Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Old Christmas by Washington Irving ; illustrated by Randolph Caldecott (1819)

Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book of Washington IrvingOld Christmas: From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving by Washington Irving

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up for several reasons. I read an article here -- http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dick... that detailed how Old Christmas was the father of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. I read another essay that while Washington Irving didn't invent Christmas, he certainly "dressed it up." And finally, it was Christmas weekend and I wanted something new but delightfully old fashioned to read. This certainly fit the bill. If you read Dickens every holiday season, consider adding Washington Irving to that list. You won't be disappointed. The first few paragraphs of the first story are my favorite - poignant and moving. Even here in sunny summery southern California, Irving made me feel the chill bite of winter and longed for a hearth to huddle by. I loved the character of Master Simon, the bachelor reletive who sings, tells the best stories, and makes the young girls giggle at inappropriate times and gossips with the old widows. He's definitely an archetype. The Randolph Caldecott illustrations - he of the medal fame - are whimsically fantastic.

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Old Christmas by Washington Irving ; illustrated by Randolph Caldecott (1819)

Old Christmas by Washington Irving, with illustrations by Randolph Caldecott, is part of the larger work The Sketch Book which includes the most famous Irving stories, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." "The Christmas Dinner," the fourth in the Christmas stories, was the story of the week from The Library of America, the introduction of this (to me unknown) set of stories led me to another short essay (http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/xmas/kelly2.html) on the direct line from Washington Irving's Christmas to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In 1876, Randolph Caldecott (he of the medal fame) illustrated Irving stories, and that was the version I read (online), although I also read the Library of America hard cover version (sans illustrations). I'm not a huge fan of the online reading experience and like the feel of a real book in my hands.

Old Christmas was a perfect holiday weekend read. Irving has some poignant and moving passages in the book regarding the Christmas season. Although I enjoyed reading all four stories, the following I consider the most lovely and moving. It certainly helped keep me in the holiday mood:

"There is nothing in England that exercises a more delightful spell over my imagination than the lingerings of the holiday customs and rural games of former times. They recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through books, and believed it to be all that poets had painted it; and they bring with them the flavour of those honest days of yore, in which, perhaps with equal fallacy, I am apt to think the world was more home-bred, social, and joyous than at present. I regret to say that they are daily growing more and more faint, being gradually worn away by time, but still more obliterated by modern fashion. They resemble those picturesque morsels of Gothic architecture which we see crumbling in various parts of the country, partly dilapidated by the waste of ages, and partly lost in the additions and alterations of latter days. Poetry, however, clings with cherishing fondness about the rural game and holiday revel, from which it has derived so many of its themes,--as the ivy winds its rich foliage about the Gothic arch and mouldering tower, gratefully repaying their support by clasping together their tottering remains, and, as it were, embalming them in verdure.

"Of all the old festivals, however, that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment. The services of the church about this season are extremely tender and inspiring. They dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith, and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement. They gradually increase in fervour and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men. I do not know a grander effect of music on the moral feelings than to hear the full choir and the pealing organ performing a Christmas anthem in a cathedral, and filling every part of the vast pile with triumphant harmony.

"It is a beautiful arrangement, also derived from days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together of family connections, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts which the cares and pleasures and sorrows of the world are continually operating to cast loose; of calling back the children of a family who have launched forth in life, and wandered widely asunder, once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of the affections, there to grow young and loving again among the endearing mementoes of childhood.
There is something in the very season of the year that gives a charm to the festivity of Christmas. At other times we derive a great portion of our pleasures from the mere beauties of nature. Our feelings sally forth and dissipate themselves over the sunny landscape, and we "live abroad and everywhere." The song of the bird, the murmur of the stream, the breathing fragrance of spring, the soft voluptuousness of summer, the golden pomp of autumn; earth with its mantle of refreshing green, and heaven with its deep delicious blue and its cloudy magnificence, all fill us with mute but exquisite delight, and we revel in the luxury of mere sensation. But in the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. we feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms: and which when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.

"The pitchy gloom without makes the heart dilate on entering the room filled with the glow and warmth of the evening fire. The ruddy blaze diffuses an artificial summer and sunshine through the room, and lights up each countenance into a kindlier welcome. Where does the honest face of hospitality expand into a broader and more cordial smile--where is the shy glance of love more sweetly eloquent--than by the winter fireside? and as the hollow blast of wintry wind rushes through the hall, claps the distant door, whistles about the casement, and rumbles down the chimney, what can be more grateful than that feeling of sober and sheltered security with which we look around upon the comfortable chamber and the scene of domestic hilarity?"

It's rare, I think, to read an old book or classic and not have some trouble with the language, particularly stilted language or overly descriptive phrases without much action. But Old Christmas didn't feel that way at all - mostly easy to read and "regular" language.

My favorite character described in the book is Master Simon, the old bachelor who is friends with all the widows, knows all the best stories and jokes, and performs on command, whether dressing up in costume or singing in the church choir. He's some sor to ancestral gay guy, the orginal old archetype of everyone's elderly gay uncle.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Rescuers (1959) and Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines (1966) by Margery Sharp

Why are there so many books written for children that have mice as the central characters? In addition to the two I finished over the weekend, we've also got The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Pleasant Fieldmouse, Angelina Ballerina, Lily's Purple Plastic Purse, Despereaux, Redwall, Geronimo Stilton, Poppy... I could continue ad nauseum. What is it about mice and kids? No one wants a mouse in their house (and I can only think of one famous rat, Templeton, and he was, well, a rat). I would hazard a guess that many suburban kids haven't seen a mouse outside a pet store, what with the advent of exterminators. Yet the houses of children's literature are filled to the brim with talking, clothes wearing, mice.

The Rescuers and the world of Miss Bianca in general is pretty sophisticated for a children's book. The language is hard - I stumbled over words. And to be really honest, it's not all that interesting. Which is funny, because I thought of these are beloved classics from my childhood. But I don't recall reading any others in the series besides these two. I thought maybe that was because I didn't have access to them as a kid, but in reality it may have been because - well - they are kind of boring. Maybe mice are just for kids. Or maybe The Mouse and the Motorcycle will hold up if I re-read it. I don't think this holds up all that well over the years, but maybe that's looking at it with the jaundiced eye of a grownup?

Miss Bianca and Bernard's relationship is old fashioned to say the least. Miss Bianca is always so prim and ladylike, and she's always stuck with hypermasculine other mice (Nils the Norwegian mouse, the two professors). She's kind of snobby too. And maybe that's just the kind of character she's meant to be, and I'm reading way to much into her. Her pictures by Garth Williams are pretty though.

Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse (2002)

A low-gloss take on a likable but bland president. Trefousse concentrates much attention on Hayes's early life and Civil War career, much attention on the disputed election of 1876 - but makes light work of the actual administration. That may be because not a whole lot happened during the tenure of Rutherford B. Hayes. His election was the peak interesting point, of perhaps his entire career. He certainly comes across as a middle of the road kind of guy, fiscally conservative, moderately liberal on the social issues of the time. Certainly the kind of Republican that doesn't really exist anymore - Rutherford B. Hayes would most likely be a Democrat today.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

East Side Story by Louis Auchincloss (2004)

I had some trouble figuring this one out. It was pretty dry and straightforward, and the chapters were only loosely connected. They almost read like short biographical sketches crossed with a short story. I wasn't exactly sure what the point was. I liked the story about Alida the best - her husband was a heavy drinker, who gave up drinking when he joined a quasi-cult. But the cult leader was money grubbingly greedy, so Alida thought she would pull one over on her husband and get him drinking again so he would stop going to church. But the husband had the last laugh - he left most of his money to the cult. The black humor of that story made up for the dryness of other stories. I was disappointed, because I like Auchincloss's nonfiction so much. I don't know if I want to try another fiction book or not. I hate it when I don't "get" a book too, especially a literary book - I always feel so dumb.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Images of Early Pomona by Mickey Gallivan (2007)

This is sort of a coffee table book in miniature and in paperback of what I - at least for now - consider my "home town." Pomona, for all its (somewhat deserved) piss poor reputation, is an old city with a rich history, and this little book proves it. The earliest settlers in Pomona were arrived in 1837 - and built a house (the Casa Primera) around the block from my current house. This is far older than my actual hometown in Kansas; it's almost (but not quite) "East Coast" old. Easterners and Midwesterners forget that history was happening often simultaneously out west.

