Category Archive 'Book Review'

24 Aug 2014

“The General”

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I was reading recently a book describing the contemporary practices and ethos of the Marine Corps, and found reference to a publishing house (Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co.) offering a product line, principally composed of well-selected reprints, aimed at a professional military readership.

One title, mentioned as a popular favorite almost rang a bell: C.S. Forester’s (non-Hornblower novel) The General.

I could almost swear that I had read it long ago, but the book I remembered had not inspired any particular attachment or respect, and this title was extravagantly praised. I got hold of a copy and could hardly put it down. Its wry and affectionate portrait of the fictional General Sir Herbert Curzon K.C.M.G., C.B., D.S.O. was meat and drink to my reactionary and Anglophilic imagination.

Curzon, known to his family and subordinates as “Bertie,” is a classic British Blimp.

The picture of Curzon in the years immediately before the war seems to verge closely on the conventional caricature of the army major, peppery, red-faced, liable under provocation to gobble like a turkey-cock, hidebound in his ideas and conventional in his way of thought, and it is no more exact than any caricature. It ignores all the good qualities which were present at the same time. He was the soul of honour; he could be guilty of no meannesses, even boggling at those which convention permits. He would give his life for the ideals he stood for, and would be happy if the opportunity presented itself. His patriotism was a real and living force, even if its symbols were childish. His courage was unflinching. The necessity of assuming responsibility troubled him no more than the necessity of breathing. He could administer the regulations of his service with an impartiality and a practiced leniency admirably suited to the class of man for whom those regulations were drawn up. He shirked no duty, no matter how tedious or inconvenient; it did not occur to him to try to do so. He would never allow the instinctive deference which he felt toward great names and old lineage to influence him in anything which he conceived to be his duty. The man with a claim on his friendship could make any demand upon his generosity. And while the breath was in his body he would not falter in the face of difficulties.

Bertie blunders accidentally as a subaltern, while commanding a squadron of cavalry during the Boer War, into a superb position on the enemy’s flank where he is able to deliver a quick charge, gaining Britain a notable victory and winning himself the D.S.O.

When WWI eventually breaks out, Bertie’s previous status as a hero, along with his unrelenting dedication and unflinching courage propel him rapidly upwards in rank. He immediately receives command of his regiment. In the First Battle of Ypres, his commanding general is killed and Bertie inherits command of the brigade.

He continues through the war as a model soldier of the old school, perfectly courageous and reliable, free from selfishness or nerves, entirely a sound man, the soul of duty and loyalty, faithful to tradition, suspicious of novelty, theory, or demonstration or display of any kind.

His military faith is in punctilious planning, perfect execution of classic tactics, and the application of overwhelming force.

He spoke vehemently against the effect on the troops of life in the trenches, and this system of petty ambuscades and sniping and dirt and idleness. And, with his experience of improvised attacks and defence to help him, he was able to say how advantageous it must be to be allowed ample time to mount and prepare a careful attack in which nothing could go wrong and overwhelming force could be brought to bear upon the decisive point. Curzon checked himself at last when he suddenly realized how fluently he was talking. It was un-English and lawyerlike to be eloquent.

Of course, the result of all that planning is the Somme.

Forester then plays tricks on his reader, deliberately undermining his hero by making him suddenly begin to behave meanly and out of character.

Bertie ignores his humble aunt’s request to transfer her son to a non-combat position out of snobbery, and displays actual jealousy of the new-fangled tank arms’ success at Cambrai.

Forester is, of course, arranging Bertie’s downfall and destruction. Now a lieutenant general and commander of a corps, Bertie returns to France to find his sector of the line at the very center of a major German offensive in overwhelming strength. As the Germans begin to achieve a breakthrough, Bertie is obliged to send his former divisional command as a sacrifice into the middle of the breach. Bertie then sends for his horse, buckles his sword onto his Sam Browne belt, and rides toward the enemy, gathering up retreating soldiers as he goes.

Bertie must be made to pay for his fidelity to the tactical approach of General Grant, so at the next crossroads, Forester has him cut down by German artillery, his horse slain, one leg blown off.

General Curzon (out of character, it seems to me) then becomes an invalid in a bathchair, incapable of adapting to an artificial leg, rolled about the promenade in Bournemouth by Lady Emily, his tall and raw-boned wife. Sic transit…

I thought the book was fine, until the author turns upon his character. Still, I suppose Forester is entitled to make the argument that inutile destruction and enormous waste of life of WWI had some specific connection to the virtues (and limitations) of the old school British military. They ought not, it is possible to contend, have been so suspicious of intellectuality and theory. Like the Hun, they should have studied war and built an intellectual General Staff. (But, of course, intellectualism and General Staff and all that, the Hun still managed to lose two wars.)

