Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wellington at Waterloo (Book #62)

Wellington at Waterloo (Jac Weller, 1967) is the third in Weller's trilogy on the Duke of Wellington's military career, and it's really not the place to start, IMHO, if you haven't read much about Waterloo or Wellington. (For my ideas on good places to start, see the end of this post.) But if you come in knowing the basics about the battle and the general who won it, it will add detail and nuance to your perspective, and I for one love detail and nuance.

What makes this book different from other Waterloo histories is Weller's tight focus on Wellington. Instead of flitting between Napoleon, Wellington, and Blucher, we look at what Wellington would've seen and heard, seeing how he responded to each French move as he carried out a masterful and dynamic defensive action (and ultimately went on offense after the Imperial Guard broke and began to flee). Even the maps are from a Wellington's-eye view, oriented southward, which drove me crazy at first. I'm not a naturally visual thinker. I can read maps perfectly well--I'm not one of those people who constantly gets lost--but I'm a verbal and kinesthetic learner who learns more from words or from hands-on experience than from looking at pictures or watching a demonstration. So those upside-down maps were driving me crazy. I kept flipping the book over so it would look like the Waterloo I know.

But then something clicked in my brain, and I stopped seeing them as maps, which must follow the map rules I learned in school lo these many years ago, and instead understood them as simple representations of what Wellington was looking at on 18 June 1815. And then I understood the battle better than I ever had before. I didn't just accept the Anglo-Dutch army's position and the course of the battle as historical facts, I understood why Wellington chose to fight there, why he positioned his troops as he did, and, finally, why each French attack turned out as it did. I was so excited after this epiphany that when I met my husband for lunch, I babbled on and on about it and mapped out Wellington's deployment using my plate, a bowl of salsa, my diet coke can, a fork, etc.

All of that may sound amazingly stupid to anyone who's a visual learner. For all I know, I'm the only one who needed to see the Waterloo map turned upside down to grasp why the Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte positions were so important, for example. Sometimes I think I have a strange brain. But I'm glad I read this book and had this epiphany, because in my alternative history I'm inventing my own battles. To do that plausibly and not make any of my generals look stupid unintentionally, I need to understand not just the "what" of real battles but the "why," and I'm relieved that's finally coming together for me.

After describing the battle in detail, Weller includes a brief discussion of the supposed mistakes on each side. He's obviously not fond of the "what-if" or blame games, and he's right that most of the classic criticisms would require the generals or their armies to have capabilities they lacked or to have perfect knowledge of the other side's intentions (which is a lot to ask even of commanders so high in the pantheon of all-time greats).

Just as an aside, after reading all three volumes of Weller's trilogy, I've come to suspect him of having a bit of a man-crush on Wellington. :-) For example, early in the book when he describes Wellington as having "the hard physical condition of a steeplechase jockey," I didn't just think, "Yes, Wellington's superior health and vigor relative to Napoleon in 1815 were important to the outcome of the battle," but also, "Yeah, I agree. He had a good body, all wiry and lean like that. For an occasionally obnoxious elitist Tory I would've regularly wanted to strangle in real life, he was pretty hot."

Anyway, as promised, my recommended reading list for anyone who wants to know more about Wellington and Waterloo.

For Waterloo:
The Battle, by Alessandro Barbero. Includes a basic overview of tactics and materials for those unfamiliar with flintlock-era battles, then tells the story of Waterloo in gripping, novelistic fashion.

Sharpe's Waterloo, by Bernard Cornwell. Not just novelistic but a novel, and probably a bit confusing if you haven't read some of the earlier Sharpe books or at least watched the movies. But it's one of Cornwell's best and brings Waterloo to life.

The Wellington chapter of John Keegan's The Mask of Command. A quick, vividly written battle story and character study.

On Wellington:
Wellington: A Personal History, by Christopher Hibbert. Good and fairly thorough single-volume biography.

Wellington: the Years of the Sword, by Elizabeth Longford. First of a two-volume biography, though I confess I've never read the second volume, Pillar of State, since Wellington was a better general than politician, and I've always been more interested in British history up to 1815 than afterward.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Book #61)

In Shakespeare: The World as Stage (2007) Bill Bryson sticks to what can be definitively known about William Shakespeare. Because there's so little hard evidence to go on, the book is not so much a biography as a historical study of the times Shakespeare lived in and what we know of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater scene. Like anything by Bryson, it's engagingly written. I can't imagine an author I'd rather have write the biography of an enigma.

