Friday, July 01, 2011

3 Civil war Book Reviews

1. Extraordinary Circumstances : The Seven days Battle - Brian Burton
Excellent, scholarly retelling of the Seven Days Battle (June 24th to July 2 1862) covering both sides. Burton is more interested in the Command relationships and purely military aspects and he rarely discusses politics, grand strategy or Lincoln or Davis' opinion of the battle. Told from a commanders point of view, with very little human interest & few personal anecdotes. He's also fair to every one - including Stonewall Jackson and McClellan. Most will find it too dry and technical, others (including me) enjoyed the absence of heroes and villains (the Sears approach). Flaws: Like most modern books the maps are poor. Rating ***

2. The Union Soldier in Battle - Earl Hess
A rambling examination of the ordeal of combat from the Union soldiers perspective. Based on original letters, diaries, and memoirs. Fairly short at 240 pages, it feels much longer, and I don't mean that in a good way. I didn't find any new insights and it wasn't particularly well-organized or well written. Those new to the subject may find it more interesting. Rating **

3. Battle Tactics of the Civil war - Paddy Griffith
Written by a senior lecturer at Sandhurst, Griffith focuses on the the battle tactics of the war. His main argument: the Civil War, far from being the 1st Modern war, was in fact, the last Napoleonic one. Although his opinions are sometimes excessive, and his knowledge somewhat shallow, he makes a convincing case. While the rifled musket did increase both casualties and power of the defense, its impact has been overrated. Casualties, after all, were high in the Napoleonic wars and frontal assaults often ineffective. Further, the rifled musket had the same rate of fire as the smoothbore musket and although more accurate and easier to fire was still - compared to a bolt action rifle - complicated to load and fire, and inaccurate. While a skilled marksman could hit a man at 500 yards, its doubtful if an average Civil war soldier could hit anyone at over 100 yards.

The lack of decisive battles (overwhelming victories) in the Civil war was due to many reasons including (1) the rough and heavily forested terrain (2) the relatively small numbers of Calvary on both sides (3) the poor roads (4) the bad staff work on both sides (5) the almost complete equivalence of both two sides in tactics, lower-level generalship, men, doctrine, and arms (6) the Anglo-Saxon quality of both sides (7) the low offensive value of artillery and (8) the vastness of the Confederacy and lack of one decisive geographical point.

Griffith's book is fairly short, 200 pages, and is directed at those interested in military history. Its full of statistics and charts. I found it interesting but doubt I will re-read. Rating **1/2

The Fountainhead (1943) - Ayn Rand

Plot: On the surface, it is a story of one man, Howard Roark, and his struggles as an architect in the face of a successful rival, Peter Keating, and a newspaper columnist, Ellsworth Toohey. But the book addresses a number of universal themes: the strength of the individual, the tug between good and evil, the threat of collectivism.

Main Characters: Howard Roark, Peter Keating, Ellsworth Toohey, Dominique Francon, Gail Wynand

Pros: Interesting, bigger-than-life characters, sparse, clear prose, Kinky sex, some memorable and/or witty lines, satirical humor, attack on socialism (including Communism).

Cons: Peter Keating character given too much ink, Some Characters unbelievable and/or act illogically (cf: Dominique,the heroine), lack of Character development, too many repetitive scenes, novel too long for such a simple plot.

Not much I can add about the "Fountainhead". Judging by the Amazon reviews people love the novel or hate it. I was somewhat in-between. I found her philosophy interesting but shallow and didn't really mind the speeches. Nor given that it was a "romance" did the unrealistic nature of the characters bother me that much. The problem wasn't the lack of realism but the lack of consistency and the logic of many of their actions. The heroine Dominique for example, starts out as 'smart and level-headed' then becomes 'stupid & crazy' then 'smart but crazy' and finally ends up back at 'smart and level-headed. She's the main female character yet seems the most implausible. Roark meanwhile does things (like helping Keating) which make no real sense. And his change from a one-syllable Bartleby at the start to silver-tonged philosophizer is somewhat unbelievable.

The book really needed an editor. The first part, describing the rise of Keating and the Roark's initial failure is way too long. The book doesn't became interesting until the villain Toohey and Gail Wynand become the focus.

Some odd things about the novel:
  • There are no children
  • There are no loving parents in the novel. Most characters either have one live parent (that they dislike) or no parents at all.
  • Dominique is described as having a "vicious" and/or "cold" mouth about 25 times.
  • Roark has "orange" hair.
  • Wynand likes Roark so much he goes off with him on his yacht alone for 3 months - and leaves beautiful Dominique at home.
  • Characters don't merely draw or write but "violently slash lines on the drawing" or "savagely write". I didn't realize journalism and architecture was so violent until I read Rand.
  • Rand's contempt for the average person and religion is quite noticeable.
  • The smart characters are constantly being disappointed that another smart character needs it spelled out for them. "I thought you were smarter than that".
  • Conversely, Rand is constantly writing that "words were unnecessary between them, they both understood...."
Conclusion: Very enjoyable in spots and not as bad as expected. Rating **1/2