Tag Archives: Anthony Beevor

My Five Books of 2021

I am still running an bit behind on my usual end of the year posts, though this time I am going to blame Good Reads because the email reminding me about my year in reading review failed to show up in my inbox.

2020 plus 1

It got lost somewhere along the way, but the report itself was generated and available to view off of my profile page on the site once I realized it had gone missing and went to go find it.   You can look at it yourself if you so desire, of just look at the summary below if you prefer.

My summary for 2021

At this point, like so many other annual posts, I have started to build a history that you can go back and look at for comparison.

But, generally speaking, I read about the same number of books and the same number of pages as I have done in previous years, which kind of surprised me because there were stretches of 2021 where I really wasn’t in the mood.

But I did have a burst of reading at the end of the year that probably made up for the slow points along the way.

The other thing about 2021 was that it involved a lot of returns to books I had already read.  The year started off with the final book of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, which always feels deceptively short after the first two books, and not just because it is padded out with more than 100 pages of appendices.  The main thread of the story, the fate of the one ring, wraps up fairly quickly and then, in a turn that few authors would bother with (or maybe few publishers would allow), we spend about half of the book with everybody wrapping things up, going home, and getting back to their daily lives.

So now I have to set about picking out my five favorites of the year, which has become the custom around here, and the choices are not easy.  I could very easily list ten or a dozen that I enjoyed, but picking just five makes me consider my choices and juggle often conflicting criteria.

This is all complicated a bit by the fact that, as with the academy awards, more recent titles figure more prominently in my memory than things I read last February or March.  Though, to counter that, anything that I do recall from ten or eleven months back must have been pretty good to still be in my head.  Then again, as I mentioned above, I went through a spate of comfort re-reading of titles for which I had fond memories, so they also loom larger in my brain.

In the end, I picked five, as the title suggested.  But I vacillated on which five a few times before finally landing on this five… though, given another day I might have swapped out four of them for something else.  It has been that sort of year.

The winners in advance

Crete 1941: The Battle and the Resistance

Not the first time Anthony Beevor has come up here on the blog.  As I have said in the past he writes with such a deft combination of depth and accessibility, looking at both individual stories and the overall picture that it is quite easy to become engrossed in the tales he recounts.  As usual, he starts in with how Crete become a focus of the war, the personalities who guided the battle, the pasts that shaped them, and the lead in as to how they came into conflict.  The campaign in the Mediterranean was a British fiasco and a strange cast of characters, from the classical gifted amateurs to the bumbling professionals, wander in and out of the drama.  And then there are the residents of the island itself who resisted the Germans during and after the battle and who paid a price for their stubborn determination.  Crete doesn’t rank up with Stalingrad, Berlin, Normandy, or Arnhem, other battles Beevor has covered, in scope or scale.  But his work is of such quality that tale itself outweighs the significance of the struggle.

De Gaulle

Unlike Anthony Beevor, Julian T. Jackson was unknown to me until I picked up him biography of Charles De Gaulle.  The book is long, detailed, and occasionally a bit frustrating to read, though that is more the fault of the subject than the author.  Charles De Gaulle was a difficult man and, as such, the tale of his life must include him being difficult… difficult, proud, haughty, and more than a bit antagonistic at times towards people you might see as his only allies.  Noted mostly in retrospect for being a proponent or armored warfare before the war broke out, he fled to England when France capitulated to the Germans in 1940, refusing to give up the fight.  Starting with almost nothing in London, where the British government didn’t quite know what to do with him, complicated relations with the Vichy government of France as he did, he became the living epitome of the French nation and its redemption after its humiliation, carried on by ego and determination as much as anything.  He shaped post-war France and his influence is felt even today.  The book charts his career, his many ups and downs, his difficult relationships with others, and his strongly held beliefs that guided him when things were darkest for France.

Bored of the Rings

I am clearly past the serious titles now.  Written by Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney of the Harvard Lampoon in 1969, it is a parody of The Lord of the Rings that derives its humor from more angles than you might think.  The names of most every thing, the attitudes, the flow of the tale, even the forward are all send ups of the original that are both humorous and yet betray an affection for the original work that is hard to describe.  There is even a parody of the map of Middle-earth in the same style as the original.  And, in an odd parallel to the work it parodies, it has remained in print since it was first published.  You can buy a new copy from Amazon today, though I still have two copies of sitting on my bookshelf.

