Monday, April 30, 2012

Last Seen in Massilia by Steven Saylor (2000)

You have to say one thing for Steven Saylor, his historical accuracy seems pretty spot on.  You always feel like you are in ancient Rome, battling with Caesar.  Sometimes it feels like the mystery is overshadowed by the bigger historical picture, in this particular case the siege of Massilia (modern Marseilles) by Caesar's forces.  But I have to say, just when I sort of thought "What a third rate mystery, I already have this one figured out" -- BAM - Steven Saylor suckerpunches you with a surprise twist that made me cry out loud. Maybe not the best in this series, but still great fun.

Malafrena by Ursula K. Le Guin (1979)

Okay, I bought this book from a used book store for $1.25 at least twenty years ago.  I had vague memories of reading it - I knew what it was about (a nonexistent European country during the 1840s), and I remember being enchanted by it.  After trying to re-read it, I'm not sure why I was enchanted, and I'm not even sure why I  finished the damn thing, or even read it all.  LeGuin's prose is elegant, but empty.  I read in a review that this could be compared to a Russian novel from the 19th century, which doesn't bode well in my mind for Russian novels.  I still have no idea what this is about; I gave up after a couple hundred pages.  Too many hard to pronounce meaningless place names and surnames dropped throughout the book, like spilled jewels, only they are crackerjack rings, shiny and pretty but not worth much.  After keeping this paperback book for 20 years, I'm dumping it in the Friends of the Library booksale.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Woodrow Wilson by H.W. Brands (2003)

An excellent addition to The American Presidents series that's almost completely about the administration of Woodrow Wilson, with very little about his early life, his early political life, or the electioneering that brought him to office.  When a man gets to be president during such a pivotal and interesting eight years like Woodrow Wilson's term of office, a shorter book can almost be completely devoted to those incredibly interesting events.  Brands is also a great writer, which certainly added spark to the book.  I still think Woodrow Wilson is kind of a racist weasel and inflexibly stubborn; Brands narrative didn't convince me otherwise, but I enjoyed this presidential ride more than some other Wilson biographies I've read (or attempted to read).

The chapters about Edith Wilson are particularly interesting, and I never quite realized how taken President Wilson was with her, to the point of perhaps ignoring some of his other duties.  I had read before that he was a man who needed to be surrounded by adoring women, and Edith Wilson fit that bill.  The final chapters of this book, which include his romance, are the best of the book, and once again Henry Cabot Lodge proves to be a delightful nemesis to read about.

Not quite as good as Louis Auchincloss's short biography of Wilson though.

Things have certainly changed since Wilson was president.  When he uttered - off the cuff, apparently - some of his most famous words prior to the U.S. entering World War I "There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.  there is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right," Brand writes." For once Wilson's words betrayed him."  The Lusitania had just been sunk, Americans were dead at the bottom of the sea, and people were pissed off and ready to fight.  "Wilson himself realized he had misspoken... to reporters he offered a disclaimer: "I was expressing a personal attitude, that was all.  I did not really have in mind any specific thing."  I'm not sure modern president are ever allowed to have "a personal attitude" that isn't polled to the ends of all that's pollable.

I think Brands is really masterful at small sentences and ideas that pack a punch.  "Wilson discovered -- in the way presidents typically do -- that power isn't nearly as threatening when wielded by oneself as when one's opponents hold it."  So true!

A poignant fact:  "Had Wilson died of the stroke that disabled him in October 1919, he would have died a hero, a martyr to the cause of world peace -- and in the glow of appreciation, the Senate might well have ratified the Versailles treaty."  This chapter, the last in the book, begins "Woodrow Wilson lived too long and then died too soon."  If he'd lived longer, he would have been able to see some his great ideas come into fruition.  How sad.

