's a good overview, but it's not the kind of book you bring to poolside to read while getting a tan... unless you are someone like me!

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book