Well written, with an interesting concept and characters, but I felt like the book just rushed through it and never managed to give the events any of...moreWell written, with an interesting concept and characters, but I felt like the book just rushed through it and never managed to give the events any of the gravitas they required to pull off the more philosophical points. The most intriguing part was The Company, with its rather subversive, to my experience at least, take on immortality and secret histories, but that remained firmly background, unfortunately. (less)
A cornucopia of interesting information, from the Samurai in 1600's Mexico to the history of the potatoe in Europe to current rubber farming in Laos....moreA cornucopia of interesting information, from the Samurai in 1600's Mexico to the history of the potatoe in Europe to current rubber farming in Laos. However, the books feels a bit like a huge journalistic article that weaves together all these colorful threads into something thats still shy of a coherent argument (unlike 1491, which comes to an intense and precise point,) and is ultimately just a bit too romantic about the idea of the global melting pot. (less)
An attempt to get at the more personal and less well known sides of ww2. Mostly successful. The wealth of quotes, letters and diaries are fascinating,...moreAn attempt to get at the more personal and less well known sides of ww2. Mostly successful. The wealth of quotes, letters and diaries are fascinating, and the book was most interesting, to me at least, when in stayed in that sphere, trying to examine the feelings, loyalties and opinions of ordinary citizens and soldiers and giving some sense of the complexities and contradictions of the war as it was experienced.
For long streches though, Hastings can't seem to help himself and the narrative dissolves again into WW2 as a game of D&D, with this army went here and that army went there, complete with maps covered with spaghetti dishes of arrows. That was a useful objective, that one wasn't. He spends a paragraph noting that it's useless to attempt any ranking of commanders of the war, and then proceeds to give his own over half a chapter.
I think this is a genuine weakness rather than just a mismatch with my interests, becuase the book does proport to attempt to strip away the cliches and glamorous fantasies of the war. I think its successful when it does, describing well shifting allegiances, ambivalent participants, daily tedium and fear and cowardice, (and courage and high ideals too, but often more nuanced and complex than expected) as well as bringing strong accounts of just how horrific the whole thing was. However, sometimes it dives right back into the military history cliches and this vast collections of humans get reduced to masses and statistics and was this general or that tank better or worse. This is boring, but also I think a real disservice to the narrative that Hastings tries to build.
Weirdest thing that has stayed with me: A lion was loose in the subway tunnels during the terrible seige of Budapest. A Soviet tank crew was sent to hunt it down. Was it with the tank?
Quick read. Flashman is an insufferable person, but in a rather neat trick, is self aware, witty and perceptive enough to make reading about him enjoy...moreQuick read. Flashman is an insufferable person, but in a rather neat trick, is self aware, witty and perceptive enough to make reading about him enjoyable. I'm not quite sure where the book fits in, historiographicaly speaking - is the joke on Flashman, for so failing as a human being, or on the whole enterprise of the British Empire, and Flashman merely a healthy and natural product of it? (less)
Jolly and really swashbuckley, with the identity switches and running about in ruined castles as so on. The Marx cameo doesn't quite make up for the l...moreJolly and really swashbuckley, with the identity switches and running about in ruined castles as so on. The Marx cameo doesn't quite make up for the lack imperial criticism though, so I thought it was a bit weaker than the first one, but maybe thats because i've never read the Prisoner of Zenda and didn't know until the appendix it was even riffing off on it. (less)
Very...Ryman. Which is to say it's very good, empathetic and largely bittersweet. Preoccupied with time, death, change, what gives life meaning, how t...moreVery...Ryman. Which is to say it's very good, empathetic and largely bittersweet. Preoccupied with time, death, change, what gives life meaning, how the individual experiences the historic, the impermanence of all things and AIDS. Comes complete with confusing but affecting surrealist bit and twisty narrative structure. Recommended for those who enjoy that sort of thing. (less)
So this turned out to be waaaay more WTF than expected. While also being really fucking boring.
Now, i’m the escapee graduate of a Marxist cult that ha...moreSo this turned out to be waaaay more WTF than expected. While also being really fucking boring.
Now, i’m the escapee graduate of a Marxist cult that hasn’t incorporated a new idea since Warsaw Ghetto fell. I am perfectly at home with the notion that all accounts of history are an ideological construct - including the ones you *(yes, you) hold dear. Since history can never be known, but only abused, you might as well shrug and move on with the brainwashing. So the question then becomes, what is this book arguing for, since we know what it’s arguing against?
