Category: Reading

A Song of Fire and Ice Book 2: A Clash of Kings

I’ve fallen hopelessly behind on my HBO A Game of Thrones episode reviews. Actually, I’m a week behind on watching those episodes, so nobody tell me what happened in episode 7. What I have done is buy the second book in the series and started to read it. This is the point in every season where I can’t wait for the outcome and end up reading that season’s novel. I don’t know what I’ll do if the buzz is right and A Storm of Swords is split into Seasons 3 and 4. Frankly, I’m hoping nothing stupid happens and the series gets canceled (not because of ratings, but “production costs” or something). Anyway, I thought I would give some thoughts on what I’ve read so far.

Jumping Around

Joffrey and His Crossbow

Will Jack Gleeson Be Typecast as a Psychotic Moron?

First off, let me ask if anyone else jumps around in the GoT books? Given the way each chapter features a different character’s perspective, I sometimes feel the need to read a certain character’s storyline straight through. I understand this completely messes up the chronology of the book and ruins some surprises, but A Song of Fire & Ice is really like a number of novels in one, because what happens in the north and what happens in the east don’t always have much bearing on Westeros (or the south of Westeros).

I’ll admit; I’ve been reading what happens at King’s Landing first. I was fascinated to see how Tyrion would fair as the Hand. Besides, that setting has some of the more interesting characters, specifically all the longtime council members.

What I’d really wish to see would be a chapter or two from the perspective of Joffrey, just to get inside the fevered mind of that nitwit. Somehow, I get the idea he would mainly be thinking about his crossbow, which he seems to obsess over more in the book than in the tv series.

The decision by George RR Martin to leave him as a non-narrator is certainly the right choice from an artistic point of view, but it deprives us of some choice comical moments.I have to admit: I like disliking the character.

I suppose Joffrey has as many illusions about being king as Sansa has about knights in general–in naivete, they’re perfectly matched. Too bad they have nothing else in common.

A Game of Thrones Updates

I’ll have to keep updating as I finish the book. I’m not sure which threads I’ll read next. Maybe I just do the rest sequentially. Theon Greyjoy is unstable, so maybe him and the Winterfell story lines next.

Eminent Churchillians by Andrew Roberts

Eminent Churchillians is a 1994 revisionist history from English conservative author and historian, Andrew Roberts. The book is about the friends and enemies of Winston Churchill, focusing heavily on Churchill’s time as British Prime Minister in the beginning stages of World War II. These are a collection of essays about leaders and private people in the United Kingdom in the 1930s, 1940s, and beyond. In particular, I want to focus on two of the essays.

Lord Mountbatten and the Perils of Adrenaline

Andrew Roberts on Eminent Churchillians

I First Saw Andrew Roberts on CSpan’s BookTV

The first essay I wanted to discuss was “Lord Mountbatten and the Perils of Adrenaline”, an 81-page essay in which Andrew Roberts deconstructs the myth of Lord Louis Mountbatten. Louis Mountbatten was a member of the royal family who served as naval captain in the British Royal Navy, First Sea Lord, and Chief of the Defense Staff. Perhaps most famously, Lord Mountbatten was the last British viceroy of India. He presided over the ending of the Raj and the partition of Colonial India between the modern-day states of India and Pakistan (which in turn became Pakistan and Bangladesh). It should be noted that Lord Mountbatten was a noted liberal in his outlook, so part of Andrew Roberts’ purpose might be to poke holes in a liberal figure.

The essay begins with a discussion of Lord Mountbatten’s naval career, which (according to Roberts) involved several incidents involving recklessness–that is, running his ships faster than mandated by the Royal Navy–which caused deaths of crewmen. Despite this, Lord Mountbatten used his connections to move up the hierarchy, to the point he was a respected naval officer at the outbreak of World War II. How respected is somewhat in question. The upshot of Andrew Roberts’ argument is that Mountbatten was unqualified for the post of Indian viceroy. This led to decisions where he favored the Hindus over the Muslim residents of the Indian sub-continent. This led to a situation where the Indians wanted to retain the whole territorial expanse of the British Raj, but the Islamic peoples wanted their own state. When Lord Mountbatten got to India, he almost immediately announced a date (18 months later) when the British would leave India.

