Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" by Ransom Riggs (2011)

Sometimes you find great books hidden in the recesses of some used book store and sometimes you are given classic books as gifts. Sometimes though, you just steal fun ones from your kids.

Ransom Riggs has a passion other than writing books. He is also an avid collector of odd vintage photographs. A few years ago, he had collected enough on his own to think about putting them all together to form a picture book, but his editor convinced him to think bigger. Riggs found others with his particular zeal for old pictures and was able to draw on even more fantastical ammunition for the story that eventually became "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children." The book weaves together more than forty photos, some silly, some haunting, with one fictional narrative thread.

Riggs starts his story in the present day, in his home state of Florida. Jacob Portman tells us about his relationship with his grandfather, a Polish immigrant who loves to tell stories about fighting in World War II. Being Jewish, the aging Abraham revels in regaling his grandson with the tales of how, in his youth, he had made war on the monsters who had come to destroy his people, his friends and family. Abe also loves to show off the odd photos from his youth, photos that Jacob has always believed to be doctored in obvious ways, photos of a girl floating above the ground, a scrawny boy holding a boulder aloft with only one hand, a man with no head. The stories Abe tells along with these pictures are as ridiculous as the photos themselves.

When tragedy strikes and grandpa Abe is brutally killed by what the authorities believe to be a pack of wild dogs, only Jacob knows the truth. He alone saw the monster standing in the swamp behind Abe's house, tentacles wriggling out of its mouth like something out of a nightmare. Jacob knows for a fact that it wasn't dogs that killed his grandfather. This knowledge and Abe's lasts words send Jacob on an adventure that takes him to a remote island off the coast of Wales where he discovers a mysterious enclave of gifted young people. This group of children makes Jacob realize that those stories his grandfather had told him all his life hadn't actually been tall tales. These kids have special powers and the school they live in is locked in a temporal loop. Everyone within its confines lives the same day over and over again, September 3rd, 1940. But its like "Groundhog Day," the people locked in the loop are able to alter the events of the day every time the day starts over again if they wish.

Jacob learns that this school is not the only one of its kind on Earth. There are others in different locations locked into loops reliving different days. Each loop is maintained by women who are called ymbrynes and who can also shape-shift in to bird form. This all seems pretty great to Jacob until he realizes that some of the stories his grandfather had always told him could have been interpreted differently in other ways as well. The monsters he talked about fighting might not have been men wearing sharp uniforms emblazoned with swastikas, they might have been actual monsters. There are forces in the world that hunt people with special abilities and it turns out they also desire the power the ymbrynes possess. Unfortunately for Jacob and his new friends, he has lead some of these monsters straight to Miss Peregrines' Home For Peculiar Children.

"Miss Peregrine" was a fun read, and Riggs integrates the fantastic photos with the story in just the right way to make you smile even while you are getting goose bumps. It takes tremendous talent to craft a story like "Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children" out of a random collection of pictures. Riggs' talent at it reminded you though that it's not really that rare. Isn't that what movies and even illustrated books are after all, just a collection of random images woven together by a compelling narrative, often even a fantastically fictional one? The human brain is a great big story telling machine. Give it a series of seemingly moving pictures and a sound track and it will craft an entertaining narrative, give it a tantalizing clue and it will devise an answer to the mystery, give it an adversary it believes legitimate and it will justify acts aggression and self protection.

This what we have done for millennia. We sit around, staring at the flames of a campfire and tell each other stories. We crowd into huts and amphitheaters to hear old favorites or exciting new stories. We create mythologies to explain the inaccessible and to remind ourselves that we have greatness within us. We dedicate our lives to the service of some stories, and we will go to war for others.

We tell ourselves stories every day, about everything we encounter. Some of them are fiction and some of them are lies. Some of them can tear us and even the people we love apart, and some of them can lift us up to greater heights. This book helped you remember that we must be careful with the stories we tell ourselves, that we need to remember we are built to be shaped by our stories. The stories we craft can help us make sense of the sometimes nightmarish realities of the world, they can help us process the most sublime moments of happiness and victory, and ultimately, our stories are the things that outlive us, at least here in this world.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"The First World War" by John Keegan (1998)

Well, somebody took the summer off from writing book reviews. You've read plenty of books since June, but with three kids and a big family vacation and moving into a new house and practicing telling people that you were way too busy to write a book review, you were just too busy to write a review for any of those summer reads. Or something like that.