Bryson is delightfully scathing toward all the claims that someone other than Shakespeare wrote his works, pointing out that there's no evidence beyond some people's inability to believe a moderately educated man from a modest background could be capable of great things. Which, when you stop to think about it, is a pretty obnoxious view to hold.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Voyage Long and Strange (Book #60)

A Voyage Long and Strange (Tony Horwitz, 2008) is a history/travelogue wherein Horwitz traces European explorers and settlers of North America from the Vikings to the Pilgrims and visits sites associated with them to see if and how they're remembered. It's consistently interesting and often amusing, and it inspired me to put his earlier book, Confederates in the Attic, on my holds list.

Yesterday I was reading this book while waiting for a notoriously slow elevator. When the lift at last arrived, I walked on still reading. One of my fellow passengers gave me an odd look and said, "Life is too short." I gave him an odd look back. Yes, I know, I read obsessively. Most people don't read on elevators. But...I'm somehow missing out on Real Life by reading a book in an elevator I ride in on a regular basis? It's not like I was reading it by the Grand Canyon or immersed in it while watching a no-hitter live, you know?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I just got to p. 400 on the manuscript of my WIP, and on the exact deadline I'd given myself! Woohoo! That's almost exactly 89,000 words by MS Word's count, FWIW.

So, my next goal is to finish my first draft by August 15. A little while back, when I hit p. 300, I hoped to have the manuscript submission-ready by Labor Day, but I've since realized that's unrealistic. This book needs SERIOUS editing to be the best I'm capable of making it. I've got research to do, I've got to make some decisions about the backstory of my alternate world set-up and how much of it to reveal, I need to make sure my protagonist actually has a character arc (right now I'm afraid he's every bit as resolute and heroic when we meet him on p. 3 as he is on p. 400, and that won't do), I need to fix the story logic of my main subplot, etc. I'm thinking that's more like 3 months' work than 3 weeks', so my new tentative goal for being really and truly DONE is 12/31. But I may revise that up or back by a month or two as I go along.

Still. 400 pages. I'm most of the way there. And I got my feedback forms today for the Pacific NW Writers Association Literary Contest (I'm one of the finalists in science fiction/fantasy). It's almost 100% positive. One of my judges wants me to concentrate on adding more description and sensory detail, which is a fair point. That's one of my weaknesses. But s/he also praised my story hook, admired my pacing and imagery, and said s/he looked forward to reading the entire book. The second judge seemed to love everything, and I'm gloating over comments like "A real cause. A real protagonist, super antagonists, wonderful game of 'what if?'"

They liked me, they really liked me! ::bounce bounce bounce::

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How Far From Austerlitz? (Book #59)

How Far From Austerlitz? Napoleon 1805-1815 (Alistair Horne, 1998) focuses on roughly the second half of Napoleon's career--the downhill part of it after the peak of Austerlitz. It's interesting enough, and it helped me get a sense of which marshals to use when in my alternative history. But I don't feel like I got any new insights into what made Napoleon tick, and I got annoyed by the sheer number of times Horne compared Napoleon to Hitler. I know he was just comparing the military developments (and there are certainly parallels there, especially WRT the Russian campaigns), but I really can't separate Hitler from genocide enough to be comfortable seeing his name in the same sentence with someone who, whatever his failings and despite the amount of bloodshed he caused, never came close to that level of evil.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home (Book #58)

The Long Way Home (Joss Whedon, 2007) is, if I understand this correctly, a compilation of the first five issues of the "Buffy: Season 8" comic series. And it really does feel like reading episodes of the show, and fairly ordinary episodes. There's no "Once More With Feeling," "Hush," or "Becoming" here. But ordinary Buffy is still pretty damn entertaining. (Here I could make all my usual envious comments about Joss Whedon's storytelling gifts.) I don't think I'll ever love the comics as I did the show, but if it's got Joss's name on it, I'll try it.

Little Brother (Book #57)

If I could've read Little Brother (Cory Doctorow, 2008) back in 2002 or 2003, I probably would've thought it was pretty much the Best. Book. EVAH! It's set in the near future. The time is never specified, but I'd guess it to be no more than eight years ahead of now. The protagonist/narrator, a 17-year-old hacker named Marcus, happens to be cutting school with a backpack full of high tech gizmos on the day San Francisco falls victim to a terrorist attack on a similar scale to 9/11. He and his friends are apprehended by Homeland Security and treated as terrorist suspects. When they're finally released into what's turned into a police state, Marcus uses his hacker skills to fight against the disappearance of civil liberties.

In '02 or '03, I doubt this book would've sold. It took a few years after 9/11 for the idea that maybe the government had gone too far in restricting civil liberties to gain widespread acceptance (and maybe for people to be comfortable speaking out about it). But now, in 2008, while I still enjoyed the book and read it in about four hours flat, I found it just a bit too heavy-handed. In a way it felt like an after-school special for, you know, active but nonviolent resistance to government tyranny. And I think my ideal "you must be willing to fight to keep your freedoms" book would be a bit more allegorical, and set somewhere other than near-future America.

