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More January Reads

January 21, 2013

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The Zimmermann Telegram by Barbara Tuchman & All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

As a consequence of reading The Guns of August at an impressionable age I have long been a) fascinated by the First World War and b) determined to make my way through historian Barbara Tuchman’s oeuvre. (All except for that one she wrote about the middle ages. Couldn’t get into it.) After seeing the War / Photography exhibit in Houston I got back into the military history vein and read The Zimmermann Telegram, her short and pithy account of how the United States came to enter the Great War on the side of the Allies. (My client Mark Tiedemann recommended this one, which I had UNACCOUNTABLY not heard of in my previous reading.) As a Texan I’m fascinated with how Germany played on U.S. fears of an invasion from Mexico with the Zimmermann plot.  Basically, by sending a coded missive (over the United States’ own diplomatic telegraph cables, can you believe it?*) dangling the possibility of reclaiming Texas if Mexico would enter the war on the side of Germany, they hoped to keep the United States out of the war by making them fight it on their own doorstep. Tuchman is a sensitive writer with a wide view of what was happening in the world at the time, not just in the narrow view of England-France-Germany-United States. I loved her accounts of the mild-mannered British codebreakers dutifully scooping up German diplomatic codes from submerged vessels and confiscated luggage; her clear-eyed portrait of Wilson as a man with “long-distance wisdom” more interested in being right than being practical; her  portrait of the German political machine in all it’s ambitious, hide-bound glory. It’s a riveting read, if you’re into that kind of thing, and I highly recommend it. Here she is talking about a “secret” meeting of German and Mexican officials:

“The one thing Rintelen and Huerta did not find in New York was a decent privacy… several varieties of secret service agents began to converge on them, tripping over one another as they sniffed in and out of New York Hotels on the scent of the conspirators.”

On the spectre of Pancho Villa in the American consciousness:

 “Ten, twenty, unnumbered times Villa was reported dead, captured, run to earth, beheaded, hung by his own men, caught by Carranzistas, until it seemed as if his face grinned out at the scorched Americans out of every cactus, only to vanish like the Cheshire Cat.”

Far from being flippant, the realities of warfare are never far from the page:

“The whole war had been like that, regiments of lives spent like water, half a million at Verdun alone… now the French were drained, the Russians dying, Rumania, a late entry on the Allied side, already ruined and overrun.”

“Into the Moloch of the Somme they had poured thousands upon thousands of lives, while for three months under the autumn rains, forgotten in the planning, General Haig shouted “Attack!” to men mired in mud and shattered by exploding shells.”

As for All Quiet on the Western Front, I had somehow escaped reading it in high school. Or maybe I was assigned it and didn’t read it? Or read the cliff’s notes? Either way I genuinely cried a few times reading it—sorry, morning commuters! This portrait of disillusionment in wartime feels like it could have been written in any of the wars that came after the Great one—

“The days, the weeks, the years out there shall come back again, and our dead comrades shall then stand up again and march with us, our heads shall be clear, we shall have a purpose and so we shall march, our dead comrades beside us, the years at the Front behind us: –against whom, against whom?”

The terrible banalities of war are never far from Paul’s mind as with his school friends turned comrades he forages and fights and runs and shits and watches them fall, one by one, until he’s the only one left.

“At school nobody ever taught us how to light a cigarette in a storm of rain, nor how a fire could be made with wet wood—or that it is best to strike a bayonet in the belly because there it doesn’t get jammed, as it does in the ribs.”

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Checkmate, My Lord & A Lady’s Secret Weapon by Tracey Delvlyn

For a nice change in pace, I read my client Tracey Devlyn’s two next books in her Nexus series of Regency suspense. I may be biased (Yes, I am completely biased! Hey, I’m ALLOWED) but I think these are some of the best period romances out there today—her heroines are as nuanced as her heroes, all fighting the villainous perfidy of Napoleon’s agents as well as their own dark pasts. Checkmate, My Lord comes out in February and A Lady’s Secret Weapon comes out in November. Do yourself a favor and order them now.

