So, I just finished reading Flashman and the Dragon, the adventures of Harry Paget Flashman during the Taiping Rebellion and the Second Opium War, and I’m sort of meh about it. Having never read the Flashman stories before until Dad introduced them to me a couple of years ago, I’ve worked my way through them in publication order. Some have been more fun than others, and Flashman’s Lady helped fill in a few gaps in cricket terminology, but all in all the observation that Flashman becomes less lily-livered over time — essentially less Flashy — has played itself out. I’ve certainly enjoyed the series because I love reading about the period in general, but it’s one of those series where my enthusiasm’s waning over time because the character’s become less of a poltroon over time, and that was a huge part of its charm from the get-go.
I’m sure I’ll chug along, though. In general, I’m usually reading three or four non-baseball books at any one time. At the same time that I was finishing Flashman and the Dragon, I’ve been tearing through Showalter’s The Wars of German Unification; the title presents little surprise, but as a synthesis of contemporary scholarship featuring Showalter’s reliably crisp, mordant prose, it’s tough to beat.
I’m also wrapping up Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, an excellent story of a Papal bibliophile’s 15th century resurrection of the Roman poet Lucretius’ incomparable poem, “On the Nature of Things,” and how that helped reintroduce some key ideas of epicurean, rationalist thought to a Christian world that had desperately tried to destroy that worldview utterly.
I’m finishing Philip Blom’s The Vertigo Years, an excellent overview of how changing ideas and changing media before World War I — including the increasing tempo and social panic fueled by mass media — radically changed the way people saw civilization and the world. The vision of European civilization dancing on the volcano and being self-aware of the idea isn’t new, but Blom’s exceptional reach across subjects and issues makes this the work that people who loved Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower something far more substantial (and less transparently, diminishingly Anglophile) to sink their teeth into.
Recently finished stuff includes Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa (the contintent’s struggles to emerge from colonialism, bleak stuff indeed), Orlando Figes’ worthwhile new The Crimean War, which beyond being an excellent new survey with better coverage from the Russian side also provides an overdue update on the diplomatic issues associated with the Austrians’ active participation in the Balkan phase and subsequent armed neutrality.
Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck biography may indeed suffer from the criticism that it can be repetitive in places, but it presents a brilliant example of the virtues of psycho-history where the field might often deserve a dose of skepticism. Bismarck’s odd balancing act between reactive genius and inflexibility, hyper-activity alternating with torpor, of tortured relationships with the people around him… in short, it’s a bold attempt, executed wonderfully well, and handily replaces Crankshaw’s Bismarck bio as the work to make space on the shelf for.
More approachable for the general reader would be Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, on the intertwined destinies of President Garfield and his assassin Charles Guiteau, and the strange redemption Garfield’s death provided Chester Alan Arthur, a contemptible American apparatchik whose case of conscience — inspired by the letters of Julia Sand the invalid woman sent to him — upon assuming executive authority gave him the strength to achieve many of the reforms that Garfield sought. Millard’s intensely human, intimate portrayal of Garfield was particularly compelling, especially with an eye towards the man’s relationship with his wife and his obvious joy in being a father. Admittedly, the story moved me to tears a couple of times, because Garfield’s restless intelligence and ubiquitous good cheer (not to mention a vague physical resemblance) can’t help but remind me of my father, another widely read and inspiring parent.
Regardless of that personal wrinkle, Millard’s careful illustration of Garfield as a person you would like (and not simply vote for) heightens the sense of ultimate tragedy, that a man so compellingly admirable was just as obviously doomed, perhaps to leave no real legacy behind him. It takes Arthur’s late-career volte-face to break with the spoils system that created him to deliver civil service reform, and as entirely unsexy a subject as that sounds, it comes together as a tremendous story.
Since Christmas, I also knocked off the first two volumes of Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series… the first was excellent, but character development was a bit tenuous; by the end of the second, I decided that despite Lumley’s creative vision of what might be a more biologically graphic exploration of vampirism, the characters barely get stretched all the way to two dimensions, and that left me feeling a bit bored. I’d recommend them to serious vampire lovers, but that ain’t me, and I can’t really see taking on the innumerable sequels.
Speaking of poor character development, I also knocked off Ben Bova’s Leviathans of Jupiter. I shouldn’t be too cruel here, as Bova provides a nice story that develops the theme of tension between science and those human virtues that can get in the way of scientific inquiry — religion or vanity, you name it. And he does a nice job of delving into alien psychology, although the extent to which the leviathans become a bit anthropomorphic in terms of their worldview may not agree with everybody. I’ll complain about the character sketches here as well as with Lumley, but to give Bova his due, they’re better in this novel than they were in Jupiter, and I’m sufficiently curious to keep checking him out to give me the hard-science fix that Larry Niven got me hooked on as a wee beastie back in the day.
And then there’s a bunch of baseball books to talk about too, but that and the football history I’ve read I’ll save for a subsequent post or, in the case of baseball, as something to talk about on ESPN.com’s SweetSpot. Basically, it’s been a busy couple of months.