The book wasn't chock full of gems - there are quite a few pictures of people I don't know in old clothes. But there were several interesting tidbits. The pictures of Ganesha Park were interesting; the fact that Garey, White and Holt Avenues were all named after founding fathers of Pomona was another interesting fact. The Padre Oak at 459 Kenoak Place was "believed to have been the stoppiogn place of the mission fathers when they traveled through in 1832. It was under this tree that the first Christian religious service in the Pomona Valley was held. Tomas Palomares" - another street name - "built his adobe home on this site just north of the oak tree." I could almost spit on this tree if it wasn't for the 10 Freeway; I've probably walked by or under it and didn't even realize it was there.

Sandhill Sundays and other recollections by Mari Sandoz (1970)

Mari Sandoz reminds me somewhat of the gritty female descendants of pioneers that I grew up with - the picture on the back of the book could be Mrs. Belton, my art teacher from high school (granddaughter of Czech pioneers). Sandoz's recollections are from the house next door to Little House on the Prairie, where everything was even tougher, and the dad was crazy mean. I have to be honest - the book lost steam somewhere in the middle. The recollections became too abrasive and unpleasant.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Joseph Smith by Robert V. Remini (2002)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to a wise sage (Maureen O'Hara), "Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to." The story of Joseph Smith certainly requires a leap of faith. I thought Remini did a pretty good job of remaining neutral about some of Joseph Smith's more questionable revelations and actions. Regardless of whether you believe Smith pulled off one of the greatest scams of all time or was indeed a prophet of God (I guess this all depends on who you ask), you have to admit that he was a mover and shaker of men and ideas. I guess religions are generally based on those kinds of men.

Joseph Smith by Robert V. Remini (2002)

As a famous person once said, "Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to." (that famous person was Maureen O'Hara in A Miracle on 34th Street, which may instantly negate the seriousness of this post, but oh well). You gotta have some pretty deep seeded faith to believe a man walks on water or turns water into wine (or comes back from the dead). You gotta have some faith to believe statues can both cry and cure you. You gotta have some faith to believe that you can die and come back as a houseplant or a spider or Shirley MacLaine. Faith is what it takes to believe in Joseph Smith, because a doubter can certainly call him a charlatan and a trickster. He's either is a prophet who talked to God, or pulled the best and longest running hoax ever known to man. His revelations - particularly the ones dealing with women (and especially the one dealing with his postpartum depressed, royally pissed off, feeling neglected wife) certainly can come across as a bit self serving. Regardless of whether you believe Joseph Smith is a charlatan who ran a scam worthy of the Nigerians, he certainly knew what it took to move and motivate people and bend them to his will. I guess the founders of all religions possessed the same gift.

I appreciated Remini providing a backdrop of the history of Jacksonian American Smith's story. This definitely provided a context for why people were so rabid in their passions for and against Mormons. The rough and tumble Second Great Awakening America was not a time for the faint of heart, particularly on the frontier.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How To Become a Great Boss by Jeffrey Fox (2002)

One of my former employees said I'm already a great boss. But one can always add to the toolbox. Although the tools in this one were pretty simple. An "airplane" book - and for someone other than me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton (1993)

The Buccaneers was Edith Wharton's last book, left unfinished and then initially published on her death in 1937; Marion Mainwaring (a Wharton scholar) added her own ending (apparently based on a Wharton outline) in 1993. Which shows, but doesn't necessarily detract from the book.

The novel takes place during the height of the Gilded Age; the "buccaneers" are five American girls of wealth (but not New York society, a bone of contention among one of their mothers) who marry (or are scheming to marry, at the end of the book) British peers / gentry (with many, many direct nods to the sad story of Alva and Conseulo Vanderbilt).

Saratoga, very unfashionable, is where the novel begins, with two of the sisters, Virginia and Nan, befriending the other three - Lizzy and Mabel Elmsworth (whose mother is vulgar and loud) and Conchita, who was clearly based on the woman for whom Conseulo Vanderbilt was named, Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester who was Cuban, not Brazilian. Conchita is the "dangerous" one, who marries into the nobility first. The other girls are assisted in this by the Nan St. George's Italian turned English government, Miss Testvalley, and Jacky March, an American who was jilted by a British lord but continues to live in England, apparently matchmaking (and being part of schemes). Virginia eventually marries a marquis (as part of the best scene in the book); Lizzy marries an up and coming British MP; Mabel marries an elderly "cereal king" who leaves her the richest widow in the world; Nan marries the Duke of Tintagel, who is vaguely and mysteriously awful to her. This relationship is the flip side of The Age of Innocence marriage of the Count and Countess Olenska. But, like The Age of Innocence, we get only a taste of why the marriage is a bad one. At least with TAOI, the marriage plot was overseas and while necessary to the plot, the details weren't necessarily integral; The Duke of Tintagel, on the other hand, doesn't seem at all that bad (he's certainly not as wicked as the Duke of Marlborough).

That's part of the overall flaws of this book. There is a skeleton, some muscle tissue, some sinews - but not a complete body. In fact, occasionally it's like the bones of five bodies thrown together, and Wharton was trying to rebuild them as one. Even that skeleton, though, is incredibly well written, with vivid characters.

(It's almost like some characters have two or three skeletons though - Mrs. St. George, for example, seems to shift slightly throughout the book. She's much more languid at the beginning and much more Alva Vanderbiltish at the end.).

I guess another problem I had was that I wanted more, and even with Marion Mainwaring (a name that sounds like it came from a Wharton book) it still wasn't quite enough. Telling the interconnected stories of five beautiful girls was going to take a longer book than this one - maybe even several.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

James A. Garfield by Ira Rutkow (2006)

Among presidents, perhaps James A. Garfield holds the most "what might have beens." You can certainly say that about any of our leaders who were slain or died while in office; but Garfield had just begun to serve when he was shot by the (clearly) mentally ill Charles Guiteau, stuffing Garfield into the box of historical footnotes. Garfield was president in the height of the Gilded Age (his previously dealings and writings has him as certainly the proto-typical pro-business Republican - "a leader on the fiscally conservative side of the political debate"). Reconstruction had died a tragic death under the administration of Rutherfurd B. Hayes (more on him later; I accidentally read my presidents out of order); Garfield, whose views on African Americans (as with many of the post Civil War politicians) had evolved over time; he might have been a better friend to the former slaves and foe to the south than Chester Arthur (we'll see when I read about Arthur!). Rutkow's Garfield is young, intellectual, politically savvy (come on - you don't just fall into the nomination; it's clear he was playing all sides), lusty (hints of numerous affairs resound throughout Garfield's adult life). The story of the death of James Garfield couldn't be told without the story of Gilded Age medicine, its advances, and the opponents of those advances (who ministered to Garfield during his agonizingly long, painful death), and Rutkow's account of Garfield's last days includes many interesting side notes on what was then considered modern medicine (which would make sense, considering that Rutkow is a surgeon). The short, poignant epilogue briefly notes that Ronald Reagan was similarly shot by a madman and survived (history, though, has argued since then that Reagan probably did not survive completely unscathed) and imagines that Garfield, if shot today, would probably have been home that same evening, scared but recuperating.

The time machine transports Garfield to the 21st century White House - how would he react to the top political, social and international issues facing us today?

The top news right now, from the New York Times website.

European debt crisis. No bail outs here. Garfield was a laissez-faire Republican, with a mistrust of Europe and its entanglements. His biggest foreign policy missions during his brief presidency were aimed at strengthening ties with our South American neighbors. Stories about Iran and Myanmar followed that of the European debt crisis - I think his reaction would have been ditto to the Europeans, although he did sign a treaty with Madagascar!

A story about illegal immigration, President Obama, and Arizona. Garfield was trying to keep the Chinese out of the U.S. ("the yellow peril") and I can't imagine he'd be any more friendly to undocumented aliens today (although his wanting to strengthen relations with our neighbors to the south might bode well for a different opinion - perhaps he would have encouraged Mexican immigration as something more favorable to Chinese immigration).

Gingrich as lobbyist. Garfield would have been right at home in the new Gilded Age; although not corrupt himself (or not alive as president long enough to be given the chance), there were cries of foul because he continued working as a lawyer in addition to serving in Congress. He certainly would have been right at home in our time of divided government - but have we ever had a time when our government wasn't bitterly divided over something?

