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review 2019-07-21 21:16
An excellent account of the legendary raid
Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams, 1943 - James Holland

I decided to read James Holland’s book about Operation Chastise after rewatching Michael Anderson’s 1955 film about the British effort to destroy the Ruhr Valley. Seeing it again sparked my curiosity about the attack, and I wanted to learn how closely the history matched up to Anderson’s fictionalized account. Holland’s book was a natural choice for me, as I sought to steer clear from some of the older works on the subject, and I had enjoyed reading his general history of the war between Britain and Germany.


It proved an excellent choice in every respect. Holland begins his book with the Royal Air Force’s low-level raid on Augsburg in April 1942, one that was conducted by the newly introduced Lancaster bombers. The high loss rate of this raid relatively early in Bomber Command’s campaign against Germany pushed them away from such attacks in favor of ones at much higher altitudes. This underscores the unusual nature of Barnes Wallis’s idea of the bouncing bomb, which was not just a novel weapon delivered in an unusual way, but one that required the heavy bombers to employ low-level flying with which their crews were largely unfamiliar — and this was well before factoring in the challenges of doing so at night over water and with the precision needed.


Holland then walks the readers through both the development of the bouncing bomb and Wallis’s efforts to win over the RAF to its use. As he shows, a key factor was the enthusiasm of the Royal Navy for the concept, who wanted to use similar bombs for an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz then sheltered in the fijords of Norway. It was their interest along with the support of Charles Portal, the head of the RAF, that led to the decision in March 1943 to develop the bomb over the objections of Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command, who saw the idea as a distraction from the strategic bombing campaign that was only then achieving the scale he wanted. Nevertheless, Holland credits Harris with the professionalism of fully supporting the plan once the decision was made, authorizing the diversion of precious Lancasters and the reassignment of experienced men to a new unit formed to bomb the Ruhr Valley dams.


The description of the formation of 617 Squadron is one of the strengths of the book, as Holland goes to considerable lengths to describe the lives of the men involved. Central to his focus is the squadron’s commander, Guy Gibson, who as Holland shows was a much more complicated figure than the earnest young man of the popular young imagination. Still in his mid-20s, he was nonetheless entrusted with the challenging tasks of forming a unit and preparing it for a mission unlike anything the Lancaster pilots had ever flown before, all while coping with emotional exhaustion after having just completed his tour of missions. His complicated personal life is one of several that Holland explores, which humanizes the men and underscores the depths of the sacrifice they were making.


In detailing the mission itself, Holland explains well the unique challenges posed by bombing each of the three dams. With the Möhne Dam, the problem was the flak protection which, while stripped down in favor of priorities elsewhere, was still a threat to the bombers. With the embankment dam on the Sorpe, its design meant that direct hits on it were necessary. And for the Eder Dam, the lack of flak protection reflected the difficulties posed by the geography, which made successful approaches difficult. Though only the Möhne and Eder dams were breached in the attack and both were subsequently repaired within months, Holland underscores both the destruction caused by the breaches and the enormous diversion of resources necessary to rebuild the dams to argue that the attacks were a lot more successful than many analyses of them have concluded, fully justifying the effort the British made to destroy them.


Holland bases his account of the raid on both the available archival records and the considerable literature that has been written about it. He does not limit his perspective, either, as he includes the Germans’ experience of the raid in ways that enrich his narrative and provide important support for his arguments. Though his effort to develop the stories of the men of the 617 Squadron doesn’t always fully distinguish them from each other, they do help to humanize them and highlight the extent of what they were risking by undertaking such a dangerous mission. Together it makes for a superb study of the raid that should be read by anyone interested in learning the history of it.

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review 2019-07-20 22:51
The Return of Sherlock Holmes / Arthur Conan Doyle
The Return of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle

Missing, presumed dead, for three years, Sherlock Holmes returns triumphantly to his dear companion Dr Watson. And not before time! London has never been in more need of his extraordinary services: a murderous individual with an air gun stalks the city.