My favorite sentence in the book, and what really made the book masterfully written:  Brands just detailed Woodrow Wilson's harrowing trip around the country to try to drum up support for the peace treaty and League of Nations, speaking to thousands of people in dozens of states in all weather, rain or shine, wet and dry and cold, literally killing himself to get the ideas of his vision of world peace across to Americans, in time before radio and television and internet when one could ONLY painstakingly talk in city after city after city to get a message delivered.  Brands quotes this line from the great speech at Pueblo, Colorado, September 26, 1919.  And then Brands next sentence, powerful masterful:  And with those words he suddenly fell silent.  Brands hammered the point many times throughout the book that the majesty and draw of Woodrow Wilson was his ability to weave words - he wasn't simply speechifying or bloviating.  He was an incredible speaker and debater and educator.  He was still a politician (but not, I think, a very good one).  Maybe he was the last great orator in the classic 19th century sense (Franklin Roosevelt was a great speaker though; JFK was a great speaker; Reagan was a great speaker; Clinton was a great speaker; Obama - sometimes a great speaker).  I don't know.  But not being able to use the power of his words - the bully pulpit? -- to bring the cows home in the form of the ratification of the treaty and US involvement in the League of Nations, that simply sentence - standing almost on its own - was really poignant.  I still don't like Wilson, but I respect him more now.

