Book Review: Through Five Administrations by William H. Crook (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, Body-Guard to President Lincoln by William H. Crook

Four Stars

“The newspaperman, then as now, was on the outlook for a sensation. There was less regard for the truth then ….”

I’m a sucker for primary sources, even when–especially when–the writer reveals more about himself and his stop than he intended. Such is the case with this book. Crook takes you into his mind. You experience six presidents from the perspective of one who worked with them closely and personally, but was not involved in the politics of the day.

“It must be taken as for granted that I am somewhat prejudiced.”

Not surprisingly, Crook sees the best of each man, though some reviled each other. He defends each president, even as he acknowledges that some (especially Andrew Johnson) poured burning coals on their own heads.

“A narrow circle of New England theorists who, with their inheritance of inflated ideals and incomplete sympathies, had come to replace, by way of aristocracy, the social traditions of colonial times.”

Snowflake warning: This was written more than a century ago. Crook’s attitudes and expressions will offend modern sensibilities, even of those who agree with him. But if we are denied his point of view, the whole work would be suspect.

“Speeches in both House and Senate … filled with wild alarm, not for the country, but for [their] party.”

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Book Review: Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candace Millard

Three Stars

“I have so long and so often seen the evil effects of presidential fever upon my associates and friends that I am determined it shall not seize me.” JAG

A fascinating excursion into the period of American history largely ignored. Everyone thinks they know, if they care, all about the series of inept Union generals who stumbled through the then-second floor Yellow Oval Room. Millard corrects our misperception with this very human inquiry into the half-year presidency of James A. Garfield. She explores his life and times and provides supporting vignettes of key persons whose paths to fame or infamy crossed that of the ill-fated Garfield, including Chester Arthur, Joseph Lister, Alexander Graham Bell, and Charles Guiteau.

“Future generations would never know the man [Garfield] had been.”

Well-written, but not as good as her later works. Though this book is well-researched history, Millard strays Continue reading

Book Review: Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candace Millard

Four Stars

“There is an ambition I cherish so keenly, as to gain a reputation for personal courage.” WC

Winston Churchill wanted a war and after three missed attempts–India, Cuba and Sudan–he got it in South Africa’s Boer War. That it was a miserable shame of a war made no difference to Churchill, he was busy inventing himself and nothing short of public acclaim and military honors would do. He got them, and much more.

“Death stood before me. Grim, sullen Death without his light-hearted companion. Chance.” WC

Millard balances the very personal with the historic. Just enough background history and biography to give context without degenerating into a full-fledged biography. Well-researched and well-written.

“When hope has departed, fear had gone as well.” WC

England, on the verge of the Great War, seems to have learned nothing from the American War of Independence nor her colonial experiences in Asia and Africa. As if frozen in some fairy tale, the British army fought the Boer War as if they were facing Napoleon. The results were devastating to both the soldiery and the populace.

“The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.” Pamela (Plowden) Bulwer-Lytton

Book Review: Hearts of Fire, edited by Voice of the Martyrs Four Stars

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Book Review: Hearts of Fire: eight women in the underground church and their stories of costly faith, edited by Voice of the Martyrs

Four Stars

Incredible stories of women over the last seventy years who faced persecution and death because of their Christian faith. Modern American readers will shrink back from the reality that such treatment is meted to women in this world today. It is.

Most of those featured did not seek attention. They were going about their lives as children or mothers with little concept of the world beyond their village. The world came to them, and it was angry.

Sobering. It’s happening today. In this world. In this country. (See Hiding in the Light)

Book Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

Four Stars

“Engineers make up the problems and we solve them.” Helen Ling

Despite the cringe-worthy title, an excellent history of the women who contributed to the unique successes of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Superb concept and research. Too bad the storytelling falls short. With so large a cast, Holt often fails to identify her frequent shifts of focus character. Even as an advocacy work, her biases bleed through too obviously.

“As odd as it seems by today’s standards, the beauty contest was a result of JPL’s progressive hiring practices … unintentionally highlight the presence of educated young women working for JPL.”

Even with its shortcomings this book sets the record straight about the vital contributions of the “computers” as they were called Continue reading

Book Review: The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis (Two Stars)

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Book Review: The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution: 1782-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

Two Stars

“Americans needed to think continentally.” A. Hamilton

Revisionist history at is best … and worst. Making use of newly available correspondence and biographies of his principles, Ellis reconstructs the efforts leading up to the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia and the battle to ratify the new charter. However, his uneven handling of its modern meaning exposes his biases.

