Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Review, 6/25/10 edited 6/26/10

I did not review these books on the 25th, I am reviewing them now.

Nicholas Thomson - The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War 

George Kennan and Paul Nitze were, at the end of World War II, uniquely positioned to have a profound influence upon the foreign policy of the United States, and thus, the entire world. As the war ended, Kennan was the ambassador to Moscow, and, upon the request of the Secretary of State, sent a long telegram (known as the Long Telegram) to Washington, detailing how he felt that the Soviets should be handled after the war. He described his policy as containment, and this became the center of US foreign policy for the next 50 years. Although Kennan contended for many of those 50 years that his initial ideas were being twisted to serve a particular view point, the skeleton of his ideas was clearly visible throughout the period.

Nitze, as part of the Strategic Bombing Survey (investigating the effects of strategic bombing on Germany, and later Japan - that is, bombing of targets which were not immediately connected to the military - factories, etc) was one of the first US observers to investigate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, post atomic bombing.  He became a chief proponent of the arms race, arguing that atomic bombs could not be wished away, and so must be used to promote peace. Effectively, Nitze argued that we needed to build enough atomic, and later nuclear, bombs that we could effectively negotiate the process of stopping arms build-ups and start destroying the stockpiles. That sounds somewhat illogical, but Nitze made it work - during the 1980s he was a key negotiator for the US in arms control talks with the Soviets.

Throughout the Cold War, Kennan and Nitze were involved, singly or together, in every major foreign policy event that the United States experienced, from the Greek Civil War and the Korean War through the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam and finally to Detante and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. They were often in disagreement about the position of the United States - in particular, Kennan was deeply opposed to the development of nuclear weapons, while Nitze saw them as a vital part of the US arsenal - but they worked together almost as often.  Because of their significance and positions, a dual biography like this covers the history of the Cold War quite nicely.  This was a fascinating book, providing a broad and tolerably deep history of the period.

There are some problems with it, however.  First, Thomson is the grandson of Nitze. This means that he had access to a wide array of Nitze's private papers and the recollections of Nitze's family and friends.  His access to Kennan's primary sources is still clearly extensive, but comes from a different entry point. Thomson struggles to remain objective, but it is clear that he sympathizes with Nitze in several locations. Second, Thomson is a journalist writing history. He does a good job with the history, but is clearly not a historian. He accepts the arguments of his primary sources without the skeptical view which a historian might offer.  Finally, and this is almost certainly not Thomson's fault, the book's footnotes are not marked in the text. The book is relatively well cited (certainly for a work of popular history - as a scholarly work, the notes are a little thin), but Thomson provides little depth in the notes, and, as stated, there are no note markers in the text, only notes in the rear of the book. As I say, this is probably not a decision that Thomson was able to make - many publishers want to keep footnotes to a minimum, and authors are usually not in a position to argue. As a historian, however, I would like to have seen a slightly more scholarly approach to the materials.

Kasey Michaels - Maggie Needs an Alibi 
Boy does she ever! This is one from the Beach Reading list, fluffy, irksome in some places, happy in others.
Maggie is Maggie Kelly, an author who writes historical detective fiction/romance.  Her principle character is a Regency dandy, Alexandre Blake, the Viscount St. Just. As the book opens, Maggie is completing the fifth book featuring St. Just, when St. Just and his loyal companion, Sterling Balder, appear in her apartment. Later, her publisher (and ex-boyfriend) dies under mysterious (and unrelated) circumstances. St. Just helps Maggie solve the crime and send the criminal off to prison.

I wasn't expecting a lot of depth from this book, and I wasn't surprised. Michaels has some interesting characters who sparkle, and some witty dialogue, as well as some interesting points of view on writing romances in todays publishing market. However, the mystery takes a very long time to begin (especially given that the victim was revealed on the back of the book), and the murderer's motivation was such that the reader could never have figured out the correct answer. In a mystery novel, at least as far as I am concerned, this is a flaw.

A friend has offered the second book, and I will happily accept it.  The teaser chapter at the end of this book was amusing, and it's entirely possible that the unsatisfying twist is a symptom of new characters - some serial mystery novelists settle down later in the series; providing logical murderers who can be caught by rational readers.

Trudi Canavan - The Novice
This is the second of the Dark Magician Trilogy. The trilogy has potential, and I like some of the things that Canavan does here, but there were some other things that I didn't like quite as much. What I liked - Canavan's handling of homosexuality in a fantasy setting - very nicely done. World building - still strong, and we see more of the world in this novel than the first. I especially liked that Canavan avoided the common pitfall of having things which are "just like this Earth analogue" - ie, there are beasts of burden, Canavan names them, but does not describe them as being "just like oxen" - indeed, she doesn't really describe them at all, and so the reader may see them as horses, mules, oxen, or anything else, really. I also really like Canavan's characters, and that will almost certainly be enough to have me read Book Three.

The thing I didn't like - Canavan is describing life in a school for magicians, and the formula is pretty obvious - our protagonist is different from her classmates, and so she gets picked on. She cannot confront her tormentor directly, and feels that she should not complain, and so endures and endures until she finally can't take it anymore. The book ends with a climactic battle between our hero and the mini-villain. If Book Three begins with them becoming close friends as a result, I'm not sure if I'll be able to care about the characters enough.

That makes it sound like Canavan is a bad author, and she isn't at all. Her characters really are lovely, and they come up with creative ways out of their problems. It was just that a great deal of the action in the book felt predictable, such that it dragged on the otherwise well written material.