"Defense of League of Nations"
Pueblo, Co, September 26, 1919
Woodrow Wilson
Mr. Chairman and Fellow Countrymen:
It is with a great deal of genuine pleasure that I find myself in Pueblo...  I have crossed the continent this time of the homogeneity of this great people to whom we belong.  They come from many stocks, but they are all of one kind.  They come from many origins, but they are all shot through with the same principles, and desire the same righteous and honest things.  I have received a more inspiring impression this time of the public opinion of the United States than it was ever my privilege to receive before.
But there have been unpleasant impressions as well as pleasant impressions, my fellow citizens, as I have crossed the continent.  I have perceived more and more that men have been busy creating an absolutely false impression of what the treaty of peace and the Covenant of the League of Nations contain and mean.  Therefore, in order to clear away the mists, in order to remove the impressions, in order to check the falsehoods that have clustered around this great subject, I want to tell you a few very simple things about the treaty and the Covenant.
Do not think of this treaty of peace as merely a settlement with Germany.  It is that.  It is a very severe settlement with Germany, but there is not anything in it that she did not earn...  It is not merely a settlement with Germany; it is a readjustment of those great injustices which underlie the whole structure of European and Asiatic society.  This is only the first of several treaties.  They are all constructed upon the same plan.  The Austrian treaty follows the same lines.  The treaty with Hungary follows the same lines.  The treaty with Bulgaria follows the same lines.  The treaty with Turkey, when it is formulated, will follow the same lines.  What are those lines? They are based upon the purpose to see that every government dealt with in this great settlement is put in the hands of the people, and taken out of the hands of coteries and of sovereigns who had no right to rule over the people.  It is a people's treaty, that accomplishes by a great sweep of practical justice the liberation of men who never could have liberated themselves, and the power of the most powerful nations has been devoted not to their aggrandizement but to the liberation of people whom they could have put under their control if they had chosen to do so.
At the front of this great treaty is put the Covenant of the League of Nations.  It will also be at the front of the Austrian treaty and the Hungarian treaty and the Bulgarian treaty and the treaty with Turkey.  Every one of them will contain the Covenant of the League of Nations, because you cannot work any of them without the Covenant of the League of Nations.  Unless you get the united, concerted purpose and power of the great Governments of the world behind this settlement, it will fall down like a house of cards.  There is only one power to put behind the liberation of mankind, and that is the power of mankind.  It is the power of the united moral forces of the world, and in the Covenant of the League of Nations the moral forces of the world are mobilized.  For what purpose? Reflect, my fellow citizens, that the membership of this great League is going to include all the great fighting nations of the world, as well as the weak ones.  It is not for the present going to include Germany, but for the time being Germany is not a great fighting country.  All the nations that have power that can be mobilized are going to be members of this League, including the United States.  And what do they unite for? They enter into a solemn promise to one another that they will never use their power against one another for aggression; that they never will impair the territorial integrity of a neighbor; that they never will interfere with the political independence of a neighbor; that they will abide by the principle that great populations are entitled to determine their own destiny, and that they will not interfere with that destiny; and that no matter what differences arise amongst them, they will never resort to war without first having done one or other of two things--either submitted the matter of controversy to arbitration, in which case they agree to abide by the result without question, or submitted it to the consideration of the council of the League of Nations, laying before that council all the documents, all the facts, agreeing that the council can publish the documents and the facts to the whole world, agreeing that there shall be six months allowed for the mature consideration of those facts by the council, and agreeing that at the expiration of the six months, even if they are not then ready to accept the advice of the council with regard to the settlement of the dispute, they will still not go to war for another three months.  In other words, they consent, no matter what happens, to submit every matter of difference between them to the judgment of mankind, and just so certainly as they do that, my fellow citizens, war will be in the far background, war will be pushed out of that foreground of terror in which it has kept the world for generation after generation, and men will know that there will be a calm time of deliberate counsel.  The most dangerous thing for a bad cause is to expose it to the opinion of the world.  The most certain way that you can prove that a man is mistaken is by letting all his neighbors know what he thinks, by letting all his neighbors discuss what he thinks, and if he is in the wrong you will notice that he will stay at home, he will not walk on the street.  He will be afraid of the eyes of his neighbors.  He will be afraid of their judgment of his character.  He will know that his cause is lost unless he can sustain it by the arguments of right and of justice.  The same law that applies to individuals applies to nations.
But, you say, "We have heard that we might be at a disadvantage in the League of Nations." Well, whoever told you that either was deliberately falsifying or he had not read the Covenant of the League of Nations...  When you come to the heart of the Covenant, my fellow citizens, you will find it in Article X, and I am very much interested to know that the other things have been blown away like bubbles.  There is nothing in the other contentions with regard to the League of Nations, but there is something in Article X that you ought to realize and ought to accept or reject.  Article X is the heart of the whole matter.  What is Article X? I never am certain that I can from memory give a literal repetition of its language, but I am sure that I can give an exact interpretation of its meaning.  Article X provides that every member of the League covenants to respect and preserve the territorial integrity and existing political independence of every other member of the League as against external aggression...  Following Article X is Article XI, which makes it the right of any member of the League at any time to call attention to anything, anywhere, that is likely to disturb the peace of the world or the good understanding between nations upon which the peace of the world depends.  I want to give you an illustration of what that would mean.
