Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book R & R: Some Spring Reading

One of the great things about spring break was the opportunity to read some books of my choosing. I've had a couple on the shelf that I've been saving for the break. One is historical fiction, the other is California history. Both were good reads.

The Road to Kandahar, A Novel of the Second Afghan War, 1878-1880 by David Smethurst.

I've said before that I believe that reading a historical fiction is a great way to gain some familiarity with a historical period or event. David Smethurst sent me a copy of his book several weeks ago. I've been a bit of an Anglophile lately, having read a number Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series. So given the chance to read a book about the British competing with the Russians for influence and control over Afghanistan peaked my interest. Here's the description from the author:
October 6, 1879. The roar of guns and the shout of men reached a heightened pitch as the Highlanders and Gurkhas crested the ridgeline and attacked the Afghani trenches. Khaki and green uniforms mixed with the scarlet of the Afghans as the battle sea-sawed for a few minutes. Then the line of scarlet-clad Afghani troops wavered and broke. British Army lieutenant Robert Burton watched as thousands of Afghani troops fled in headlong retreat. The British had seized the first line.
The Road to Kandahar is an historical fiction novel about a forgotten period of history when Britain and Russia fought the very first Cold War in the heart of Asia. In this book, a British political officer, Robert Burton, and his friends, Richard Leary and Ali Masheed, fight a battle of wits against a cunning Russian political officer, Count Nikolai Kuragin. Against a backdrop of the high passes and deserts of Afghanistan, Burton, Leary and Ali must stop a potential Russian invasion during the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and fight against treachery and injustice within their own ranks.
Without giving anything away, that pretty much sums up what the book is about. But I have to say that it is well written, and has all the elements of a good adventure story: a likable protagonist, a sidekick, a girl (of course) and an easy to hate bad guy. There's plenty of action and the book is faithful to its historical accuracy. As the author sums up in his historical notes, there might be a lesson for the United States in evaluating the British experience in Afghanistan during the nineteenth century.

On September, 13, 1859, just south of San Francisco, a California State Supreme Court judge shot and killed a United States Senator from California. It was the culmination of a decade long argument over whether to allow slavery in the Golden State. 

These days we teach California history in the fourth grade. So you can imagine that the story get sanitized a little bit. For many years I accepted the version that California was rushed to statehood because the gold rush. Well, what does that even mean? Author Leonard Richards will explain that the forty-niners wanted to keep Southerners from bringing slaves to work the claims in the gold rush. Moreover, if California skipped the whole territory status thing and went straight to being a state, the residents could decide whether the new state would be free or allow slavery. This situation also upset the delicate political balance in Washington that had been kicking the can of possible secession down the road for decades. Needless to say, coming to a compromise was a bit of a pickle. 

This was my nonfiction choice for spring break, and it turned out to be very enlightening and very readable. My one criticism might be that the book goes into too much detail on the debates and political moves in both California and Washington D.C., but that might be that I'm not a huge fan of political history. That being said, the history of California is a lot more interesting when told at a level above fourth grade.

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