What I’m Reading Now…

Thursday, 23 October 2014, 20:26 | Category : Books, History, Life
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is a lot of Cold War spy stuff. Novels – The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Non-fiction – Legacy Of Ashes (not just Cold War, but that was the driving force behind my picking it up), The Art Of Betrayal. It’s not coincidence. After reading several books about the period leading up to World War I, and the war itself, I was looking for a new genre. And despite all the books I’ve read through the years, spy fiction and non-fiction was something I rarely delved into, unless you count some Tom Clancy novels during the 80s and 90s. But while I liked Clancy’s stuff early on, there came a point, I think probably with Debt Of Honor, when it felt like Clancy would get two-thirds of the way through a book, get bored, and decide to just wrap it up. But I digress….

I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. As an elementary school student in the early-mid 1960s, I lived in a world of atomic-bomb tests (we, students and teachers alike, still called them atomic bombs then, although I’m pretty sure everything was thermo-nuclear by then) and Civil Defense signs, and fallout shelters. A family up the street from us had a fallout shelter in their back yard. I never saw the inside – I never knew the family – but you could see the entrance to the shelter through their carport. All of those things were constant reminders that the Godless Russians might very well one day decide to blow us all to Kingdom Come. It was a strange time, I guess. We were not far removed from World War II, although at the time that seemed like ancient history. But we were only 20 years beyond that catastrophic struggle. Now I look back on things 20 years past, and I wonder about all the men and women – our fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles – who served or just lived through it, and I think about things that are now only 20 years in my past, and I think how strange it must have been for them. Maybe strange isn’t the right word, but there they were, just two decades past an event that dwarfs anything I’ve experienced in my life, and yet the world they made for us was so normal, so seemingly free of problems. Except that atomic bomb thing. And then Vietnam, which was piped into our living rooms every evening at 5:30. My idyllic existence began to crumble a bit then, as I approached the teenage years, then the later teenage years, then draft eligibility. Vietnam was winding down by the time I was actually eligible, in 1972, but it was a cloud hanging in the distance during my high-school years. It was the Cold War turned hot, on the other side of the world.

So the Cold War has always held a certain fascination for me. What would have happened if it had ever really turned hot? What if Soviet armor had come pouring through Fulda Gap? I’ve read many books about what might have happened in a World War III. But the actual conflict was played out in the shadow world of espionage and counter-espionage. And so, when I went looking for a new subject area for reading, Cold War spies were waiting. And there’s something else at play here, I think. The conflict between the West and the Communist Bloc, frightening though it was, seems so much simpler and more understandable than the world we’re in today, with religious fanaticism and Third-World nationalism fueling an ever-changing set of enemies that don’t match up well with our traditional means of applying resolutive force. It’s almost a sense of nostalgia for a conflict that made more sense, even if the potential for national destruction was much, much higher. So, for now, I’m reading about Cold War spies. Duck, and cover.

The 10 Books Meme

Wednesday, 27 August 2014, 16:01 | Category : Books
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Currently appearing on Facebook is a meme wherein you list 10 books that have stayed with you. No, I haven’t been tagged, and no, I don’t mind that I haven’t been tagged. My first thought was, how would I possibly narrow it down to 10? And if I did, within the hour that list would have changed a dozen times. And really, if you’re a reader, then that list should be changing constantly. Certainly there are books that would stay with you, but that should be a living, breathing, changing set. And if it’s not more than ten books, you haven’t read enough to be making such a list. Yes, I know, I’m coming across as an intellectual snob here, but I don’t think I am. Not really. Reading has always come to me as easily and subconsciously as breathing and eating. It’s just something I’ve always done.

My wife read some of the lists from Facebook to me. I could pick out the English teachers there – lists full of high school required reading or books that should have been. And then there are the people who use that kind of list to tell people about the books they think people would say they should have read, the “I read ‘War And Peace’ one rainy weekend” types. Although I’m sure that’s possible – I read both volumes of William Manchester’s ‘The Glory And The Dream’ over an extended weekend in my twenties, during a time when I was a socially hopeless book nerd (today I’m only a somewhat socially hopeless book nerd). But I know some of those people, and I’m pretty sure they all haven’t read “The Brothers Karamazov”. Go ahead, admit that you read “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and liked it. We all did, back in the Seventies. We got better.

So, if I did make such a list, what books would be on it? Lots of history books. You could get a good idea of what that list would look like by browsing the Books category on this blog. But just an idea, not a definitive list. ‘Lord Of The Rings’ would definitely be on there. And, as I said, lots of history books. Maybe I’ll make a list. Most likely, though, I would end up moving on to new books before I finished. Speaking of which, I’ve been reading a series of books on the period from roughly 1875 to 1920, which have conspired to convince me that many, if not most, of the problems we’re dealing with in the world right now can trace their origins back to those years, when the European powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Belgium – were either pulling back from their colonial empires or having those colonies taken away by force. So many arbitrary “national” boundaries were drawn by people who had no feel for the regional and local dynamics, and were trying to further agendas that wouldn’t have cared anyway. “The Guns Of August”, “Sleepwalkers”, “The Vertigo Years”. Now I’m in a fiction mode, and I’m reading, for the first time, Cold War spy novels, harkening back to a time when we had one Big, Bad Enemy that frankly made more sense to use than the world we have now. I just finished Le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”. Now I’ve started “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. From there, who knows. It will be a list of its own.

