Book Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (Three Stars)

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Book Review: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

(Three Stars)

“The story of an American soldier whose involvement in making the world’s greatest dictionary was singular, astonishing, memorable, and laudable–and yet at the same time wretchedly sad.”

The engaging tale of how William C. Minor, an American doctor, came to be imprisoned for most of his adult life in an English insane asylum, yet from those confines became a major contributor to one of the greatest works of scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

“The English, who had raised eccentricity and poor organization to a high art, and placed the scatterbrained on a pedestal, loathed such Middle European things as rules, conventions, and dictatorships.”

With hardly more material than might make a good periodical article, Winchester inflates the story with details extraneous, untrue (and he tells why they’re untrue) and extensive excerpts from the OED itself–fortunately, not at length.

“No one had a clue what they were up against: they were marching blindfolded through molasses.”

Along the way, the reader is entertained by the naiveté and persistence of the editors, especially James Murray, in producing this monumental undertaking.

“There is a cruel irony in this–that if he had been so treated [psychologically], he might never have felt impelled to work on it as he did. In a sense doing all these dictionary slips was his medication; in a way they became his therapy.”

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Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old, directed and produced by Peter Jackson (Four Stars)

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Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old, directed and produced by Peter Jackson

(Four Stars)

A film of World War One “by a non-historian for non-historians” from the point of view of the British infantry soldier on the Western (European) Front. All film footage is from the Imperial War Museums’ archive restored and colorized, narrated by the voices of soldiers who served in it. The result is a terribly intimate view of the horror of World War One.

Some of the footage is not appropriate for children or the weak of stomach.

If you go, by all means stay for the half-hour short following the closing credits of Peter Jackson explains his production process.

 

Book Review: British Forts in the Age of Arthur by Angus Konstam (Three Stars)

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Book Review: British Forts in the Age of Arthur by Angus Konstam

(Three Stars)

In his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill described this period as night falling on Britain, followed by hundreds of years of darkness, then dawn rising on England with everything changed. Konstam’s survey of recent archology and study of fortifications built or renewed during that obscure time casts a bit of light into the gloom.

This book is part of a series by Osprey Publishing related to ancient and medieval warfare. Some overlap to previous Konstam/Osprey volumes.

Excellent illustrations by Peter Dennis. I have visited several of these sites. Both the photographs and illustrations bring out the nature of the “Age of Arthur” efforts better than seeing them. That said, if you have the chance, do visit them.

Book Review: The Fremantle Diary: A Journal of the Confederacy by James Fremantle (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Fremantle Diary: A Journal of the Confederacy by James Fremantle

(Four Stars)

“Nowhere is the ignorance of what is passing in the South more profound than it is in the Northern States.” Fremantle 1864

A fascinating primary document from the height of the Civil War: An English officer traverses the Confederacy, interviewing the leaders and soldiers. His assessment: even after Gettysburg the South could have won. Granted, by that time he had Stockholm Syndrome symptoms. His northern contacts didn’t enlighten him otherwise.

“All these [sectional] interests disappeared when the war ended. People wanted only to forget, and the diary was buried with the past. Today, the national mood has changed. Sectional bitterness has given way to a common pride in the glory and courage of both sides.” Walter Lord, 1954

On the other hand, as the preceding quote indicates the 1954 editor missed the mark entirely.

“A people in which all ranks and both sexes display a unanimity and a heroism which can never have been surpassed in the history of the world is destined, sooner or later, to become a great and independent nation.” Fremantle

Fremantle’s journey and journal were equally amazing. Landing in Mexico, he traveled across the south, sharing public transportation and accommodations with common travelers, connecting with Confederate leaders whenever possible, who usually welcomed him into their confidences and occasionally their staff, all the time understanding he had no official standing (but perhaps still hoped England might save them). to return home, he traversed the North as far as New York City and shared passage to England with Northern partisans.

“But the mass of respectable Northerners, although they may be willing to pay, do not very naturally feel themselves called upon to give their blood in a war of aggression, ambition, and conquest.” Fremantle

Book Review: The Printer and the Preacher by Randy Petersen (Five Stars)

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Book Review: The Printer and the Preacher: Ben Franklin, George White, and the Surprising Friendship that Invented America by Randy Petersen

(Five Stars)

“Franklin was a newspaperman and Whitefield was news.” John R. Williams

A remarkable study of the two men who most shaped the personality of American before the Revolution. Today one is a cultural icon, the other unknown; then Whitefield was better known than Franklin.

“Not only a sense of charity, but of empowerment.”