It is also hard to describe the influence this silly book has had on my sense of humor and personality.  It along with Mad Magazine and Catch-22 no doubt combined to give me the rather cynical eye which I posses along with the ability to laugh at the absurdities of life.  The book is also something of a test.  People who get upset about this book because they feel it tarnishes the original on which it was based are clearly too self-serious to be around.

In 2021 I picked up the audiobook version, which has been updated and annotated because some of the humor in the book depends on consumer brand names that were popular when the book was written, many of which have fallen by the wayside.  But even the annotations cannot take themselves seriously and the both educate and add to the humor.

Bill the Galactic Hero

Another oldie, though this one was more difficult to find.  My well worn copy of this Harry Harrison classic is no longer legible after all of these years and it has been out of print for ages.  In addition, a series of very poor follow on titles in the series “co-authored” by other writers (which is to say written by somebody else) are still hanging around, all with Bill the Galactic Hero in the title.  Accept no substitutes, no Planet of the Robot Slaves, which is at times listed as Book 1 (and was the only one Harrison was involved with), or other entries in the series.  Only the original will do.

After quite a bit of digging I was eventually able to find an ebook version of it, and it was worth the effort.  Bill the Galactic Hero is a parody of the then popular jingoistic nationalism that was being portrayed in titles like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the pretension of SciFi coming out of its golden age, as well as the general attitude of the US government as it blundered its way into the 1960s.

The tale follows Bill (later reduced to Bil, because only officers get two Ls in their name) who is shanghaied from his life on the farm and inducted into the military of the empire, another body to be expended in the empires war against the Chiggers, a four armed reptilian species that is in a life and death struggle with humanity.  He is fed through the system, manages to show some minor competence in a battle, is decorated, gets lost on the capital planet, is declared AWOL, gets caught, punished, and put through the wringer, discovering the truth about the war along the way.

The Frontlines Series

In a bit of a cop out, my last entry is seven books (and a short story), all of which I read towards the end of the year.  In an age of binge watching I did a bit of binge reading.  The series by Marko Kloos follows Andrew Grayson, who grows up in the welfare complexes of the North American Confederation, the political entity that rules the US, Canada, and at least part of Mexico in the future.  With no hope of work, he applies to the military, which is extremely selective about the candidates it accepts.  Those who are allowed in must pass a rigorous training cycle, from which they can be washed out for any reason.  But the benefits include real food, rather than the soy based rations of the welfare complexes, an enlistment bonus payable if they complete their term of service, and a sense of purpose in their lives.  Grayson makes the cut… he’s the main character, so duh… and ends up in the armed forces of the NAC, which primarily fights against the Sino-Russian alliance or their own citizens when they rise up in protest.

And then aliens show up.  Incomprehensible, huge, and technologically advanced beyond humanity, they start taking human off world colonies one by one as Earth tries to come to grips with this mortal peril.  There is no communications, these aliens just land on the colonies, gas the settler concentrations, then setup terraformers that quickly change the atmosphere into a carbon monoxide mix that is unbreathable by humans.  And, of course, they are heading towards Earth eventually.

The series follow Grayson and his time in service, fighting human as well as alien enemies.  I mentioned in the first book in a post back in 2014 about titles that were kicking off series.  As I said back then, it isn’t hard scifi and it doesn’t get too bogged down in the how or why of technology.  It is, like a lot of good scifi, an exploration of society, trends, and how humans behave under extreme circumstances.  And the series is compelling and an easy read.

Honorable Mentions

Here is where I try and do an end run around picking just five titles, and I am going to pick out two… though which two?  I had a hard time with even that.  But here is what I have.

The first is The World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G. J. Meyer.

I have read a lot of books about WWI.  It was such a seminal event at the opening of the 20th century that at times it seems like every historian feels the need to take a crack at some aspect of it.  But it is difficult to walk the line between too abstract from the horrors of the war and being too mired in the details of battle in crafting a general history of the war.  But, of the attempts I have read, this one threads the needle between the two extremes… managing to get into enough detail, keeping abreast of all fronts, and discussing the politics behind and around the war… better than anything I can recall.

And my other pick, which is also from the military history pile, is Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II by Jeffrey R. Cox.

This is the opposite of The World Undone, mired in detail about what has become something of an obscure campaign at the start of the war in the Pacific.  Lots of facts and tactics and equipment along with an exploration of the personalities and the politics that motivated them.

