Decent guides to Iceland are thin on the ground, and this looked to be my best bet for a three-day stopover in the country. I drove around using a map...moreDecent guides to Iceland are thin on the ground, and this looked to be my best bet for a three-day stopover in the country. I drove around using a map and this guidebook, mostly. While there were aspects of the guide that I enjoyed, such as the synopses of Icelandic sagas, it could use some updating and fact checking as there seemed to be more than the usual quota of inaccurate information. I worried needlessly over taking a road described as rough, for example, that was in fact paved. The wrong street was listed as the ideal place to view the city and some admission prices had risen, which didn't particularly surprise me. However, what I found most annoying in working with this e-book was that the maps had very poor resolution when expanded on my iPad. As they were essentially unreadable without expansion, this rendered them useless. (less)
I'd brushed up against Marianne North and her paintings at random points - reading of her visit Edward Lear in Italy, her stay with Charles Brooke AKA...moreI'd brushed up against Marianne North and her paintings at random points - reading of her visit Edward Lear in Italy, her stay with Charles Brooke AKA the White Rajah of Sarawak, and her correspondence with such luminaries as Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. I'd even seen reproductions of some of her paintings in books on botanical illustration. But a visit to Kew Gardens this spring brought her more closely in focus, for it is there that a large gallery houses her entire collection of botanical paintings in a somewhat quirky red brick Victorian building.
It was late in the day and an earlier shower had driven most of the visitors from Kew, so I had the gallery to myself. In a reflective mood, I spent some time strolling through the gallery, which is organized by regions that North visited. As a spinster in her forties, after her father's death, she traveled for thirteen years to America, Canada, Jamaica, Brazil, Tenerife, Japan, Singapore, Sarawak, Java, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Seychelles and Chile.
North was fortunate to be well connected and was able to use her family's contacts and letters of introduction as she traveled solo around the world, a rare feat in Victorian times. Often she was away for long periods of time, spending eighteen months in India, for example. A restless spirit, only ill health finally curtailed her travels.
Unlike purely "botanical" illustrators of her time, she often depicted plants in characteristic settings, sometimes with animals, landscapes, and even among people and their dwellings. This charming method of illustration thus provides clues to North's experiences as she traveled the world.
At the end of my day at Kew, I was happy to find this slim volume in the gift shop. It's a sort of hybrid mini coffee-table book -- part biography, part travelogue, part gallery catalog, part art history treatise, and is written a somewhat simple style as if for young readers (North is referred to as "Marianne" throughout, for example), but it gave me a fuller picture of North's life and personality.
My biggest quibbles were that the print in the picture descriptions and sidebars was quite small, which was tiring for my aging eyes, and that after about an half hour's perusal a chunk of the book separated from the binding. Still, this is a lovely keepsake for admirers of North's life and paintings. (less)
What is it with series? I just don't like them, that's what. This third Richard Hannay book was a bit of a letdown, but I couldn't bring myself to rat...moreWhat is it with series? I just don't like them, that's what. This third Richard Hannay book was a bit of a letdown, but I couldn't bring myself to rate it two stars. Really, I'd say 2-1/2.
There were some exciting passages in this book, but overall I found that the faults exhibited in the two earlier Hannay tales, namely a tendency to pontificate on character, fate, and philosophy plus a heavy reliance on coincidence to advance the plot were more pronounced here. Buchan also makes frequent references to events from the previous two books, so this is far from a stand-alone tale.
I also found the love interest subplot fairly cringeworthy. The girl is half Hannay's age, for starters, and so wonderfully clean, wholesome, bright, and fearless that I wanted to strangle her.
The central plot of the book sets Hannay up against his Moriarty, an evil arch-enemy he's crossed swords with in the past. Hannay is sent "undercover" among pacifists and conscientious objectors, which gives Buchan endless opportunity to natter on and on about the National Character. When Hannay waxes philosophical, I just skim. That sort of earnest sermonizing seems to have been as de rigeur as fatuous irony is today.
What is even more predictable are the countless references to "the Bosch" as the evil spies and perpetrators behind all that's wrong with the war effort. After a spell among the pacifists, one of Buchan's trademark chase scenes moves things along at a gratifying pace (though there are, alas, so many fortuitous encounters that the plot is marred considerably). The last part of the book, which takes place in Switzerland and then on the front in France can be a little hard to follow without brushing up on WW1 tactics and battles. At the time this was written (1919), of course, all these events would have been common knowledge.
