April 28, 2006

Book 12: The Glorious Cause

The Glorious Cause
Jeff Shaara

Well, I meant to do this review right after I finished, but I was too tired. Then I decided to do it yesterday, a plan which would have worked well until my Dad cut the phone line. Oh, well, here it is. Maybe I'll get better as time gets on and post these right when I finish the book. Anyways, onwards!

I love Jeff Shaara. I've now taken it into my head to be sure that I read everything he's ever written, and that he has a definite presence in my will-be library one day. While I definitely enjoyed this book, I couldn't help but compare it to the other book of his I've read (To the Last Man), with the two covering dynamically different wars. For one thing, this book is written through the eyes of commanders, which makes more sense given the kind of warfare that emerged in World War I (being so different than anything prior). This is excellent for getting an idea of who Washington, Cornwallis, and other men truly were, but it also makes the novel somewhat formal and precocious, with no real regard for how it felt for the soldiers, always a concern of mine.

I understand that speech was very formal among the elites during the American Revolution, but the speech used in the book is quite formal, with Washington speaking the exact same way as Cornwallis. I'm not sure this would have happened in reality. However, this served to illuminate the difference with Daniel Morgan and Mad Anthony Wayne, who spoke differently, so I'm kind of split on how I feel about it. What Shaara has done well is painted a good picture of the main arenas of the Revolution, and how it might have felt for the commanders as they fought a strange new kind of war.

Shaara is best at painting realistic portraits of battle, and I can say that, having read this novel, I have a much better idea of the military happenings of the American Revolution. Actually, I kind of want to read more about it now, to see if William Howe was really as bad as Shaara paints him, and to see more clearly how exactly Cornwallis was trapped at Yorktown. All told, Shaara does a great job of illuminating a war so distant and yet so important to our national memory, personalizing George Washington and doing much to explain just why he deserves the title "father of our country."

Grade: A

April 7, 2006

Book 11: A Rumor of War

A Rumor of War
Philip Caputo

This is a very good book. This is the memoir of Philip Caputo, a lieutenant in the Marines during the Vietnam War. His story is odd, as he managed to be both one of the first Marines in Vietnam and was evacuated by helicopter in Saigon's final days, although by then he was a civilian. The book is interesting because it reflects Caputo's changing opinions of the war in a way that mirror the impressions of the nation during these conflicts (coughIraq). It was written after Caputo had seen combat, but the book was begun only a year after he left. Though the book gets preachy in parts (and here I am thinking of All Quiet on the Western Front, which definitely benefits thematically from its author's removal from the war by a decade), it still maintains a raw honesty.

Caputo is brutally honest, in fact, and the book will likely turn you against Vietnam and war in general. Here is another story about an enthusiastic young band of soldiers turned into weary veterans in the course of just a few months. Caputo does an excellent job of illuminating the theme of lost innocence, and for someone looking for an idea about the actual conditions of Vietnam in the lucid prose of a veteran, this book is it.

Grade: A

April 5, 2006

Book 10: The Magic Lantern

The Magic Lantern
Timothy Garton Ash

Well, this book is very interesting for several different reasons. It is a semi-hands-on account of the events in several major East European cities right as the revolutions against Communism were taking place. Ash was present in Poland for the monumental elections where Solidarity took control of the country and the Party was forced to cede much of its power. He was in Budapest where Party officials agreed to hold a funeral for a fallen resistance leader, acknowledging the needs of the Hungarian people for more open government. This soon followed. Ash was there when the wall fell and when East Germans streamed into Berlin to...shop. He was also the only foreigner to be present at the Czech Forum meetings in an old theater in Prague, given an insider's view of the organization of the resistance. Given all of this, it is bound to be an interesting, unique book.

That said, though, it is not without its major faults. Ash tends to change tense in his accounts, which read very rapidly, perhaps capturing the mood of the times but leaving the reader stranded. If you miss a paragraph in this book, the next seven won't make any sense. That is, if you were able to make sense of them at all. It is very hard to follow Ash's book if you are not very familiar with the events taking place already. That said, I believe it would be a valuable resource for future scholars studying the citizens' movements that were able to enact change across the region, but as an outsider I felt very lost throughout most of the book.

Ash also has a nasty habit of tooting his own horn a bit too much for my particular liking. He makes an overly extensive note that he was the only foreigner allowed into the Forum meetings in Prague, and while this makes him invaluable to any Western study of the events of 1989, he doesn't have to recognize that so overtly in his writing. We get it, his position is unique. I may revisit his account one day when I know more about the intricate workings of the movements of 1989, but until then the book is a primary source floating on an unknown sea.

Grade: B-