You have heard a great deal--something that was true and a great deal that was false--about that provision of the treaty which hands over to Japan the rights which Germany enjoyed in the Province of Shantung in China.  In the first place, Germany did not enjoy any rights there that other nations had not already claimed.  For my part, my judgment, my moral judgment, is against the whole set of concessions.  They were all of them unjust to China, they ought never to have been exacted, they were all exacted by duress, from a great body of thoughtful and ancient and helpless people.  There never was any right in any of them.  Thank God, America never asked for any, never dreamed of asking for any.  But when Germany got this concession in 1898, the Government of the United States made no protest whatever.  That was not because the Government of the United States was not in the hands of high-minded and conscientious men.  It was.  William McKinley was President and John Hay was Secretary of State--as safe hands to leave the honor of the United States in as any that you can cite.  They made no protest because the state of international law at that time was that it was none of their business unless they could show that the interests of the United States were affected, and the only thing that they could show with regard to the interests of the United States was that Germany might close the doors of Shantung Province against the trade of the United States.  They, therefore, demanded, and obtained, promises that we could continue to sell merchandise in Shantung.  Immediately following that concession to Germany, there was a concession to Russia of the same sort, of Port Arthur, and Port Arthur was handed over subsequently to Japan...  Now, read Articles X and XI.  You will see that international law is revolutionized by putting morals into it.  Article X says that no member of the League, and that includes all these nations that have demanded these things unjustly of China, shall impair the territorial integrity or the political independence of any other member of the League.  China is going to be a member of the League.  Article XI says that any member of the League can call attention to anything that is likely to disturb the peace of the world or the good understanding between nations, and China is, for the first time in the history of mankind, afforded a standing before the jury of the world.  I, for my part, have a profound sympathy for China, and I am proud to have taken part in an arrangement which promises the protection of the world to the rights of China.  The whole atmosphere of the world is changed by a thing like that, my fellow citizens.  The whole international practice of the world is revolutionized.
Article X strikes at the taproot of war.  Article X is a statement that the very things that have always been sought in imperialistic wars are henceforth forgone by every ambitious nation in the world.  I would have felt very lonely, my fellow countrymen, and I would have felt very much disturbed if, sitting at the peace table in Paris, I had supposed that I was expounding my own ideas.  Whether you believe it or not, I know the relative size of my own ideas; I know how they stand related in bulk and proportion to the moral judgments of my fellow countrymen, and proposed nothing whatever at the peace table at Paris that I had not sufficiently certain knowledge embodied the moral judgment of the citizens of the United States...  What of our pledges to the men that lie dead in France? We said that they went over there not to prove the prowess of America or her readiness for another war, but to see to it that there never was such a war again.  It always seems to make it difficult for me to say anything, my fellow citizens, when I think of my clients in this case.  My clients are the children; my clients are the next generation.  They do not know what promises and bonds I undertook when I ordered the armies of the United States to the soil of France, but I know, and I intend to redeem my pledges to the children; they shall not be sent upon a similar errand.
Again and again, my fellow citizens, mothers who lost their sons in France have come to me and, taking my hand, have shed tears upon it not only, but they have added, "God bless you, Mr. President!" Why, my fellow citizens, should they pray God to bless me? I advised the Congress of the United States to create the situation that led to the death of their sons.  I ordered their sons overseas.  I consented to their sons being put in the most difficult parts of the battle line, where death was certain, as in the impenetrable difficulties of the forest of Argonne.  Why should they weep upon my hand and call down the blessings of God upon me? Because they believe that their boys died for something that vastly transcends any of the immediate and palpable objects of the war.  They believe, and they rightly believe, that their sons saved the liberty of the world.  They believe that wrapped up with the liberty of the world is the continuous protection of that liberty by the concerted powers of all civilized people.  They believe that this sacrifice was made in order that other sons should not be called upon for a similar gift--the gift of life, the gift of all that died--and if we did not see this thing through, if we fulfilled the dearest present wish of Germany, and now dissociated ourselves from those alongside whom we fought in the war, would not something of the halo go away from the gun over the mantelpiece, or the sword? Would not the old uniform lose something of its significance? These men were crusaders.  They were not going forth to prove the might of the United States.  They were going forth to prove the might of justice and right, and all the world accepted them as crusaders, and their transcendent achievement has made all the world believe in America as it believes in no other nation organized in the modern world.
There seems to me to stand between us and the rejection or qualification of this treaty the serried ranks of those boys in khaki, not only these boys who came home, but those dear ghosts that still deploy upon the fields of France.
My friends, on last Decoration Day, I went to a beautiful hillside near Paris where was located the cemetery of Suresnes, a cemetery given over to the burial of the American dead.  Behind me on the slopes was rank upon rank of living American soldiers, and lying before me upon the levels of the plain was rank upon rank of departed American soldiers.  Right by the side of the stand where I spoke there was a little group of French women who had adopted those graves, had made themselves mothers of those dear ghosts by putting flowers every day upon those graves, taking them as their own sons, their own beloved, because they had died in the same cause--France was free and the world was free because America had come! I wish some men in public life who are now opposing the settlement for which these men died could visit such a spot as that.  I wish that the thought that comes out of those graves could penetrate their consciousness.  I wish that they could feel the moral obligation that rests upon us not to go back on those boys, but to see the thing through, to see it through to the end and make good their redemption of the world.  For nothing less depends upon this decision, nothing less than the liberation and salvation of the world.
You will say, "Is the League an absolute guarantee against war?" No; I do not know any absolute guarantee against the errors of human judgment or the violence of human passion, but I tell you this: With a cooling space of nine months for human passion, not much of it will keep hot.
I had a couple of friends who were in the habit of losing their tempers, and when they lost their tempers they were in the habit of using very unparliamentary language.  Some of their friends induced them to make a promise that they never would swear inside the town limits.  When the impulse next came upon them, they took a streetcar to go out of town to swear, and by the time they got out of town, they did not want to swear.  They came back convinced that they were just what they were, a couple of unspeakable fools, and the habit of getting angry and of swearing suffered great inroads upon it by that experience.
Now, illustrating the great by the small, that is true of the passions of nations.  It is true of the passions of men however you combine them.  Give them space to cool off.  I ask you this: If it is not an absolute insurance against war, do you want no insurance at all? Do you want nothing? Do you want not only no probability that war will not recur, but the probability that it will recur? The arrangements of justice do not stand of themselves, my fellow citizens.  The arrangements of this treaty are just, but they need the support of the combined power of the great nations of the world.  And they will have that support.  Now that the mists of this great question have cleared away, I believe that men will see the truth, eye to eye and face to face.  There is one thing that the American people always rise to and extend their hand to, and that is the truth of justice, and of liberty, and of peace.  We have accepted that truth and we are going to be led by it, and it is going to lead us, and through us the world, out into pastures of quietness and peace such as the world never dreamed of before.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann (2011)