All of which should not be construed as major criticism of the book, because I did enjoy it. And I could totally see something like it happening in the event of another major terrorist attack, though I like to think the mere fact Little Brother was published to rave reviews and a place on the NYT bestseller lists means it's less likely than it would've been a few years ago!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Age of Bronze: Betrayal (Book #56)

Age of Bronze: Betrayal (Eric Shanower, 2007) is the third of a proposed series of seven graphic novels retelling the story of the Trojan War. Shanower treats it as historical fiction rather than myth, so the gods speak through oracles and dreams, and the art is informed by intensive archaeological research. And most importantly, the characters feel intensely human.

I enjoyed this book, as I did the two that preceded it, and I hope Shanower hurries up and writes the next four. My only issue is that there are so many characters, many of whom look a good bit alike for the obvious reason that they're related, so it's hard to keep all of Priam's sons and all the Greek kings straight.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Your Inner Fish (Book #55)

Back in 1994-96, I worked in the Biology Department Academic Office at Penn. One of our assistant professors was a rather dashing young paleontologist named Neil Shubin. I didn't know him very well, though I did talk to him briefly about evolution once. I'd come out of a strain of Christianity where I was told if I didn't believe everything in the Bible, including a literal interpretation of the creation story, I had no business calling myself a Christian at all. So during those years I was struggling between accepting the logical evidence for evolution and my desire to stay in the faith.

Anyway, during that conversation he brought up how the structure of our limbs is a modification of earlier forms, showing the common ancestry we share with other life on Earth. Since then, he's moved on. He's now on the faculty at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum, and he had a bit of a media splash a few years back for discovering Tiktaalik, a Devonian fish with proto-amphibian traits. His new book, Your Inner Fish (2008), is basically an extended version of our conversation about our limbs' kinship to fins. He takes features of the human body--our eyes, ears, hands, etc.--and shows their physiological and genetic connection to a variety of earlier, simpler life forms. Interesting stuff, though having long since reached a reasonable accommodation between my faith and evolution, I didn't find any of it especially surprising. OK, I was surprised that the reason men are prone to hernias is because evolving into warm-bloodedness required moving the male gonads, which messed with the structure of the abdominal cavity. Who'da thunk?

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Sharing Knife: Passage (Book #54)

The Sharing Knife: Passage (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2008) is a beautiful book. It's the third in a planned four-book series, so by now Bujold has established her world and her characters. And because she's an established author writing an ongoing series, she has the luxury of a nice, leisurely opening. It feels like we're just visiting old friends for the first 100 pages or so as Bujold subtly sets up her plot, and even once the story is off and running, there's an intimacy and community among the characters that I just love.

On the plot front, she's set up some intriguing dilemmas for her finale. Fawn and Dag still haven't really made either of their peoples accept their marriage, though they begin to build a sort of Scooby Gang of Lakewalkers and farmers. And Dag is experimenting with his growing powers despite his exile from any experienced maker who could tell him what to do and what to avoid, and in ways that strike me as dangerous, body and soul.

The problem with reading a book like this is it makes me cranky about my own writing. Bujold's work is just so quietly, subtly excellent, with a flowing voice and vivid characterization. I want to create a community of characters like that and to write about them so beautifully, and I know I'm not there yet! It also makes me difficult to please as a reader. I finished this book last night and have opened two others I was planning to read this week (both library books due on Thursday), but I couldn't get through more than a few pages. One, from an author I've enjoyed in the past, felt too flat and distant. The other was clever and playful, but coming directly off Bujold it felt overwritten and contrived. So I'll read some nonfiction to cleanse my palate before I can be fair to another novel!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Bewitching Season (Book #53)

Two or three years ago, I judged the historical category for an RWA writing contest, I forget which one. One of the five entries was unusual--YA with fantasy elements--and was also the best unpublished writing contest entry I'd ever read.

I now have the pleasure of seeing one of this author's books in print. (Not the one I judged--that would be the next book due out.) The book in question is Bewitching Season (Marissa Doyle, 2008). It's the tale of magically gifted identical twins Persephone and Penelope Leland, who are making their social debut in 1837 London. They must try to keep their powers secret while figuring out how to rescue their kidnapped governess and foil a wizardly plot against soon-to-be Queen Victoria. It's rollicking good fun, though I felt like it really needed to be longer--the magical plot and worldbuilding of how the girls' powers worked weren't as well developed as I would've liked.