“It is indispensable you should lend yourself to its [the government’s] first operation.” A. Hamilton to G. Washington, 1788

Writing history is tricky. The historian must present the truth in a way that the reader can understand, even though the world view and values of their time may differ. Even if sources are cited, the reader seldom has access to them. He must trust the integrity of the writer. And if internal evidence betrays bias or false reporting, then the reader Continue reading

Book Review: If a Pirate I must be … by Richard Saunders (Four Stars)

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Book Review: If a Pirate I must be …: The True Story of Black Bart, the King of the Caribbean Pirates by Richard Saunders

Four Stars

“If a pirate I must be, ‘tis better being a commander than a common man.” John Roberts (AKA Black Bart)

A well-written modern attempt to find the facts behind the fiction of the most successful, if not the most famous of the Caribbean pirates: Black Bart, whose real name was John Roberts. Saunders relates both the popular stories and the realities behind them as well as providing a primer on seventeenth century trade, of which slaves and sugar were among the foremost commodities. That freed African slaves made up as much as a third of successful pirate crews is part of the untold tale.

“Common men showed little enthusiasm for defending their masters’ property.”

With many official and contemporary sources unreliable as officialdom covered their incompetence, and occasionally complicity, dealing with Bart. John Atkin, a ship’s surgeon impressed recorder the courts martial of Joseph’s crew, uniquely and dispassionately recorded the more likely truth. The author’s principal source (with the caveat mentioned) was Charles Johnson’s 1724 A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. Johnson is responsible for today’s swashbuckling pirate stereotype.

“The love of drink and a lazy life (were) stronger motives to him (the typical pirate) than gold.” Joseph Mansfield

The eighteenth century Triangle Trade (Africa, to North America and the Caribbean, to Europe and back) on which the pirates preyed—and which killed over half of the slaves, merchant and slavers crews (they were often the same), navy personnel and pirates each year was originally driven by the demand for sugar in Europe. (Much as contemporary North American consumption of South America drugs drives the drug trade through Central America.)

“The promise of unlimited alcohol may have held little appeal [to Roberts] but power did.”

Pirates drank prodigious qualities of punch, the recipe for which included fresh limes., before James Lind’s 1747 discovery that citrus fruit prevented scurvy. Another reason pirates were healthier, if not longer lived, than many of their civilian and military counterparts.

“A merry life and a short one.” John Roberts (AKA Black Bart)

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

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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

Shooting Victoria by Paul Thomas Murphy (Three Stars)

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Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy

Three Stars

“It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved,” Queen Victoria

An exhaustive history of the many men who shoot at Queen Victoria. While they varied in background, their motives were surprisingly (and sadly) similar … and usually had nothing to do with injuring the queen. Paradoxically, Victoria was only injured once, and the incident wouldn’t be in the book had Murphy stuck rigorously to his title.

“[Oxford] was pleased to find himself an object of so much interest.”

No bit of related trivia is too small or unrelated for inclusion. Therefore, the reader is subjected to the history of all the other monarchs shot at, the life history of the police, prime ministers, cell mates, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Irish, with a cameo by P. T. Barnum. It’s that kind of book.

“Before, the Queen’s popularity stemmed from her doing; now, it stemmed from her simply being.”

Runs counter to several popular images. Victoria, for example, is usually seen as a shy, reclusive lady. Murphy explains when that image if and when it didn’t, and why. England’s modern image is of an almost gun-free nation. That certainly wasn’t true in the nineteenth century when even paupers could purchase pistol most anywhere.

“Victoria’s personal courage and her unerring sense of her relationship with her people were responsible for it all.” (It being “universal and spontaneous outpouring of loyalty and affection”)

The late nineteenth century seems to have been open season on royalty. Murphy relates several parallel shoots taken at other monarchs. By 1918, all the monarchies of central Europe were no more.

“Trust in her subjects was instinct to [Victoria.]”

Movie Review: Hidden Figures, written, directed and produced by Theodore Melfi, et al. (Five Stars)

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Movie Review: Hidden Figures, written, directed and produced by Theodore Melfi, et al.

Five Stars

Outstanding movie, based on real people and real events, but dramatically presented. The story about African-American women mathematicians at NASA-Langley in the 1960s. Also, of course, a story about overcoming personal and institutional prejudice.

Doesn’t sugar-coat the issues, yet isn’t silly either. Some people road buses, some sat at lunch counters, some went to work and did the job, even though they didn’t get credit–often didn’t get permission.

As much about the barriers overcome by women as those by African-Americans. The protagonists suffered the double challenge of being both.

The journey isn’t done by any means, but people who didn’t live through the 1960s have no idea how far we’ve come. We have come a long way.

Good Entertainment; good message. Go see it.