Perhaps the best thing about this book is how well it is written. I think that's necessary in this case because not that much is known about Mithradates (and much of what is known comes from his Roman enemies), so the author has to try to fill in the details like a historical novelist. The author focuses quite heavily on Mithradates historical reputation as a poisoner and a concocter of antidotes. This leads to delightful details in the book such as poisonous honey from bees that drink rhododendron nectar.
I think it's useful to compare Mithradates to Cleopatra -- both Hellenistic-style monarchs who threatened Rome and therefore got trashed in (Roman) historical sources as weak, depraved, easterners who tried to conquer Rome through dishonorable, unmanly methods such as intrigue and poison (Cleopatra was reputed to be a poisoner as well). The author tries to right the balance a bit, but even she doesn't deny that Mithradates could be cruel and paranoid. You do have to look at the times -- being a "friend of Rome" was like being friends with a hungry lion -- sooner or later you end up on the menu anyway.
I agree that it helps to be into ancient history to enjoy this book -- there is a lot of recounting of internecine political intrigues and the marching of various armies around the eastern Med, but I think (hope) there is enough in here to appeal to a somewhat more casual reader as well. Think of it as Cleopatra, but with less sex (admittedly the biggest selling point) and more poisoning.
This is a memoir of a guy who fought in the trenches in World War 1, and liked it.
So the message isn't All Quiet on the Western Front by any means. The style is different too. It's a bit like a series of after action reports combined with the Iliad. A lot of emotionally detached we did this and that and probably should have done that instead, etc, but also a lot of very gruesome Iliad-like depictions of battle -- the shell exploded and the guy's intestines were draped all over the wire, etc. He writes beautifully, even in translation, which makes his fanaticism for battle even more disturbing. He's like a Nazi, but with more class. Indeed, the Nazis loved him, but he disliked them -- he's a bit of an intellectual and social snob, too.
Even the writing has limits:he gives a lot of well-written, even poetic descriptions of nature, and frankly discusses the mixture of fear and helplessness that overtakes even the bravest man (which has got to be this guy -- he won every medal there was) under heavy shelling. His shortcomings are that he offers no 3D (or even 2D really) depictions of other human beings. A lot of this guy was a good soldier, then he died in this terrible way and then his replacement died in this other way, and a third guy got it a bit later.
German propaganda made a lot of soldiers who allegedly had Nietzsche in their knapsacks. Well, apparently this guy believed in that stuff, and never got disillusioned no matter how many times he got hit (and it was a lot) and how many died around him. I think that's the crazy part.
In summary, I think this is a good book if you are, like me, a history buff who wants an unflinching but well-written account about what it was like in the trenches in WWI. If you are looking for a well-rounded, anti-war literary piece, like the English war poets or Remarque, definitely not what you want.
There is a lot of good stuff in this book, but I think the author strains for contemporary relevance a bit too much sometimes. He's good when he sticks to the conventional way of doing this kind of book -- the impact of the war on the interwar era and on WWII, as well as how the war has been remembered, in academic and popular histories, in high and popular culture, and in monuments and commemoration. The focus is largely but not totally on Britain, and other countries (US, Germany, France, Australia, NZ) are brought in largely to do some good compare and contrast with Britain.
However, when he tries to carry forward into our times, it's a bit strained. It's hard to see how WW I is really related to the euro, the Scottish referendum and a lot of other stuff he talks about. Sometimes it works though -- he says that in looking at Chamberlain at Munich, it wasn't just fear of another round of trench warfare, it was also bombing of Britain, which many people worried would be much more devastating that it turned out to be. He mentions nuclear bombs and the Cuban Missile crisis as analogy to make the fear more real to a contemporary audience, and more understandable to those who view Munich as merely shorthand for revolting and foolish cowardice in the face of evil.
The reader does an OK job. He's a Brit and pronounces things correctly, but tries to do the accents and fails miserably. The best he does is a sort of a (probably unintentional) comedy Irishman, but his Aussie and New Zealanders are so unrecognizable as to not even be funny.