Andrew Roberts (and historical sources) argue that this announcement undercut British authority, because both sides knew they could wait out the British. It also created a scramble for power. Those holding power were willing to resort to mass murder to keep it, while those outside of power would stop at nothing to seize control of their region, thus exacerbating the situation. This led to the tragic events of August 1947, when hundreds of thousands of people on both sides were murdered. Because of Mountbatten’s recklessness, a partition became inevitable and bloodshed which could have been prevented wasn’t.

The essay goes on to cover the next 25-30 years as an attempt by Mountbatten to justify his actions, slander those who would tell the story another way, and rewrite history. To Andrew Roberts, even Lord Mountbatten’s death in a bombing by the IRA while on vacation in Ireland was his own fault. Apparently, Lord Mountbatten was warned not to take his annual vacation in Ireland, especially after having published his itinerary and location. As always, he was mindless of the advice and thus was bound to be murdered–along with the murder and maiming of several family members also on the boat.

It’s a harsh estimation of Lord Mountbatten’s career. I’m not sure that it’s entirely accurate, but it makes me want to read more on the subject. This book also convinced me to read more about the dual history of India and Pakistan, which I’ll write more about in the future.

The Tories versus Winston Churchill

In this 72-page essay on the first months of Winston Churchill’s first reign as prime minister, Andrew Roberts turns his pen against his own party: specifically the Tories who followed Neville Chamberlain. This account is better sourced, since it makes great use of the personal diaries and journals of prominent Tories of the 1940s (and their wives). This is an excellent essay, if you want an account of how the British establishment viewed Churchill when he took power in May 1940.

Andrew Roberts does a fine job of correcting the image that Churchill had the unqualified support of the British people during this period. In fact, Churchill’s position was precarious. Neville Chamberlain remained the leader of the conservative majority, which owned two-thirds of the seats. These Tories viewed Churchill as a genius, but also a wild man. They were convinced his judgment was unsound and were certain his adventures would get England in more trouble than it already was. These people also tended to believe Churchill’s time as premier would be short, when the MPs who put him there realized their mistake.

It’s worth noting that Winston Churchill himself makes reference to the fact that in his early weeks as prime minister, the Tories sat on their hands and the only ones enthusiastic about his appearances in Parliament were the Labour and Liberal MPs, though they were supposedly Churchill’s opposition. It should be mentioned that Churchill had formed a “National Government”, meaning Labour members like Clement Atlee served in the government. Also, Churchill had been a member of the Liberal party from the early 1900s to the 1920s. He had “ratted” to become a Liberal, then “re-ratted” to become a Conservative once more. No wonder the Tories didn’t trust the man, though their main complaints were his disastrous decisions in World War I (see Galipoli), his seemingly bellicose calls for rearmament in the run-up to WWII, and his criticism of the Chamberlain government over things like the Munich Agreement and the Polish guarantee.

Anyway, I found this illuminating, though I had been exposed to these attitudes before in John Lucaks Five Days in London, May 1940–which also contains chapters where you see what private citizens of the United Kingdom thought of Churchill’s ascension and the horrible news from the Battle of France, which was raging as Churchill gained the PM position.

Review of Eminent Churchillians

I found this to be a thought-provoking book, though it was enough of a polemic that I would urge anyone reading to take it less as gospel than as one piece of a larger puzzle. I’m not British and I’m not a conservative, so it’s hard to understand some of Andrew Roberts’ vitriol against Lord Mountbatten. The British were determined to get out of India at “no later than 1948”, because they were out of money. I’m certain better viceroys could have been found, the same problem would have remained: everyone knew England was getting out, and getting out soon. The British Empire was bankrupt, so they no longer had the power or the will to knock heads together in India. Maybe solutions could have been found had the British had one more year to work with and a better, more even-handed viceroy. Given the bloody nature of Indian-Pakistani politics since, I can’t assign all the blame to Lord Mountbatten.