Hey look, a book about World War One! It's been a few months since you've read one of those. Let's get to writing reviews again.

The 101st anniversary of the start of The Great War has now come and gone. You're not sure what about anniversaries taps into human nostalgia, but there is something that feels significant about a century passing since the beginning of this war. Maybe it's the idea that lots of us who grew up during the Cold War weren't sure there would be anyone left on the planet to celebrate this anniversary, maybe it's the sense of the immediacy of recent history juxtaposed against the great remove we feel from ancient events and the uncomfortable process of witnessing one become the other, or maybe it's just our human fascination with round numbers and the comfort we get from marking off time as it tirelessly unfolds the centuries right before our eyes. What ever the reason, you keep picking up books about WW I, and it is a source of endless interest. The more you study this event, the more you realize how completely and utterly it changed the face of the history and the geopolitical landscape of the world.

Most of the books you have read on the First World War, indeed most of the books available on the subject, focus on one aspect or time-frame of the war. They tend to illuminate individual battles or certain months, specific tactical developments or sweeping social changes that arose during the war rather than the whole event. The scope of the conflict is just too immense for most authors to tackle in one volume. So, John Keegan's attempt at encompassing the entirety of The Great War in less than 450 pages intrigued you, despite the fact that you have heard Keegan's name used with disdain by many people who are fans of history. It is ambitious goal and Keegan delivered admirably.

In order to accomplish his task, Keegan had to be ruthless in cutting away the extraneous information. Deciding what exactly counted as extraneous must have been the most difficult process involved with writing this book. Not being an expert in this war yourself, you felt Keegan nailed it. His perspective seeks to incorporate all of the various fronts and battlefields of the war. While he gives very little
attention to the home fronts, he spends a great deal of time explaining both how so many, ostensibly friendly, nations could find themselves at war and describing the eventual splintering of those governments and monarchies that proved to be the war's most lasting casualties.

The opening chapter of "The First World War" is an outstanding and concise contextualization of the pre-war situation in Europe. The web of treaties and international agreements that wore away at the diplomatic equilibrium of the continent, the growing nationalisms, and the tantalizing advances in military technologies seem, in retrospect, to make war inevitable. Keegan proves untrue the old adage (and Metallica lyric) that "to secure peace is to prepare for war." In the summer of 1914, the various European nations' and empires' preparations for a potential war ensured that that war would become a reality. As each government set into motion their plans for dealing with their opponents' mobilizations the others responded with even greater mobilizations. Their prophylactic preparations became self-fulfilling prophesies. A particularly well traveled fly on the walls in the halls of power might have heard arguments akin to, "If the Russians can be ready for war in 60 days, we Germans must be ready in 30." And, "If the Germans are going to be able to be ready in 30 days, we French must be ready in 15... and we need to invite the English." And finally, "If the French can be ready in 15 days, we Germans should invade Belgium tomorrow... especially if they are thinking of inviting the English!"

This triumph of military preparation, the speed, complexity, and immensity of which had never been possible before, outpaced the capabilities of the diplomacy of the day. It is common knowledge (often a dubious bastion of information) that the network of alliances and agreements between European powers served to drag the whole continent into war. The implication is that many of those powers went to war against their greater desires for peace. Keegan argues however, that everyone actually knew damned well what they were doing. Austria-Hungary did not need to go to Germany to ask for an alliance before invading Serbia in retribution for the assassination of their heir-apparent. They sought a German alliance, according to Keegan, precisely because Germany's entrance would bring more powers into the conflict which would secure Autsria-Hungary's flanks, and Serbia was guilty of the same crime.

To make his point, Keegan reminds you that even on the day of the fateful Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, July 25th, 1914, Serbian officials were inclined to acquiesce, however humiliating the demands. It was only once they had received word that the Russians, who threatened Austrian's northeastern borders, were preparing to mobilize their armies to rush to Serbia's aide that the Serbian leadership decided to refuse the Austrian list of demands. They had a great power as an ally now, so they felt even more bellicose, not less. On the morning of July 25th, the month-old assassination of the royal heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire remained a purely local issue, one that could have been solved through diplomatic means. By that afternoon, the world had gone to war. The war didn't spiral out of hand, it was started specifically because it would be a huge affair. The smaller powers sought the protection of the greater powers in order to ensure a greater degree of violence, never imagining that they themselves would be destroyed by the witches' brew they had stirred up.

