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Original Essays | August 21, 2014

Richard Bausch: IMG Why Literature Can Save Us



Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is... Continue »
  1. $18.87 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    Before, During, After

    Richard Bausch 9780307266262

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Harrisonbergeron has commented on (2) products.

Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army's Victory That Shaped World War II
Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army's Victory That Shaped World War II

Harrisonbergeron, January 17, 2013

This is a remarkable little history, precisely told in a clear but masterful manner. If you are an amateur WWII historian, you cannot miss reading this book. The book is about the limited Russian-Japanese war in 1937-9 that is overlooked in almost all modern histories. The climax of the war was the battle of Nomonhon, or Khalkhin-Gol to the Soviets, where the master strategist Georgy Zhukov cut his military teeth. Lessons learned by Zhukov would lead to successes at Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and finally Berlin in 1945.

In essence, Goldman focuses a microscope on this overlooked war and finds it provides key pieces to the puzzle on how WWII began and how the belligerents made the strategic choices that they did, which would stamp out the the subsequent paths that they had to follow. Goldman's descriptions come from a neo-realist perspective describing the various balances of power for the major powers, particularly between the Soviets and Japan. He is convincing when he writes that the forgotten Nomonhon battle shaped and altered these balances in fateful ways. Once the context of the Russian-Japanese tension is explained, the actions of major rational actors in this war are more understandable (and often more despiccable and self-injurious, such as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on the invasion of Poland). Goldman even explains why odd little perplexing events occurred that can be explained through the lens of Nomonhon. For example, the Soviets scrupulously waited weeks after Hitler invaded Western Poland (much to the German's consternation) before they invaded and dismembered Eastern Poland. Why? Mr. Goldman gives a reasonable answer and it has to do with Zhukov's mopping up operations 3000 miles away.

The book is nicely part diplomatic history and part military history. For gearheads, it is sufficiently absorbing to be read simply as a battle book describing the tactical decisions and course of the fighting. The maps are frequent, clean and uncluttered. One minor criticism is that a mid-size map showing the staging areas for both the Russians and the Japanese, as well as Nomonhon proper, would have been valuable to understand the logistics of this battle.

But this is much more than battle book. It places the Soviet-Japanese diplomatic conflict in the context of the Nazi machinations on Poland. In fact, this battle is little known, not because of its unimportance, but because it was simultaneous with the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Invasion of Poland. Nomonhan was overshadowed by the destruction of Warsaw, but Goldman astutely points out links between European and Asia diplomacy that influenced each other.

Goldman tells the engrossing tale of European and Asian diplomacy in 1939 with a sure, comprehensive and documented style that leaves the reader with no doubt about his grasp of the subject. The book addressed long-unanswered questions in my mind about the origins of WWII: "Why did Stalin sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler rather than England and France? " "After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, why didn't Japan join to attack the Soviets rather than accept the "southern strategy" that inevitably led to an attack on the United States". Indeed, one of the more interesting insights of this book is the Japanese loss at Nomonhon ultimately led to war with America; and the Soviet victory curtailed efforts to align Russia with Britain and France, which conceivably may have inhibited Germany's invasion of Poland (and later the Soviet Union itself). Fascinating.

I picked up this little book since I didn't know much about the battle, hardly suspecting that it would change my views on the origin of WWII. Certainly it is the best book on WWII I have read in the past decade. And I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the period of mass human madness. If is easily of the quality of Gerhard Wineberg's A World at Arms.
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The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
The Strain

Harrisonbergeron, September 12, 2012

Oh boy, is this a terrible trilogy (The Strain, The Fall and I forgot the title of the last one even though I just read it). Have you ever read a series, expecting, hoping, it will get better? But it never does? And then you realize you spent more time reading the books than the authors did writing them?

The opening of this trilogy has a great motif: a plane full of dead people lands in New York. What's going on? Sure, it's a riff on Nosferatu's ship but it just hooked me. On top of that it has an epidemiologist as the hero (so what if Hogan and Del Torro don't know the difference between epidemiology and dermatology?).

But it goes straight downhill, bouncing off of every possible predictable cliché:

Viral cause for vampires? Check
Nazis were vampires? Check
Overwrought father-son conflict arising from silly misperceptions and evil-doer manipulations (resolved through heart-felt love?) Check
Many, many-too-many, way-too-many (and then so many more that they become dentist-drill painful to read) narrow escapes by pure-hearted heroes and heroines? Check
With lots of silver-encrusted sword fights? Check

These two very accomplished authors phoned in this trilogy using Night and Weekend minutes. The only weird, interesting thing about this series is an odd Old Testament metaphysical premise that is jarringly thrown without any coherent plot resolution. I picked this book up in part because I liked Chuck Hogan's strangely ambivalent novel "The Standoff" with its complex heroes and villains. But this is not a good, trashy series. Inexplicably, there wasn't even any hot vampire sex--the one hackneyed trope they missed. It is interchangeable with Justin Cronin's mind-numbing "The Passage" series, which is another publisher-inspired, "get 'em while they're hot vampire virus apocalypse Big Books". Pick either one if you are really desperate for something to read, or try instead:

Vampire-virus apocalypse? Matheson's "I am Legend"--a surprisingly complex, dark book.

General, good-old-fashioned, apocalypse? Try Walter Miller's "Canticle for Liebowitz". Maybe even "Cat's Cradle" or "Galapagos" by Kurt Vonnegut if you like your despair with a little humorous irony.

Evil Nazi-vampire Big Book trashy reads? "Carrion Comfort" by Dan Simmons (come to think of it, he also wrote about vampire-inducing retroviruses in the more mediocre "Children of the Night").
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