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

Elizabeth George Speare, if anything, is a meticulous writer. After all, she only wrote four books - two of which won the prestigious Newbery Award. I enjoyed The Bronze Bow in spite of myself - Christian historical fiction would not usually have been my first choice of subject matter, but I had read somewhere it was a good book (it was indeed) and came away pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed and how moving I found the book. I thought Speare did a great job of capturing what it meant to be a "rebel with a cause," the abused teenager Daniel who runs away from a horrible indentured servant hood / slavery to join what he thinks is a rebellion against the Roman Empire in Palestine. Daniel, like many teens, is surly, mistrusting of authority, fanatic in his hatred, and seeking something different in his life. He thinks he's found it in Rosh, a so-called rebel who is essentially a bully and a thug. Under Rosh's auspices, a group of boys eventually form a secret cabal against Rome that has the same quality as modern gangs or boys' clubs throughout the ages - secret passwords and codes, special clothes, and a ringleader. That Daniel is ultimately swayed by a new teacher and preacher, Jesus, Speare also made believable. I have read about some of the controversy surrounding the book - that it's one sided and that it portrays Judaism in a negative light. I suppose it could be seen that way - but I do think something must have been going on during that time to lure at least some Jews (but obviously not all) into seeking something different, whether that be a path of peaceful resistance, or active rebellion, or something else. Elizabeth George Speare tapped into that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Death in Devil's Acre by Anne Perry (1985)

This is #7 of the 27 books in the Pitt series. It's been a while since I picked up an Anne Perry, but someone donated fifteen or so paperbacks in the series to the library, which I promptly snatched up and bought. Anne Perry is formulaic to say the least, but in a very good way - I certainly haven't been bored. I didn't think much of the mystery in this one - or the dénouement/resolution for that matter (too abrupt and a tiny bit too deus ex machina for my taste), but it certainly was exciting. I like the descriptive feel of Anne Perry - you certainly feel like you are a mouse in the pocket of these Victorians. There's nothing particularly wonderful or memorable about these novels, other than a definite sense of character, time, and place (and even some character growth from novel to novel). You know Pitt and Charlotte, and their circle wide and small. But you don't learn any great truths or something new about yourself through this - or probably any - detective story. That's certainly not a good reason to stop reading them though!

American Nations by Colin Woodard (2011)

The premise is really interesting - but this felt like a cross between a really long magazine article, a textbook, and someone's doctoral thesis. A really light re-telling of American history from this very specific point of view. For me at least, this lacked some depth and personality. I understand what he's trying to do and say, but I'm just not sure it needed a whole book.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Naughty in Nice by Rhys Bowen (2011)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rhys Bowen's "Royal" just gets better and better. Naughty in Nice is a screwball comedy of manners as well as a dead body-laden (in the good old fashioned Christie-an style) whodunit. A perfectly fun little murder mystery. It's like everybody on the Orient Express switched trains, went to Nice, and developed a sense of humor and sex appeal. Russian princesses, French aristocracy, the British Royal family, West End actresses, Coco Chanel - this could not have been any better. When's the BBC making this into a sumptuous Mystery?

Naughty in Nice by Rhys Bowen (2011)

Another entry in one of my favorite mystery series. Each one has been a gem, but I remember not liking Royal Blood (the predecessor to Naughty in Nice) quite as well as previous entries. Naughty In Nice took me right back to five stars. A total screwball comedy of manners crossed with a mystery, very Agatha Christie only turned up a notch for the 21st century. I hardly ever read and book and think "I'd like to see this as a film" but Naughty in Nice would make a great mystery masterpiece. I love the juxtaposition of real people and historical situations with fictional characters - I hope Coco Chanel and her friend Vera make another appearance in a future Royal novel - I was also hoping we'd head to Nazi Germany and chase spies through the Alps! Tres bien!

Travels In Siberia by Ian Frazier (2010)

This is due back at the library before I can get it finished, but I really enjoyed what I read. A mix of journalism and history - almost like a long, long magazine article. I'm in the middle of reading about Genghis Khan and what a dick he and all of his Mongol horde were to the rest of the world. I also heard part of this story on a Radio Lab short one afternoon, but didn't realize it until I read that part in the book (the part about Tic Tac Toe) -- a pleasant surprise!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Chili Queen by Sandra Dallas (2002)

Utterly disappointing. Flat, cardboard characters, a strange plot. I read ahead to see what was going to happen, and it felt like a storyboard. What makes a good book good and a flat book flat? I can't explain my meta-reading well enough to intelligently state why I liked Tallgrass or The Persian Pickle Club and disliked The Chili Queen.

Goodreads review:

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If you look up "disappointed" in the thesaurus, you see disgruntled, disenchanted, disgruntled, disillusioned, disconcerted - and most useful of all, dashed hopes. My hopes were dashed indeed - I loved the first two Sandra Dallas books I had read, and I was looking forward to The Chili Queen. Dashed, dashed, dashed. The characters felt like cardboard cutouts, the plot went here there and everywhere - but also nowhere. I will certainly give Ms. Dallas another shot, but The Chili Queen left me cold.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warren (1873)

The Gilded Age was written in the 1872-1973s, according to the introduction, sort of on a bet. Sam and Olivia Clemens were having dinner with their neighbors the Charles Dudley Warrens one evening in Hartford. The husbands, both writers, began arguing with their wives about the state of popular fiction, particularly, novels, which were mostly written by women in a very feminine way during this time period (think of Little Women). The women charged their husbands to write a better novel, and The Gilded Age and the career of Mark Twain as a renowned novelist were born. The two men split the writing between them (which I think shows). They finished the book in 3 months (which I also think shows). Their novel, with its plot of land speculation, government corruption, benign federal oversight, and greed, was not only a bestseller but gave the name Gilded Age to the an era that reflected what was going on in the book.

The book is melodramatic, with its orphaned heroine and exploding steamships and racy murderous love gone wrong. The introduction quotes the base on which the plot - really two or more loosely connected plots - of the book is built,

Beautiful credit. The foundation of modern society. Who shall say that this is not the golden age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance upon human promises? That is a peculiar condition of society which enables a whole nation to instantly recognize point and meaning in the familiar newspaper anecdote, which puts into the mouth of a distinguished speculator in lands and minds this remark: -- "I wasn't worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars.
Marvin Felheim, who wrote the introduction (and who apparently taught at the University of Michigan in the 60s 70s and 80s, according to the first three or four hits on Google), also wrote that the novel "rises to a minor climax of comedy and irony" and melodrama - you just needed the beautiful Laura to be tied to the train tracks.

My biggest complaint about the book is that loose collection of plots. Good old Felheim - I'm so glad for his introduction by the way, or I would have been lost some of the time, writes:

For all it's faults, The Gilded Age is a remarkably consistent work. Many groups of chapters... contain... combinations of characteristic elements: the mixture of comedy, farce and satire, which conveys the author's point of view; and the use of melodramatic devices -- letters, parallel plots, sentimental and hopeful speeches, and a busy narrative pace -- by which the authors project the meretricious and manic temper of the age.

Meretricious means: Apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity, which may actually describe my feelings about the novel. He goes on state that a line can be drawn through the literature of the age, including Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and that a commonality among them all was their improvisational style. That's what drove me batty - nothing felt connected, and the parallel plots were like like rivers that met - and then unmet and meandered off, but always close enough to meet again. There weren't any "a-ha!" moments in these parallel plots where I thought "That's why Ruth Bolton is in the book!" Other than the fact I really liked her as a character, and that her father was a speculator, and that he lost all their money - I wasn't sure what their connection to the Hawkins family or Colonel Sellers even was. I guess The Gilded Age was consistent in its inconsistency, and Marvin Feldheim must really be Yoda.

Okay, each of the parallel plots was interesting in itself, and perhaps if I'd just allowed myself to fall into each world without trying to find a common thread, I may have enjoyed the book more.

Certainly, the book was a satire on the greedy capitalism and corruption of the 1870s, and there were so many commonalities between then and now, I don't even think it's particularly surprising. I wonder if other ages -- the 1920s or the 1970s - thought to themselves "We're in the new Gilded Age?" Quotes abound in the book that could have been written about 2011: "Ruth had an idea that a portion of the world lived by getting the rest of the world into schemes. Mr. Bolton could never say no to any of them." (Replace coal mines and Tennessee land speculation with gold and real estate and the Nigerian lottery). "I wasn't worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two millions of dollars." That strikes close to home, and could also be talking about Greece or Italy.

Mark Twain's humor can be a bit broad and in your face, but his wicked wit is always there to delight as well. When Laura's beau hears rumors about her paternity and stops seeing her, she's pretty upset at first, but then writes him off, in Mark Twain's bitchy best: "Mr. Ned Thurston... is well favored in person, and well liked too, I believe, and comes of one of the first families of the village. He is prosperous, too, I hear; has been a doctor a year, now, and has had two patients -- no, three, I think, yes, it was three. I attended their funerals." You go girl!

