Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The bookshelf

Max Hastings, Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945: It's questionable whether the world needed another book on Churchill, but the generally judicious Hastings makes it worthwhile. Sympathetic to the man's greatness without omitting his blunders and failings, Hastings is particularly good on how Churchill's narrow focus on the war sowed the seeds of his 1945 electoral defeat, and on the never-really-friends relations between him and FDR, and the Brits and Americans generally.

Peter Hamilton, The Reality Dysfunction and The Neutronium Alchemist: The first two volumes of a SF trilogy as long as Proust page-wise if not word-wise. Hamilton is one of the Brits who've been rehabilitating "space opera," and does so in this work with a metaphysical twist that comes off better than I would have expected -- indeed, I'm not sure I'd have bought 'em if someone had spoiled the surprise. No great shakes on characterization or style, but he keeps the plot moving and the reader caring.

Theodore Besterman, Voltaire: Why this 1969 classic is out of print, I can't imagine (I actually dropped the NYRB Books folks a line to beg 'em to reissue it if they can). Good luck finding *any* Voltaire bio at your local bookstore; this one's by the editor of Voltaire's correspondence, a scholar whose humane values fit his subject well. I may have an exaggerated sense of Voltaire's historical importance, but values we take for granted today -- free thought, free religion, secular inquiry -- had to be fought for with the pen, and did anyone do more than Voltaire to win those battles?

C.J. Cherryh, Downbelow Station: Not sure how I'd gone so long without reading this (my intro to Cherryh was the Morgaine novels, not the harder SF). A hard-nosed space opera itself, tho with Cherryh's usual difficulty creating interesting aliens (that is a minority opinion, I'm sure). Going to dive into Cyteen next I think.

Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire: More of a book-length essay than a comprehensive history, Heer's book focuses on the Empire as a European ideal. His treatment of the Salians vs. Gregory VI and his cohort is a brilliant little sketch, from which I'd quote if I had the book handy -- he sees Gregory as identifying holiness with monasticism, fatefully making the clergy into monks.

... Steven Englund, Napoleon: A Political Life: Less limited than the title suggests, this is really a biography of Napoleon that uses its subtitle as an excuse for not repeating well-worn accounts of Austerlitz, 1812, etc. This may be the best English-language biography. Recent efforts by Frank McLynn and Alan Schom are respectively too glibly psychological and too contemptuous of the subject. The man was a disaster, but then, so was Julius Caesar, and that doesn't require us to treat Caesar as a proto-Hitler, or to ignore the fascination of his genius and personality.

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