This was pretty good, but felt a little more glommed together and uneven than 1491.  I understood the premise, but the narrative arc sometimes diverted a bit.  The story of the fall of the Aztecs was pretty damn interesting though, like the very best kind of soap opera or historical drama - they need to make a movie!

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

This is my second time to read The Hunger Games - the first was when it came out four years ago.  I remembered loving the book. I didn't remember a whole lot of specifics about why I loved the book, and this second reading reminded  me of just how good it is.  Great voice (Katniss's first person), incredible plotting, great "world building", terrific character building.  Gory - but not TOO gory - death scenes.  The first time, I thought it was making dark comment on reality television, its Romans watching the Christians getting eaten by lions voyeurism, and how reality tv shows like Jersey Shore (was that even OUT then?) have a tendency to devour the young "real" people taking part in gruesomely public ways.  I still think this is true.  The metaphor for high school also rings true, even if Suzanne Collins has said this wasn't a reason for writing the book.

But when Catching Fire came out, I shied away.  The Hunger Games was such a good book, why did it need a sequel?  Why couldn't we just be left hanging to figure out for ourselves would happen next, to make up our own stories?  I hate the last few pages of The Hunger Games too, because it went from being a totally kick ass, dark, interesting book to a soap opera, in the span of a few pages that felt sort of tacked on.  I'm certainly not going to decry the soap - I love Downtown Abbey, which is one big soapy scene after another.  But this particular bit of soap opera felt cheap, almost a Bobby in the shower type of cliffhanger. Part of the book ends with rebellion (and in fact some of the scariest scenes take place after the rebellious end to the Hunger Games, when the real games begin).  But Collins wasn't going to rebel against type here - a Young Adult novel needs a  love story in order to sell, and that's what she gave us.  That kept me from reading Catching Fire  - the adolescence angst and love triangle wasn't nearly as interesting, and I was afraid that's what the series would devolve into.  I've been promised that if I just stick to the end and Mockingjay that I won't be disappointed.  I'm not sure I have the patience to do so.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Haunted Looking Glass Ghost Stories chosen and illustrated by Edward Gorey (1959)

I'm not sure how much I really like ghost stories.  Maybe they need to be read during Halloween or the dead of night to really appreciate them; maybe I'm just not innocent enough anymore to appreciate magic and the unexpected, monsters and fantasy.  Overall, I found this collection of ghost stories to be quite well written and good, but I didn't find them particularly scary which was a little disappointing.  Ghosts aren't all that scary anymore. 