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant

The further I get into my agenting career I find myself looking for new and different ways of looking at story and writing, and this book came up several times on a few podcasts I love (specifically Making it with Riki Lindhome and the Nerdist), so I bought it for my kindle. Lennon and Ben Garant are more concerned with the nuts and bolts of moviemaking (they don’t actually get around to talking about how to write a screenplay until the last third of the book) but they do a really great in-depth look at formula, why it works, why we as audiences connect with it and why studios keep looking for it in films. Maybe not the most applicable book to my work life but definitely a fun read and who knows, maybe in the future it will come in handy.

 

 

 

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I Funny by James Patterson (with Chris Grabenstein)

Full disclosure, the coauthor on this James Patterson middle-grade is a family friend. I don’t tend to read middle-grade (and I definitely don’t represent it, DON’T GET ANY IDEAS, AUTHORS, I SERIOUSLY DON’T REP MIDDLE GRADE) but it was a sweet and heartwarming story about a boy who, after losing his parents and sister (and use of his legs) in a car accident turns to comedy as a coping mechanism. The illustrations are fun, too. Chris Grabenstein, the coauthor, also writes the John Ceepak series of mysteries which are also great reads.

 

 

 

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On Literature by Umberto Eco

I think I bought this when the Borders down in the Financial district was closing two years ago, and hadn’t read it yet. I tend to enjoy Eco’s metas on his own writing—his Postscript to The Name of the Rose is almost as much fun as reading The Name of the Rose and yes, I am a giant dork, thankyouverymuch but On Literature was a bit of a slog. I should have maybe taken a look at the table of contents – I hadn’t read most of the stuff he discusses, but there are some interesting sections, particularly on the vision of America in Fascist Italy, as well as a look into his writing process. I think in the future I’ll just read more of his fiction. (Note to self: acquire The Prague Cemetary. Further note to self: Belay previous note until you have read the massive pile of books you have not yet read yet still somehow own.)

 

 

 

That’s it for weeks 2-3 of 2013 in reading! Currently I’m making my way through volume 1 of James (now Jan) Morris’ Pax Brittanica trilogy. Focuses on the Victorian era from the point of view of the colonies, and the various ways the British were hopelessly naïve and racist in their dealings with the peoples they ruled.

*Barbara Tuchman, master of the History Burn: “House… with the President’s consent, committed the American government to the irregular, not to say simple-minded arrangement of transmitting a belligerent’s message in a code not known to itself.”

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Rebecca Udden permalink
    January 21, 2013 6:01 pm

    I have Prague Cemetary and will loan it to you. I haven’t actually been able to get into it.

  2. January 21, 2013 8:18 pm

    Thanks Mom! I’ll hopefully get through some stuff before I go home next so I can bring it back with me. 🙂

  3. January 23, 2013 6:01 pm

    There are only a couple of Tuchman’s I haven’t read yet. I’m holding off, because there won’t be anymore, unless there’s a trunk somewhere with unfinished manuscripts waiting for exploitation. “Stilwell and the American Experience In China,” “Notes From China,” and…hmm, that’s it.

    I’ve dipped into the Eco “On Literature” from time to time. Really fine stuff. Just recently I was introduced to a volume of his more comic writings, “How To Travel With A Salmon”, which is in places laugh-out-loud funny.

  4. January 24, 2013 8:07 am

    Man, All Quiet on the Western Front is so devastating. One of the best books I’ve ever read and certainly the best about war. Also, that movie biz book is so insubstantial and fascinating. I read it in a few hours and couldn’t sleep for days dreaming about writing formulaic Hollywood blockbusters.

  5. January 24, 2013 4:27 pm

    @Owen It’s awesome that you read that movie book. How could a book written by two founding members of The State be un-entertaining??? The answer is that it is impossible.

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