Sunday, 13 December 2009

One Minute to Midnight

Well. I was not overly impressed by this book. It was about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and though the author went to great lengths to show that the Americans and Soviets were never really eye to eye in the way commonly envisaged, that did not seem to prevent him engaging in what I considered cheap dramatics. For example: an aircraft was coming into land, the brakes failed, and then... It randomly skipped to something else for a page or two before reverting back to that story to finish it off (the pilot was fine by the way). As that particular 'character' had only just been introduced, it felt rather poor storymanship (if that's even a word!) to skip away from it and leave the reader hanging. Fine, have tension, but please, about someone we actually care about, and have been introduced to with a little bit more than about a page sketching in the details of this flight. It just felt a bit, well, pathetic really. If I was reading a fiction book that did that I'd think it just as cheap and pathetic. Another part of the problem was, the story focussed too much on telling it completely chronologically, which, towards the end of the book when it was getting detailed, tended to fragment it somewhat. Chronologically is not always the best way to do history--it can be better to follow a particular thread to its conclusion, then go back and follow another thread. Provided the reader is kept aware of what's being done, it is a lot easier to follow than switching abruptly between various sets of people.

The other thing about this book that annoyed me was the use of bad language and slang, the way the whole thing was laid out completely like a story. I have nothing against narrative history; I really enjoyed reading Munich by David Faber which is a brilliant piece of narrative history, but it just seemed excessively done. Okay, I'm sure presidents do swear and all the rest of it, but. It was not particularly appropriate, and it rather gave me the impression to be honest, that the Kennedys were more like gangster bosses than people I could show any respect for. In the same vein, JFK and RFK is just about okay, but using nicknames? I know it can be a little tiring to write out full names every time (which would have to be done given that John and Robert both played quite major parts), but surely randomly switching between proper name, 'Jack' and 'Bobbie' is annoying to someone other than me. It felt both unprofessional and as though the author was trying too hard to make it readable. It's an interesting topic, let it speak for itself rather than dumbing things down. Were it not for the fact that the topic was interesting, and I'm reading it for History Readers Group, I would've put it down and taken it back to the library (and been incredibly disappointed if I'd bought it). However, I finished it. And yes, some of the insights it gave were good, and I liked the way the smaller incidents did get some space in the narrative, but that didn't make up for the fact that it just felt amateurish, which would have, no doubt, been even more annoying if it had been fiction! It just wasn't well written.

One final comment: there were a load of photographs in the middle bits of the book, you know how you get some nice glossy pictures. They were all black and white, fair enough I guess, but surely it's not that much dearer to put them into colour (I assume they would be colour, perhaps not I suppose), but the other thing was, the captions were all but useless. A lot of them said 'previously unpublished, found in such and such a place', but didn't really explain what they showed. They just seemed a little pointless, though that, I suppose is a complaint that could be made about the pictures in a lot of history books. They don't always quite fit in with the text, and they're not always explained very well.

On the whole then, it's an interesting topic, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and this book did have one or two interesting things to say (like how things nearly kicked off thanks to a U2 getting lost over Russia, how another U2 was shot down and that really annoyed people but the Russians had actually authorised it etc), but it did not fulfil what it claimed to do. It was not a book that gave you the details of the ordinary people. There was nothing on public reaction other than the odd vague comment, there was nothing other than the fact that some of them moved to Florida on the people who would've formed an invasion force, in fact, there was almost nothing about the 'ordinary people' it was claimed would be represented in the book along with the big decision makers. The only people that really got a mention other than politicians were pilots and missile crews. It was also poorly written, so I'm sure there must be better books on this incident out there. Hopefully the other one I got will be.

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