How good was this book?  Well, on my bookshelf I also have a copy of The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II by W.G. Winslow, which is a solid telling of the campaign already, though focused more on the US aspect of it specifically.  I felt like both books together gave depth to the tale the way that two speakers spaced just right give you stereo sound.  They overlap significantly, diverge occasionally, but provide something akin to a stereoscopic view of events.

There is one person who might read this for whom that second honorable mention was for.

And that was it for 2021.  Now we’re in 2022 and I am off and looking for the next title to read.

My Five Books of 2020

Once again into a review post for the year 2020.  This time I am back with the books I read in 2020 and my attempt to pick the top five.

Here again the Goodreads site was there to help me remember what I read, because some of it seems so long ago.  That is the 2020 effect.  The joke going around is that in the future there will be historians who will focus just on specific weeks of the year, or even single days, as their entire field of study.

It was a tough year for reading mostly because 2020 broke all my routines.  The kid was home from school, my wife was pretty much out of work, I was working from home every day, there was no going out to dinner or movies or much in the way of out of the house recreation.

I feel like I mostly watched television, enough that I have multiple blog posts on that topic.

But going to my profile page over at Goodreads shows I did read some books, and the summary they put up shows I read about the normal number of titles… 31… though the page count was a bit shy of past year.  You can see the summary here.

Mu summary, not as fun as last year’s

And the page count is a lie.  There were a number of books in there that I stopped reading before I was finished.  There were too many interruptions and too much going on for me to focus on a book at times.  2020 was the year of doom scrolling Twitter for the latest bad news.

And picking five books out of those 31… not easy, or very easy, depending on how I look at it.  I was able to pull four from the list very quickly, but then there was a multi-dimensional tie for fifth place.  A lot of titles on the list were the reading version of comfort food in hard times, but something in my brain feels the need to put one of the tougher reads on the list.  I mean, my picks from last year were so very serious, as was the list from the year before.  Also, William Gibson made both of those lists.

Anyway, I came up with five.  I’ll let you figure out which one was the final addition to the list.

the 2020 five

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Clearly in the comfort category, I went back to the first three titles in the Douglas Adams classic series at the beginning of the year, back when the fires in Australia seemed like the biggest problem the world might face.

What to say about these books?  If you are of my generation you probably love them or don’t care for them at all.  I actually read the initial book when it was first released in the US because my grandmother was a high school librarian… back when you needed a masters degree in library science for the position, had to teach classes, run the library, and be an expert in all the odd-ball media formats that were there to supplement the books… used to hand me titles to read before she put them into general circulation.  I was the litmus test for approval somehow.  (Same story for Fast Times at Ridgemont High.)  I read it and gave it my thumbs up, and so it ended up on the shelves.

Anyway, I have the unabridged, unedited (that initial US version had a few omissions) audiobook versions read by Douglas Adams that I sat and listened to at the start of the year and enjoyed the hell out of.

The 2020 Commission Report

Or, to give you the full title, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel.  Written by Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear proliferation researcher whose Arms Control Wonk podcast I listen to regularly, and published back in 2018, the book charts a chaotic and self-serving set of policies and responses by Donald Trump in the midst of a nuclear crisis. Some felt the books representation of Trump was implausibly and ludicrously overblown at the time.  And then, of course, 2020 came and the administration actually faced a real test and failed tragically.  Even now Trump is trying to undermine the electoral process to support his ego, even as his own appointees in the administration and judiciary oppose him.  In hindsight, the book was probably too kind to him.

The Battle of Arnhem

Back to Anthony Beevor, who writes military history that is both incredible in its depth and its accessibility.  He has tackled topics where I felt I have read it all before and make them feel fresh, as he transitions very well between overall objectives and the stories of individuals in the fight.  As with his books around the battles at Stalingrad, Berlin, and Normandy, you may have read about them before, seen the movies, and watched the documentaries, yet you will find something fresh and new in his recounting.   The only exception is his book on the Spanish Civil war, but that was an early work of his and covers a tedious and depressing topic. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is really all I need on that front.

The Cold War: A New History

One of the tenets of writing history is that it can’t really be done until those whose names an reputations are tied up with events have passed away.  We are just starting to get there when it comes to the Cold War, or at least the start of it, set in the post-war era as it was.  This book feels like a fresh telling of that era and the policies, goals, and ambitions that drove it.  I very much went into my reading daring it to tell me something I didn’t already know and found that the author was able to assemble things I did know into a more unified narrative that I would have considered.