I have to say, however, that I actually enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself in 1918. These books are very much of their time, and there are many baffling references, some minor and some major, which invariably set me googling. In this novel, for example, I learned that an "Aquascutum" is a type of coat (Hannay mentions the word repeatedly), that there were travel restrictions in place for parts of Scotland during the war (a fact which is central in an extended "chase" scene), that there were about 50 air raids in Britain during the war, and that "Mr. Standfast" is a character in Pilgrim's Progress. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. (It helped that I was reading this e-text on my iPad and could quickly switch over to a browser to consult Google)
Speaking of e-books, a word of warning: I first started reading this from a free e-book I'd downloaded from Barnes and Noble. The text was so badly scanned that virtually every sentence had misspelled words and mangled passages. After about ten pages, I gave up and downloaded a free edition which was almost error-free from Amazon. (less)
As others have commented, the first half of the book, focussing on German pilot Franz Stigler, plods a bit. Things pick up considerably once the focus...moreAs others have commented, the first half of the book, focussing on German pilot Franz Stigler, plods a bit. Things pick up considerably once the focus is on Charlie Brown and his crew.
What struck me most, though, was that this is aimed at a very general (as in junior high and up) audience. Do I need to be told who Rommel and Goering were, for example? World War II buffs will probably be impatient with this elementary background. The style is likewise very basic - short declarative sentences marching one after another. The first half of the book, in particular, seems to be aimed at idiots.
Having said that, I admire how much research went into the book and how thoroughly the author delved into the two pilots' lives. There is, of course, the usual "title inflation" that makes the 10-minute encounter in the skies seem to be the primary focus... but it really isn't. This is a story about how war changed two men and how they came to reconcile their consciences and cope with their feelings. (less)
Primogeniture has much to answer for in British history. The need to find employment for those who would not inherit th...more"What to do with younger sons?"
Primogeniture has much to answer for in British history. The need to find employment for those who would not inherit the estate sent thousands of young men darting about the empire -- but not just the empire, it seems. They were also packed off to America.
While admittedly something of a historical sideline, the exodus described in Prairie Fever is engagingly told. There are the laughably Wodehousian episodes involving fox hunting and amateur dramatic societies out on the prairie, but there are also striking descriptions of the rendezvous of hunters and trappers out in Wyoming and vivid portrayals of aristocrats such as Sir St. George Gore, who viewed the frontier “in purely recreational terms.”
Pagnamenta chronicles more than a minor demographic trend, however. The years from 1832 to 1890 witnessed the conversion of a frontier to homesteads and cattle ranches, many accessible by railway. As this happened, much of the romance that initially drew British aristocrats faded but new financial interests took hold. As the 19th century drew to a close, one British visitor was disappointed upon arrival in Indian Territory to find four native Americans playing an affable game of croquet next to the railway platform. She need hardly need to have left home to witness that. (less)
Moderately enjoyable novel with an unexpected twist at the ending. It brought back distant memories of an era I now only vaguely recall. Ewan's portra...moreModerately enjoyable novel with an unexpected twist at the ending. It brought back distant memories of an era I now only vaguely recall. Ewan's portrayal of the heroine (if she can be called that... more an anti-heroine, really) is refreshingly unsentimental. He does have an uncanny ability to inhabit his female character's heads, a trait he shares with another English novelist I admire from an earlier era, Joyce Cary. (less)
Ebert's elegiac memoir lingered so long over his youth and college years that I began to grow impatient and then irritated. Although I normally enjoy...moreEbert's elegiac memoir lingered so long over his youth and college years that I began to grow impatient and then irritated. Although I normally enjoy Edward Hermann as a reader, his avuncular tone became, in combination with the episodic material, an avuncular drone. About a quarter of the way through the book, I simply couldn't take hearing any more Life Lesson reminiscences and gave up. (less)
This bad-boy memoir is everything you expect it to be and then some. I usually listen to audiobooks while I cook, and the subject matter here, obvious...moreThis bad-boy memoir is everything you expect it to be and then some. I usually listen to audiobooks while I cook, and the subject matter here, obviously, was perfect. Liked this more than Medium Raw, which I'd listened to a few years earlier, out of sequence. Bourdain is highly entertaining as a narrator, one of the few authors I can stand to hear reading his own work. (In fact, I can't imagine anyone else doing it.) (less)
Painstakingly argued, authoritative, original, and engrossing, this is the sort of book that I could read again soon and still profit from. (Which mea...morePainstakingly argued, authoritative, original, and engrossing, this is the sort of book that I could read again soon and still profit from. (Which means, of course, that I couldn't digest everything on the first reading -- but that's my failing, not the author's.)
