The Crimean War by Orlando Figes

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Attacking my pile of decade old book purchases I came upon The Crimean War by Orlando Fige and decided that it was time for a change of pace in my reading habits. I am very glad I did so, it was an excellent read and filled in some interesting gaps in my understanding of world politics.

The book starts with a good introduction as to the causes that lead up to the war-the weakening of the Ottoman Empire, Russia’s determination to expand its influence in the Holy Land and Ottoman provinces and most of Europe’s’ distrust of Russia. It was eye opening to learn that in the Holy places in the Near East fights broke out among armed monks and others over which religion would have primacy.flash

Everything I thought that I knew about the Crimean War came from Flashman at the Charge by MacDonald Fraser. Not surprisingly since Fraser also wrote a good deal of history, the parts that he wrote about (aside from Harry Flashman) were very accurate. Included was the incompetence and disagreements of the leaders, the Thin Red Line, and the charges of both the Heavy and Light Brigades. However I had always carried the impression that the English were the primary power fighting and that their allies, primarily France, played a distinctive second fiddle.

Far from the truth. While the English, lead by Prime Minister Palmerston were advocates of a major war against Russian, primarily to defend English trade interests and possessions. However they were not really willing to put the resources into the effort, hoping to get allies to play a major part, which they did. The major victories of the war were achieved by France, and its leader Napoleon III ended up being shown as a shrewd negotiator. The overall ability and competence of the French really surprised me. All I really knew about Napoleon III was his invasion of Mexico and the disastrous war of 1870.

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I had forgotten about its successful invasion of Algeria and thus had an experience, battle harden core in its Zouaves. The military had portable canteens, bakeries, well planned out supply logistics and well staffed and intelligently laid out hospitals. The officers lived close to the men and capital punishment was mostly eliminated. Pretty much all of the opposite was true for the English. In combat they made most of the important gains and became the dominate partner in the allies.

The English, seemingly living off their reputation earned in the Napoleonic wars decades earlier, were to put it mildly, a mess. Corporal punishment was very common, the officers were distant from the men, both culturally and physically, living apart and enjoying a much better lifestyle in camp. Planning from the very senior level on down was almost entirely absent.

The Russians were also resting on their Napoleonic laurels and when faced with modern weapons and tactics failed. In part due to the backwardness of the country, couple with an autocratic leader who seemingly acted on a whim at times. Without a thought to the long term impact of his actions.

The Russians one true advantage was a huge numerical advantage, which was greatly offset by poor medical and logistical issues. Their casualties were between 400,000 and 600,00, compared to the English 28,000.  However they developed a method of battlefield triage that helped save lives that went above what Florence Nightingale did on the Allied side.

One issue that I would have liked was both better maps and have them presented throughout the book rather than at the start. It could be difficult to follow combat on specific days. Overall the Crimean War gives a very good overview of the causes of war, how it was fought, and the near term aftermath. It also shows the lasting impact that the war had on European relations that still affect the world today.

Marines: Crimson Worlds I by Jay Allan

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I saw an offer on Twitter for five free Sci-Fi books if I followed Discover Sci-Fi online. How could I pass up a deal like that? Of course one of these days I will sign up for something without reading the TOC and find I just purchased a time share that has a resident elephant.

One of the novels I received was Jay Allan’s Marines:Crimson Worlds I. It takes place a few hundred years in the future where the Earth, after a series of terrible wars the governments have united into seven superpowers that have expanded to the stars and have taken the strife with them.

The book chronicles the rise of Erik Cain, a street punk who becomes the fastest rising Marine of his generation, becoming a brevet general by the end of the book at age 35. While uneducated after 8 years old that is no problem, Marine boot camp is six years long and you receive the equivalent of a masters degree when you leave. Doing extremely well in his first combat assignments, in part by living, he moves up to the Marine equivalent of West Point and of course graduates top of his class. At West Point, AFAIK, everybody comes out a second lieutenant. But not Cain, he is jumped a grade. And so on.

Aside from my snark I did like the book but did not love it. The main character was kind of vanilla and until almost the end there is no other point of view. What I did like was Cain’s thoughts and feelings in combat, and having read a great deal on the topic when I was younger I felt that it really rang true. It was an easy read and at the end there is a section talking about the remaining superpowers. I liked that better than the usual info dump that books often use at some random point to catch you up on the back story. The Marines in part reminded me of the French Foreign Legion who swear fidelity to the legion not to France. The Marines are loyal to the Corp but drawn from and serving the Western Alliance. They have a strong esprit de corps.

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There were a number of issues that annoyed me. The AI and overall computer and communications systems seemed weak. No androids, cyborgs and very little automatic weapons on the ground? A single man is handling tactics of a vast space fleet engaged in combat with another vast space fleet, with minimal computer input? Current jet fighters seem to have better combat computer systems. The evil government is almost clownishly evil.