Oh, yes, what is it arguing against? Why, other people’s historical memory! This includes, but is by no means limited to: library catalogues, school curricula, folk music festivals, museum exhibits, the official websites of French villages, German towns, Italian cities, Spanish provinces and Belarus. Wikipedia, Google’s search algoriths and hobbyist geneaologists, (lets just say the whole of the internet.) Video games, random maudlin memoirists, tours, brochures, guidebooks, tourist information in fifteen countries, Orhan Pamuk, Voltaire, Isaac Asimov and possibly the Irish.
So what does the book have in it? Each chapter, detailing a poorly remembered, or at least dead, European polity, has three parts. One is a sort of travelogue of the modern region, looking for signs of the past. The second bit, most of the book by volume, is an account of the history of said polity, and the third part is a kind of historical reckoning.
Part one is more interesting as geography than as history and is moderately tolerable if you’re into that sort of thing. Part three is rants at everyone in the universe for failing to remember the exact nomenclature of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Part two is unreadable. I know, becuase I mostly didn’t. It a dust dry, super old school, dynastic history thing. All about who married who and when she died. It gets slightly livelier as move on from dimly chronicled Medieval Angevins or Burgundians or someone and on to more solidly accounted for Habsburgs, Bonapartes and Brabant’s. Then we get a better account of their amusingly inbred degeneracies, idiotic deaths and general inevitable fuckupedness. There’s lots of maps, excerpts, lots and lots and lots of family trees and...oh, yes, theres songs.
Oh, god, not the songs. Provided typically in two or three different languages, we get the nostalgic-nationalist nuttery of every anthen in central Europe since the Vikings invaded. I thought I had seen it all...but then we got to the chapter about Irish republicanism, complete with “Danny Boy” and “Tipperary.”
Wait! You may be saying (yet are probably not,) Ireland?!? The Republic of Ireland? What is a lengthy chapter about a country that appears to be alive and well as of this writing, doing in a book about the obscurely departed? A chapter that covers, no less, that fog shrouded and distant period from 1916 to...2011.
I’ll tell you what it’s doing there. It’s allowing us all to witness a truly glorious, feverish, morbidly gleeful, sweaty rant on the inevitable fall of the United Kingdom. The Irish, y’see, were just the start. Davies cacklingly fantasizes about Scotland taking off, and the Northern Ireland uniting with them (which i’ve never heard before but think is a delightful notion) and then theres a whole new level of pain reserved for the Welsh who’s latent burning nationalism will inevitably arise due to being left alone with the English under a single roof. It’s great.
I might have thought that bit was a bit odd, but it was after the chapter about Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Or, to follow it’s main trajectory, which only skims central Germany in passing, it’s a soliloqy on the wholly un-English un-Englishness of those totally un-English tossers who call themselves the Windsors but are really the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glukburg’s. Not content with pointing this out, we then get an entire page or so of a list of all the German aristos the not-Windsors are more closely related to than they are to the Plantagenets or Alfred the Great or possibly Arthur Pendragon or something. Reading it is rather like trying to read a Berlin yellow pages, which is upside down, and someone is whacking you hard on the head with it.
So what can we learn from this book, except that school children need to think about death more more for a well rounded education and to avoid the fall of western civilization (again)? Monarchies are swell, but only the right sorts of monarchies? The Irish are not to be trusted? Small kindgoms are funny? I have no idea, but I know Norman Davies is no more free from history than the rest of us.
The best single bit is a vintage WW1 Galician joke:
A German officer on the Eastern Front: “The situation is serious, but it is not hopeless.” His Austro-Hungarian comrade, “No, it is hopeless. But it is not serious.”
Well, that was...that. Theres not much to complain about, certainly. Well written, well structured, an indispensable array of Things To Know. As a bro...moreWell, that was...that. Theres not much to complain about, certainly. Well written, well structured, an indispensable array of Things To Know. As a broader political argument though, theres something there that bugs me a bit. Something a bit tepid and disengaged. Like if we could just make all the bad, bad people and their nasty capitalist nationalist systems go away, everyone else would just be revealed as all lovely and moist on the inside and live happily ever after in some sort of anarcho syndicalist utopia. I find it about as convincing as those old, smooth pictures of the future where cities are under domes for no particular reason and everything gets from place to place in tubes. Zinn tells the stories of people, and they're fantastic, but he leaves the system as a machine and never gets into the blood and guts of it.
Or maybe it's just me. Recommended anyway. These are Things to Know. (less)
Got to about halfway, but lost interest. Smoothly enough written, but at some point it becomes more of a direct history than an exploration of space,...moreGot to about halfway, but lost interest. Smoothly enough written, but at some point it becomes more of a direct history than an exploration of space, once it gets bogged down in the world wars. Kind of interesting to see the double layer there - between the period described and the book, but also between 1999, when the book was written, and today. (less)