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review 2018-07-21 18:13
A chummy history of how Churchill became Prime Minister
Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister - Nicholas Shakespeare

The selection of Winston Churchill as Neville Chamberlain's successor in May 1940 is regarded today as one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. With his elevation to the premiership Britain was committed to a course of action in the Second World War that ended with victory over Nazi Germany. Given his role in the Allied triumph and subsequent anointing as the greatest Briton ever, such a choice can be perceived as inevitable. Yet was it?

One of the great merits of Nicholas Shakespeare's account of the events surrounding the decision is in his detailing the views of the key actors in the spring of 1940 and the choices available to them. In the process, not only does he demonstrate that Churchill's selection was far from ordained, but he also shows that it was more than a simple choice between Churchill and Lord Halifax traditionally described in most accounts of the event. As Shakespeare explains, ministers and Members of Parliament had several alternatives available to them. For many of them, Churchill was an unacceptable choice for the top post given his recklessness and adventurism, while others seemed much more appealing candidates. Even the very notion that Chamberlain needed to be replaced because of the military debacle in Norway the month before was not generally accepted, and only emerged over the course of the "Norway debate" and the subsequent division that exposed the weakness of Chamberlain's support.

To detail the events of May 1940 and uncover the thinking of the various people involved Shakespeare went beyond the traditional accounts in memoirs and biographies and undertook additional archival research and interviews. This he knits together in a narrative to which he brings all his skills as a novelist, making for an account that is highly engaging. By comparing the at times conflicting accounts and retrospective explanations, he has produced a very detailed description of how it came down in the end to Churchill. Yet it is also an incredibly chummy account, focusing almost exclusively upon the actions and decisions of a select group of elite men (and even a couple of women). While this is understandable given the small circle of people in politics and media at the time, the weaknesses in this approach are more evident in the account of the Norway disaster that precedes it. Given its importance to the events that followed Shakespeare spends a third of the book describing its failings, yet his account of events rarely strays beyond the experiences of key officers and government officials, creating the impression that it was merely their personal experiences which drove their objections to Chamberlain rather than the broader defeat that informed their criticisms of his handling of the war.

 

By narrowing his focus to a group of elite figures (one that includes his own uncle), Shakespeare trivializes the motivations of many of the men involved in the decision to turn out Chamberlain. It's a glaring flaw in what is in many respects an excellent book, one that details the chain of events that would define the course of world history. It is especially unfortunate, given that Shakespeare's extensive research and ability as a writer have produced what is the best account yet of how Churchill became prime minister in those fateful weeks in the spring of 1940. Its weaknesses, however, cause it to fall short of the definitive account it could have been with just a broadening of its scope.

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text 2018-07-20 23:07
Back to the Forster Project
Morgan: A Biography of E. M. Forster - Nicola Beauman
E.M. Forster: A New Life - Wendy Moffat
A Passage To India - E.M. Forster

It's been a while since I finished The Longest Journey (still need to write a review) and now that tennis plans are on ice for a bit (because of a pulled muscle) and that work has, not slowed down, but has at least moved past the frantic phase, I feel might get the right time and head-space again to enjoy the next read in my Forster project. 

 

I only have two novels left, the short stories, and Aspects of the Novel.

 

But, I have also found two biographies at the library that looked really good:

 

Morgan is the one which I am really excited about because it was written by Nicola Beauman. She's now head of Persephone Books who publish the most marvellous forgotten women writers of the early 20th century. I'm subscribed to their newsletter and it is the only newsletter I actually look forward to receiving. 
So, I can't wait to read what she has to say about Forster. 
 
The other one, by Wendy Moffat, seems to focus more on just one aspect of his life and how it affected his writing. At least, this is what I got from several reviews about the book and which seemed to shelf it under "gender studies" a lot. 

 

So, without further delay, I am off on A Passage to India

 

(Taken on a trip to Shimla a few years ago. The book is not set there, but this is what I picture when reading the book.)

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review 2018-07-20 08:13
The Portable Cosmos by Alexander Jones
A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World - Alexander Jones

TITLE:  The Portable Cosmos:  Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World

 

AUTHOR:  Alexander Jones

 

DATE PUBLISHED:  2017

 

FORMAT:  Hardcover

 

ISBN-13:  9780199739349

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Book Description:

 

"From the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Terracotta Army, ancient artifacts have long fascinated the modern world. However, the importance of some discoveries is not always immediately understood. This was the case in 1901 when sponge divers retrieved a lump of corroded bronze from a shipwreck at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea near the Greek island of Antikythera. Little did the divers know they had found the oldest known analog computer in the world, an astonishing device that once simulated the motions of the stars and planets as they were understood by ancient Greek astronomers. Its remains now consist of 82 fragments, many of them containing gears and plates engraved with Greek words, that scientists and scholars have pieced back together through painstaking inspection and deduction, aided by radiographic tools and surface imaging. More than a century after its discovery, many of the secrets locked in this mysterious device can now be revealed.

In addition to chronicling the unlikely discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism, author Alexander Jones takes readers through a discussion of how the device worked, how and for what purpose it was created, and why it was on a ship that wrecked off the Greek coast around 60 BC. What the Mechanism has uncovered about Greco-Roman astronomy and scientific technology, and their place in Greek society, is truly amazing. The mechanical know-how that it embodied was more advanced than anything the Greeks were previously thought capable of, but the most recent research has revealed that its displays were designed so that an educated layman could understand the behavior of astronomical phenomena, and how intertwined they were with one's natural and social environment. It was at once a masterpiece of machinery as well as one of the first portable teaching devices. Written by a world-renowned expert on the Mechanism, A Portable Cosmos will fascinate all readers interested in ancient history, archaeology, and the history of science.
"

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The conglomerate of corroded and broken bronze pieces, eventually known as the  Antikythera Mechanism, were salvaged from a shipwreck in the early 1900s.  Initially, the fragments were studied without any certainty of what they were. By the end of that century it was confirmed that the metal device with its gears and advanced clockwork mecahnism was some kind of analog computer.  It was eventually determined that the mechanism predicted phases of the moon, planetary positions and even eclipses with great precision.

A Portable Cosmos provides a description of the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, an extensive  desciption of the device itself and how it worked, as well as the ancient astronomy behind it.   Jones explores the mystery of the Antikythera mechanism in a no nonsense fashion and includes relevant diagrams and photographs where necessary.  The author does a thorough job of presenting numerous related topics such as the history of astronomy and astrology, calendrics and the mechanics of eclipses, as well as any ancient records of such a mechanism.  Cicero wrote about a planetarium that Archimedes used as a teaching tool, which may have been similar to the Antikythera mechanism.  The book is devided into thematic chapters, so if the technical aspects are too detailed, the reader can skip these chapters without missing out too much.  This book is scholarly and rather technical, but is none the less absorbing and very interesting.

 

 

 

 

 

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review 2018-07-19 15:46
Podcast #112 is up!
The Sinews of Habsburg Power: Lower Austria in a Fiscal-Military State 1650-1820 - William D. Godsey Jr.

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview William D. Godsey about his study of how the Estate of Lower Austria evolved to finance Habsburg power in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enjoy!

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text 2018-07-18 22:10
Reading progress update: I've read 47%.
The Silk Road: A New History - Valerie Hansen

Here we go again, the book stops at around 67% with the rest being notes and references.

 

Do I keep reading and finish the book or do I want to get a good night's sleep?

 

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