As many others have commented, the focus here is less on engineers than on how Allied and Axis strategies changed (or didn't) in response to problems and failures. The five central problems Kennedy examines are interlocking pieces of a puzzle: how to get convoys safely across the Atlantic, how to win command of the air, how to stop a blitzkreig, how to seize an enemy-held shore, and how to defeat "the tyranny of distance."
As Kennedy points out repeatedly, the solving of each of these problems increased the ability to solve the others. In the final analysis, the Allies' "war-making systems that contained impressive feedback loops, flexibility, a capacity to learn from mistakes, and a 'culture of encouragement'" assured their victory.
At times Kennedy seemed to downplay the importance of WWII intelligence, which was a disappointment for me as I've long been fascinated by the topic. However, he made a good case that "victory went to the side with the smartest and most powerful weaponry, not the one with the better decrypts."
The chapter I enjoyed the most was the one I knew the least about -- the aerial war. In fact, this chapter so inspired me that I took a trip to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum shortly after I finished the book to look at the WWII-era planes. I'd been there before -- several times -- but after Kennedy's account I viewed the B-29 Superfortress, P-38 Lightning, Focke-Wulf 190 and other aircraft with new interest. But it was the Rolls Royce Merlin 61 engine sitting unobtrusively in a display case of engines that I viewed with most respect.
Kennedy's book bristles with statistics, many impressive and some surprising. I learned, for example, that "in late 1943, new airfields were opening up every six days across the topographically convenient flatlands of East Anglia," a fact which explains something that puzzled me years ago when we lived in Cambridge: there seemed to be disused airfields scattered everywhere in the surrounding countryside.
Books I admire invariably send me on a quest to find out more about the subject. This one, I have to say, has more than succeeded as I now have dozens of new books in my "to read" wishlist concerning WWII. (By the way, if anyone out there can recommend a good book on the convoy battles in the Atlantic, I'd appreciate it.) (less)
This audiobook grew repetitive, I thought, and I found that I really didn't care that much what happened to Mrs. Astor or her son. About a quarter way...moreThis audiobook grew repetitive, I thought, and I found that I really didn't care that much what happened to Mrs. Astor or her son. About a quarter way through, I gave up. (less)
"Peace on earth would mean the end of civlization as we know it."(Joseph Heller)
Okay, now I've finally read it after all these years. And my reaction...more"Peace on earth would mean the end of civlization as we know it."(Joseph Heller)
Okay, now I've finally read it after all these years. And my reaction was.... ambivalence. This is a brilliant but exasperating book, and I'd be on surer footing if I could only figure out if my exasperation is something the author had intended. (I suspect not.)
It's hard to make a balanced judgement about something that has beeen woven so tightly into our collective modern culture, but I'll try.
I greatly enjoyed the first 100 or so pages, when the cast of characters is introduced and the full irony of Yossarian's situation is laid out. Laughing out loud at many points, I found Heller's style fresh and original. I even enjoyed (at first) the use of constant, recursive arguments that went on (and on and on) between the characters. The structure of the book intrigued me -- a series of overlapping vignettes, not chronologically ordered, with frequent mention of events that have yet to be explained. The audacity and originality of it all were more than I'd expected. The war is treated not with realism, but with hyperbole. I couldn't shake the thought that Heller's closest precursors were in Russian literature -- Gogol, in particular. But I could see how groundbreaking the novel must have been when originally released.
But at around page 200, I began to become impatient with the continual dialogues and recurrent discussions between characters. Why did the same events have to be described multiple times, often with little shift in perspective? Almost all the chapters were titled after one of the characters and dealt with one of the key episodes of the book (e.g., the Bologna bombing, Yossarian's various hospital stays, a trip to Rome on leave). Af first I grimly stuck to my belief that this repetition and recursiveness was part of the intent and that I was just missing something. But then I just began to sigh in exasperation. By the end, when Heller began to wantonly kill off most of the flight crews, I was just anxious for it all to end. The ending, which I knew bothered some people, didn't bother me, but the long build up to it did.
So here's my final take: for its original use of black humor, searing portrayal of bureaucratic absurdity, and bizarre, almost cartoonish surrealism, Catch-22 stands as a literary masterpiece. But for its lack of restraint and need for readerly patience, it came up short in my estimation. It felt, to me, like Heller had fallen so in love with his vision that he simply couldn't control himself. I was bedeviled by the feeling that I was missing something, but that left me irritated rather than intrigued. The best I can say is that the book made a very strong impression, as much for its flaws as its originality.
Oh, and one more thing: it's hard for a modern woman not to be put off by the depictions of women (99% whores) in Catch-22. I'm surprised it didn't bother me more than it did, actually. I think I recognized that the women were supernumeraries in this opera and didn't take it too seriously.