Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Water for Gotham: A History by Gerard T. Koeppel

New York City has always struggled to meet the demands of it's citizens and visitors and few challenges have been as controversial and contentious as the search for adequate water. In Water for Gotham Koeppel related the story of the high minded idealists and the low down scoundrels (including a Vice President of the United States!) who alternated between working together and fighting among themselves to establish a permanent solution to this most vexing of the Big Apple's problems. While he does delve a bit into the engineering of the many solutions, this is more a book about the people and the stories of the many projects from precolonial times to the end of the nineteenth century when a steady supply was finally assured, at least for the moment.

This is a fairly fun book to read with it's many characters and story lines. It does at time slow down in the discussion of the political battles for that most important element of any construction project (money!) but most of the time it keeps up a good pace for the reader. There are adequate maps and illustrations to view. And it does have a happy ending... so far.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

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At the top of the left column is a place to enter an email address to get updates to this blog. For some reason either this wasn't available in Blogger, or I couldn't figure out how to get it to work, so I subscribed to Feedburner which by a mysterious series of steps provided a way to get a widget added to my blog site. Seems to work pretty well. If anyone does subscribe, let me know how it works for you.

Review: Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture by Peter Kobel

This is a surprisingly good coffee table book covering from the birth of the cinema to the start of the talkies. The narrative is an overview of the development of the industry, the creation of the early stars of film, techniques of filming and some surprising additions, like a marvelous discussion of the critical importance of sound(!) in silent films, being the musical accompaniment. The included photos, film stills and reproduced posters are of exquisite quality and detail. If you have an interest in learning something about early cinema this is an excellent introduction, the reading isn't too heavy and the illustrations heavenly. If you are already a film fan, this book would be a superb addition to your library.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Review: Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 (The Everyday Life in America Series, Vol. 4) by Thomas J. Schlereth

This book is an overview of pretty much everything, or so it seems, in the United States between 1876 and 1915. Subjects such as the newspapers we read, the shoes we wore, the parlor rooms in which we sat, all this and much, much more. So much is covered that nothing seems to be covered in enough detail to be enjoyed. This is exacerbated by the intent of the author to not just to provide a snapshot of Victorian America, but to show how things changed from the beginning of the period to the end. So we learn how clothes went from looking like this to looking like that and then we are rushed off to another subject. It is not a bad book, but after reading it I felt that I couldn't really recall much in the way of details. I would recommend this book only to those who are interested in gaining an overview of the period. It also might server as a good reference or refresher for someone who has an interest in the period and wishes to brush up on certain subjects.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book.

Review: The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is one of the more popular non-fiction authors of our time and this is one of the books upon which he made his reputation. While apparently a rather small book, it deals in quite fascinating detail with the origins and development of the OED. While it does discuss how the OED was researched and how it's now legendary format and incredible amount of detail was developed, the book's primary focus is on the personalities that helped (or hindered) the gestation and birth of the OED. As usual Winchester is a master of story telling in his rather unique way. For those who are not very familiar with English tradition and culture, some causal references made by Winchester might be obscure and puzzling, but those willing to put in the time doing some Google research will be enlightened and entertained. Very much recommended as a good casual read.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Review: Vietnam Tracks: Armor in Battle 1945-1975 by Simon Dunstan

My copy of this book was published by Presidio Press in 1982, unlike the later Osprey edition, and is an overview of the armor employed by the French, US Army and Marines, Australians and North Vietnamese in Vietnam during those thirty years. It is not an in-depth study of the subject but instead is a nice overview of both the types of vehicles involved and the issues and problems faced by the combatants. The descriptions of the vehicles is accompanied by numerous photographs, some in color, most of which in this edition are of excellent quality. The author seems quite knowledgeable about many little and obscure details which makes it a rather enjoyable read. The author also discusses the challenges of operating armor in the wide variety of terrain found in Vietnam, with interesting insight into the evolution of armored doctrine as the forces gained experience.

I would recommend this book to those with an interest in the use of armor in Vietnam and is equally enjoyable by the scholar and the more casual reader. The detail of the photographs will also appeal to those involved with armor miniatures.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

Review (sort of): The Flashman Novels by George McDonald Fraser

If you have questions about why I put all the Flashman books into one review, a recent blog entry I made about how and why I review books might help.

The recent death of George McDonald Fraser has brought a close (maybe permanent, maybe not?) to this delightful series of books. I have had the pleasure of following this series every since the release of the first book back in the sixties. The Flashman novels combine history (including substantial endnotes) with sex, action, adventure and the secret pleasure of enjoying the exploits of one of the most notoriously popular non-politically correct characters of 20th Century literature. Flashman is a womanizer, a coward, a scoundrel and a cheat, but in the novels, which are all narrated by Flashman himself, he is utterly honest with his readers. He is a man not proud of his faults, but certainly unabashed about them.

