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.

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