What I Read May 2020

Only two books in May (I had finals), one of which was quite long. I am actually pretty happy with the reading I did in May. I have a couple of unfinished books that should get done in June and nothing quite like the doorstop that was the first book here.

A World Undone

GJ Meyer

I hesitate to call this book comprehensive, because the first world war is a huge subject that really cannot be contained in one book. But A World Undone is about as comprehensive as a single book could be on this subject. It is a comprehensive look at the war in Europe. Asia gets mentioned, but not in the detail that events in France and the Balkans do. It starts by laying the groundwork, detailing the political state of the Balkans and the Austo-Hungarian Empire just before the war. It does a good job of showing how the war became inevitable, and how it became the giant mess it was.

What it does best illustrating is just how incompetent and entrenched in their thinking the leaders of nearly every country involved were. The French continued to be sure that one more offensive push was going to break the Germans, even as casualties mounted and each offensive gained them nothing. The British weren’t any better, but at least they had the freedom to try to take the fight away from the stalemate in France. That, for a variety of reasons, they bungled things in Gallipoli and Greece is just part of what makes the war so frustrating. The worst part of everything is how the soldiers were treated as expendable by their superiors. Numbers were necessary, and deaths were inevitable, but I can’t think of a time in history when so many people died for so little reason. It is no surprise that the governments of many of the chief participants toppled, like Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, but that any government made it through after the complete disdain they showed for their populace.

Something that comes through that has always interested me is how WW1 featured such a rapid growth in technology. Tanks and airplanes were first used in war in WW1. But there were also still cavalry and tactics from the wars of the previous century. It is a horrifying and fascinating look at the meeting of two different worlds. A World Undone does a great job illustrating this aspect of the war.

I do have some complaints. One is how this book refers to women. It does not come up often, but Meyer still found a space to reduce one woman to “a juicy Hapsburg Princess” and seems to have no space for nuance in dealing with Empress Alexandra of Russia. This is not to suggest Meyer’s judgment of her is necessarily incorrect, but nearly every other figure in the book received a more considered approach.

The Man Who Knew Too Much

G.K. Chesterton

This is a collection of short mysteries about a sort of detective, Horne Fisher. Fisher is highly connected in the upper levels of the British government and high society. So he has personal knowledge of their foibles. He ends up solving a lot of mysteries where his personal knowledge is needed to unravel tangled webs of lies. Unfortunately, time and time again he gets to the bottom of things, only to have to watch as the perpetrator, thanks to their station, is allowed to get away with the crime.

It is a very strong mix of social commentary and great detective stories. By the end, you are kind of fed up with Fisher. What good is his ability to get the truth if he is going to let that truth go untold. It is for the good of the nation, but is it really? Horne Fisher knows too much, but he does too little. His pain is knowing that he cannot do anything to fix the problems he knows. But he doesn’t really try.

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