The Flashman novels could be dismissed as sensationalized light reading , but Fraser cleverly tied his character into most of the major events of the last sixty years of the nineteenth century, a Victorian Zelig or Forrest Gump. Flashman casually mentions this minor detail or that simple observation, then Fraser in his assumed role as editor of the Flashman papers meticulously explains in the endnotes how these mentions by Flashman confirm the truth of his narrative, since only if Flashman was there could he have known about this fact or that. Fraser's endnotes also round out the historic details of the narrative, giving background and elaboration to the history-as-I-lived-it tales told by Flashman. It all works wonderfully, even if you somewhat suspect that some details are being outrageously fabricated.

I very strongly recommend these books to anyone who has an interest in history and is willing to keep an open mind towards the womanizing and the language (the n-word appears quite a bit, but completely in character for Flashman). I would suggest the best way to read them is in order of publication. This doesn't follow Flashman's own life chronology, but the books published later often make reference to previous editions of the "Flashman Papers" and so is more fun for the reader to follow.

Review (Sort of): The Nero Wolfe Novels by Rex Stout

I almost exclusively read non-fiction. However, there are times when the brain craves something less challenging, like a good detective novel. So a few years ago I started reading the Nero Wolfe novels, written by Rex Stout. Unlike many characters in the detective genre, Wolfe isn't a hard-bitten tough guy or an ex-cop following a different career path. Wolfe in fact is a well educated, very literate man with a vast intelligence and, at least according to his right hand man Archie Goodwin, a vast girth to accompany it. Goodwin is Wolfe's eyes, ears, legs and arms. Besides being handy with a gun and bare knuckles, Archie also takes shorthand, types well and has almost total recall. He is also an unashamed womanizer; well, rather it could be said that he hasn't seen the light of female equality. Overlooking this character flaw isn't too hard, especially when you remember that Stout started the series back in the 1930's when a socially enlightened gumshoe would have been considered not up to the task. Archie is also the narrator of the books, a literary device that works splendidly in this series.

Wolfe and Archie can call on the assistance of the associates, headed by Saul Panzer, perhaps the best shadow man that Archie has ever known. Mr Parker is Wolfe's attorney on call, always ready to bail Archie out of the local lockup or work up the legal rational to assist Wolfe in tippy-toeing round the edge of the law. The law is ably represented by Inspector Cramer and his men; Cramer and Wolfe had butted heads for decades, but they still respect one another, although Cramer lives for the day he can put Wolfe behind bars and keep him there.

As you might tell, I am very fond of these books, having read pretty much every one I could lay hold of. Some of the books are full length novels, some are collections of three or four novellas. Some aren't quite as good as the others, but there isn't a stinker in the bunch. And if you can, look for some of the short story collections. The originals appeared in various magazines throughout the years and occasionally are re-issued in collections.

One more thing. After the passing of Rex Stout, his estate authorized Robert Goldsbourgh to use the characters and style to write more Nero Wolfe novels. I have read one (The Silver Spire) and found it adequate. I might explore others of his, sometime.

Review: Marines Under Armor: The Marine Corps and the Armored Fighting Vehicle, 1916-2000 by Kenneth W. Estes

Marines Under Armor is a history of the development, procurement and use of armor by the United States Marine Corps. Estes traces the origin of armor doctrine and use in the Marines from after the first world war through the end of the twentieth century. Between the world wars the Marines were trying to define their role in the US military and as part of that development the adoption of armor was discussed. As the book relates, the Marines initially tried to procure armor designed to their own unique requirements, but slashed budgets and the lack of a formal operational doctrine eventually drove the Corps to adopt the armored fighting vehicle types of the US Army prior to and during WW2. With the acceptance of the task of amphibious assaults against fortified beaches, the Marines did adopt unique designs such as the armored amphibious tractor. After WW2, during Korea, Vietnam and through to the Gulf War, the Marines maintained the policy of mostly using the same main battle tanks as the US Army. However, the Marines did uniquely adopt the LAV (Light Armored Vehicle) and also continued to develop the amphibious assault vehicle.

The book is more of a scholarly study with a minimum of combat stories and personal tales. A good part of the time we read about congressional hearings and doctrine development, budget concerns and organizational makeups. For the serious student of Marine armor this is a must get book, for the more casual reader this might be too tough a read to enjoy.

Link to LibraryThing entry for this book

New on "My Blog List", TOCWOC - A Civil War Blog

I've added the blog "TOCWOC - A Civil War Blog" to my Blog List. This is Brett Schulte's excellent American Civil War site with book and game reviews and many other items of interest. Well worth the time to read.