Good writers are good writers though, regardless of the kind of story, and that's really proven by several of these stories.

E. Nesbit's Man-Size In Marble was really good; it started with Nesbit's quirky, humorous style, with little asides (C.S. Lewis and Diana Wynne Jones are clearly devotees of Nesbit's style) - but then turns into this complete horror story. 

Bram Stoker's The Judge's House was another story (really good one) that started as one kind of story, with a really likable, sympathetic protagonist.  That giant devil rat was damn creepy.

Charles Dickens's The Sigmalman made me want to read more Dickens.

I probably hadn't read The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs since high school (which is probably true for everyone) and was pleasantly surprised at how good it was!  I guess that a story that almost every English speaker has read at one time or antoher in their education, that's entered into our public conscious so much that it can be parodies multiple times, must be good!

I liked The Shadow of a Shade by Tom Hood as well, although it had a predictable ending. 

That was something I didn't like about almost all of the stories - the ending was either predictable or there was some sudden plot twist that led to the ending.  Most of these stories were very subtle - except the ones above that I really liked.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Julia Child by Laura Shapiro (2007)

An exceptionally well written short biography!  Julia Child doesn't have some sort of hidden side or deep, dark secrets; this short book essentially had the same story as the autobiography I read, as well as Julie and Julia the movie (which I loved).  Julia Child was one cool chick, and as I merrily read along, and more and more nostalgically longed to be part of her inner circle, a recipient of her letters, part of the smart, witty, intelligent group to which she belonged.  What a fascinating woman, I thought; "I bet I'd fit right into her little group, and have a gay old time..."  Until I got to the bit about her dislike of all things gay, at least for most of her life.  That chilled me somewhat on Julia Child.  I know, I know, she had the prejudice of her time; she had gay friends, but only a certain type of gay (never the flaming fairies).  She used words like "fag" like other people in her circle did.  But still, it made me a little sad to find that out.  I would most definitely not have been one of Julia's friends, would not have been part of her inner circle, would have been given the cold shoulder and talked about nastily.  Too bad.  I still like Julia Child; she made up for some of this nastiness after the 80s AIDS crisis when friends started to die (she had SOME gay friends, but was still a bigot).  It's funny because she was an avowed atheist; it wasn't a religious thing.  She thought there were definite sex roles; men were men and women were women, and if men acted like women in any way, that made them less in her eyes.  And being gay was acting like a woman, for the most part.  You've come a long way, baby.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

William McKinley by Kevin Phillips (2003)

What a fantastic little book.  More of a political discourse than a biographical sketch, Phillips clearly makes the case that William McKinley was one of our greater presidents and gets the shaft from historians and the public.  McKinley is certainly a modern president, who started campaigning and organizing in a modern way. Phillips argues that Theodore Roosevelt's presidential success was a direct result of McKinley, and if McKinley had lived he would have accomplished what Roosevelt eventually did. Of course, Roosevelt knew how to milk publicity and was far better in the public eye than McKinley, although Phillips reminds us that McKinley was quite beloved in his day.  Just perhaps not as interesting as Roosevelt.