The Fellowship of the Ring

Chicken soup for the soul here.  I used to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings every three or four years starting in the early 80s.  That stopped somewhere in the late 90s and I think perhaps I have been getting my fill of Tolkien via movies and Lord of the Rings Online since then.  But here, in the dark days at the end of 2020, with the pandemic surging out of control and Trump trying to destroy democracy to assuage his bruised ego, aided by many willing enablers, going back into Tolkien’s words was like sitting down in a favorite armchair on a comfortable Sunday afternoon and relishing the luxury and ease of the day.  My main concern is that I burned through this book so fast, leaving the only the remaining two… and the third book is so short, padded by the vast appendices.  I suppose I shall just have to dig through those once more, or pick up The Silmarillion, though that have never been half as satisfying.  I may have to write a follow up post once I am done.

And so it went in 2020, where the list of titles I read wavered between current events and dystopian themes and old standbys that I could hide in away from the world for a bit.

Honorable Mention:

A People’s History of the United States

What to say about this book?  It is something of a contrarian look at US history, which I can see a reason for, since the teaching of US history through high school… you get US history every other year in some form… can be lacking.  Also, every other year you have to unlearn something you were previously taught because the earlier teacher was dumbing something down to your grade level.  This book is the dark side of US history and actually had some things I did not know or only knew about very superficially.

The issue is that the author, like many who feel they are revealing truth to deceived, drives forward with a sense of superiority and a need to throw mud at everything at times.  This only became irksome for me when he spent half a chapter going after Lincoln because his priority list had “preserve the union” one spot above “abolish slavery.”  I mean, if the union fell apart he couldn’t really end slavery in the slave states that left, now could he?  And, in the end, he did end slavery, so he got there, though the road was neither easy nor straight.  But somebody is salty that his motives were not pure enough.

Still, it is a very American book.

For Specific Definitions of “Kindly”

In which I attempt to get a “serious” book out of my system.

A few years back Anthony Beevor, whose historical works I respect and enjoy, had  a list up in the Wall Street Journal of what he considered to be the five best works of World War II fiction.  The list included Life and Fate, Catch-22, Sword of Honor, Fortunes of War, and The Kindly Ones.

Since I had read, or at least attempted to read, the first three on the list (Life and Fate, bookmark in place, is still on my nightstand), I figured I ought to dive into the over two.  Fortunes of War represented a commitment to a new series, while The Kindly Ones was a single novel, newly out in paperback, and available at a discount from yet another local bookstore going out of business.  Plus it was by the son of another author I like, Robert Littell.  Decision made.

The Kindly Ones is a disturbing book.  I could not recommend it in any general way.

I feel compelled to write something about the book, yet at a loss as to what to say.

The book is, by turns, fascinating, disturbing, bizarre, dull, and maddening.  Full marks to the author for evoking emotional responses.  But what was it really about, why would Anthony Beevor recommend it, and why was it even written in the first place?

On the surface, the book is about Max Aue and what he did during the war.  It starts with an address to the reader from Max about his post-war life and his purpose in writing what is, within the frame of the book, his autobiography.  He wants to write out his tale for his own benefit and strives to be… claims to be… as close to the truth as he can, since he is not trying to justify his actions for anybody.

The tale of Max tells begins in Nazi Germany, where he is a bright young man with a doctorate in law.  He is of mixed German and French origin and spent much of his youth and schooling in France.  He is fluent in both German and French.  AMax is also a homosexual, which puts him at great risk in this time and place.

Max is fervent Nazi as well and believes fully in the vision of the future put forth by Adolf Hitler.  His German father disappeared after the First World War when fighting with the Freikorps in the east and assumes a legendary role in Max’s personal beliefs.  He resents his mother for remarrying, and all the more so in that she chose a Frenchman and moved him and his sister to France.  He sees his future in Germany and moves back there as soon as he can.

He ends up in the SS after a shove in that direction from a benefactor who bails him out after he is picked up loitering at a spot known to be used by gay men to hook up.  Max is a diligent, dedicated, and thoughtful officer in the SS and is exceedingly bad at the bureaucratic games in the organization.  He ends up at various points in the war… in the Einsatzgruppen in Southern Russia, at Stalingrad, helping administer the deportation of the Hungarian Jews, and at the fall of Berlin… and runs into various famous names… Himmler, Speer, Eichmann… while trying to get his various assignments done.