When Russia announced the mobilization of their military, German military leaders believed that they had not simply to counter-mobilize, but to declare outright war. Otherwise the Russians would have been able to bring their forces within the German eastern border before the Schlieffen Plan could be carried out. The Schlieffen Plan, conceived decades before, called for the rapid and overwhelming destruction of France as a combatant so that Germany could then shift focus to her eastern border in order to deal with Russia, which proved a greater threat. Keegan controversially contends here that the sacrosanct, and much since debated, Schlieffen Plan, the plan on whose outcome the fates of nations and empires hung, was fundamentally flawed. Geography as well as geometry were set against the whole concept, argues Keegan. There was simply no room for the hundreds of thousands of troops to swing through Belgium and northern France in time to make the southern facing "right hook" to capture Paris from behind. The miles upon miles of troops, horses, wagon trains, gun caissons, and headquarters networks could not fit in the space Schlieffen had planned for them to advance through within the time-frame he had given them. No amount of planning or war gaming could have changed the geography of the land itself. Keegan claims the Schlieffen Plan was doomed to fail from the beginning but the German High Command of 1914 were burdened by no such notions.

Keegan then follows the almost comical, if it weren't so tragic, back-and-forth sending of warnings from one country to the other. "If you invade here, it will mean war." "Well if you ford this river it will mean war." "Oh yeah? If you cross this line in the sand it will mean war." This schoolyard prattle and saber-rattling came from leaders and statesmen, kings and czars and emperors, men who should have remembered that of the men who first drew that famous line in the sand at the Alamo, every one had died at the hands of the enemy they had so dramatically warned.

In early August the massive German army finally crossed the Belgian border and began dealing with the formidable array of forts that protected the Flemish heartland. The invaders brought with them guns that were so massive that the builders of the forts could never have imagined the destructive power they could deliver. It was like something out of science fiction. Once in place, the German guns took mere hours to demolish the vaunted Belgian fortresses and, in doing so, changing the rules of war that had existed in Europe for over 300 years. Concrete, stone, and steel walls could no longer protect combatants, they had proven they could crumble to rubble too easily under the thunder of 20th Century weaponry. From now on it would be walls made of men that would need to be shattered. Machine guns, massed artillery, barbed wire, and eventually chemical weapons would be brought to the fields of Europe to shatter those walls of men, men who would bury themselves deep in the earth to avoid the newest instruments of death.

After September 1914, the battle lines of the Western Front would barely move at all for years, despite the obscene amount of blood spilled in No Mans' Land. But Keegan reminded you that the Western Front wasn't the only one. He does a masterful job of telling the story of the war in easily consumable chunks, linking them through the four years of war in an intelligible timeline that helped you to think of The Great War in one narrative arc. Keegan walks you through the head-spinning job the Germans had of bouncing from one front to the other, always keeping disaster at bay. He reminds you that the Eastern Front was not just a side show that has been forgotten by history. Instead, the war in Russia and throughout the Balkans was the driving force that steered the course of rest of the war. Each side gained allies or diverted their own troops or launched rushed offensives in response to what was occurring far from the more famous Western Front.

Keegan spends his time on the events that mattered, not the hero's stories the press of the day (and most of the literature ever since) so readily pounced upon. The Red Baron and TE Lawrence barely get mentioned at all. But they shouldn't feel too bad, the entire Battle of the Somme, whose first day marks the bloodiest day in British military history, consumes only 12 pages. But somehow, despite his succinctness and brevity, Keegan never looses the humanity of the story he is telling. His extraordinary economy of language never forgets the intimate heartbreaks intrinsic to the greatest conflict in history up to that point.