Goodreads Review

William McKinley (The American Presidents, #25)William McKinley by Kevin Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Phillips validates an argument that in the big history book, William McKinley has wrongly been relegated to barely a footnote and deserves more credit than he's ever been given as a modern politician, world statesman, and economist.  For want of a nail, the horse was lost - for want of McKinley, the far more publicity friendly and gargantuan Theodore Roosevelt would have been that footnote.  The Roosevelt administration was a continuation of what McKinley had begun to wrought.  Phillips spent some very interesting chapters outlining why McKinley deserves more praise; the chapter on his electioneering prowess made him sound positively modern.  He might have been astonished at Ipods and Kardashians, but William McKinley would probably have felt very much at home in our modern politicking (minus, I think, the attack ads - although who knows).  The assassination - about which a whole book was written regarding Garfield - was barely mentioned; this was decidedly a political sketch.  One of the best books I've read so far in this series.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 9, 2012

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace (1880)

I did something I said I wasn't going to do.  I made a pact that if I picked up a classic book, I would read the whole damn thing, regardless of how dull, regardless of how little sense it made, regardless of anything.  Ben-Hur defeated me.  UGH.  What a dull, dull book. Lew Wallace sucked all the life out of ancient Roman times.  I  actually BOUGHT this book instead of checking it out from the library, albeit from a used book store - that's seven bucks, down the drain, for no good reason.  Because it's a passion story, I thought I would read it for Easter.  Well folks, Easter is one day past, and I'm throwing this book in the donation bin at the library.  I literally found nothing interesting about the 140 pages I read.  I hate fake Biblical language too - all those goddamn thees and thous and hasts and doths.  This was the second bestselling book of the 19th century, after Uncle Tom's Cabin - and held that spot until Gone With the Wind came around in 1936.  I've read Uncle Tom's Cabin once, long ago, in college, and I don't recall being especially annoyed or bored.  I've read Gone With the Wind multiple times (over the years I've both loved it proudly and loathed my loving of it).  How Stuff Works still lists it in the top selling 21 books of all time (but neglects to mention Gone with the Wind, mmmmm....).  I don't get it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (2011) & Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun (2005)

I don't particularly like medical thrillers, and in the end when told, the assassination of Garfield is essentially a medical thriller.  Millard is always an observer without authoritative judgement calls, lets the evidence speak for itself.  She uses several view points to tell the story - obviously Garfield, but also the doctors who basically killed him; the inventor Alexander Graham Bell who had a plan to save him; and assassin Charles Guiteau.  Guiteau's viewpoint was the most interesting; Millard paints him as mentally unstable, and it's clear from his life story full of swinging ups and downs that today he would probably be on some sort of treatment for bipolar disorder.  The entire story is pretty tragic. While not my favorite book, this is still solidly good, and if you like medical thrillers, you'll probably enjoy this one. 

I've read quite a few biographies of presidents recently from the Gilded Age, that line of lackluster bearded laissez-faire party politicians who steered the ship of state through calm waters without much to do or say.  Rutherford B. Hayes was most well known because of the contested election and electoral trade off that ended Reconstruction and set back black civil rights for over a century.  This is my second Garfield biography in as many months, the first more a sketch; both were more about medicine than presidential politics, and point towards the "what might have beens" if Garfield had indeed survived.  I'm not sure his presidency would have been any different from his predecessor.  Chester Arthur, who never wanted to be president in the first place, and had far more backbone than was suspected, but still did "plenty of nothing."  Grover Cleveland, whose fascinating personal life (illegitimate baby; incredibly young, beautiful wife; only president to serve two non-consecutive terms; baby Ruth = Baby Ruth candy bar; terrific mustache) would lead you to think his political life would be equally fascinating; alas, it wasn't. 

I'm currently reading a sketch of Benjamin Harrison - who ends up being far more interesting and activist than all of these bewhiskered predecessors (or in Cleveland's case, both predecessor and successor).  I'm not sure if that's because of writing style or that Benjamin Harrison is indeed the first modern president.  His election, with swing states and more modern party politicking, certainly sounds more like an election that would have happened today than back then. His personal life was also interesting - after your wife's death almost immediately marrying your wife's niece (who had been in the picture as a devoted admirer for many years) is pretty scandalous!  Benjamin Harrison was far more interesting to read about that I ever imagined!

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