I have to admit, that whenever Laura took center stage, she was almost dazzling - but kind of empty. Ruth, Philip, Harry, Washington - they all seemed like that. Perhaps "gilded" referred to their characters as well?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

To Timbuktu by Casey Szieszka and Steven Weinberg (2011)

To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True StoryTo Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story by Casey Scieszka

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although mostly an engaging travelogue, this is also a little bit graphic novel (I love Weinberg's illustrations), some coming of age (being 23 and just out of college is tough no matter where you are, let alone Mali), a little bit love story (new couple exploring each other with an international backdrop), some personal exploration, and a taste of American and other geopolitics - none of which is very deep (which happened to be fine by me). And Jon Scieszka, the hilarious children's author and advocate of boy literacy, is Casey's dad and makes several cameo appearances (neat!). The moral of the story may be that everyone should get the opportunity to explore another culture in depth, and that do-goodery can be a mixed bag of emotions and help.

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To Timbuktu by Casey Szieszka and Steven Weinberg (2011)

This was a suggestion from a colleague that I'm glad I picked up. Casey and Steven are studying abroad in Morocco - which brings me to my first digression in this delightful book -- what is it with some much "studying abroad" now? I don't recall knowing anyone who ever "studied abroad." A total twenty something phenom, or something I just missed out on? Or is it because I was neither rich nor went to a school for rich people? Or was I just too lazy? Anyway, they are studying abroad in Morocco - post 9-11 too (brave!), and meet and fall in love, and carry on a long distance relationship. He's finishing college in Maine, and she's finishing college at Pitzer - which means I've probably seen her at the farmer's market, or at the yogurt place, or seen a movie with her, or whatever. They decide after school they are going to find something to do that allows them to travel and to be together. They start off teaching English in China to kids - oh yeah, did I mention that she's Jon Scieszka's daughter? Yeah, the famous children's author. Anyway, they love China, particularly the food. Next is an extended vacation in southeast Asia - Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Casey ends up getting really sick, and at some point they have one of those "first fights" over her illness, which is interesting to read about but brings back too many memories of first, second and third fights. They finally end up in Mali (hence the Timbuktu), where she has a Fulbright where she's studying the influence of Islam on schools, and he's working on his art (who PAYS for all of this?). China sounded like heaven to visit and temporarily live (particularly the food), and southeast Asia sounds okay (they thought Thailand was too touristy, which would have probably appealed to me). But North Africa (which they loved in Morocco) sounds hideous to me. Timbuktu was the worst. Everyone there, particularly the kids, see two white Americans as nothing more than cash cows, which I guess is how we are perceived in the world. Rich, rude, and always willing to buy other people's crap. The Timbuktu chapters were particularly depressing, and like them I wished we were back in China.

This is certainly a travelogue. It's also a tiny bit graphic novel - almost every page has one of Steven Weinberg's really cool charcoal drawings (I love them). It's a love story too - a couple in love getting to know one another with the world as their back drop. None of this is particularly in depth, which in the end is okay with me - I love travelogue and detest in depth me-me-me memoirs.

It did make a bit nostalgic for my twenties. I don't recall enjoying those first years out of college all that much - an opportunity like this might have been fun and certainly life changing.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Crazy Horse by Larry McMurtry (1999)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

McMurtry paints a stark but engaging (like the Great Plains themselves) portrait of Crazy Horse and the time and place in which he lived. He allows both the real man and the legend to share the stage, giving us a impression of who Crazy Horse might have been (because we'll never know the truth) and who people thought he was. The story of Native Americans during the 19th century is definitely one of incredible sadness, misunderstanding, greed, power politics and bigotry, skating along the line of genocide. The life and death of Crazy Horse is a tragedy in the highest, saddest sense. McMurtry says his last days, hours and minutes could have been written by the Greek or Shakespeare, which is definitely true; his romantic relationships could have been written by Danielle Steele. McMurtry is a powerful wordsmith, fully worth of writing a biography of someone who should be considered a American tragic hero.

Crazy Horse by Larry McMurtry (1999)

I've never read anything by Larry McMurtry before, although I've certainly heard of Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show (I've seen part of this movie, long long long ago). If Crazy Horse is representative of Mr. McMurtry's style, then I will definitely add one or both to my list of things to read. Crazy Horse wasn't meant to be an in depth biography - it's in the Penguin Lives series -- but a sketch of the life of the Sioux warrior. As McMurtry does an excellent job of illustrating, we don't know very much about Crazy Horse. The biographies depended much on hearsay and the reminiscences of old men many years later. McMurtry compared Crazy Horse to Zelig - Crazy Horse apparently was in the background at every big battle and event in the 1970s between Indians and whites, but no one quite remembers what he did or why he was even there.

McMurtry paints a stark but engaging (sort of like the Great Plains themselves) picture about what we do know about Crazy Horse. The actual man as well as the legend are both prominent in the book; McMurtry allows both to have a place at the table (or around the campfire). His crazy love affair with a married woman (I wish we knew more about her!) makes for some interesting reading. If McMurtry says Crazy Horse's death is like Greek Tragedy or Shakespeare, his love affair is definitely either 19th century romance or a modern Harlequin potboiler.

One particularly beautiful line McMurtry writes about Crazy Horse's tragic murder. According to a prophetic dream or vision, Crazy Horse could only be wounded or killed if held by his own people. In military prison for a misunderstanding, his people turned against him - not for any discernible reason either, except the madness of the time overcame them -- and while being held by his own people,he was bayoneted to death by a US cavalry man. "No shot was fired," McMurtry elegantly writes. "And Crazy Horse -- a man who had lost his brother, his daughter, the woman he loved, several friends, his way of life, and even, for a time, his people -- began his leaving as a man and his arrival as a myth, a man around whom stories that are like little gospels accumulate." Poignant and beautiful.

The other story McMurtry relates is just as beautiful, and deals with the last days of Crazy Horse as well. "Not long before Crazy Horse left for the Spotted Tail agency he had a much-reported conversation with this old friend He Dog. Crook [the U.S. general in charge] wanted all the Sioux at Red Cloud to move across the creek... so he could have them handy for a big council. Crazy Horse didn't want to move across the creek, but He Dog thought it might be best to do as he was told. He was nervous, though, about what this move might mean for their friendship, so he asked Crazy Horse if such a move on his part would mean that they were enemies now. Crazy Horse laughed, perhaps for the last time [oh how sad, how tragic]; he then reminded He Dog that he was not speaking to a white man. Whites were the only ones, he said, who made rules for other people. Camp where you please.
So it is with the death of Crazy Horse: the reader is invited to camp where he or she pleases amid the many recollections and recountings."

This story sums up what Crazy Horse meant and still means to many people. There is certainly a contrast and clash between three cultures: traditional Sioux culture (in which everyone was essentially a leader, a true democracy of sorts), the new Sioux culture (in which the whites were in charge and told the Sioux where to camp and what to do) and the white culture (in which there were rules for everything, always in favor of the whites). McMurtry also paints Crazy Horse as almost a Jesus like figure - murdered for his people, surrounded by myth and gospel, and a story that allows people today to make Crazy Horse whatever kind of hero they need in their life.

Ulysses S. Grant and Crazy Horse were contemporaries. Having just finished a sketch of Grant as part of my presidential history binge, it's interesting how little the two have in common as leaders or warriors. It's definitely a case of completely different worlds and cultures. Grant lead hundreds of thousands of men and fought in huge modern battles; Crazy Horse led no one, fought in battles consisting of just a few thousand men, and like a knight of old placed personal valor and bravery far above "winning." Crazy Horse was challenged by that same vision to be always charitable to those less fortunate than him, and that was always a part of his leadership. Grant, too, had some charity in his heart, particularly regarding slavery. Both were quiet loners.

I have to admit here that I still love James Michener (I wish he were still alive and churning out a tome every three years), and reading Crazy Horse made me think quite a bit about Centennial (which I still love too). Crazy Horse might not be a character in Centennial, but his spirit definitely haunts the chapters dealing with Indian wars and massacres in Colorado. I wonder how much his spirit still haunts Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas - and yes Kansas. As a Kansan, I had no idea that Crazy Horse and his people roamed the plains of my state. That's a shame - his story should be a Kansas story too. Maybe it is now.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III (2004)

Ulysses S. Grant (The American Presidents, #18)Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If we are in a new Gilded Age, then it may be time for us all to revisit the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Bunting does a superb job of deconstructing and reconstructing Grant. Was he a drunk? Sometimes, but he also had some bad press. Was he a butcher? Sometimes, but for good reason - he wanted to end the civil war. Did he preside over a scandal ridden adminstration? Somewhat, but government was under the spoils system back then and worked differently than it does now. Bunting's Grant is a capable, brave general who won the Civil War and wanted to win Reconstruction as well, or the war would have been fought in vain. Grant's fairer treatment of Native Americans(than previous or subsquent administrations) is also a plus in Grant's favor, which Bunting points out has been ignored in our history. Still, in the end Grant could move armies but not his friends and colleagues. "There is little evidence that the Black Friday episode served to put the president on his guard against such future attempts to hoodwink or manipulate the administration or other agencies of government," Bunting writes. "Early on, the country was learning something of the president's style: he was a delegator, loyal to subordinates and probably naive in his judgments of politicians, slow to anger and only rarely given to censure, and reluctuctant to dismiss subordinates under almost any circumstances." And, sadly, "The last man to leave the battlefield at Belmont and the only man not to flinch while sitting on his horse in direct view of enemy soldiers was the same man who could not say no to a friend, and not even a very good friend at that." Amazing how power can all come down to the personal, then and now. "In American politics, then as now, shrinking from saying things that others may not like is at the root of no end of trouble." Gilded Age then and now indeed.