Among thirteen further brilliant tales of mystery, detection and deduction, Sherlock Holmes investigates the problem of the Norwood Builder, deciphers the message of the Dancing Men, and cracks the case of the Six Napoleons.



***The Summer of Sherlock 2019*** 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have been reluctant to raise Sherlock Holmes from the dead, but he certainly provided some entertaining stories after his sudden return.

I confess that I was quite chuffed when I had figured out what was going on in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons before the great detective was ready to reveal the motivation of the criminal. And I still have some nagging memories concerning The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, as I am sure that I have previously encountered this plotline and I cannot remember where! Most likely in a more recent book in which someone has borrowed from the master, but I am being driven mad because I cannot recall the source.

I am so glad that Doyle brought Holmes back if only because we gotThe Adventure of the Dancing Men out of the deal. What an excellent story of code-breaking and villain-catching!

I hold the author to blame, however, for the idea that men should be cold, intellectual, and detached from society. I think that our society would be much better if more men aspired to be John Watson, rather than Sherlock Holmes!

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review 2019-07-19 21:10
Reading progress update: I've listened to 100%.
Death In Kashmir - M.M. Kaye
Death in Kashmir: A Mystery - M.M. Kaye,Shibani Ghosh

Well, that was somewhat more of a slog than I had expected -- and only in a minor part owing to M.M. Kaye herself; even though she does rely more on "dark and stormy night" scenarios than I would have liked to see, as well as on characters, including protagonists, behaving TSTL to such an extent it's a wonder they don't all get killed in the first chapter. 


Chiefly, though, it just puzzles the heck out of me how anybody at Audible could have thought it was a good idea to let a book set firmly in the British colonial establishment, and featuring exclusively characters belonging to said establishment (with the attendant accents and attitudes) be read by an Indian narrator with a very pronounced Indian accent (whose narration moreover resembles that of an automaton, but let that be) -- and who doesn't have the first clue how to pronounce English place names and certain other English terms, to boot.  I mean, yeah, the book has "Kashmir" in the title, but it should have been some sort of clue in selecting the narrator that it was written by a British author and is set immediately before the end of the Raj ...


Oh well.  Onwards and upwards.  At least I finished it just in time to be allowed to roll again tonight!

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text 2019-07-19 00:42
Essential History II - British & Irish History

For my second list, I decided to focus on my primary area of interest and select some histories of the British isles.


1. Britain Begins by Barry Cunliffe. Technically this is prehistory, which is an area that I've never had much interest. But Barry Cunliffe employs a lifetime of learning to describe the British peoples prior to the arrival of the Romans.


2. London: A Social History by Roy Porter. Porter was an amazingly prolific historian whose reputation has faded somewhat since his death. While his history of London contains nothing particularly revelatory, it demonstrates his strengths as a historian, providing an accessible and knowledgeable overview of Britain's great metropolis.


3. The Origins of the English Parliament, 924-1327, by J. R. Madicott. Britain's Parliament is at the core of their identity as a representative democracy. What MAdicott does is push past the standard stories of its emergence to talk about its Anglo-Saxon antecedents and development during the Norman era.


4. The New Oxford History of England (11 vols to date). This is a bit of a cheat, as 1) this is 11 books rather than one, and 2) I haven't read all of the books, but for anyone seeking to understand the span of English history this is the place to turn.


5. The Hundred Years' War (4 vols.) by Jonathan Sumption. Britain's historical identity as a land apart from Europe is a product of historical amnesia. Nothing represents that better than the Middle Ages, when England was part of a kingdom that straddled the English Channel. Sumption's richly detailed history is about the end of this period, which describes the unsustainability of England's situation and its long contest with the French monarchy to determine who would rule over France.


6. Contested Island: Ireland 1460-1630 by S. J. Connolly. To say that Ireland has a complicated history with Britain is an understatement. Connolly's history off Ireland from the late 15th to the early 17th centuries -- the first of two volumes he would write on Ireland for the Oxford History of Early Modern Europe -- chronicles a key period in this relationship, when England's religious transformation complicated their already tenuous efforts to assert control over Ireland.


