Summer Reading ‘07

some recent pages:

A World at Arms by Gerhard Weinberg. First published in 1994, second edition dated 2005. My usual single volume go-to for WWII is John Keegan’s Second World War (excellent book by the way), but Weinberg’s “global history” digs even further into the motivations, alliances, operations, and interlocking fates of all countries involved. It reads as one huge story, starting with ominous stirrings in the ‘30s and gaining exponential complexity as the years pass, all skillfully layered in the text. Battle details and field personalities aren’t covered in the same depth found in other books dedicated to particular theaters, but the contexts of the actions are thoroughly explained, and Weinberg does devote some time to machinery and tactics. All of the main dramas are spelled out – the Eastern and Western fronts, the mid-East, U-boats hunting the Atlantic, the Pacific chess game – and I learned more about the happenings in eastern Asia, previously a cloudy area for me. There’s also plenty of information on intelligence developments, resource concerns, the horrors of persecution, and much else that contributed to or affected the events of the time. Ultimately, everything boils down to the deluded ambitions of Nazi high command versus cautious Allied ties; even as the latter portion of the book covers the continuing belligerence of Japan, the spectre of what Hitler had wrought remains. There aren’t any “new” plotlines in the story Weinberg tells, obviously, yet his research brings many details to light, and his all-encompassing perspective ties the war’s divergent strands into an enlightening whole. Weinberg can be a little wordy with extensive sub clauses, but his exact writing neither oversells nor understates. Copious footnotes and an exhaustive bibliography complete the picture. A most awesome work, I recommend A World at Arms to anyone interested in this patch of history and who is willing to stay immersed in one book for a while. It doesn’t hurt to have a separate WWII atlas on hand, either.

The Battle of Alamein by John Bierman and Colin Smith. Also published under the title War Without Hate, a seeming oxymoron that points up the honorable elements of combat in the early 1940s North African campaigns. Here are the hapless Italians, Rommel’s Afrika Korps, mix ‘n match Allies, and different British commanders (Wavell, Auchinleck, Montgomery) pushing back and forth in Libya and Egypt. The confusing Sidi Rezegh battles east of Tobruk, the climactic standoff at El Alamein, and the final engagements in Tunisia are among many scenes covered. I’ve always had an interest in this theater ever since I owned the Avalon Hill boardgame Afrika Korps as a teen, and I think I’ve finally found a book that narrates the whole campaign best. The authors blend colorful character studies and clear overviews of desert maneuvers into a really good read with lots to touch the intellect and emotions. Another easy recommendation.

Hitler’s Last Gamble by Trevor Dupuy, David Bongard, and Richard Anderson. A lot has been written about the Battle of the Bulge, perhaps none more technically detailed than this 1994 work. Apart from introductory chapters that set the scene and closing appendices that answer contextual questions, the main body of the book narrates the infamous conflict in a dry, factual style. A few human interest tangents and notes on overall plans are strewn throughout, but for the most part, the text explains which battalion or regiment was where, at what time, in what condition, with what intention. As a reference, it’s pretty invaluable for students of the offensive; as an A to B story, it will overwhelm the casual reader. Nonetheless, the appendices’ details on German and Allied materiel strengths, along with an expose of the Malmedy massacre, might alone be worth finding this hefty volume.

One Train Later by Andy Summers. Found this memoir at a used bookstore and gave it a shot. I could barely put it down. One of my favorite guitarists, Summers also happens to be a fine writer with understated humor, such that even mundane recollections are entertaining (and sometimes hilarious). The story starts with Andy’s jazz fascination and then sees him enter the ‘60s London rock scene, experiencing all that a liberated life had to offer in those days. Moving from band to band, with changing personal situations to match, Summers tastes relative success only to have circumstances crumble for one reason or another. Even before The Police appear in the mid-70s, Summers has already had a full career. The Police chapters contain insightful stories and the whirlwind rise from struggling club act to globe-hopping phenomenon seems unstoppable. Andy treats certain events as holy lore – the writing of “Roxanne”, the “Every Breath” riff, the Shea Stadium gig – and after all his travels and travails, he earns the right to speak proudly. Throughout the book, personal events are candid but not gory, if you know what I mean, and Summers is honest about his fortunes and failings. A fun read. (One of the few things I didn’t like is the fact that Summers misspells the name of his hero Thelonious Monk. I guess the second “o” got lost over the Atlantic.)

Other titles:

I re-read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which hits so many nails on the head it could build a house. I also acquired Dawkins’ essay collection Devil’s Chaplain, which has some great entries. FYI, Climbing Mount Improbable is my favorite of his straight science books.

Christopher Hitchens’ essay collection Love, Poverty, and War investigates Churchill, Mother Teresa, Route 66, North Korea, Bob Dylan, and a bundle of other subjects with literate wit and wisdom. Can’t say I agree with Hitchens on every issue, but he’s good for some fist pumps and belly laughs, and his prose style is Mencken-ishly smart.

I was loaned If They Don’t Win It’s a Shame by Dave Rosenbaum, an account of the Marlins’ 1997 World Series season. Any book featuring Jim Leyland has a given entertainment value.

I’ve been in and out of David Kahn’s The Codebreakers for several months; the subtitle ‘The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet’ sums up this massive history.

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