Now for some pettiness on my part that you can ignore, if you like. I think he is grossly unfair to US policymakers on the decision to drop the Bomb on Japan, and in fact dishonestly so, since his expertise means that he surely knows all the facts. Second, he unloads on Niall Ferguson as tendentious in his popular history on WW I; I heartily agree, but Reynolds probably shouldn't be casting the first stone here. Also he really lets Paul Fussell have it for the Great War and Modern Memory. But I think that is shooting fish in a barrel; it's obvious the book is lit crit and not history, and that it rehearses a point of view that was cliche in Britain, but was new to the US. I suspect Reynolds is a bit annoyed that (1) Fussell sold more books that Reynolds ever will (2) the book was overpraised by US reviewers who were literary people and not historians, and therefore not aware that Fussell was going over old ground and not very rigorously at that (true but not Fussell's fault.) To me, Fussell's work is interesting as a genre of its own: lit crit tacitly informed by the author's own WW II combat experience.
If you are really into political/diplomatic history, you will like this book. A more casual reader coming to the topic for the first time might be a bit overwhelmed by the length and detail. The narrator, who is British, does a very good job, including in pronouncing all the various names, place and foreign phrases, which usually is the key stumbling block in books of this type.
As the author notes, the origin of the First World War is one of the most complex and written about issues in political and diplomatic history. Depending on the era, historians and other have tried to answer such questions as: who was guilty for causing the war, and was the war inevitable due to structural factors of the political environment (rigid military alliance structures and war planning, militarist attitudes in Germany and other countries,for example) or was it largely due to contingent factors (chance events, interplay of personal factors among key actors, etc), which would imply that it could have been avoided.
The author's argument is a complex one that I won't summarize here, but, while acknowledging that structural factors were significant, he definitely comes down on the side of those who say the war could have been avoided. One valuable part of the book is that he goes into detail on the internal political maneuvers in each country and within the policymaking apparatus in each county. He notes that political shifts in each country often led to incoherent and shifting policy statements by each country, which made it difficult for the other countries to get a good read on what they were up to. He does this not only for the major powers, but also for Serbia, which you don't often see. His description of Serbia in 1914 reminded me of Serbia in the 1990s, and also of Pakistan from the 1980s to today.
Now on to a more controversial topic. The author claims he is not interested in the issue of war guilt. I suspect he is being disingenuous. I believe he comes down quite hard in blaming Serbia, Russia,France, and Britiain for primary responsibility for the war. He does this not by engaging in polemics against these countries or in favor of Germany and Austria, but by simply spending more time discussing the machinations of Serbia and the Entente powers, while spending less time on Germany. Paradoxically, this makes the book more interesting because most books on the subject do the opposite, perhaps with the opposite goal in mind. So you get insights on topics you might not normally see addressed. On the other hand, and maybe I'm too suspicious, I think he is being a bit sneaky here. When he does discuss Germany, he will offer a brief, bland acknowledgement of things he can't get out of (von Moltke's lust for preventative war, German militarism), but try to limit its impact by saying, it didn't have an impact on the policymaking process, other countries did the same thing, etc. Also he basically says that Austria had the right to deliver the ultimatum to Serbia and enforce it.
But in summary, I would say that this is a very valuable and worthwhile book to listen to, if you like this sort of thing a lot, even if you don't agree with all of his conclusions or even his approach in general
Picture a man reading through a dumpster full of 40-year-old newspapers, in a histrionic voice, occasionally intoning something like "two irreconcilable camps -- Nixonland," as if that were meant as penetrating analysis. Overlong, overkill, very shallow analytically. The reader faithfully conveys the author's apparent intent, unfortunately. But he does make some really funny mispronunciations. My favorite was "suede-o" for pseudo. Really.
On the good side, the author's approach may help you get into the mindset of the media consumer of the period. I also learned a few things-- the Yippies were pretty clever and funny, if sometimes in very bad taste, and some of the origin stories of conservative superheroes of today, such as Scalia, and Rove, who was apparently a dirty trickster from the cradle, according to the author.