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Ulysses S. Grant by Josiah Bunting III (2004)

This was a more linear look at Grant than others in this series, and dwelt more heavily on the earlier parts of his life rather than his administration than other books in this series. Bunting certainly makes a valid point that over the years, Grant hasn't always got the appreciate her deserves, particularly with his dealings with Reconstruction and Native Americans. He writes to his good friend and colleague General Sherman about his run for president: "I was forced into it in spite of myself. Backing down would leave the election to be contested between mere trading politicians, the elevation of whom, no matter which party won, would lose us, largely, the results of the costly war which we have just gone through." Grant may have won the war, and really tried to win Reconstruction as well, but the odds just weren't in his favor. The same thing held true for his dealings with Native Americans; he had really good intentions but was unable to exert political will to make them happen. A commonality with many of those 19th century weak executives; history just wasn' t on his side.

Bunting points out - rightly - that most people think of Grant as a drunk (true at times) and a butcher (true at times, too - but he wanted the war to end) and presiding over an administration full of scandals (also true, although Bunting makes a good point that what we call scandal now was practice back then in the days of political patronage). The author can try to save Grant from these labels, but he can only go so far - Grant might have been a mover of armies, but he wasn't a mover of men, particular close friends or colleagues. "There is little evidence that the Black Friday episode served to put the president on his guard against such future attempts to hoodwink or manipulate the administration or other agencies of government," Bunting writes. "Early on, the country was learning something of the president's style: he was a delegator, loyal to subordinates and probably naive in his judgments of politicians, slow to anger and only rarely given to censure, and reluctuctant to dismiss subordinates under almost any circumstances." And, sadly, "The last man to leave the battlefield at Belmont and the only man not to flinch while sitting on his horse in direct view of enemy soldiers was the same man who could not say no to a friend, and not even a very good friend at that." Amazing how power can all come down to the personal, then and now. "In American politics, then as now, shrinking from saying things that others may not like is at the root of no end of trouble." Maybe our current batch of politicians need to take some lessons from that other Gilded Age.

Grant's age struck me. Grant started the Civil War at the same age as I am now, reading this book. I loved how Bunting ended this chapter on Grant's pre-Civil War service and life: "He had left Galena, a quiet civilian walking alongside the volunteer infantry company he had helped organize, only thirty-three months earlier. He was forty one."

"In reelecting Grant, the people were voting for someone with whom they were comfortable, someone they liked. His hold on their affections was not dissimilar to that of Ronald Reagan, however baffling that bond between ordinarhy citizen and president might have seemed to his opponents." That made me think that, like Grant, we may reevaluate Reagan considerably in 150 years when everyone who served under him and loved him personally is dead and gone.

The past presidents, I've taken some major issues of the day and tried to guess how they would have solved them. I'm going to try something different with Grant - I'm goin to take the top five or six or so stories today from The New York Times and NPR on my Iphone, and try to see how Grant would have responded to them (knowing only what I know from this book and anything I can find in Wikipedia about Grant's policies).

Greek Leader Calls Off Referendum on Bailout Plan. Greece was a kingdom back in the 1870s. I'm not sure what our diplomatic relationship was with Greece way back then, but we probably didn't hold much sway over how they ruled. He did appoint Hamilton Fish, who is considered one of the best Secretary of States of all time. Grant was interested in annexing the Dominican Republic, and tussled with Spain and Britain. Still, Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in 1889 - Grant was dead by this time - about American interest in foreign affairs, particulary those outside our hemisphere: "Our relations with foreign nations today fill but a slight place in American politics and excite... a languid interest. We have separated ourselves so completely from the affairs of other people." Grant would be highly unlike to attend a G20 conference.

Many Alarms Rang Before MF Global Crashed. As Grant seemed to preside benignly over several financial scandals, and ultimately over one of the worst depressions in American history, I'm not sure our financial scandals and quandaries and scares today would elicit much response. He certainly vetoed a bill that would have increased circulation of greenbacks, which farmers and westerners were desperate for, because he thought U.S. credit would collapse.

Cuba to Allow Buying and Selling of Property, With Few Restrictions. Grant looked at Cuba with the hungry eye of a conqueror, and probably would have annexed the island back then. He certainly would be interfering there now. Well within the confines of the Monroe Doctrine.

Texas Senate Investigates Pay to Play Allegations. This story has to do with a Rick Perry scandal. See "benign" entry above.

Poor Inreasingly Cluster in Impoverished Areas. Grant seems pretty laissez-faire, when all is said and done, and I'm not sure he would use the government to help out the poor, although he did at least try to help freed slaves and Native Americans.

When all is said and done, though, I think Grant would be at home in the business oligarchy that's currently our federal government today. As would many of his corrupt cabinet members and officials. We're in a new Gilded Age.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The American Transcendentalists : Their Prose and Poetry edited by Perry Miller (1957)

I picked this out of our donations at work because it had such a cool cover. The book could have been someone's college textbook, only read just the once. It's only had a bit of use, and has that incredible old book smell that I love (but that some people hate - I just don't get that!). Inscribed on the inside: Marilyn (Marily?) McEvoy Walk (Walsh?), June 23, 1964 in old lady script.

I loved Emerson and Thoreau in college.

"A man is entitled to pure air, and to the air of good conversation in his bringing up, and not, as we or so many of us, to the poor-smell and musty chambers, cats and fools." Ralph Waldo Emerson, Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England. Amen, brother. Good conversation is everything. I don't know why the dig about cats, but too many damn fools, too many.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed (2011)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Andrew Johnson portrayed by Annette Gordon-Reed is a racist pig-headed son of a bitch, and who I am to question her theory? I hardly knew anything about the man coming into this book, other than he followed Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War, and that he was impeached - and I kind of forgot that until I was half way through the book. Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican from Pennsylvania, called him a "damned scoundrel" and he pretty much was. Gordon-Reed convincingly makes the case that many of Johnson's stupid racist decisions haunted us for a hundred years. Not even four years of having a dumbass as a president, and it wasn't until a hundred years and another Johnson later that the messes he assisted into creation were finally laid to rest. What will we say 100 years from now about our last two or three presidents? Gordon-Reed is a fine writer, crisp and clean, and her sketch of Andrew Johnson is well worth reading.

Doctor Dolittle's Zoo by Hugh Lofting (1925)

Like Doctor Dolittle's Post Office, I remember enjoying this one as a child, but found it slow and hard to read as an adult. The concept of the zoo run by the animals is fascinating, but it was essentially a bunch of stories loosely tied together by this concept. Not one of my favorites.

Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed (2011)

Thaddeus Stevens, Radical Republican representative from Pennsylvania, and total Andrew Johnson hater, called him "at heart a damned scoundrel." The Johnson portrayed by Gordon-Reed is a very unlikable, racist, opportunistic assholic politician of the lowest kind (and who I am to doubt her assessment? I knew next to nothing about Andrew Johnson except he succeeded Lincoln and was impeached, and even that fact I forgot until I read this biography). The 19th century was a high time for politicians and presidents, wasn't it? We have Pierce the weak, Buchanan the arrogant, Johnson the asshole... it's no wonder we went to war against ourselves. We couldn't find anyone good to elect. But lo and behold, we also elect our greatest president in the middle of all these bozos (I'm going to give Bozo a bad name here).

Poignant point: Johnson (who may or may not have a been a souse), was falling down drunk at his vice presidential inaugural. Secretary of State Seward and Secretary of the Navy Welles looked on blandly as Johnson stumbled embarrassingly through his speech; Secretary of War Stanton seemed petrified; Attorney General Speed closed his eyes; Postmaster General Wilson was flushed; Senator Sumner looked on with a "saturnine and sarcastic smile" (no lover of Johnson he either). Justice Samuel Nelson's "lower jar dropped in sheer horror." Lincoln "just looked terribly sad." Poor Lincoln. What'll he do? Surrounded by idiots, and a crazy wife - always.