For example, with the Hungarian Jews, Max is working with Speer who wants slave labor to support the war effort, but that means keeping the Jews in good health.  Meanwhile, Eichmann, who is running much of the operation, just wants to make quota and stay under budget.  So conditions for the Jews are hellish and most arrive unfit for work and are sent to be gassed.  Max accepts this with the same level of disappointment a shopkeeper might show if he received a shipment of fruit that had gone bad and needed to be thrown away.

Max isn’t completely immune to the horrors.  He begins to be physically ill when part of the Einsatzgruppen and is sent off to recuperate.  But he is mostly worried about himself, doing his job well, some close friends, and whether he can seduce some Wehrmacht officer or another.  Add in his being a suspect in a bloody double murder, the nature of his relationship with his sister, and the astronomical act of betrayal he commits to survive the war and you want to grab him, shake him, and scream about seeing the bigger picture.

Which is, of course, quite easy in hindsight.  We know how the story in the bigger picture ends, who wins, who loses, and can make judgements on right and wrong from the comfort of our living rooms as we go about our lives, swimming with the current of history and barely making any sort of ripple.  And it goes towards the author’s stated intent in writing the book, which is spelled out in the Wikipedia article on it; he wanted to explore what he would do in that situation.  I am not sure that he shared the result of his exploration.  It was left with the reader.  What would Nazi Germany and the SS be like from the inside at the time and how would different people react?  And in Max’s career he runs into a wide variety of motivations, fervent Nazism being in the tiny minority.

Fine, each author has his or her own motivation.  But why would Anthony Beevor, a noted and respected historian, recommend this book?  It isn’t a book of history any more than Gone with the Wind.  I can go to my bookshelf and pick up Martin Gilbtert’s tome The Holocaust and find a different, and well documented, narrative around events through which Max passes.

I suspect that the book was recommended because of its portrayal of individuals.  Anthony Beevor’s work is full of references from individual observers, each with their specific point of view.  This adds both flavor and a human layer to his work that helps make them approachable by layman like myself.  So I think the portrayal of Germans, Nazis, SS members, and the occasional member of the Nazi Party elite as individuals, each with their own point of view motivation and what not… just like any human being… as opposed to a jackbooted army of identical cardboard cut-out monsters that were completely unlike us, is the key.  The latter notion, that the Nazis were some sort of alternate breed, is comforting in its way.  It means we’re different and, thus, could never be involved in such crimes.  It is practically part of the mythos of Nazi Germany.

It just isn’t true.

Which is what I think was the point of the exercise.

Berlin Serendipity

I have been a Netflix subscriber for a number of years now.

I like to browse through their selection and add things to our queue that I might like to watch some day.  There are well over 100 titles on our list.

I try to keep at least some of the top of the queue dedicated to things both my wife and I will enjoy, but I do not farm the queue constantly, so once in a while something I put on the list ages ago on a whim will bubble to the top.

And so it was a few weeks back.

At the time I was reading Anthony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 (US title), something of the companion to his excellent Stalingrad, when the red envelope from Netflix dropped in through the mail slot.

And inside was Downfall.

You have probably seen at least one scene from Downfall.

It turned out to be perfect timing.  I was about 75% of the way through the book when I sat down to watch the movie.  I had just been reading the details of the events surrounding Berlin and got to take a very personal view into what was going on in and about Hitler’s bunker.  That very scene, which has been re-subtitled so often,  and which was described in detail in the book, played out there before me in our living room and I knew exactly what Hitler was raging about and how self-deluded he was.

Okay, it was hard not to smirk a bit and imagine Hitler going on about grammar or Jay Leno.  But I feel vindicated in that I recently read that the director of Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel actually finds these parodies of his work funny.  From an interview in New York Magazine:

I think I’ve seen about 145 of them! Of course, I have to put the sound down when I watch. Many times the lines are so funny, I laugh out loud, and I’m laughing about the scene that I staged myself! You couldn’t get a better compliment as a director.

Of course, he has his own wish in that regard.

If only I got royalties for it, then I’d be even happier.

Such is life.

But I digress.

Seeing the movie after having read most of the book really brought a lot of the central characters alive and gave even more depth to an already well written narrative of events.

So if you happen to pick up Anthony Beevor’s book, I would recommend renting Oliver Hirschbiegel’s movie as well.  After having experienced them together, it seems almost wrong to have one without the other.  Just make sure you get a copy of the movie with the right region set.

“I think I’ve seen about 145 of them! Of course, I have to put the sound down when I watch. Many times the lines are so funny, I laugh out loud, and I’m laughing about the scene that I staged myself! You couldn’t get a better compliment as a director.”