The author has good intentions, but the book is weak in some areas, some of which aren't his fault. Others are. I hadn't heard of the slave revolt he describes, which he does very well. Unfortunately, unlike the Nat Turner rebellion, it was kind of covered up by the planters, so not much is really known about it. In compensation, the author spends only a small part of the book on the revolt itself, and the rest ranging over the history of slavery and plantation life in the New Orleans area in general of the first half of the 19th century, and its implications for antebellum American expansionism That's interesting too.
But in what I assume is a politically and academically trendy effort to give "agency" to the slaves, he makes all sorts of assertions about the slaves' political beliefs and how carefully they planned the revolt, etc, without much evidence. Perhaps it wasn't planned so well, had no sophisticated political philosophy beyond the desire to not be exploited, was betrayed by "loyal" slaves from the outset, and was scattered to the winds very quickly when the planters, with their superior weaponry and training, counterattacked. Would that be so bad? The author appears to strongly hint that saying so would put you in the same category as the slaveowners and their subsequent apologists.
The conclusion of the book is a bit bizarre. After an interesting discussion of the historiography of the revolt, he goes on to criticize Martin Luther King for unclear reasons, and praise Black Power advocates.
A detail point: the author appears to believe that the Articles of Confederation and the Confederate constitution are the same thing. This dents his credibility more than a little, as it is a mistake that you wouldn't want to see in a high school history class.
In sum, there are good and interesting parts to this book, but the author really could have been better served by dialing back his claims and having a better editor.
Donna Tartt does a brilliant job as narrator. For the audiobook to really work, she has to. True Grit has a lot of virtues, but I think by far the best is Portis's creation of Mattie Ross. She is absolutely relentless, yet there are still a few touches of the little girl in her. She bests a horse-dealer with her almost brutal negotiating style, yet later she innocently tries to engage the other members of her posse in telling ghost stories (they're not interested.) Some people may not find Mattie entirely sympathetic; she can be sanctimonious at times. Still, she is a very satisfying creation. And Tartt really captures her very, very well, I think, and demonstrates that an audiobook can be superior to the print version.
The author does an excellent job in focusing on persons who are bit players in most popular Civil War books. He writes about such people as Thomas Starr King, Jessie Fremont, Benjamin Butler, Elmer Elsworth, and James Garfield as a young man, and many others. By doing this, he is able to build up a very interesting snapshort of Northern opinion on the eve of the war and in its early months. He is also great at setting a scene through the use of small descriptive details.
He may not be for everyone, though. First, his is a very pro-Union perspective. He is openly contempuous of Southern views. The only prominent Confederate he profiles is Louis T. Wigfall, who appears to have been filled with equal parts liquor and bile. Second, he has the odd habit of making a sweeping pronunciamento from time to time, the decisiveness of which appears to be inversely related to the amount of evidence he produces for it. These include stating that Lincoln consciously tricked the South into attacking Sumter; (Perhaps a more nuanced assessment would have been better), and that if the North had had generals like Nathaniel Lyon and Frank Blair in the East, the rebellion would have been quashed much earlier (an absurdity.) Finally, if you want lots of Lincoln and details of battle (including First Bull Run), forget it. Lincoln is almost a bit player here, and Bull Run gets no detailed coverage.
In all, I would heartily recommend this book precisely because it is so different from the run-of-the-mill Civl War popular hstory.
This book would have been more accurately titled, "The Van Buren Faction in the Democratic Party of the 1830s and 1840s, and How it Occassionally Relates to the Annexation of Texas." Texas annexation is completed about halfway through the book, yet the author continues to goes on and on about the "Hunkers" versus the "Barnburners" (don't ask). Perhaps the author got a book contact and decided to economize on his effort by incorporating material from previous works. That being said, the first half of the book is pretty interesting, and may be worth it if you get it on sale, as I did.
I agree that the narrator is a disaster. It's not only French words he butchers. He is impartial-- French, German, Italian, even a few English ones for time to time. Personal names, place names, ordinary words, without fear or favor. Still, if you can kind of guess at what he was supposed to say, the book is interesting. Each chapter is one year, and the author uses an incident during that year to explore a theme or related themes of the period. Mostly it works, occasionally it doesn't. The subjects covered are so varied that there is probably at least something here for anyone who is interested in the history of the period -- everything from Freud to Dreadnought.
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