To give Johnson a little slack, the time in which he served as president would have tried even a great man's soul, and we have no idea what would have become of Lincoln, whose popularity at the time waxed and waned as with all presidents. He certainly was the wrong man for the job, and Gordon-Reed convincingly argues that many of his racist decisions haunted the United States for a century. But attitudes weren't going to instantly change; slavery wasn't going to just be swept under the rug. And government wasn't the tool it would later become under a Roosevelt or future Johnson; a whole generation of laissez-faire Democrats in power who did everything they could to lessen the power of the federal government in favor of the states set a tone that would have been difficult to change. Johnson might have been more overtly racist than his Democratic predecessors, but I don't think he was any more or any less in favor of a strong federal government.

He was still an asshole though. What a totally unpleasant man.

His twentieth century biographer Hans Trefousse, said "Johnson was a child of his time, but he failed to grow with it." That's a sad statement, and could be used to describe so many politicians today who can't seem to adapt to a changing world.

If Andrew Johnson was picked up and plopped down in Washington DC 2011, what would he do?

1. Economic crisis. Andrew Johnson was pretty much a chameleon, perhaps the first flip flopper. He did have a passion for helping the little man (as long as he was white). But he was also cheap, and hated spending federal money on anything. Bailing out banks would probably have been out, but figuring out ways to help poor whites would have probably been something he would have at least paid lip service too.

2. Tea Party. You have to give him this - he played both side of the fence pretty damn well. He's a Democrat, who turns against his party, and ends up being elected with a Republican, and then when he becomes president, turns against the Republicans and becomes beloved by (racist) Democrats. I think he would have slipped right into the ranks of the Tea Party - and then turned around and protested with the 99%ers. The man was like the serpent in the garden.

3. Health care. Again, hated spending money but loved poor white people. A rabble rouser when it came to the rights of poor whites. Would probably have done something, but who knows what.

4. Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq. I have no idea, but he did buy Alaska (or at least his Secretary of State bought Alaska) and strutted about on the Mexican border trying to force the French out (they eventually left).

5. Immigration. Definitely would have been against any kind of brown people coming over the border taking jobs from white people

6. Divided government. He would have been right at home in our current mess, and not in a good way. He definitely thrived in the chaos of a divided country and government.

7. Climate change. Wouldn't have spent federal money on this, unless in some way it could help him personally or help poor whites.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Abraham Lincoln by George McGovern (2009)

Abraham Lincoln (The American Presidents, #16)Abraham Lincoln by George S. McGovern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's been some really great stuff written about Abraham Lincoln since 1865 - masterful works of history and moving poetry, music and stage and film and you wouldn't think we'd need yet another book. It's 150 years later, and I'm glad to have read this. We still have much to learn from Lincoln. As McGovern points out, his writing alone is probably the best of all of our presidents. He was a brilliant mover of men, an adept maker of war who valued peace, a flexible politician who knew when to stand firm and when to skedaddle (move sideways is more like it). Lincoln is a man of all parties, and liberals and conservatives both can claim him - but I think McGovern does a fine job of claiming him for the left. Hater of slavery, beginner of civil rights, the farmer's friend, a president who believed in the Union and that the federal government was there to help people (or at least help people help themselves). McGovern's Lincoln is a Democrat, that's for sure. My only wish is that McGovern could have infused a bit more of his own personal opinions into the book, but that aside, this is a pretty good look at Lincoln's tics and tricks.

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Abraham Lincoln by George McGovern (2009)

I was a little disappointed by this one. I certainly wasn't looking for or expecting a complete biography of Lincoln, or even a biographical sketch. I guess what I expected was a essay about Lincoln infused with the ideas George McGovern. I think there are two few "injections of McGovern." I can really think of only one example where McGovern seems to be speaking for both himself and Lincoln, when he talks about how Lincoln used the presidency to expand the role of the federal government. "Government would go on to play a much more significant role in the lives of average Americans" after the war. That's certainly a Democratic idea and ideal, although it's also true.

The book is a chronological look at Lincoln or his administration. After two chapters outlining his early life and rise to power ("Humble Beginnings" and "The Making of a Stateman"), McGovern divides the book into three "Lincoln and..." chapters: Lincoln and the Union, Lincoln and Emancipation, and Licoln and Total War. Politics in Wartime (chapter 6) was a foray into the political genius of Abraham Lincoln; Rising Above the Fray: Second Term was a look at what was and what could have been; Victory and Death was a really sad chapter on Lincoln's assassination.

McGovern writes that Lincoln's American Dream was "that all men and women should have equal opportunity to improve their lot." Lincoln certainly changed his mind about African Americans over the years, and while I don't think in any way could his opinions be called modern, they did evolve postively. I would like to think that if Lincoln were president today, he would evolve positively over such hot button issues as marriage equality.

Because Lincoln was a war president - one of the only soley war presidents we have - his domestic achievements are not as evident. But McGovern's Lincoln isn't a tea partier (unlike his immediate two predecessors). He used government to build railroads and passed the homestead act, started the draft and instituted an income tax. He certainly broadened the powers of the presidency both in Washington and federally. States rights vanished (to rise again in 2010). (I think Lincoln may be one of those presidents that everyone claims as their own, liberal or conservative; who wants to be against Lincoln?).

What would Lincoln do?

1. Economic crisis. As a Whig, he believed that government played a role in helping the economy along; he was for a nationalized modern banking system. I'm not sure what he would have done, but it wouldn't have been sitting back and doing nothing.

2. Tea Party. I think most of what the Tea Party stands for - smaller government, no taxes, anti-immigration -- seems to be polar opposite of the ideals of Abraham Lincoln.

3. Health care. Again, his view that government was a tool to solve problems would probably extend to the health care debate.

4. Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq. This is an unfair question to pose to 19th century presidents before McKinley. The United States wasn't interested in anything outside of this hemisphere. But he must have appointed excellent ambassadors and diplomats, because France and England stayed out of the war.

5. Immigration. Let's quote Lincoln himself: As a nation, we begin by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it, "all men are created equal," except negroes. When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, "all men are created equal," except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.

6. Divided government. "A house divided against itself can not stand." But "with malice towards none and charity towards all." This great president with his team of rivals would have hated divided government but been a far better sweet-talker than our current president. I think he could have moved mountains instead of hills.

7. Climate change. Back to those Whig philosophies - use government to fix this problem (or government gives people the tools to fix the problem).

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Murder on the Appian Way by Steven Saylor (1996)

A Murder on the Appian Way (Roma Sub Rosa, #5)A Murder on the Appian Way by Steven Saylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like John Maddox Roberts, Steven Saylor often takes real mysteries or murders from Roman history and adds his own twists. The death of Clodius Pulcher takes center stage in this murder mystery, as Gordianus the Finder is hired by both Fulvia (wife of Clodius) and Pompey the Great to find out what exactly happened. This is definitely more of a political thriller rather than a traditional murder mystery - but there are several mysteries (both great and small) that Saylor explores. Who murdered Clodius Pulcher actually comes as somewhat of a surprise, although the explanation seems awfully sudden. However, it's not for the whodunnits that you read Steven Saylor - it's for the incredible attention to historical detail and knowledge. If occasionally it feels like a history lesson, at least its an interesting history lesson full of fascinating characters and a turbulent, interesting time period.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Robert E. Lee by Roy Blount, Jr. (2003)

I wish I could adequately describe or capture Roy Blount's style - subtle and droll but never glibly so. He takes his subject very seriously but also injects what I assume from listening to him on NRP's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me is his trademark gentle but pointed humor. Here's just one delightful example, talking about the ever complaining and mostly unpleasant sounding (for good reason though) Mary Lee and the Yankees taking over their house at Arlington. "Many of the Cold Harbor dead were buried in Mary Lee's front yard. That spring, George Meigs, an angry Georgian who had served under Lee before the war but had remained with the Union and become quartermaster general, had turned her old homeplace into a national cemetery. Those people." It's those little aside and humorous (or should I say Humorist) turns of phrase that makes this a delightful little book. Blount's asides and punctures of humor are carefully dropped here, there - and really everywhere - throughout the book, but they never get in the way. Robert E. Lee wasn't someone I knew a whole lot about - probably just about as much as everyone else. Blount's sketch of Lee seems more of an impressionist watercolor in the humorous sense - the closer in your get, the more the image vanishes. That seems to be Lee: from a broad vantage point, he appears on horseback, but as you delve a little deeper you start to lose sight of exactly who the man is. He didn't reveal much for historians to ponder about, but ponder they have done, and the Lee we think we know probably isn't Lee.