20 Nov 2009

Sandra Tsing Loh, SF Democrat, Likes Palin’s Book

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Hold on to your hats. Sarah Palin’s book has actually garnered a positive review from San Francisco liberal democrat Sandra Tsing Loh, and in Salon no less. Tsing Loh concedes that Palin’s opus has “surprising charms.”

Now hold your horses, you snarky, lefty, NPR-listening, New York Times-subscribing readers of Salon. I haven’t jumped ship to declare Sarah Palin herself “great.” I’m from California, after all; I am not a creationist, I am not pro-life, I have never shot a moose. Nor is my culinary specialty an Alaskan dish called “moose chili.” Here on the Left Coast, along with our hummus, we prefer “turkey chili,” which is perhaps less gamey and lower in fat but in the end, I ask you, is it really more humane? (Who killed the turkey? Was it a person or a corporation? This Trader Joe’s we speak of — is he union? Is his name actually “Joe”? And what is his relation to Big Oil’s manipulation of the rising price of Bristol Bay canned fishery salmon to 27 cents a pound?) These are the complexities one ponders at night while falling asleep under the gristly if at times oddly tasty caribou stew that is Sarah Palin’s new 400-plus-page memoir….

(W)hat’s refreshing is that Palin seems unafraid to express herself, warts and all — informal campaign motto: “Heels on! Gloves off!” — and the book just goes where it goes. Much has already been made of her freewheeling critiques, not just of Democrats but also of Republican Party insiders and McCain 2008 campaign managers, particularly in the gloomy waning days of the run. (“Schmidt leveled his eyes at me. ‘We don’t have the money Obama does and the numbers don’t look good. We’ve got to change things up.’ I AGREE. I was eager to hear a new strategy. ‘So,’ he continued, ‘headquarters is flying in a nutritionist.'” Ba-dump-bump!) She is forthcoming enough about her personal failings. Belying her shellacked outer shell, more reminiscent to me of Anita Bryant than Tina Fey, Palin confesses a not-ready-for-prime-time horror at Trig’s Down syndrome diagnosis and relates at least one fairly satisfying campaign trail fight with husband Todd. As opposed to Bush’s post-Yale reinvention of himself as a Texas cowboy, Palin doesn’t seem to be making this folksy stuff up. And really, who would want to? While courting Palin as a teen, Todd gave her “gold nugget earrings”; with only one phone line in the house, she and Todd yapped at night on their back porches on fishing boat radios, until they realized every commercial trucker trundling through town could hear them; the wedding rings were each $35, the post-nuptial dinner was at Wendy’s. All this in the town of Wasilla, which, due to stratospheric sales of this particular product, Wal-Mart has deemed “the Duct Tape capital of the world.”

In Palin’s “Little House on the Tundra” (her own coinage), the very state of Alaska seems to have its own sound, its own language, its own quaint patois. There are so many more colorful sayings than that “pit bull with lipstick” quip! Things grow “faster than fireweed in July”; bench warming during sports games is known as “riding the pine.”

There is the truly startling tale of their neighbor Doc. A private bush pilot, he was electrocuted and fell off a ladder while hand-draping fluorescent flagging over power lines so he could more safely land his Citabria at home. Never one to give up, after the accident Doc “retrained himself to be a left-handed, one-armed dentist”! Writes Palin of her huntin’ dad (who is known for palming balmy, just-removed moose eyeballs and warming fish eggs in his mouth), “So a lot of what Alaskans ate, we raised or hunted: moose, caribou, ptarmigan, and ducks. Dad and his friends became their own small-game taxidermists. Even today, my parents’ living room looks like a natural history museum. And when an earthquake hits, Dad can tell the magnitude by how fast the tail wags on the stuffed cougar.” As Frontier literature, I believe “Going Rogue” compares favorably to the Natty Bumpo stories of James Fenimore Cooper. And who wants to argue with me?

Indeed, by the end of this book, I thought, Never mind the hundreds of thousands of reasons the fiery Republican femme fatale is hated in, for instance, my oh-so-blue state of California. Honestly, a fair amount of what makes Sarah Palin weird is the very same stuff that makes Alaska weird.

Read the whole thing.

I can think of one prominent blogger who is going to have a cow when he reads this.

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