Book Review: The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas J. Fleming (Four Stars)

10083497

Book Review: The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers by Thomas J. Fleming

Four Stars

“In their loves and losses, their hopes and fears, they are more like us than we have dared to imagine.”

A worthwhile addition to the histories of our founding. Superficially what seems trivial reveals deep of relevance for understanding both the founders and the product of their labors.

“Newspaper ethics in the nineteenth century did not put a high value on accuracy. ‘Faking’ a story … was accepted journalistic practice.”

The universal themes seem to be of men driven almost to monomania, often to the neglect of wives and family. In several cases, it is impossible to know the man without knowing the wife. Most were dedicated to their spouses. Sadly, those who had sons or grandsons almost universally begat individuals who embarrassed them, improvised them, and broke their hearts. Their daughters seem to be woven of finer stuff.

“Nothing is ours which another can deprive us of.” Thomas Jefferson

Well-conceived, well-researched, well-written.

“Dolly [Madison] concluded that a woman who waded into the contentious side of politics aroused the always lurking hostility between the sexes and won no friends for her side of the argument.”

Movie Review: Born in China (Four Stars)

born_in_china_poster

North American release poster

Movie Review: Born in China, directed by Lu Chuan

Four Stars

Excellent cinematography. The narration was a bit too much. Much of the editing told the story without the attempts at explanation, humor or philosophy by the narrator.

I remember Disney True-Life Adventure movies sixty years ago. These are much better. Disneynature still meddles but it’s less obvious.

My Seven Wonders of the World, #7

My Seven Wonders of the World, #7: Walls of Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle is an interesting construction in its own right, and is surrounded by gardens and dry and wet moats making it a pleasant park in the center of Japan’s second-largest city. My focus in this designation are the fitted-stone walls surrounding the enclosure and central tower.

Almost five hundred years old, the walls are dry stacked of large square stones, some at the corners and gates huge, with smaller stones fitted to add stability. A rigid wall construction would not serve in earthquake-prone Japan. Must be seen (as we did in 1985) to be appreciated.

What we see today is a re-construction of the ancient walls and castle, which was destroyed several times over the centuries. The layout of the walls, moats and gates facilitated defense in the age before effective long-range artillery.

This last wonder is a place holder for the great stone works of ancient Asia. Elsewhere in Japan I saw similar stacked stone walls. In addition to their function as rock chutes for defense, the curves pull the eye upward, contributing to the wonder of their sites. I have not seen the Great Wall of China (itself mostly a re-construction), but would like to.

Book Review: Brotherhood by A. B. Westrick (Five Stars)

17402594

Book Review: Brotherhood by A. B. Westrick

Five Stars

“The Civil War has ended, but the conflict isn’t over.”

Outstanding treatment of a sensitive and controversial topic: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Reconstruction South, specifically Richmond, VA. Appropriately, the protagonist is a white teen boy caught in conflicting currents of loyalties, commitments and aspirations. The reader is swept along with his ambivalence (and occasional stupidity) as he treads this murky maze.

“Those who survive in Richmond reinvent themselves as circumstances dictate.”

Best map (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Map of Richmond, 1867) in any book ever, including famous fantasy trilogies.  Magnifying-glass-worthy detail. (Yes, maps are a big deal to me.)

“Of course, he’d have asked, but while the girls were standing in front of him, he’d been too flustered to think.”

Excellent use of inner voice and vocabulary to establish both the age and view point of the protagonist, Shad. That he has dyslexia is revealed without using the modern term.

“If the world had ended at that very moment with Shad singing “Glory, hallelujah” in a shed full of coloreds, he’d have gone to his maker with a smile on his face.”

There were southern whites–rich and poor– who opposed slavery. Likewise Reconstruction hardened many whites’ prejudice against blacks. Westrick explores both. Even better, she plumbs Continue reading

Book Review: Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland (Four Stars)

29358184

Book Review: Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland

Four Stars

“I’m not at all sure if you know that I’m alive.”

So she was/is. One hundred years old, and still living in Paris, which was the point when she wrote this book sixty years ago. She was a big Hollywood deal before most of us were born.

This short book is a chatty, personal memoir of her moving to Paris and marrying a Frenchman in the 1950s. Paris then–France then–clutched the tatters of its legacy as the center of the world, politically and in fashion. Though she still lives there; she probably doesn’t recognize today’s Paris.

