I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately, indulging in the luxury of several days off. In no particular order:
The Face of Battle, by John Keegan, was a good read. It’s an in-depth look at three battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme), with a particular focus on trying to understand what a battle was like from a soldier’s perspective. Originally published in 1976, it’s perhaps a little less stark than it was then, now that media is so much more violent (both in portrayals of war like Saving Private Ryan, and in fictitious conflict like Game of Thrones). Two things that stood out to me were his description of leaders, officers, or rulers, forcing men into combat; sometimes violently, sometimes literally shoving them, to make sure that they fought. It’s a sombre thought to imagine men running from the enemy ahead to find a gun barrel or weapon pointed at them from behind.
The other things that stayed with me were the looting (of the dead, the dying and the still living), and the slaughter of prisoners. It seems strange to think of pecuniary rewards to a life and death struggle, but they were clearly there. Keegan also highlights that our set of expectations about how prisoners of war will be treated are relatively new; and that even in conflicts where both sides are nominally observing the rules, trying to surrender is no guarantee of safety.
The Twelve, by Justin Cronin, was a fun read. It’s a post-apocalyptic vampire novel, one that’s well written (I think I once read a description of it as the vampire fiction of the lit. fiction genre). It’s been a few years since I read The Passage, which I’d also really enjoyed. So I didn’t remember all the characters, or some of his more convoluted plot points. But Cronin’s writing is good enough that the story carries you through, and is mostly coherent even when you aren’t following all of the intricacies. Oh, and look at that – there are book trailers for The Passage and The Twelve.
The final book that I really, really enjoyed was But where is the lamb? I’ve had a fascination with the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac (there are different translations and different sources; here’s the KJV for a starting point) for a long time. I knew that it’d been interpreted repeatedly, time after time – Caravaggio painted it twice, and there’s midrash that imagines some of what different characters might say. But I don’t think I’d realised until I read James Goodman’s piece how enormous that body of work is.
He touches on Jewish, Christian and Islamic interpretations, and goes through a whole range of periods, and thinks about how different stories have looked at different angles. People defending or attacking particular characters, imagining or impugning motives, thoughts and beliefs. There are risks in tackling a subject that enormous; Goodman keeps it at a high level, picking out pieces as examples of different strands he identifies. That avoids the tediousness of cataloguing enormous lists of different variations, and Goodman does a good job of linking it back always to the original story.
The thing that did drive me crazy about the book was the referencing. He uses endnotes, but doesn’t even include the notes on the page! The only way you can know if there’s a reference is by simultaneously checking through the list of endnotes. It makes it easier on the eyes, I suppose, but I much, much prefer a clearer referencing system.
But that aside, But where is the lamb? is a strong piece of work for what it is. And, for someone as fascinated as I am by the sacrifice of Isaac, it’s the best resource I’ve seen yet (although I’ve yet to go digging through the references Goodman cites).