The book has a cliff hanger almost at the end and then reveals the plotting of the evil government and what it will mean for the troops and colonies in space. There are a few hints dropped in the book about future events, which seems to me that the author thought out the entire series prior to writing. Seeing as it is a nine volume affair that is probably a very good thing. I suspect that I will at least read one more book in the series and then decide if I want to invest the time for the full series

No Honor in Death by Eric Thompson

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I am always interested in how an author starts out a book. Sometimes it starts with a flashback, or a long introduction of the main players. No Honor in Death starts you out in a middle of a space battle aboard a dying battleship with its shields failing, its weapons controls damaged, the captain dead and the first officer with major injuries. Nothing like jumping into the deep end.

The central character of the book, and the following two in the series, is Captain Siobhan Dunmoore, who after taking over for the dead captain of the Victoria Regina manages to save what remains of the crew after an ambush by the Shrehari Empire. The book follows Dunmoore as she gains a new command, a troubled missile frigate named the Stingray and tracks her battles with foes and supposed friends.

I found Dunmoore to be a great character. Strong, driven and intelligent, she is also battered, almost burned out and tired. The Stingray has a reputation as a jinxed ship and after having three previous ships more or less shot out from under her; she has a cloud of her own to deal with. Her portrayal is what I like in a main character, an interesting combination of strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to recognize both and work with them. Odd personal note the first time I met someone named Siobhan I managed to pronounce the name She-O-bane. That may have been the last time I blushed.

The surrounding cast of characters was also strong. They all develop, often in directions you do not expect. Some develop into more than you expect and some continue to get worse. This goes for the active enemy as well as the allies.

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The book, after starting off in flash bang moves swiftly along. There are a number of themes running through the book that is common to naval combat books such as the Horatio Hornblower and Bolitho books, among others, which in turn were loosely based on real events. I imagine that following similar themes it not due to lack of imagination but that these issues are real life problems for the services. Taking over a divided, unenthusiastic crew after a poor captain’s departure. Check. Unsupporting or actively sabotaging  superiors. Check. A guardian angle in the top brass who believes in you. Check. This is not a criticism, I though Thompson played this out very well.

I also enjoy the layers of the story. The conflict with aliens is just the icing on the cake. New issues arise constantly. Officers that the captain believed she could trust fail her. Others appear to have ulterior motives while helping. Many are enigmas that are slow to show their true colors. Then the enemy has a host of similar if not identical issues.

One thing that stood out for me is the way that the aliens are portrayed. Violent and warlike, but also having many of the same problems that Dunmoore is having. Insulated high command too distant from the reality of combat, lack of focus and prioritization of what is important. An ossified hierarchy that keeps quality officers down if they do not have the correct connections or family back ground. The Shrehari have a feel of Japanese samurai about them, or maybe Kligons.

The arch villain, at least from the acknowledged foe side, has a high level of personal honor and focus to succeed for his nation. He is fighting a command that believes that ships should only fight in one manner, and that his revolutionary tactics, which his foes fear, have to be put aside to follow protocol. This reminded me a great deal of Admiral Lord Nelson’s departure from traditional tactical orthodoxy and the fights he had with high command over his approach.

I have two extremely minor issues with the book. Dunmoore often looks at someone and instantly discerns what is going on in their head simply by looking at their eyes or their expression. It seemed a bit overdone. Also the enemy captain, Brakal, a member of a race that places honor as a very high calling, seems a bit too crude. He rants and insults people constantly. I would thing that someone higher up would simply have him knocked off or that he would be so busy fighting duels that he had no time to command a ship.

I found No Honor in Death a fun action space novel. It moved along very well, had a plausible pot, engaging characters. While similar to others in this genre it was still an enjoyable book on its own merits and I plan to purchase and read the other two books in the series.

Also I am curious about one thing. I read this on my tablet. Does anyone else become obsessed with the little info blurb that tells you how long it will take to finish the book. Wait you mean I just read two pages and it’s now going to take 4 hours 32 minutes when before I read the pages it said 4 hours 31 minutes. Maybe it’s just me.

Juvenal-The Sixteen Satires

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The Sixteen Satires is probably my least liked ancient text that I have read. I have a pretty broad, but not deep, experience reading books not just from ancient Greece and Rome but also Indian, and the Near East.

I understand the importance of his place in history, and the importance that satires have as a literary form, it is just that it seemed like one long rant, like listening to a senile uncle complain about everything, and how nothing is as good as it was in his day.

No one is to be trusted, especially women. He hates gays, Greeks, Egyptians, Jews and probably a host more that I just did not take note of. He dislikes working people and the common man. The aristocracy is no longer filling a number of roles that it should be, and here is where I find it interesting.

He often complains about the changing role of clients to the nobility. At one time they were people that were followers of an aristocrat who in turn fed them and often entertained them. The aristocrats in turn provided him with an entourage that apparently showed to society at large how important that individual was. Juvenal was in the group. He complained that at one time they got great food and good wine, then food baskets and then just cash. He laments that a group has become professional followers and are (apparently) edging out people such as him.

