Book Thoughts

A place for me to give my thoughts on books, history, and their influence on my life.

Review of The World As It Is by Ben Rhodes

The World As It Is - Ben Rhodes

I really enjoyed this memoir by Ben Rhodes who was a speechwriter a national security advisor to President Obama for eight years. This book is basically a history of the foreign policy and international relations of the Obama administration. There is very little time spent looking at domestic issues outside of how international issues impact the administration politically.

Rhodes writes very well (he has an MFA so that makes sense) and does a great job of mixing his personal story with the story of Obama. I find it annoying that in many memoirs, there is far too much name-dropping but I did not see that in this book.

My political lean left so I was very sympathetic to the struggles and frustrations discussed in the book. With that said, I didn't find that Rhodes went out of his way to attack the other side, and I think that anyone who enjoys politics and recent history could find enjoyment in this book and not think it was overly negative.

Review of The New World by Winston Churchill

A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. 2: The New World - Winston S. Churchill

This second volume of Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples was fantastic. I love the way Churchill writes, and I think for these historical works, he mixes in just the right amount of information with his personal touch and opinions. I think he is biased toward the greatness of England (in his mind), but I find this gives more character to the books. This volume covered the Tudors and the Stuarts and filled in some gaps in my knowledge (particularly with the Stuarts). Looking forward to the next one.

Review of Out of My mind by Sharon Draper

Out of My Mind - Sharon M. Draper

My 7th grade daughter has read this book multiple times and encouraged me to read it as well.  What a wonderful story whose main character and narrator is a young girl who has cerebral palsy and cannot communicate.  However, she has a photographic memory and in telling the story, we can read how she has a brilliant mind.  When she reaches the 5th grade, she buys a computer that allows her to talk through it.  It opens up her world, especially with her family, but she still struggles to find acceptance with peers at school.  I won't say more so as to not give away spoilers, but my only disappointment with the book is that it did not have the ending I would have wished for.  

Review of The Dying Animal by Philip Roth

The Dying Animal - Philip Roth

This is my fourth Roth novel and I am not sure how I feel about it.  The narrator/main character is an old professor who basically discusses how his sexual desires have been the central part of his life.  He spend most of the story talking about an affair he had with a 24 year old Cuban student and how he became obsessed with her (which was different than the many other liaisons he had throughout his life).  The writing is well done, but I couldn't help but think that Roth was projecting his own desires through his character.  While I don't think a man's sexual desire should end by the time he is in his 70s, I am not sure the obsession with it is entirely healthy - or at least something I want to think about at this point in my life.

Review of Camino Island by John Grisham

Camino Island: A Novel - John Grisham

First time in a couple of years I grabbed a John Grisham novel and I enjoyed it. I am not sure exactly what it is about his writing style that I enjoy, but I always keep turning pages when I read one of his novels. His earliest novels were all fantastic stories, but like many authors of yearly thrillers, his later stories were not as engaging. This particular novel is not a legal thriller, but it is about a rare book heist. I wouldn't necessarily call it a mystery as we know exactly who is doing what the entire time, but I did enjoy reading how the story played out. I will probably pick up anther of his novels at the library in the near future.

Review of American Phoenix by Jane Hampton Cook

American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence - Jane Hampton Cook

This was a very challenging book to finish reading.  On the one hand, there is a great story here with seemingly unlimited primary source material to pull from.  The author does a nice job telling that story and I enjoyed my time with John Quincy and Louisa Adams.  On the other hand, as many reviewers have noted, the author's penchant for using bizarre metaphors and similes to dramatize a point became painful to read.  She used the line about the people of the time not having access to the telephone at least a dozen times.  Maybe making that point once for effect could be useful, but she repeated it far too often.  Another example is discussing childbirth.  She spent a few sentences explaining how Louisa would not have the comforts of modern medical equipment such as a baby heart monitor.  These lines were so awkward and out of place that it really took away from the reading.  One other thing - the author was also in love with asking rhetorical questions.  The well placed rhetorical question can add to historical writing, but they were seemingly used every chapter.  If she had cleaned up that part of the writing, I would have rated this book higher.

Review of Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger

Windigo Island: A Novel - William Kent Krueger

Another solid entry in the Cork O'Connor series.  I don't think this was one of his best, but I am so invested in the characters and the writing at this point that I can't help but get sucked in.  I think fourteen entires into the series, there are just far too many improbably things that have happened to one family.  I understand that is what makes a series, but it is hard to understand how everyone could keep going based on the events of their lives.  With that said, this is still a highly recommended series in my opinion.

Review of Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson

Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship - Robert Kurson

3.5 stars - a fun book that looks at the search and discovery of a pirate ship from the Golden Age of Piracy.  The main focus of the book is on the two divers and their personal histories, but there is enough history here of the age of pirates to make it worth the read for those looking at a history of piracy.  Also, I enjoyed reading about the process of diving and treasure hunting much more than I would have expected.