Keegan also spares a little time to stir up some controversy, as he is evidently known to do (to the chagrin of his critics). He takes on the century old criticism of the generals who lead the armies of the First World War as being incompetents who were too far removed from the battlefronts to understand the hell of the war they were leading. He calls this criticism misplaced, contending that these generals were placed in charge of fronts that were more vast and armies that were more massive than the technology of the day allowed them to lead simply from horseback, as Wellington and Napoleon, or Grant and Lee had done. Communications with the assault troops simply wasn't possible. When one wave went "over the top" and into the teeth of the enemy, there was no way to know if they had taken their objective or had been cut down one and all, so the only thing to do was order the next wave of boys into the field of certain death and hope for the best. The machinery had been created to provide for butchery on a scale more monstrous than had ever been possible in human history, but the technology to mitigate the slaughter or take advantage when those waves of boys actually achieved a tactical breakthrough (mostly in the field of rapid and reliable communications) would not even exist until the next world war. The generals of WW I weren't lazy, Keegan contends, they had their hands tied behind their backs by the uneven progress of the technology of making war. He might be right about that, but even if he's not, it's fascinating to hear an opinion that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, that considers an issue from a point of view that has not already settled on an answer everyone already agrees with. Keegan did what good authors are supposed to do, he made you think.

The armies of the nations fighting this terrible war suffered so many casualties that by 1917 the French armies refused to go on the offensive for more than a year and the soldiers of Russia were integral in the revolution that deposed their nation's 300 year old dynasty. It wasn't so much that these armies had been defeated on the battlefield as it was that they couldn't accept orders demanding any more senseless slaughter. The massacre on the fronts could be spun as patriotic self-sacrifice for a few years, but when nothing came of it all, armies broke and empires crumbled. The so called "army strikes" were just the beginning. Revolution spread like no time since 1848, the "Year of Revolutions." During World War One kings and emperors were being dethroned so regularly that eventually Britain thought of ousting the king of Greece as simply a short term tactical consideration, they encouraged his removal simply because they wanted a few more troops along Greece's western border. That's how crazy this war was.

After one last great attempt in the spring of 1918, Germany finally gave in. Like so many other countries involved in this war, their society just couldn't take it any longer. In all honesty, both sides were spent. Like George Foreman fighting Ali, they had punched themselves out. The problem for Germany was that her sinking of so many American transport ships had brought a new angry player to the field of battle. Whereas Germany had lost so many men and had no fresh bodies to offer up to the conflagration, the United States had only just begun to commit troops to the fight. Every day brought more and more American soldiers to the war while Germany was literally waiting for the newborns of the year 1900 to graduate into manhood so that they could be fed into the meat grinder. By November, Germany no longer had any allies left. They had all either given up or, as with the Austro-Hungarian empire, simply ceased to exist. The German navy refused direct orders to sail out to meet the British and whole infantry divisions refused to move to the front lines to replace their dead comrades. The war was over.

Adolf Hitler, who fought valiantly in the Great War, would later call this moment a 'stab in the back' and blame the end of the war on some vague yet overwhelming Jewish conspiracy, but he was wrong. The German military in 1918 simply could not be asked to sacrifice any more. German society hadn't been overthrown by Jewish communists it was crumbling from exhaustion, from starvation, from unimaginable grief that rocked every home in the Fatherland. The fact that Hitler could not recognize the true reason for Germany's capitulation in November of 1918 is the root of his delusional and suicidal response to the fall of the Third Reich in April of 1945. From his bunker, The Fuhrer would order that all citizens sacrifice themselves to drive the Russians out, but he would also order the destruction of all industry, the immolation of mountains of priceless works of art he had amassed through years of plunder and pillage, he would order the destruction of the infrastructure that could ensure the the German people could even hope to rise from the ashes of the Second World War. It is an undeniable fact that The First World War led inevitably to The Second, but this truism may describe more than the geopolitical context of the century, it may describe the psyche of one man. Hitler may have been insane all along, but if he was, his madness began in the trenches of the Somme river valley and was catalyzed by the complexities of the ending of what we would all call come to call The Great War.

You usually try to end these reviews with a positive twist, a bright comment on the overall hopefulness of the world we live in. With this book you don't even have to. John Keegan has done it for you, despite the horrors of the subject matter. He writes about how mysterious the whole war was, why it began, why it was so far reaching, why it was so savage, and above all why so many men willingly sacrificed themselves for hopeless causes. To quote the final paragraph of "The First World War,"
"How did the anonymous millions... find the resolution to sustain the struggle and to believe in its purpose? That they did is one of the undeniabilities of the Great War. Comradeship flourished in the earthworks of the Western and Eastern Fronts, bound strangers into the closest brotherhood... Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times. That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War. If we could understand its loves as well as its hates, we would be nearer to understanding the mystery of human life."
The only way to find the answer to those mysteries is to continue searching. So, as always...

On to the next book!