7. The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village by Eamon Duffy. There are many fantastic books on the English Reformation that I could recommend, but this one stands out as an essential read not for its comprehensiveness but for its use of a case study fo an English village to show how the machinations of monarchs and politicians were received buy the people themselves.


8. Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 by Roy Foster. Roy Foster is a giant of Irish history and this is his magnum opus -- a comprehensive survey of Ireland from the start of the Jacobean era to the beginning of the Troubles. 


9. Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660 by Austin Woolrych. The English Civil War was neither solely "English" nor was it just a civil war. To understand this, read Woolrych's comprehensive history of the conflict, which encompasses all of its various aspects into a single volume.


10. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649­-1815 by N. A. M. Rodger. The key to Britain's global dominance was its naval power. Nobody demonstrates this better than Nicholas Rodger, who in this volume (the second of an unfinished trilogy) describes not only Britain's naval victories but the enormous amount of organization and planning that went into making it possible.


11. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine. The British aristocracy dominated English politics and society for over a millennium. As Cannadine demonstrates in his magisterial study, beginning in the late 19th century a series of economic, social, and political developments converged to render them a show of their former selves.


12. The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. Fussell's book encompasses far more than just the English experience of war. But to understand how the war impacted the English people and changed their culture, there is no other book to turn to.


13. The Myriad Faces Of War: Britain And The Great War, 1914-1918 by Trevor Wilson. To be honest, there are better books on the First World War, but there is no  single volume that better incorporates all aspects of Britain in the conflict than Wilson's book.


14. Dublin 1916: The Siege of the GPO by Charles Townshend. The Dublin Rising was the event that started Ireland on the road of independence -- and Townsend's book is the best book to read to understand the origins and consequences of this failed event.


15. The Thirties: An Intimate History by Judith Gardiner. The 1930s have long been viewed as an era of depression and willful neglect. Gardiner demonstrates that the truth was far more complicated, with a prosperous middle-class Britain developing in many areas while industrial regions coped with the poverty.


16. The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain by Stephen Bungay. The Battle fo Britain is an indelible part of British culture. As Bungay shows in his detailed analysis of the battle, however, this was far from the heroic struggle against long odds but a battle in which the British ha the advantage.


17. Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 by David Kynaston. Though Kynaston has written three volumes "Tales of the New Jerusalem," his first volume is by far the best of the three, covering Britain during its postwar transition to the "New Jerusalem" of the welfare state.

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review 2019-07-18 11:14
A superb introduction to a historic British city
The City of Bath - Barry W. Cunliffe

Given his stature in his profession and his prolific pen I was long aware of Barry Cunliffe's abilities as an archaeologist and a writer. What I didn’t discover until recently was that he had used his skills to write a history of the city of Bath. It’s a relatively short and well-illustrated chronicle of Bath’s evolution through time, one that reflects both his skills as a scholar and his love of his subject.

In the preface to the book Cunliffe explains that his primary theme is how the dual influences of landscape and the past shaped the city’s development. This results in a study mainly focused on its physical history, which plays to Cunliffe’s strengths. These are most clearly evident in the book’s early chapters, in which he provides an account of the area’s prehistoric and Roman settlement based on the available archaeological discoveries, much of which he had written about before. As he moves into the medieval era, though, Cunliffe draws more heavily upon the historical scholarship about the period, detailing the establishment of Bath Abbey, the emergence of the medieval town, and the shift from a primarily Church-controlled municipality to one run by the business leaders. As he shows, it was the latter’s focus on developing the town’s appeal as a spa that contributed to its revival in the 17th century, which paved the way for the architectural and civic planning marvels of the 18th century that make Bath the attraction it is today.

Cunliffe’s command of his sources and skills at concision result in a book that condenses nicely thousands of years of Bath’s history in less than 200 pages. It is a superb introduction to the region, hampered mainly by the growing need for an updated edition. Hopefully Cunliffe will write one soon, because it is difficult to imagine someone else with his formidable combination of abilities and passion undertaking a similar work anytime soon.

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