I did learn a good deal about the sordid underside of higher Roman society, even if much of it is a bit sketchy on the facts, and should be questioned. While he presents it as a snap shot of everyday life most reviews I have checked have said that it is nothing of the sort. The book is basically on long litany of complaints and, at least to me, got very tedious.

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Another point not in favor of the book was the translation. I understand that translation is an art, and that often each generation gets a new one that reflects in some ways the current culture as well as what is being translated. I took Latin in high school and struggled mightily with Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, with results that often did not match what Caesar was saying. However translating a Latin phrase into a French one does not seem quite kosher. But that is one of the minor complains that I have.

The Romans did not have problems with the Prussians nor with the Moors. They did not use farthings or gold guineas. I am pretty sure that people who went to the race track (why not use hippodrome since most people reading this would know what that was?) did not wear track suits. The list goes on and on. For a book such as this I am assuming it is for more than the casual reader and they understand who any of the tribes the Romans dealt with as well as terms that deal with items used in daily life such as coinage. It takes away from the feel of the book by using 20th century terms instead.

The version I read was a Penguin Classics translated by Peter Green. I was interested to note that in looking at a review for a more recent translation by Green he laments the liberties he took with the version that I read, so I might give it a second look but honestly I doubt it.

I am sure that there are positives from the book that I did not take away. It did help refresh my memory about some of the short lived Emperors of this time, but right now that is pretty much all I can say. Well that and I discovered De Bello Africa, about Caesar’s campaigns against his republican enemies in Africa.

Happy New Years

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It has been years since I made a real New Year’s resolution. The only ones I seem to be able to keep are ones like “I will eat more cookies” or “drink more beer.” Neither of which are in the spirit of what the resolutions are about. However those are ones that are within the realm of my abilities to meet. Not one such as lose all of the weight that I gained due to baking 15 dozen cookies over the holidays.

I am taking the leap this year and the difficulty level is 1. I want to read all of the books I have received as presents over the past few years. They are piling up and it’s not that they are not interesting, it’s just that others then get piled on top and I never seem to get to the bottom.

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I was twice embarrassed over the recent holidays by friends and family asking what I thought of a book someone had given me. In both cases I had not yet gotten around to reading them. To add insult to injury in both cases I was discussing some book that I had read. I know that this is just a prioritization of my reading list, which is if I had an actual list. In my defense I do not ignore all of the books, and have read a number of them, just apparently the ones that no one ever asks about again.

I just took an inventory of the books that fall into this category that are on the end table next to my sofa. I did not have the courage to look at the table in the bedroom or the bookshelves down stairs. Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson, Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James Hirsch, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning  of the Great War at Sea by Robert K Massie, QB: My Life Behind the Spiral by Steve Young, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety  by Eric Schlosser, Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson and Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years by Mark Lewisohn

Speaking of New Years, I think all of the years I spent watching old Hollywood movies that had holiday parties has skewed my vision of what a New Years Eve party should be like. People dressed to the nines, funny hats, and lots of champagne, hilarity and hijinks. Instead they look like a church potluck, simply with more booze. It’s interesting how movies shape your vision of the world. When I was young I was surprised to find out that my father, who basically only wore suits and ties, and I have never seen him in a tee shirt to this day, did not have a top hat and tails like Fred Astaire. I thought everybody went to glittering balls and danced the night away. Reality can be so disappointing

Odd note of the week: Did you know that the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious means a fanciful formation and the word’s first documented use was in 1949?

Are you planning on mafficking this holiday season?

I often wonder how words end up becoming words. Also how they go out of use as well as how they came into use. Some are pretty obvious such as SCUBA and other acronyms that then take on a meaning. Not the history of every single word is interesting, and many that are are of no interest to me. However I came upon one that combined this interest with my love in history.  The latest is maffick. I have never encountered it before and doubt I will again, but it has an interesting history, according to A.Word.A.Day.

First what does it mean? I would be shocked if anyone knew and I asked a couple of friends from England and they had no clue. It is defined as to celebrate boisterously.  It comes from the breaking of the 217 day siege of the South African town of Mafeking on May 17, 1900 during the Boer War, (technically the Second Boer War.)

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I was aware of the war after finding a copy of Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War at the old Recycle Bookstore in downtown San Jose. It was the first time I had read anything about Africa aside from Tarzan novels and generic histories of Egypt. There was a whole world of colonization, Imperial policy, war and the use of concentration camps on civilians that I was completely unaware.  I still have the book somewhere in the house under stacks of other books that I will probably never read again and yet do not wish to give up.

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One of my favorite words in this category is gerrymander. I think that most people know that it means to manipulate the boundaries of a electoral district so that it favors a specific party or group. However I learned years ago that it was a portmanteau consisting of the words salamander and the last name of then Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. He redistricted the state to benefit his party in 1812 and someone noted that a few districts looked like salamanders. As a footnote it worked quite well for Gerry’s party.