Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book log 31: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

by Barbara W. Tuchman

Years ago (when the Earth was young and so forth), I wandered into a store across the street from the World Trade Centers (so you know this was a long time ago) that was closing down. It wasn't a bookstore, but one of those mixed-offering stores that also had books. It was part of a chain that no longer exists, if that makes a difference to you. Anyway, many things were getting sold off, obviously, but I was most drawn to the book section. I spent most of my lunch hour there seeing what they had, and ended up with half a dozen volumes. One of these was another Tuchman book, The Guns of August.

Which I never got around to reading, of course, and it's still in waiting somewhere in my bookshelves to be unearthed and actually cracked open. But a historian like Tuchman always comes up when you're looking for something historical, and sooner or later, gasp! You actually hunt down a book and--you know--OPEN it. It happened to be A Distant Mirror, because inspiration I was seeking needed to be in a form of history from long ago, when the English we speak wasn't quite the same and in fact probably wouldn't have been intelligible, certainly not to most Americans.

Anyway, it was like opening Pandora's box, I tell you. There was a rush of detail and description and a flood of personalities and WOW. I knew nothing about France of that particular time, except for the occasional references I found in other things. I had read previously that France was the center of the universe in many ways at the time, but it wasn't until I started to read this work by Tuchman that I understood exactly what that meant. This work reminded me that it was one thing to know and another to REALLY comprehend. 

After viewing life through A Distant Mirror (yes, I think it's a requirement to use a pun this way with a title like this), I have a need to see the lands of Coucy. And if you ever block out a chunk of time to read this book, you will too.

COMING UP: Oh, so many choices, so little time, and more!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book log 30: His Road Home

I don't know why this is coming up as unreadable, but I persevere...

by Anna Richland
I vaguely remembered Anna Richland talking about the setup of this story on a panel or something ages ago, but I had forgotten about it until I received an advanced reading copy of this short story (or is it a novella?). And it was wonderful. First of all, I thought Richland was writing about immortal Vikings, so when this story turned out to be about a coworker of one of those Vikings and what happens after he suffers a grievous injury after he steps on a land mine, it was a surprise. His path crosses with a marine biologist who grew up in the same small town, and the story is about the way they grow to learn about each other during a cross-country journey back home. Holiday stories can be annoying and cloying, but this was just right. Thank you, Anna!

COMING UP: Oh, so many choices, so little time, and more!

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


by Ben Macintyre
While the topic of espionage has been in the public eye and imagination for many years, I only got interested in it when we went to a traveling exhibit about spies at a local museum. While I can’t even pretend to understand what goes through the mind of someone who decides to do the spy thing, either against one’s own country or against another, we’ve been exposed to many different variations on the topic in the past fifty years, seeing the exhibit was certainly an eye-opener, as was this book.

Considering the stakes, the idea that spies were basically recruited because they had the right upper-crust background was horrifying, considering how in-bred and moronic the upper-crust and monied tend to be, no matter where you are (because I am not being politic here, I will not name names). But then I remembered reading about the Great Game back in the 19th century, and before that, about Benedict Arnold and his decision and miserable life afterward (not that I have an opinion or anything—but if what I’ve read is correct, his life wasn’t a great one in Britain), and clearly there are many reasons to do it, ranging from money to revenge to plain stupidity and it’s all been going on for as long as there have been people. The very term “tattletale” from our childhood says that informing on others is something that’s both encouraged and disapproved of, depending on which side of the telling you’re on.

As I read this book, memories of the exhibit came back vividly, with the devices used in World War II, vaguely reminiscent of various things seen in movies or read about in books or even spoofed in TV shows like GET SMART. When the Spy Museum in Washington DC first opened, I remember reading that various things that the producers in that show gave even the CIA itself some ideas of what to try, thus fiction giving color to reality.

But that’s fiction, and the story of Kim Philby is all too real. This was a story of friends betraying friends, of the “right people” deciding that whatever they did would be the right thing, even if it meant the tragic deaths of so many with their decisions. But their view was that those were pawns, and they were expendable, because they were not “their” kind—rich or of the right blood. It’s tempting to view espionage, in some way, as snobbery gone amok, but perhaps war is too—“you’re not my kind, and thus you are expendable.” Espionage and war.

COMING UP: Oh, so many choices, so little time, and more!