Book Review: Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee by Clifford Dowdey (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee and the Dawn of a Legend by Clifford Dowdey

(Four Stars)

“McClellan was in fact the most modern of generals then active: he was an executive. His talents were m [sic] organization and administration. But, as a general, McClellan hated to go near a battlefield.”

Most students of history know that George McClellan almost won the Civil War in the spring of 1862. This book explains why … and why not. A monumental effort, involving tracking every major unit of both armies, often with biographies of commanders down to the brigade level. Weather, ordnance and rations are detailed.

“The next day the guns in the unfinished fort at Drewey’s Bluff, turned back the James River fleet of the U. S. Navy, nowhere in the war did so few accomplish so much in significance of the course of the war followed.” (Did you know? I didn’t, but Continue reading

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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.”

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 Age of Eisenhower by William I. Hitchcock (Three Stars)

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Book Review: The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s by William I. Hitchcock

(Three Stars)

“Eisenhower had that rarest of gifts in politics: he brought America together.”

Damns Eisenhower with faint praise. Following the rising tide of academic and popular reappraisal of Ike, Hancock tries to hew to the old bumbling amateur angle, even as he says he rejects it.

“These first years of his presidency, Eisenhower laid down a blueprint for the warfare state–an official plan to mobilize the nation and put it on a permanent war footing. The military-industrial complex had begun to take shape.”

“Eisenhower, [Garry] Wills believed, ‘had the true professional’s instinct for making things look easy. He appeared to be performing less work than he actually did. And he wanted it that way. An air of ease inspires confidence.”

Shoddy scholarship. Adds his snarky quips at the end of paragraphs, then sets the footnote after it, implying that the cited source (often in the 1950s) is to blame. “That suited Eisenhower fine.” “Middle-class paradise on a presidential scale.” “The comparatively glamorous and graceful Jacqueline Kennedy.

“The central paradox of the Eisenhower presidency: that a man so successful at the ballot box and so overwhelmingly popular among voters could have been given such poor marks by the political class. His critics never grasped the profound appeal of the man and never appreciated the depths of his political talent.”

Other, better modern investigations into this most-underrated president of the twentieth century–for example, try any David A. Nichols work.

“Dwight Eisenhower must be counted among the most consequential presidents in modern American history.”

Book Review: Defending Middle Earth by Patrick Curry (Two Stars)

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Book Review: Defending Middle Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry

(Two Stars)

“The costs [of modernity] have been horrendous, and are, unlike the benefits, increasing.”

Curry opens defending J. R. R. Tolkien against wrong-minded critics, then shifts to weaponizing Tolkien to beat his own ideological foes. That his foes are mostly English only obscures his bias to American readers. Disappointing. Since he makes several glaring errors on topics I know a little about, I suspect more lurk within.

“It has been asserted … that The Hobbit represents an alliance of the lower-middle class (Bilbo) and skilled workers, especially working class miners (the dwarves), in order to overcome a parasitic capitalist exploiter who ‘lives off the hard work of small people and accumulates wealth without being able to appreciate its value’ (the dragon). This is genuinely interesting … but it says at least as much about Marxism as a fairy [tale] as it does about The Hobbit.”

Tolkien was not a postmodern. If anything he was pre-modern, even pre-Enlightenment, because he believed that good and evil were real. He believed in God, and while there’s no church in Middle Earth, Tolkien based his entire mythos on an all-knowing, all-sufficient God. Those who claim Middle Earth was polytheistic do so from ignorance or guile.

“Modern profit-driven and state-protected science [is] a powerful counter-enchantment, much of whose power stems from being a spell that denies that it is one: a secular religion, literally a bad faith.”

Curry casually tosses Tolkien’s religion aside as irrelevant. Curry admits he judges Christianity by the externals he has witnessed, not from inside as Tolkien experienced it. Curry uses Lord of the Rings (LOTR) the way some atheists use the Bible, as a weapon against those who believe it. Despite Tolkien’s claims to the contrary, Curry asserts that LOTR is fundamentally a “pagan” work with Christianity included. A counter argument is that Tolkien meant for all the pagan myths to be included in the greater Christian mythos, which unlike the rest of them happens also to be true.

“I have been accused of using Tolkien to advance an ecological agenda. But nothing in this book about defending nature does not draw its warrant from the contents of Tolkien’s own work … I believe he himself would have thoroughly approved.”

Apparently others called him on his bias because in his Afterword, published seven years after the original work, Curry claims, “I nowhere argue that Tolkien was himself a postmodernist, nor that ecology is the only or even the most important key to his work.” His original work argues otherwise.