Sympathetic descriptions of the motives, actions and goals of all parties. He is especially positive to both explicate and reconcile the differences between Franklin and Whitefield. Both wanted the best for their fellow man, even though each had his own motives. The reader may feel Peterson occasionally protests too much, but Continue reading

Book Review: 1919 Versailles by Charles L. Mee Jr. (Four Stars)

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Book Review: 1919 Versailles: The End of the War to End All Wars by Charles L. Mee Jr.

(Four Stars)

“It is always easier to start a war than to end one, let alone win it. … Harshness and vengeance nearly always return to haunt those who impose them. But of all the lesson that Versailles leaves us with, certainly the most insistent is that of the inability of the few any longer to govern the many.”

Exhaustive rendering of how the world’s leaders–especially France’s Clemenceau, Britain’s Lloyd George and America’s Wilson–crowned the horror of World War One with the charade of a “peace” that virtually guaranteed World War Two. That’s not news to most readers, but Woodrow Wilson’s role in raising then dashing international hopes may be.

“[Wilson] believed in words, in their beauty, in their ability to move people, in their power to give shape, and structure, and cohesion to the world–in their power, he appeared to believe, to transform reality.”

Wilson conducted secret negotiations with the Germans before Continue reading

Book Review: Lincoln’s Last Trial by Dan Abrams and David Fisher (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency by Dan Abrams and David Fisher

(Three Stars)

“Ask yourself: what is the justice in this case?” A. Lincoln

Exhaustive review of a trial transcript with explanatory amplifications. By the authors’ own admission, Lincoln was already headed toward the presidency, and their work gives no indication how it “propelled him to the presidency,” rather how he dodged a bullet that could have killed his dark horse bid at the Republican nomination.

“I must say I do not think myself fit for the presidency.” A. Lincoln (1959)

Based on the recently recovered transcript of Robert Roberts Hitt. Telling the story from Hitt’s point of view saved the author’s from Continue reading

Book Review: Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

(Three Stars)

“Dysfunction came to define the battle that was ultimately named–perhaps appropriately, given its befuddled beginnings–for the wrong hill.”

The tile misleads: an examination of the origins of the American Revolutionary War in New England. Philbrick examines the historical and philosophic roots of Boston’s role as well as the biography of just about every player. He continues the book for a year after the battle, through George Washington’s assumption of command and the British evacuation of Boston.

“Boston’s patriots were not trying to reinvent the world as they then knew it; they were attempting to get back to the way it had been when they were free from imperial restraint.”

Looking under each stone, Philbrick reveals some interesting trivia. For example, the men General Howe attacked on Breed’s Hill funded a Westminster Abbey memorial for his brother, slain in the French and Indian War defending New England.

“Warren saw himself and all New England in a mythic quest that united the here and now of the present generation with the travails of their glorious ancestors.”

Lots of opinion and speculation. Some well-founded, such as the large role Joseph Warren might have played had he survived. Other is gossip, such as whether Warren got a particular girl pregnant out of wedlock.  “In all likelihood … [Warren] got the young woman named Sally Edmonds Pregnant.”

“The success was too dearly bought.” General William Howe

Careful to credit where due, including the often decisive roles of African-Americans

“I wish [we] could sell them another hill at the same price.” Nathanael Greene

Book Review: Three Days in January by Bret Baier (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission by Bret Baier

(Four Stars)

“Is it good for America?” Ike

A welcome contrast to most books by reporters. The norm is shallow, sensational and political, like their reporting (despite their leaning). This is an informative, in-depth look at our 34th president’s last days in office.

Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re: Gently in manner, strong in deed. (Displayed in Oval Office)

Baier telescopes Dwight David Eisenhower’s biography into the first third of the book, focuses on the titular three days during the middle, and devotes the end to Ike’s relations with Continue reading

Movie Review: Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright (Five Stars)

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Movie Review: Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright
Five Stars

“You can not reason with a Tiger when your head is in its mouth.” WC

Excellent costumes, setting and photography. Yes, it’s a lot of dialogue by old, white, rich English men, but it’s important stuff, even–no, especially today. An intimate view at May 1940, the month that may have changed history, from what was likely to what seemed impossible. Incredible performance by Gary Oldman (and the makeup artists).

“Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you!” WC

A relatively painless history lesson. Sometimes real leaders aren’t popular, even within their own party, not that the director meant it to endorse Trump or his style. (And not to suggest that either Trump or Obama were Churchillian leaders.)

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Viscount Halifax

(Director Krennic is king, good heavens!)