“Persephone”

Julian Stockwin

It has ships on the cover so it should be about deeds of daring do on the high seas, right? Well, this one is more about romance than broadsides and the eponym of the book is a woman, not a ship.

This entry in the Kydd series is more Austen than Hornblower and most of the story takes place on dry land as Kydd tries to win back the affections of “The Admiral’s Daughter“. As much as I enjoy the action and adventure elements of this genre, it’s this sort of story that humanizes and rounds out characters, and it’s one of the things that distinguishes the Kydd series.

(Note: Though this is being posted after the post for “The Baltic Prize” this book precedes it in the series.)

“The Iron King”

Maurice Druon

This is the first of the seven part “Accursed Kings” series about the French monarchy in the 14th century. In this volume Philip IV (“Philip the Fair”) brings a curse on his family by suppressing the Knights Templar. A series of disasters culminate in his death.

“The Iron King” is a deliberately paced book, not a page turner. But the pace feels appropriate to the era and the scope of the story and I plan to continue with the series.

George R. R. Martin has mentioned this series one of the inspirations for the “Song of Ice and Fire” series. Even though I enjoyed the “Game of Thrones” TV series I didn’t want to devote time to Martin’s books. “Accursed Kings”, on the other hand, is based on history, which makes it — to me — much more worth my time.

“War and Peace”

Leo Tolstoy

This might, along with “Moby Dick”, be the Mount Everest of novels. The BBC mini-series was a good base camp for the assault on the summit, which took weeks. The effort was well worth it. I enjoyed it immensely and was amazed at how much of life Tolstoy put into the book.

It would be foolish of me to even try to summarize it, but I’ll mention a couple of things that struck me. All the characters, admirable, pitiable, and deplorable, have their reasons. Tolstoy’s Kutuzov reminded me of Ulysses S. Grant in that he had a vision of a goal that he doggedly pursued in the face of criticism. The essay-like sections on the nature of history, on cause and effect, and on historic contingency were as striking as the fictional parts.

I read Book 9, Chapter 1, on the day after I had spent a day touring the WW I battlefields of Flanders, the location of events so horrific that being there felt more like my visit to Auschwitz than any battlefield visit I’ve ever made. Some of the text from that section, which in the book refer to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, practically leapt off the page:

…an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

…an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence- apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes- to occasion the event.

Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes- myriads of causes- coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west, slaying their fellows.

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power- the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns- should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.

British soldier’s grave, Tyn Cot cemetery, Flanders. One of almost 12,000 graves in this cemetery, of which fewer than 4000 are identified. It’s also the site of a memorial containing the names of almost 35,000 missing.

“All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire”

Jonathan Abrams

This is a collection of interviews with the creators, cast, and crew of The Best TV Show Ever Made. It’s interesting reading for a fan of the show (I’ve watched the entire series twice), but it is just a collection of interviews, interviews that sometimes contradict each other and are of varying quality.

I liked it for what it was, and appreciated it as a chance to see how a collaborative work is made, but would have enjoyed it more had the author provided more of his own reporting and interpretation.

“The Foreign Correspondent”

Alan Furst

This is a typical Alan Furst spy novel, set in Paris just before World War II. A group of antifascist Italian émigrés publish an underground newspaper that’s distributed within Mussolini’s Italy. The main character is a correspondent for Reuters who we first meet in Spain during that country’s civil war. He’s also the editor of the underground newspaper and the lover of the wife a German aristocrat in Hitler’s Berlin. There’s not a lot of action — Furst specializes in setting, atmosphere, and character — until the end but a sense of menace builds throughout the book.

One common element in all Furst’s “Night Soldiers” books, which interlock but aren’t exactly a series in the conventional sense, is the fictional Brasserie Heininger”. It’s based on the real Brasserie Bofinger, which I’d love to visit despite the fact that French restaurants intimidate me.

“Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain”

David Gerard

This is an entertainingly skeptical look at Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. It’s the story of naive libertarians basing “currency” (yeah, right) on dodgy software architectures. What could go wrong?

The best way to summarize the book is to quote a couple of paragraphs from the conclusion:

The one constant is: new ideas in finance bring new starry-eyed naïfs, and new predators. New technologies will keep being used as an excuse to put an extra layer of flim-flam over old scams, in an ongoing historical reenactment of the reasons for each and every financial regulation.

Everything to do with cryptocurrencies and blockchains is the domain of fast-talking conmen. If anyone tries to sell you on either, … run.

“Once in Golconda”

John Brooks

This book has three interleaved narratives: a very good account of what Wall Street was like in the years leading up to and immediately after the Crash of 1929, the story of how FDR’s administration imposed regulation on the “gentlemen’s club” New York Stock Exchange, and the story of how Richard Whitney, respected exchange president, ended up in prison for embezzling money.

The story of how Wall Street worked in the early years of the 20th century and what the crash was like from the floor of the exchange was for me the most entertaining part. It was a time when investors formed “pools” and used other mostly legal (then) tricks to manipulate stock prices. You can see these same maneuvers today in the world of cryptocurrency.

Whitney’s story was sadly interesting. It reminded me a lot of the Bernie Madoff story.

A side note: this is the one thousandth post since I started this blog (then called “Reader’s Diary”) back in 2001 .

“The Rage of Fortune”

J. D. Davies

I’ve really enjoyed this series, but this book was a big disappointment. Instead of being a Matthew Quinton story set in the Restoration era, it’s set in Elizabethan times, during the lifetime of Quinton’s grandfather. The attempt to fill in the Quinton family history might have worked but for Davies’ decision to write it from multiple points of view, all his main characters having been polite enough to leave complete dramatic accounts that include direct quotes. Not only are the characters’ voices insufficiently unique, but the rapid jumping from one narrator to another doesn’t help tell what is already the weakest story in the series.

I really hope Davies gets the series back on track with the next Matthew Quinton book.