"Lee is the moral equivalent of Hitler's brilliant field marshall Erwin Rommel (who, however, turned against Hitler, as Lee never did against Jefferson Davis, who, to be sure, was no Hitler).

"The vexed question of the American citizenry's untrammeled right to bear arms may derive from..." the concern of 200 years of slave rebellions and the need to stay armed against your slaves rising up in the night and (justly) killing you.

I purposely read this Penguin sketch of Robert E. Lee after Buchanan and Pierce but before Lincoln. I've been wondering since I read the political stories of Pierce and Buchanan if the Civil War was inevitable - and more importantly, was emancipation contingent on the Civil War. Blount certainly remarks upon in. "Probably the United States could no longer bear slavery, and it took a cataclysm to wrench that institution out of the system."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, introduction by Jonathan Lethem (2002)

I started this back in July, and I read almost every story in the book, but somewhere around September I got bored and stopped. They all started to sound the same. I'll bet in the 1950s reading a Philip K. Dick short story in whatever publication - Amazing Stories or the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy or any of the other short story mags - I'll bet each one seemed like a gem. But there was plenty of time and space in between each story, some time to savor and anticipate - that was probably heaven. The stories ARE good - but in small doses. One big dose is too much.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber (2010)

I crossed the tracks and went right back. I love Sandra Dallas, and from the initial plot descriptions - and even the opening few pages - this could have been a read alike to Sandra Dallas for kids. But the characters soon flattened out, the plot went no where, the descriptions were dull, there was no sense of place or time. The spark just wasn't there.

James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker (2004)

James Buchanan (The American Presidents, #15)James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jean H. Baker carves out a convincing argument that the policies of James Buchanan were influenced by his extreme pro-southern attitudes (I'm going to call them crushes), and that it was this, not his dithering or aged mental faculties, which exacerbated the lead-up to the Civil War. The Buchanan that Baker (rightly) paints is a pompous, arrogant ass whose inflexible hate of the Republican Party and his love for southerners fostered a divided government that makes our current situation look like a game of Candyland. "Love" for southerners was most likely the love that dare not speak its name, although I think Baker misses the mark here when she discusses his homosexuality. I agree with her that in the 19th century, the concept of homosexuality as an identity didn't exist. And she's certainly not saying that sexual relationships between men did not exist. We obviously can't prove that Buchanan was someone who liked having sex with men. What happened between he and his "roommate" is up for speculation. Certainly other pols at the time were suspicious, at least of his masculinity, and even President Jackson made allusions to his sexuality (in a veiled way, mind you). But when Baker goes on to write: "The best speculation about the sexuality of the nonshaving Buchanan... is that he had little interest in sex." Whoa there! I think the best speculation to make is that he was probably homosexual but that we'll never actual know - not that he never had sex at all. We can't really know either for sure, but she discounts one (that he probably liked having sex with men) in favor of the other (which is more extreme, I think). Come on, I think we can speculate at least - we can't prove either.

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James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker (2004)

Franklin Pierce has a one-up on his successor James Buchanan. At least with Franklin Pierce, the reader or historian can argue that we have the hindsight of 160 years, while Pierce had to act (or most often not act) within the confines of the moment. I guess we should be able to say the same thing about James Buchanan, if only he weren't such an unlikable, stiff, arrogant, stupid, proud, peacockish buffoon. Jean H. Baker carefully carves out an argument that Buchanan was effective as a pro-southern president who espoused a love for the Union while at the same time actively working for the favor of the secession. She goes so far as to say that Buchanan came as close to treason as any president in our history, skating right up to the line (and in actuality probably skating over the line, but some documents and papers have conveniently disappeared). The more I read her short sketch of "Old Buck" the more I disliked him. He was the first president to use the office more as an actor and less as an administrator of the will of Congress - but only when he wanted to. When it came to slavery or southern issues, he turned up his hands and said "While I want to do something, the Constitution says I can't." Strict constitutional constructionists are like Bible fundamentalists - they seem to have the magical ability to ignore or adapt parts of the document while stressing the rock solid legality of other parts. Funny how that works.

I kept wondering "What if." What if Buchanan hadn't been a pro-southern strict constructionist but had been able to prevent secession? (Baker herself wonders what would have happened if Stephen Douglas had been elected president in place of Buchanan). Did we need the Civil War in order to free the slaves, or would it have happened anyway? What would the United States have looked like without a defeated South? (Alternative historical fiction is built on these questions).

Let's play the same game we played with Franklin Pierce: if James Buchanan were faced with some of the same challenges that Barack Obama, what would he do?

1. Economic crisis. James Buchanan did have an economic crisis happen on his watch, the Panic of 1857. As Baker points out, "No one expected the president to do much about the economy in these years before government intervention became acceptable practice. And indeed, Buchanan did nothing... announcing in his first annual message that the government was 'without the power to extend relief.'" I'm sure Barack Obama is wishing about right now that he had the same abilities of James Buchanan to do nothing. Buchanan wanted more gold rather than paper money on the market, and -- amazingly for us in these Keynsian times - no federal projects. Baker wryly pointed out "As with many American presidents who promise frugality, during his administration expenses grew by... about 15 percent... Buchanan left Lincoln a deficit."

2. The rise of the Tea Party Movement - and maybe I should now add the 99% Movement as well (We'll see where that one goes though). Franklin Pierce sounded more like a Tea Partier than James Buchanan, but Old Buck still had plenty of Tea Party sentiments. I think he would have felt right at home in the Tea Party.

3. Health Care. This was the president who vetoes the Homestead Act and funding for education. I don't think he would have approved of nationalized health care. That's what charities were for.

4. Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq. Buchanan was an interventionist, somewhat unlike his predecessor. He sent troops to Paraguay and wanted to buy or invade Cuba. He postured against England and Mexico. The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny played a major role in his foreign policy decision-making, which would have hampered him now. Still, I think he would have enthusiastically invaded Iraq and Afghanistan (although supporting Israel might be a different story). It's funny how presidents who fail domestically always taut their foreign policy expertise; Buchanan not only proved this rule, he invented it.

5. Immigration. As a legislator, Buchanan wanted to make the process longer to become a citizen and only give native born citizens voting rights. I think he would maybe have responded to Mexican illegal immigration by annexing Mexico.

6. Divided government. Buchanan certainly proved he could not govern effectively with divided government. He was extremely partisan, much more so than any of our modern presidents, who are often forced by public opinion (something that really didn't exist back then) to at least make a show of compromise. He hated and feared Republicans and completely refused to work with them, to the detriment of the country.

7. Climate change. His fiscal policies - or lack of them - and his strict reading of the Constitution (when it suited him) would have tied his hands on climate change.

Essentially, Buchanan was a pompous, arrogant ass who essentially caused the Civil War.

One quibble I had with Baker was about Buchanan's homosexuality. Understandably, no one identified as "gay" or even "homosexual" in that early part of the 19th century. "Men at that time did not have sexual identities" which may or may not have been a true statement - sexual identities weren't just in the closet, they were thrown into the well out back and probably only furtively brought out. But there were boy prostitutes, and places you could go to pick up men, even back then, so even if men didn't identify as gay, they certainly had sex with one another. Buchanan wasn't gay or homosexual in our modern sense. But where there's smoke, there's fire. He lived with the same man for many years, a fellow legislator from the south, and I think his extreme pro-southern attitudes can be possibly attributed to his numerous crushes on southern men. I guess this could have been a "bromance" but I think the likely speculation is that Buchanan was homosexual. Certainly other politicians were disparaging about Buchanan's sexuality, including President Jackson - but interestingly wasn't ostracized for it; it didn't effect his career. I agree with Baker that "Buchanan may have been too ambitious to jeopardize his career in this way." But she goes on to write: "The best speculation about the sexuality of the nonshaving Buchanan... is that he had little interest in sex." Whoa there! I think the best speculation to make is that he was probably homosexual but that we'll never actual know - not that he never had sex at all!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

City of Dreams: A Novel of Niew Amsterdam and Early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling (2001)

City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early ManhattanCity of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

New York felt more like a painted backdrop in front of which a clan of doctors in colonial New York procreated, fought, procreated some more, fought some more, plotted (to further the plot), feuded (for unfathomable reasons), cut people open, vaccinated, procreated some more (graphically), and just plain acted like pieces of trash towards one another. The only line missing was "Which one of you bitches is my mother?" The pot boileth over, as did my patience.