The Dog Stars

Friday, 26 October 2012, 21:00 | Category : Books
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I saw The Dog Stars in a local bookstore recently – I have to admit the cover is what drew me, it reminded me of the star maps in a stargazing book I had as a kid – and asked one of the ladies behind the counter what she knew about it. She recommended it highly, so I checked it out of my local library (don’t feel bad for the bookstore, I was there buying another book). I’m now maybe 50 pages into it. I’m finding it both hard to put down, and a little difficult to read. Not because of the plot, but because of Heller’s writing style. I haven’t read anything else by Peter Heller, so I don’t know if all his books are like this, but his style in this book tends to be choppy, some of the sentences incomplete, some run together. But the story is really intriguing, so I just keep on reading. I guess that’s the mark of a good book, that you read it in spite of itself. But as I said, I’m only about 50 pages in, so I suppose it could go either way – I could get tired of the style and stop reading, or I could get used to the style and keep on. I suspect it will be the latter, because it’s really a good story.

Random Reading

Tuesday, 9 November 2010, 21:55 | Category : Books
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Through my years of going to the library, I’ve observed that some days I can’t find anything I want to read. And some days, it seems like the books practically throw themselves off the shelves at me. Those are actually not much more enjoyable than the days when I can’t find anything to read. And reading is a big part of my life. I’ve always read – history, science, politics, philosophy, science fiction, some fantasy, some other fiction – there aren’t many genres that haven’t interested me. I’ve spent many hours seeking my “next book”. I’ve found it in many ways – a new book by a favorite author, a continuation of a series, a new history book. But a few weeks ago, I found my “next book” in a rather extraordinary way. My wife is the librarian at a local high school. Some of the students started a book club earlier this year. After they finished their first book, they were trying to decide on the second. They went through several suggestions, without coming to a decision. Finally one student got up, walked over to the nearest shelf, and simply grabbed a random book. That became their next book, and they loved it. My wife decided to read it, and she loved it. She kept trying to get me to read the book, and finally I picked up a copy at the public library. And discovered that I love the book.

There’s something you need to know about this book. It’s “targeted” at the young adult/teen audience. I found my copy in the juvenile section of the library. But it’s one of those rare books that transcends age brackets. The book is “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. It’s a World War II story about a young girl in Germany, her foster parents, and the people of the small town outside Munich where she lives, narrated by Death. And it’s a fascinating book, one of the best fiction books I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended.

Russia’s War

Tuesday, 10 August 2010, 17:40 | Category : Books, History
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I recently finished reading “Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet Effort: 1941-1945“. I’ve read many books on World War II, from many perspectives, but I’d never read one on the part of the war that involved Germany and the Soviet Union. I realize now that part of the reason for that is the lack of information about the Soviet effort prior to the fall of that nation in 1991. With the archives more accessible, a book like this one could be written. I knew from earlier reading that the Soviets contributed massive numbers of men to the war, but reading this book made me appreciate what they did far more than before. As a good American son of a World War II veteran, I grew up firmly ensconsced in the belief that the United States saved the Old World by overwhelming the Germans, Italians, and Japanese when they had the Allies pinned back against the wall. Accounts like the one in this book, however, make you question some things. At the time of the Normandy invasion, the Soviets were facing four to five times as many German troops as the US, British, and other Allied armies. The strength of the German army was being, and had been for a year, sapped in the East. I’m not belittling the efforts of the United States and Britain, but an honest assessment has to give the Russians their due. The United States truly was the Arsenal of Democracy, but the Russians supplied the bulk of the manpower and suffered the most casualties by far. Their industries turned out amazing numbers of tanks, guns, and other military hardware, by devoting nearly all their industrial capacity to the tools of war. But they were able to do this because the United States provided much of the remaining goods needed by a nation. In all ways, it was a combined effort.

But I knew much of that already, for the basic facts of manpower and casualty numbers were known. There was something else that caught my attention. During the 1960s and 1970s, when the Cold War was churning, it was always acknowledged that in the event of the Cold War turning hot, the Soviets would have a huge edge in manpower and tanks. The “party line” I always heard, however, was that the US and NATO would be able to balance that with the greater innovation and resourcefulness that would be inherent in “our” side, because of the differences between our respective societies, free world versus regimented, totalitarian world. But what struck me in this book was how, in the early days of the German attack on the Soviet Union, how junior and mid-level officers were able to change strategy and tactics to adapt to changing battlefield conditions, often in the absence of communications with higher command. It made me think that, in yet another way, it was a very good thing that the balloon never went up.