“If you are loved by the French as a whole, you really feel loved.

Her adjustment to France and the French made for many humorous episodes which she relates in a conversational style. She suffered many of the misconceptions of fellow Americans and committed many gaffes, but no faux pas. (The significant difference is explained therein.)

What does every Frenchman have? A liver. And how he cares for it makes for a humorous tale in itself.

She learned, “The importance of tact, restraint, subtlety, and the avoidance of banality.”

Book Review: Ike and McCarthy by David A. Nichols (Five Stars)

30755185

Book Review: Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s secret campaign against Joseph McCarthy by David A. Nichols

Five Stars

“Always take your job seriously, never yourself.” DDE

This is what history is supposed to be. Minutely researched, but cogently told. Facts clearly delineated from opinion. Yes, Nichols has and expresses his opinions, but he does not disguise them as facts.

“We can’t defeat communism by destroying the things in which we believe.” DDE

This book is only 400 pages, not 800 like the fashionable historical biographies being peddled today. The footnotes equal a third of the text.

“Eisenhower’s penchant for camouflage contributed to the myth that he would rather play golf than pay attention to weighty matters.” Nichols

Eisenhower may have been the last progressive Republican, of the ilk of Continue reading

Movie Review: The Case for Christ, directed by Jon Gunn (Four Stars)

the_case_for_christ_poster

theatrical release poster

Movie Review: The Case for Christ, directed by Jon Gunn

Four Stars

“There is no ‘what if’ with God.”

Better than the book, which I read and reviewed in 2003. The movie had a plot (several); the book was a set of investigations by then-atheist Lee Strobel into the truth behind Christianity. The book rests almost entirely on assertions from authority; the movie explores experience, feelings and motivation.

“You didn’t want to see [the truth].”

For what was obviously a low-budget film, Case was well-plotted and well-acted. The sub-plots add credibility and depth to Strobel’s search.

“I want whatever is next.”

Book Review: Arcadia by Iain Pears (Three Stars)

30689353

Book Review: Arcadia by Iain Pears

Three Stars

“Outrageous coincidence was more normal that carefully formed, reasoned action.”

Excellent world building. Complex time-travel plot with 60s England focus. Having one character a later member of the famous Inklings is a nice touch, including his depreciation of his more talented friends.

“You go and sit down and contemplate your own genius for a bit, and come through when you think you can stand straight.”

The narrative suffers from too many point-of-view characters. The many threads finally come together, but the first hundred pages is heavy going. Extra credit for finishing it all in one go.

“You may have got that from The Wizard of Oz. You steal ideas from everyone.” “I do?” “Yes.” (Pears also borrowed from Fahrenheit 451.)

While the women characters are well differentiated, the men all sound alike. Not sure why one character’s narrative was in first person while Continue reading

Book Review: There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson (Four Stars)

27888023

Book Review: There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson

Four Stars

“A man can do but little. Enough if that little be right.”

I’ve read this book before–long, long ago. Knowing the story, but having it told anew was a treat. Perhaps the height of Anderson’s skill as a storyteller. A slightly different take on time travel, but aren’t they all?

“Scientific information is only a glimmer on the surface of a mystery.”

Written in 1971, it grappled with the increasingly dangerous Cold War, which is remote to modern readers as World War One was to Anderson. “Try to understand your world in 1951.” Most of us have trouble imagining our world today; we don’t even try to learn the past, with Santayana’s forecast result.

“We need all the diversity, all the assorted ways of living and thinking, we can get. Inside of limits, true.”

His protagonist creates an instrument “built to his specification in 1980, to take advantage of the superb solid-state electronics then available.” Before you chuckle, consider Continue reading

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Four Stars)

38447

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Four Stars

“You wanted a woman’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”

A 1985 dystopia set in a severe and hypocritical (aren’t they all?) theocracy, Atwood’s tale is a cautionary tale about how American culture could degenerate under the combines pressures of extended Cold War and the environmental assault of then-current industrial practice.

“No empire imposed by force or otherwise has been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group.”

The story’s confused chronology is due to the semi-stream-of-consciousness remanences of one of the titular handmaids, partly explained in the accompanying Historical Note. Atwood tells just enough to propel Continue reading