“As Max Weber saw long ago, religion itself becomes an enemy of enchantment when it asserts it [sic] own sole universal truth, and thus becomes entangled in aspirations to complete control and ultimate power.” Curry asserts, “So his defence of Middle-earth is fully as spiritual as it is ecological and cultural. But it is not a journey away from our lives and our home here on Earth; ultimately, and critically, it is a return.”

Does Curry admire Tolkien’s work as much as he says or has just taken them up as a cudgel in his own battles?

“There are no havens in a world where evil is a reality. If you think you live in one, you are probably naïve like the early Frodo, and certainly vulnerable.” J. R. R. Tolkien

Book Review: A Splendid Exchange by William J. Bernstein (Three Stars)

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Book Review: A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William J. Bernstein

(Three Stars)

“Today’s massive container ships, jet planes, the Internet, and an increasingly globalized supple and manufacturing network are just further evolutionary steps in a process that has been ongoing for the past five thousand years.’

Economics 101 as told by an elderly English-wannabee uncle. Old-fashioned syntax mars a serious, in-depth study of world history as seen by an economist. (When you’re only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.)

“That not one American in a hundred has heard of [the Treaty of Nanking] Continue reading

Book Review: Through the Eyes of a Lion by Levi Lusko (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Through the Eyes of a Lion: Facing Impossible Pain; Finding Incredible Power by Levi Lusko

(Five Stars)

“Blessed are those who mourn.” (Matthew 5:4) “There are gifts you get from God in the midst of grief that you would never have had the bandwidth to receive if everything was going as planned.”

At first glance, this book is written for a narrow, specialized audience: Christians who have suffered a tragic loss. Actually, it is intended for those who have or will suffer a tragic loss: all of us. Lusko lost a kindergarten-aged child just before Christmas. Your loss may not be so dramatic as his, but you have or will suffer, too, and you will discover him to be a kindred soul.

“God made me stronger, so the pain is not always unbearable, but the weight hasn’t gotten any lighter.”

Non-Christian readers may struggle with the Biblical point of view and vocabulary, but many will find solace in these pages.

“He puts to use what he puts us through. Suffering isn’t an obstacle to being used by God. It is an opportunity to be used like never before.”

Lusko is a preacher; it shows in his rhythms and alliterations, and his digressions. Forgive him and keep reading.

“When you live a life of faith, there are going to be questions that have no answers, because for there to be faith there has to be mystery.”

Book Review: Dickens: A Biography by Fred Kaplan (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Dickens: A Biography by Fred Kaplan

(Three Stars)

“He took special pleasure in disappointing expectations.”

A monumental work, in both the positive and negative senses. Like many modern biographers, Kaplan includes all manner of trivia and tangential material to pad the overall product. The result is boring to read, but fascinating to reflect on.

William Gladstone reported Dickens remarked that while his “faith in the people governing, is, on the whole, infinitesimal; my faith in The People governed is on the whole illimitable.”

“All crisis was a spur to creativity, all fiction a mirror of imaginative distortion in which the model of his own life became a portrait of his culture and his world.”

Charles Dickens was that rare man who was Continue reading

Book Review: Grant by Ron Chernow (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Grant by Ron Chernow

(Four Stars)

“I thought I could run the government of the United States as I did the staff of my army. It was my mistake, and led me to other mistakes.” US Grant

A readable and informative, if exhaustive biography of our eighteenth president, our nation’s youngest at the time. Though contemporaries viewed him as a unite-er and reconciliator, history has been less kind. Chernow raises and examines the charges of drunkenness, corruption, and insensitivity. The Grant who emerges is deeper and more human than even he described himself in his famous memoirs.

The Civil War was “largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War. Nations like individuals are punished for their transgressions.” US Grant

For a quarter century Chernow has redefined America through huge, deeply-researched biographies of prominent historical figures. His books are best sellers and award winners and one became a pop culture Continue reading

Book Review: The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

(Four Stars)

“Travel is fatal to bigotry and prejudice and narrow-mindedness.”

In 1867 young Samuel Clemens joined one of the first cruises for an extended voyage from New York City to the Holy Land. He serialized his impressions as they went, then sold the aggregate as a book. It was his best-selling book during his lifetime.

“The impressible memento-seeker was pecking at the venerable sarcophagus [inside Cheop’s Pyramid] with his sacrilegious hammer.”

Regular readers of Twain will enjoy this cynical, but less bitter younger version. Despite distancing himself from the “pilgrims” (conservative New England Christians who were the bulk of the party), Twain betrays many of the prejudices of the day. He was particularly critical of the Americans defacing ruins, taking mementos.

“One must travel to learn. Every day now old Scripture phrases that never possessed any significance for me take to themselves a meaning.” (at Beth-El)

I affirm that many of his impressions of the Mediterranean and Levant are Continue reading