As for the Tories in England in 1940, I view it as a study in how people can be entirely convinced, and entirely wrong. Long after it should have been obvious that Neville Chamberlain’s policies were a disaster for Britain, these people continued to believe he was the right man for the job and would be the eventual savior of the British people. Their assumptions remind me of many of the assumptions of America in the early 21st century, but that’s as close as I’ll get to that subject. My advice: read Eminent Churchillians by Andrew Roberts and compare those times to our own.

5 History Book Recommendations

It’s been my intention to write some book reviews as I went along. One of my favorite hobbies is to read history books. These range all over the field, including the 19th century, the medieval period, and the big wars of the 20th century. In recent years, I’ve tackled American history in earnest, hoping to understand this crazy story of ours. I’ve also begun a study of Asian history, though I find it tougher sledding because of the vast length of their histories and difficulty remembering names.

Book Recommendations - Judgment of Paris, Distant Mirror, The RetreatWhen I say that, I think people assume I’m a complete novice instead of an amateur historian who’s been at it for a while, but I just don’t want to represent myself as more than I am. For instance, I’d read a couple of books about India and wanted to know more, so I bought a book about the India-Pakistan split/rift. At the checkout counter, the guy at the cashier, who was South Asian, said, “Oh, you like reading about India.

I replied, “I’d like to learn more, but the names sometimes give me trouble.” He looked at me disdainfully and dismissively, like I was a moron who was just learning to read. But I just didn’t want to represent myself as some kind of expert when I wasn’t.Maybe he was hitting on me or something and didn’t like my negative reply–who can say.

Anyway, point being, I’m no expert, but I have read a lot of history and here are a few books I’d recommend, if you have similar tastes in historical reading.

History with a Personal Touch

These days, I feel like I know the broad outlines of history. Therefore, I prefer reading about people’s individual experiences in a particular age.

  • The Judgment of Paris by Ross King – About the 1860s and 1870s in France, when Impressionists like Edouard Manet were struggling to gain acceptance and now largely-forgotten Ernest Meissonier stood atop the French painting scene like a Colossus.
  • Berlin Diary by William Shirer – Written from a CBS correspondent during the early years of Nazi Germany. Told from the perspective of a clear-eyed reporter with access to fairly high levels of power. William Shirer, who went on to write Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, was sometimes right on in his assumptions, and sometimes way off base. It’s fascinating to see what a person living through the times thought and felt.
  • The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael K Jones– This sounds like a standard war book of generals and world leaders, and it certainly has those elements in it. Mostly, you get first-hand accounts of what the front line soldiers went through in the first half-year of the Nazi-Soviet war on the Eastern Front. This starts in June 1941 when Hitler invades, focuses on the Nazi’s first reverse outside Moscow, and the harsh decisions made in the battles which followed. The action leaves off in February/March 1942. If you want to know how the soldiers lived and the human impact, there’s no better book.
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman – Discusses the Black Plague of 1348-1349, its aftermath, and the years of the Hundred Years War between France and England. What you get is a sense of the seismic shift in attitudes and social mores when 1/3rd of the population suddenly dies. The Black Death was an awful period of human history, but it also opened the door for the changes that occured in Europe in the following centuries. The Bubonic Plague plunged Europe into a new age of darkness, but it also propelled Europe out of the feudal system and the medieval world. Those forced to read the Canterbury Tales get to see the world which inspired Geoffrey Chaucer.
  • The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager – From the same time period, a historical account of the last court-mandated death duel in the history of France. This story takes several obscure figures of the 14th century and makes a riveting account of power, the abuse of power, and the settling of old scores. It’s amazing how little the world has changed since 1386. Imagine a duel to the death involving an accused rape. If the accused wins, the lady who accused him will be burned at the stake.

Anyway, this was supposed to be an introduction to the book I want to review, Eminent Churchillians by Andrew Roberts, but I’m out of time for the day. So I guess you get book recommendations for now. Tomorrow, I discuss recent revisionist history.