Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Review 8/06/10

I've managed to read 4 books this week.

Yasmin Sabina Khan - Enlightening the World

This was a fascinating look at the construction of the Statue of Liberty (originally called "Liberty Enlightening the World"). Khan does an excellent job of placing the construction into the context of American and French history. However, in doing that excellent job, Khan also displays one of the two traits I found annoying in the book.  The first comes from the fact that Khan has an historian's tendency to follow ideas back to their distant roots. In this discussion of the Statue of Liberty, she traces, extensively, the history of the friendship between France and the United States; the situation in the US following the Civil War; the situation in France preceding and following the Franco-Prussian War; the history of colossal monuments back to the 7 wonders of the ancient world; the use of neo-classical architecture in the US, and what that means, architecturally and ideologically within the US; the situation of architecture in France at the same time; and, finally, the various histories and biographies of the various "fathers" of the statue. The book is organized chronologically, more or less, but these side trips into the deeper past tend to come at unusual intervals throughout. In a longer book, this might not matter - actually, in a longer book, these digressions would contribute to the value of the book - but this is a very slim book, and so the digressions feel very much like distractions. The book has 12 chapters, and until chapter 10, nothing of the actual building of the Statue has been really discussed. That is, perhaps, too many discursive side trips. I frequently found myself saying "c'mon, get ON with it!," and anticipating another venture to discuss this financier, or that manufacturer of copper.

The other thing I found irksome in the book was the use of illustrations.  The book was lavishly illustrated - but often there were no pictures of what I wanted pictures of. Khan offered detailed descriptions of buildings, paintings, sculpture - many of which are still extant - but didn't include pictures of the building, painting or statue in question. I would have liked to have seen pictures of them - especially some of the Franco-Prussian War monuments, which Khan made sound particularly evocative. I could look them up via Google, but that's not the point. I would happily have sacrificed a photo of a sculptor for a photo of one of his sculptures.

Laurie King - The Beekeeper's Apprentice and O, Jerusalem 
Earlier, I reviewed King's second Mary Russell novel - A Monstrous Regiment of Women. The Russell novels describe a series of mysteries solved by Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes.  My wife, a fan of Doyle's detective, was intrigued, and so I acquired the first of the series for her, and several of the later books - she's spent the past week devouring them. I had complained that the romance in Monstrous Regiment didn't work particularly well - it seemed ungrounded - and so my wife suggested that I read the first book and the fourth book (I will explain momentarily) in order to get a better fix on why the romance does work, or is at least grounded in a relationship which makes sense.  O, Jerusalem takes place towards the end of Beekeeper - literally, there is a passage where Russell states "this is not the place to include a book length description of our trip to Palestine" - and so I do recommend that you read them concurrently. Beekeeper is a series of tightly linked vignettes - how Russell and Holmes met; their first case, their first serious case, the big event which cements their partnership. O, Jerusalem and the subsequent novels are more traditional novels. King has done some research on the period (just after World War One), and her descriptions are highly detailed and quite enjoyable. I recommend these to anyone who likes mystery novels, Sherlock Holmes, and/or well researched and written historical romance.

Victor Hanson - Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How we Fight, How we Live, and How we Think

It's hard to be an academic military historian these days.  Military history is very old fashioned in a world of social and cultural historians.  Indeed, there was an article some years ago about how so few schools even teach military history anymore. At the same time, military history outsells most other forms of history books in the general public, especially if the book addresses World War Two, or the US Civil War. The American public is deeply engrossed in those conflicts.
This book is clearly military history, and it is also popular history but Hanson is trying to do a couple of fairly important things on an academic level.  First, this is properly a short collection of three interconnected essays. Hanson examines three battles - the battle for Okinawa in World War Two, the Battle at Shiloh in the American Civil War, and the Battle of Delium during the Peloponnesian War.
This use of essays is, I think, critical to one of the two things Hanson is trying to do - form a bridge between popular and academic history. The book aims for a certain level of academic rigor, but by using the less formal essays rather than the more formal monograph, the book is not held to quite the same standards that an academic monograph might be - Hanson uses several short bibliographic essays instead of standard footnotes, for instance. A lack of footnotes appeals to the general reading public, while the use of essays keeps the book within the purview of academia. Hanson also writes in a style which is accessible to a popular audience, but is making a fairly significant argument about the nature of military history; again, attempting to bridge the divide between academic and popular history. So, that's the first thing that Hanson is doing, and I think he does a fairly decent job of it.  The book is most firmly rooted in popular history, but I think it is rigorous enough to withstand at least casual academic discussion.
The second thing Hanson is trying to accomplish is to provide an academic justification for traditional military history.  This book is crie de coure against the rise of military social history - the study of military history through a lens of social history.  Hanson decries works about women and African Americans in the US Army taking precedence over discussions of battles fought by the Army. His central argument is that the effects of specific battles have "ripples" which affect the war the battle is part of, the soldiers fighting the battle, and the societies from which the soldiers have come. While on the one hand, Hanson has a point, I think he oversells his position. Hanson is trying to prove not just that traditional military history - the study of movements of armies, analysis of battles, and discussion of decisions made by generals - has a place in academia. He is also trying to prove that this sort of history should have pride of place in academia - that it is literally more important to understand the Battle of Shiloh than it is to understand the society which made the battle necessary. Do wars have an effect on society? Absolutely. Does the outcome of a particular battle influence the direction of a specific war, and of future wars? No doubt in my mind. Should we throw out a century of historiography and return to a study of great generals and their detailed battle plans - that, I think, is taking things a little too far.
A final thought. Hanson provides some small maps of the battles in question - considerably more detailed maps would have improved this as a work of military history. Perhaps, instead of looking at three battles, Hanson could have focused on one - Shiloh, I felt, was the strongest part of his argument, but Okinawa was the battle that Hanson was clearly the most interested in - and still made the argument. So, good popular history, an interesting thesis for academic discussion, but not, actually, all that good as military history.