Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review Roundup: History!

I realised with some pleasure recently that I've hit my target of reading 20 books this year, which may not seem that many to some of you, but feels like an achievement to fit around everything else. It's been an eclectic year and mixed in is a bunch of factual books I've not mentioned here, yet. I'm not quite sure why - many reviews I read of history books tend to double as critiques of the history, as much as the book itself, especially for periods that feel contemporarily relevant, something you'll see a lot this year with all the World War One stuff. Personally I feel that if you're interested in a period you should read around from multiple sources anyway. So with that in mind, here is a round-up, along with a quick summary of why you should read them! 

The Spanish Civil War by Anthony Beevor 
I'm a big fan of Anthony Beevor, and so its odd that it took me so long to read The Spanish Civil War, one of his earlier works. He has developed a great skill in diving though a conflict, capturing strategic decision making and downwards to a sense of how wars are experienced on the ground. He's also become a pacey, gripping writer who can create a sense of whole cloth from all these loose threads, occasionally sacrificing depth for breadth but always staying clear and interesting, and manages to maintain some distance in face of some real horrors, especially in Stalingrad and Berlin. 

With The Spanish Civil War some of Beevors smooth delivery is still a little rough, and this gift for producing a clean narrative breaks down in the face of this messy and bitter conflict. Its a book in which pretty much no-one comes out it well - a country torn apart by two equally unpalatable sides, with so many people caught up in between. Its odd to feel angry about a conflict in a foreign country that ended before my father was even born, but at times I really, really, did. Its a conflict that attracts idealists foreign opportunists alike, a conflict that by its origins and geography is really messy. 

That said its a fascinating read, both as the conflict being a dry run for the European Conflagration to come, and for Beevor practicing his style before hitting the grander - and often bleaker - projects covering it. 

How to Ruin A Queen by Jonathan Beckman
The French Revolution is a period I know very little about; my interest in modern history starting sometime about 1860. That said, thanks to the Revolutions podcast I'm picking up the basics fast, and picked this book to expand my knowledge. It's a history of the events and people surrounding "The Diamond Necklace Affair", a Parisian scandal that rocked parts of the French Court and badly damaged the reputation of the Queen despite her complete lack of actual involvement. Beckman skips between biography and narrative, painting a clear picture of most of the people involved in a broadly sympathetic light, and the complex nature of the crime itself. 

What How to Ruin a Queen does feel short on is wider context. The Revolution is still several years away but its building up heavily in the background and the book does lack a sense of the wider environment to the crisis in the French state. There is something to be said for this approach, and minimizing your cast of characters, but the swings in public opinion feel strange shorn of this wider picture. On its own it remains a great story, well told, and is a pretty short read, but I did feel it could have done with a little bit more. 

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H P Lovecraft by S T Joshi
S T Joshi is widely regarded as one of the leading scholars on the life of H P Lovecraft, and I am Providence the masterwork on the subject. In two massive volumes he covers the entirety of Lovecraft's life, including detail on his works (minor and major), collaborators, friends and family. Most interesting of all, Joshi himself remains a figure in the text, polite and firm in his opinions, not afraid to offer criticism and judgement, lifting this above a mere summary of someones existence. He can be pretty dry though, but I guess that's appropriate. 

The main thing that shines through is the fact that no matter how odd and contradictory you thought Lovecraft was, he was almost certain more so. Joshi makes no apology for his faults, but at the same is careful to put him in context to his times, and judges him against that - still, critically, finding him short in many areas. This is no apologia, but at the same it does celebrate his influence not only as a writer, but as a correspondent and supporter of others. It's a long, perceptive look at a complex and difficult writer, and it well worth a look.