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City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam by Beverly Swerling (2001)

I think this was a potboiler disguised as an epic piece of historical fiction. A family tree of doctors spreads up and through the history of old New York, during which they screw and betray one another, and hate each other, and plot against each other, and the only reason they didn't wrestle around and throw each other into the swimming pool of one or the other's mansion is because they had neither. Nieuw Amsterdam felt more like a painted backdrop - it didn't ever really feel genuine. The pot boiled over again and again, particularly with the sex scenes (which frankly, I didn't really want to read). This would make a great soap but doesn't make a very interesting piece of epic historical fiction. This was no Michener. I did keep wondering if the characters from Edward Rutherfurd's New York ever ran into Beverly Swerling's characters. Quite frankly, Rutherfurd's New York characters - and novel - kicks Swerling's characters' ass.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt (2010)

Franklin Pierce (The American Presidents, #14)Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Holt does an admirable job of exploring the failures (I'm not sure if there were any successes - I certainly don't remember any from the book) of the Pierce presidency. There's actually not a whole lot to say about what Pierce did do during his one term in office, but it sounds like he basically sat back and did mostly nothing. At least some presidents dither and worry - Pierce seemed to just sit. He makes Calvin Coolidge seem like a mover and shaker, that's for sure. Nero at least fiddled while Rome burned. Pierce did a whole lot of nothing. He was a mostly forgettable legislator. If only he were as forgettable a president - he is memorable, but for his proclivity to do nothing. His post presidency, when he could have built a legacy (Carter, anyone?) he spent drinking like a fish. Franklin Pierce will (hopefully always) be the example of what NOT to do as president. Holt made his material as interesting as he could. As Julie Andrews sang: "Nothing comes from nothing." Actually, something did come from nothing: the Civil War. The 1860s say "thanks."

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Franklin Pierce by Michael F. Holt (2010)

I've gone back in time a considerable way in my quest to read The American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. I'm going to read Pierce through Ulysses S. Grant, with a detour into Robert E. Lee (and the Penguin Lives series) along the way. This is the 160th to 150th anniversary of many of the events described in the book. Michael Holt, the author, is a professor at the University of Virginia, and one web site I read about him said his main interest was antebellum political parties. That's the tack he takes with Franklin Pierce. Holt points out that almost all writers of presidential history rank Pierce at the very bottom of the barrel, rotting along down there with Nixon, Buchanan (he's next for me) and Harding. And most authors blame Pierce because "personal mistakes in judgment and a lack of farsighted statesmanship... Others portray Pierce, for all his amiability, as a fundamentally weak man who craved the approval of his peers and who deferred to stronger personalities in his cabinet and party." (many also blame Pierce's alcoholism, but his hard drinking was more of a problem at the end of his life than during his presidency). Holt showed that all three played a major part in the fall of the Pierce presidency. He also makes a good case for Pierce's desire to keep the splintering Democratic Party from completely falling apart to the detriment of keeping the country together. He was certainly in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, but his leadership of the country during this crucial time certainly led the USA down the road to Civil War.

Pierce sounds a bit spoiled to me. He was definitely a political wunderkind, and only JFK has been elected at a younger age (Pierce was 48, Kennedy was 43). He was a strict constructionist, weak executive branch, states' rights Democrat (which sounds more like a Republican to me - how the times have changed). With so much distance between the time of Pierce and now, I think we forget how sectionalized the country was before (and even after) the Civil War. The South is still distinct, but in the antebellum period it was distinct and distinctly politically powerful. The South still votes in a block for the most part, but back then it really was another country, even before they seceded. The executive branch was weak; Congress was all powerful, and Southerners held sway in the Legislative and Judicial branches of government, in the Democratic Party and other parties, and definitely had Pierce's ear and heart. In one sentence, Holt describes Pierce as taking a public stand (over Kansas - Nebraska) that "seemed overtly prosouthern." Even 160 years later, Pierce's actions don't just "seem" prosouthern - they read as prosouthern and I would say are prosouthern. This may have been an attitude he held all along, but more likely as his term progressed his attitudes changed. He comes across as very benign - the country was certainly heading towards war (although no one knew it then), and Bleeding Kansas (the opening salvos of the Civil War) had started under Pierce's watch. His reactions seem almost nonexistent; in Holt's narrative, Pierce seems like an observer, neither actor or reactor. That's certainly probably the main case against Pierce - when he could have done or said something that averted the war, he did not. To give Pierce a bit of credit - no one knew a war was coming (although certainly many probably suspected it), the bully pulpit presidency was a long time coming (Teddy Roosevelt wasn't even born yet), and Pierce was hampered by his own ideology (party over country, legislative over executive, certain conservative action over liberal action). There weren't many alternatives to Pierce. The Whigs were in the process of falling apart; the Know Nothing Party (the party was so secretive that if asked about themselves, members "knew nothing" ala Sergeant Schultz). was strong, but sectional differences splintered that party as well. "General Apathy is the strongest candidate out there" Holt quotes; this would remain the lowest turnout among voters until the 1920s). The slate that year was actually kind of interesting -- including former president Millard Fillmore (Who knew that Millard Fillmore was actually sort of interesting and certainly popular; I'm definitely headed in that direction next), war hero Winfield Scott, and Senator Daniel Webster. The Democrats were able to stand together more than the other gradually eroding parties, and Pierce was the man of the hour. For about an hour, and then everything certainly starting falling apart.

Poor Pierce. A doomed Presidency, the party turned against him and refused to renominate him, turning to James Buchanan instead (another rotten apple at the bottom of the barrel). He was a good sport about it, and still supported the Democrats. As the country started to fall apart, he said some things about how important the Union was, but it didn't seem like he did a whole bunch to keep the country united. His wife was dying at that time, and his drinking had hit a new high. He asked Jefferson Davis to run for president, and predicted the north would also splinter into sectionalized violence once the South seceded. He continued to be more of a Democrat than an American, and was "dismayed" at the breakup of the Democratic Party. There wasn't probably a whole lot Pierce or anyone else could have done at that point to prevent the South from breaking away and from the Civil War starting.

I want to play a game called What Would Pierce Do (WWPD). If we had a time machine, and took it back to 1852, and we picked up Franklin Pierce and brought him to 2008-2011, and then took Barack Obama back to 1852 - WWPD as a 21st Century President? How would he have handled the challenges of the last few years? Here are some challenges Barack Obama has faced, and how I think Pierce would have handled them.

1. Economic Crisis and Fiscal Crisis. Franklin Pierce would not support any kind of government bail out, that's for sure. He was a "strict constructionist" and didn't believe the Constitution allowed any kind of appropriations from the federal government. He vetoed bills for appropriating public works. Actually, the United States was doing really well economically during Pierce's single term in office, but that was probably not due to anything he said or did.

2. Rise of the Tea Party. Democrat Franklin Pierce governed more like a tea partier than most Republicans are even able to think about doing today.

3. Health Care Debate. Again, the strict constructionist Pierce would have been solidly on the side of those espousing anti-national health care views. If slavery was the issue of the 1850s, maybe health care is the similar issue of now. Pierce believed slavery was allowable and defensible because the Constitution said so. The Constitution makes no mention of health care, but does give states various rights over the federal government; I think Pierce would have thrown health care back at the states for them to take care of.

4. The Middle East. Entangling alliances between the United States and foreign countries were a big no-no. Franklin PIerce would have left the Middle East alone as a European problem to solve. I imagine brown people rising up against their government during the Arab Spring would have given him the willies. The problems of Israel would first all make no sense to him, and secondly those pesky entanglements would have prevented him from making any sort of move to help or hinder Israel. The Middle East, you're on your own.

5. Immigration. That whole "brown people" thing would have probably kept Pierce firmly on the side of the tea party and anti-immigration folks. Plus, he probably wasn't a huge fan of Mexicans, having been a general in the Mexican-American War. He was for fiddling around with other governments in our hemisphere and supported the whole Manifest Destiny thing (for example, hinting at wanting to buy Cuba), so I think he would have been actively involved in the Mexican government, and maybe even trying to buy Mexico or Canada. Or invading Cuba.

6. Divided government. Franklin Pierce was completely ineffectual during the divided government - and divided country - of the 1850s, and I think he would have been equally "at home" with the divided government of today. Party before country seemed to be his motto, which to me again sounds more Republican than Democrat.

7. Iraq and Afghanistan. See Middle East.

8. Climate and environment. Once again, the Constitution isn't very specific about preservation of our natural resources or global warming, and I think Pierce would have mostly ignored the problems. I'm not sure FEMA would exist under a Pierce administration.

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