For 2017, I'm going to try something sort of borrowed and sort of new.
I've kept track of the books that I've read each year since 2009, partly so I can remember what all I've read and partly so I can keep a count going. My original goal was to read 100 books a year, which was quite reasonable as a teenager. I only met it once, but I did get into the upper 80s and 90s a few times. These days, I aim for 50, a rather more modest, but attainable goal. Unfortunately, I still find that even with a list of titles, I can't always remember having read something. This is the downside of reading so much. Everything sort of starts to blur together and you pick up a Diana Wynne Jones book of short stories, thinking it's new to you, only to discover that all the plots are somewhere between startlingly new and confusingly familiar.
Quite a few years back, I participated in a blog called Fifty Books Project (if you look at the side bar, you'll note that "quite a few" means "seven"). It's a small group of people who share the goal of each reading fifty books that year, and with each book completed, they write a short piece about it. Some of the members are English teachers who write lovely critical analyses in four paragraphs, others are (like myself) more inclined to summarize or share impressions. Anyone could join, and it was a nice challenge.
In the spirit of the project, and in an attempt to do something with what I've read, so that I might be able to remember it for more than two days, I'm going to write short posts about books that I read throughout the year. Not all of them--there are some novels that just aren't worth it--but as many as I can. So without further ado, I bring you...
A Brief History of the Crimean War by Alexis Troubetzkoy
Why This Book?
A bit of an association and a bit of pure curiosity. I've been watching this TV show set at the same historical time period as the Boer War, and I don't know much about that war, except who the major players were and where it was fought. This put me in mind of another English war about which I knew very little, namely, the Crimean War, which always sounded poetic, but was otherwise a mystery to me. I might have known that it was where Florence Nightingale jumped into the pages of history, but even that might be too charitable to myself.
The story is a mostly chronological survey of the events leading up to the Crimean War. Since Kinglake managed to write six volumes on the subject, I suspect that 300 pages hardly captures more than the Sparknotes of the occasion.
In the 1840s, the major European leaders were Tsar Nicholas I in the East, the Hapsburgs' Franz Joseph I of Austria, Queen Victoria of England, and the upstart Napoleon III, leader of France. It was an uneasy time for some of the more established monarchs. In Italy, the northeastern states staged an uprising to throw off Austrian rule. Napoleon III was himself the leader of an uprising, first riding into the presidency of the Second Republic, then staging a coup d'etat to become Emperor.
The balance of power was ever-changing, and in the midst of this uncertainty, the sun had clearly begun to set on the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans themselves seem to have felt it, taking measures to boost a lagging population through social policies and playing European powers against one another in an attempt to avoid conceding more of their own power.
Tsar Nicholas may have wished to speed that decline, for his defense of Orthodox rights and privileges in Ottoman-controlled Jerusalem strikes my modern sensibilities as unnecessarily pig-headed. Troubetzkoy notes that neither the pope nor the acting head of the Orthodox church were unduly concerned about what was a largely political power play. Certainly, Nicholas's added demand, that he have protection of Orthodox Christians living in Ottoman lands, has only the thinnest veneer of religious legitimacy. He was nominal head of the church, but a secular (that is, worldly) emperor in fact.
The Turkish sultan did agree to Nicholas's demands regarding Jerusalem, but he was much less inclined to grant such invasive overreach as protection of the Ottoman Orthodox Christians. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he had the English ambassador, Lord Stratford Canning, present to assure him of English military support.
Ultimately, the Crimean War seems to have been an ill-planned, haphazard affair. Its major engagement was the siege of Sevastopol, which lasted for nearly a year and claimed tens of thousands of lives. The war itself only lasted two or three years, and by its end, it was looked on with great disfavor. Logistically, the British troops were unprepared--and they were raw. They hadn't fought a war in two generations. Their commander-in-chief had never seen battle, and he appointed as leaders other men who had never seen battle, intending to give them their chance for a little glory.
The famed Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalized by Tennyson, was the result of a miscommunication from a snide, disrespectful aide-de-camp, and it was essentially a suicide mission. Cholera was rampant, along with more prosaic forms of dysentery. Troubetzkoy observes that the entire siege of Sevastopol could have been avoided if Lord Raglan hadn't acceded to the dying St. Arnaud and had pressed forward with a revised plan to attack from the poorly defended north rather than taking the two day march around to the south.
By the time the war ended, Nicholas had died of heart failure, and his son Aleksandr agreed to terms on the status of the holy places. The Red Cross was born. And Napoleon III's determination to cement his favor with glory on the battlefield had been achieved to his satisfaction.
Where Does It Lead?
I find that most books are not the end of a journey, but only a hallway that ends with another, or indeed many other doors. In this case, I actually paused midway to open one. I read this essay about abortion policy in the Ottoman Empire because of a passing comment Troubetzkoy made about a rise in abortions being to blame for a decline in population. It's absolutely fascinating reading--not least because it suggests that several interpretive traditions of Islam permit/permitted abortion, and it was only due to political ends that abortion came to be widely stigmatized and ultimately outlawed.