Review of The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past - John Lewis Gaddis

This was a somewhat interesting look into the craft of how to write about history.  Ok that is not a great description - it focuses more on how to think about how to write history.  Honestly, it was a difficult book for me to get through and that was disappointing because I really enjoyed the last Gaddis book I read called On Grand Strategy.  Gaddis is a deep thinker, but I felt he was repetitive and not all that engaging with his arguments.  There were parts here and there that I enjoyed, but I think this book as an hour lecture would have been fascinating.  Anyway, not my best review, which kind of sums up my experience with this particular read.

Review of Indignation by Philip Roth

Indignation - Philip Roth

This short novel was a coming of age type of novel about a New Jersey Jewish kid leaving home for college.  The story is set against the backdrop of the Korean War, but it mostly focuses on the maturity and personal growth (if you can call it that) of the main character.  Roth certainly knows how to create a character, but as usual, there is a real darkness to his characters (at least from what I take away from them).  A solid read from a talented writer, but not a page-turner in the sense that you can't wait to find out what happens next.

Review of The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

The Plot Against America - Philip Roth

This was a fascinating novel - mainly due to what I see on the news every day today.  I loved the alternative history and the way Roth builds up the rise to fascism and the anti-Semitic tones of the story is impressive.  The characters are also nicely done, but the story itself did not have me turning pages.  It was a slow burn, and there was never a real desire for me to find out what happens next to the main characters.  That is why I did not rate the book higher.  With that said, the parallels between our political climate today and the alternate world Roth wrote about over a decade ago were scary at times.  

Review of Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham

Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship - Jon Meacham

A very interesting look at the relationship between FDR and Churchill during the World War II years.  I felt that the author, while admiring of both as leaders, was more sympathetic to Churchill the person than Roosevelt.  With all that I have read over the years, I still can't find a book that makes me really respect the way FDR was as a leader.  He certainly was a titan of history in terms of the progressive changes he made (and I am a big supporter of just about all of those), but the way he handled people just always rubs me the wrong way.  Churchill comes across as very likable in this reading, and it makes me admire him even more.  There was nothing really new here, but seeing their relationship thrive early and then diminish in the later war years was fascinating to read.

Review of The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt and His Adventures in the Wilderness - Darrin Lunde

This was a 3.5 star read.  This book focuses on Roosevelt's life as a hunter/scientists/naturalist.  It covers all of his famous hunts from the Badlands to Africa.  The central thesis of the book is that even though Roosevelt hunted and killed hundreds (or thousands) of prey over the course of his life, he did it with the eye of a naturalist in an attempt to add to scientific knowledge.  I acknowledge there is a great deal of truth in this, but I think the author overstates it.  I think Roosevelt enjoyed the hunt and the kill, especially of large game, just as much as he did contributing to science.  With that said, I did learn a great deal about the early history of naturalism, museums in America, and more specific details about the many hunts and experiences of TR.

How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading - Charles Van Doren, Mortimer J. Adler

What a nerdy and wonderful book this turned out to be.  It is exactly what the title would indicate - it is a book about how to bast read books.  It focuses on non-fiction, but it also addresses how the same rules apply to works of literature, poetry, etc...  While I don't believe there is anything revolutionary in this book to someone who is an avid reader, it is incredibly well organized and it made many great points that made me pause and think about how focused I am as a reader - particularly of history.  I rarely stop to take any notes, and I rarely reread books I love until years after I read it the first time.  I think I would be better served slowing down with some works of non-fiction and making sure I take everything out of it I need to fully understand the point.  Highly recommended for those who enjoy reading books about books or who want to take a step back and think about their reading.  It is not a book you necessarily have to read exclusively until you finish.  I read a few chapters at a time and then came back to it and think I enjoyed it more that way.

Review of Everyman by Philip Roth

Everyman - Philip Roth

This is my first Philip Roth novel and it is a difficult book to rate. The writing is well done and Roth certainly knows how to get in the mind of his character.  The problem for me was that I didn't particularly care for the main character or the focus of the story on his health and mortality.  It was a dark book in that it was basically a look back at life from an older man whose health was fading.  The look back was mostly negative as well.  So wonderful writing, but a subject matter that was difficult for me.  I will certainly read more of Roth.

Review of Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Poor Folk - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I decided I am lacking in my classic literature and will try to read all of Dostoyevsky.  I will take my time with it, but will go in chronological order using the years his novels and novellas were published.  This first novella was outstanding.  It was a story told through a series of letters between a man and woman who love each other, but both are struggling through lives of poverty in St. Petersburg.  Dostoyevsky seems to be great at examining feelings and while the story itself is not really a page-turner, the writing is wonderful and I couldn't help but feel like I gained a real understanding of what it would have been like to be those characters or a person in their situation.  I look forward to the next one.