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review 2018-09-22 15:12
Deservedly regarded as a classic
The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-1871 - Michael Eliot Howard

Michael Howard's history of the Franco-Prussian War has long been regarded as a classic of military history, and after reading it it's easy to see why. His book is a incisive recounting of the combatants and the operations they undertook over the course of the ten-month-long conflict. In the process he identifies the elements that defined the conflict, showing how just ill-prepared the French were for the war they faced, how poorly suited the French generals were for the type of war they were in, and how precarious Prussia's victory was after their ostensibly decisive victory in the battle of Sedan. While Geoffrey Wawro's history of the war serves as a better introduction to the subject thanks to its broader coverage of the context of events, nobody interested in understanding the course of the fighting can afford to skip Howard's perceptive and enduring examination of it.

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review 2018-09-08 17:47
A formidable examination of Wilhelm's development
Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888 - John C. G. Röhl

Perhaps the first question that arises when confronted with a three-volume biography of the German emperor Wilhelm II is: "Why?" Specifically, why does the failed ruler of a fallen dynasty deserve such attention? For some, the question answers itself, given that Wilhelm's reign ended in a war that defined the 20th century and reshaped the map of the Europe. But does his life warrant the three substantial tomes John Röhl has written about it?

The answer is a definitive "Yes," because what Röhl provides is not just a finely detailed account of the first three decades of Wilhelm's life, but a close examination of the family politics surrounding them. In doing so, what he offers his readers is a study that encompasses Wilhelm's parents — the future emperor Frederick III and his English wife Victoria — and the politics of the German court and the imperial Germany. This context is of particular relevance in Röhl's view given the vision that Frederick and Victoria had of a more liberal Germany than the monarch-dominated empire constructed by Otto von Bismarck, and their efforts to pass along their values to their eldest son. Their total failure to do so is an important part of the story of the Second Reich, and one that requires explanation.

Providing it serves as the focus of Röhl's first volume. In it he describes a childhood of constant pressures, ones that increased after Prussia established the German empire in 1871. Yet Wilhelm faced the additional problem of a physical handicap resulting from a difficult birth, one that left him with Erb's palsy on his left arm. Unable to accept this, Wilhelm's family employed often painful medical procedures and corrective devices designed to "correct" it, yet this could only moderate the effects of the paralysis. While many have speculated on the impact of such a paralysis on his emotional development, just as important was how it defined his relationship with his parents at his early age, which Röhl considers in detail. Relying upon a Freudian approach, he diagnoses many of Wilhelm's subsequent issues as stemming from his flawed relationship with his parents, ones that were often exacerbated by their best efforts to aid their son.

As heir to the throne from the moment of his birth, both Frederick and Victoria devoted considerable attention to the selection of Wilhelm's tutor, Georg Hinzpeter, and insisted that he attend a gymnasium and university. Yet for all of their efforts, Wilhelm grew into a temperamental young man who reveled in masculine martial activities. Rejecting his parents political values, increasingly he gravitated towards conservative, even reactionary figures, who welcomed his interest for the opportunity it provided to advance their vision of Germany and the world. Their political maneuvering increased as the emperor, Wilhelm I, neared the end of his long life and Frederick's illness from cancer promised a short reign. With their deaths in 1888 Wilhelm was poised for a long reign with enormous consequences for the entire world.

Röhl's book is an enormous achievement. Based on decades of research in the royal archives, it provides a careful examination of WIlhelm's personal and political development. At times the degree of detail can be wearying, and Röhl's reliance on Freudian explanations is a little questionable, but given the solid footing in the family papers it's impossible to dismiss altogether the arguments he makes. The result is a book that is unlikely ever to be surpassed as a thorough examination of Wilhelm's early years, one that lays a formidable foundation for the study of the reign that followed.

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review 2018-08-30 19:32
Tossed Hither and Thither: "Michael Kohlhaas" by Heinrich von Kleist
Michael Kohlhaas - Heinrich von Kleist


Just back from a long train journey, I took the opportunity to read Michael Kohlhaas in German. I can't imagine this text in English; it somehow seems simultaneously modern, and of the time in which the story is set. The actual language hardly intrudes at all, but there are particular words or phrases whose recurrence or juxtaposition hints at darker, hidden meaning; horrible things are described with equanimity, but there is always just a hint of deeper feeling beneath the surface. The foreword coins the phrase "anti-rhetoric"- a deliberate toning down of the descriptive passages, in order to focus attention on single moments, character's reactions, or a gesture.

 

 

If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

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review 2018-08-20 11:33
Spiritual Poetry: "Hölderlin - Poemas" by Friedrich Hölderlin
POEMAS - Friedrich Hölderlin,Paulo Quintela


If Hölderlin did it why can’t I do it too? Here it goes:

Yes, we need some good poets
And I think we all know it’s
Something we’re lacking….
My mind I am fracking
But still failing to see
how wishing makes it be.
They fuckitup,
We suckitup.

When I was young, appendectomy was done under local anaesthesia. I was so afraid, I might end up in a situation like that, that I memorised some of Hölderlin's poems in a Portuguese translation by Paulo Quintela, as ways of coping with my fear. I never had an appendectomy as a child, but I still recite in my mind some of those long ago learned Hölderlin's poems when I have to sit in a dentist's chair...

 

 

If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

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text 2018-08-18 15:47
Reading progress update: I've read 147 out of 190 pages.
The Solitary Summer - Elizabeth von Arnim

"A man once made it a reproach that I should be so happy, and told me everybody has crosses, and that we live in a vale of woe. I mentioned moles as my principal cross, and pointed to the huge black mounds with which they had decorated the tennis-court, but I could not agree to the vale of woe, and could not be shaken in my belief that the world is a dear and lovely place, with everything in it to make us happy so long as we walk humbly and diet ourselves. He pointed out that sorrow and sickness were sure to come, and seemed quite angry with me when I suggested that they too could be borne perhaps with cheerfulness. 'And have not even such things their sunny side?' I exclaimed. 'When I am steeped to the lips in diseases and doctors, I shall at least have something to talk about that interests my women friends, and need not sit as I do now wondering what I shall say next and wishing they would go.' He replied that all around me lay misery, sin, and suffering, and that every person not absolutely blinded by selfishness must be aware of it and must realise the seriousness and tragedy of existence. I asked him whether my being miserable and discontented would help any one or make him less wretched; and he said that we all had to take up our burdens. I assured him I would not shrink from mine, though I felt secretly ashamed of it when I remembered that it was only moles, and he went away with a grave face and a shaking head, back to his wife and his eleven children. I heard soon afterwards that a twelfth baby had been born and his wife had died, and in dying had turned her face with a quite unaccountable impatience away from him and to the wall; and the rumour of his piety reached even into my garden, and how he had said, as he closed her eyes, 'It is the Will of God.' He was a missionary."

Quintessential Elizabeth.  And yet, her own cross amounted to vastly more than mole hills, too, in fact.

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