Book Thoughts

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

Review of On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis

On Grand Strategy - John Lewis Gaddis

I really enjoyed this short book on strategy.  Gaddis is a well known historian and thinker, but this was my first time reading one of his books.  He takes a number of examples form history, from ancient times through the World War II era, and uses them to look at strategic thinkers and decisions.  I found parts of it fascinating, and I appreciated how he incorporated literature (he loves Tolstoy) into his arguments.  I studied international relations in college, so this book brought me back.  Nothing groundbreaking, but an enjoyable read.

Review of Lenin by Victor Sebestyen

Lenin - Victor Sebestyen

I have read a little bit about Russian history, but somehow had never read a biography dedicated to Lenin.  This was a fascinating account of Lenin's life and I learned a great deal.  I always knew how ruthless and horrible Stalin was, but Lenin was at least as bad - if not worse.  Lenin did not enjoy the violence and death (the author points out that the only time Lenin was present around death was when family members died naturally), but he certainly had no problem ordering actions that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people . What most impressed me about him was his militant obsession, for decades, of the potential for a revolutionary takeover of Russia.  He literally spent most of his adult life reading, studying, and promoting the possibility.  When the time finally came, he and the Bolsheviks really weren't prepared but the rest of the Russian leadership had even less of an idea on how to maintain power during the awful times of WWI.  I recommend this book for anyone interested in this time period of Russian history.

Review of The Storm Before the Storm by Mike Duncan

The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic - Mike Duncan

A fantastic story of the final years of the Roman Republic before the rise of Caesar. I have been a fan of Duncan since his History of Rome podcast and have to give him a great deal of credit for being able to turn that into a highly readable and informative book. Roman history is not my specialty, so I cannot tell you if there is any new ground broken here, but I can say that he writes clearly and is able to bring together many different storylines into one coherent work of history. Recommended to fans of this time period.

Review of The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Cement Garden - Ian McEwan

I get what McEwan was trying to do here - but I could not get past the incestual thoughts and actions.  Just painful to read for me.

Review of The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

The Child in Time - Ian McEwan

This was a difficult novel to rate.  McEwan does a good job getting inside the psyche of his characters, but the overall tone of the boo was depressing and there was never any real buildup to anything.  The story takes the reader through the mental health issues of multiple characters, but you never really learn to love - or for me even sympathize - with any of them.  I think McEwan is an outstanding writer, but this novel just didn't do it for me.  I rated three instead of two stars because of the writing.

Review of Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing - Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is one of my favorite authors. Her ability to blend history, descriptive language, and develop characters are second to none in my opinion for current authors. All readers find authors that write in a way that is beautiful and connects on a personal and intellectual level and Brooks is one of the authors for me.

 

This is my third novel by Brooks and while I loved everything I said above, this story was not as strong as the previous two I read. The history and beauty and characters were all done exceptionally well, but the story itself was more of a chronology of events and I never felt that it built toward a climax. We find out what happens with all of the important characters and I have no problems with how the story played out, but if she didn't write so well, I might not have been as interested as I have been with her previous books. Either way, I still recommend it for those who love to read beautiful language.

Review of George Washington: The Forge of Experience by James Thomas Flexner

George Washington: The Forge of Experience, 1732-1775 - James Thomas Flexner

This was the first in the famous four book biography of Flexner covering the life of George Washington.  This first volume takes the reader from Washington's birth through his appointment as General of the Continental Army.  It goes into great detail about Washington's participation as the leader of the Virginia militia during the events of the French and Indian War and I learned a great deal about the struggles he had not only in managing a militia for many years, but not receiving the respect or appointment he felt he deserved as an officer in the regular British Army.  I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the 17 years Washington spent at Mount Vernon after resigning his Virginia military commission before the Revolution broke out.  Learning how he improved Mount Vernon to make it profitable, how he dealt with English traders and creditors, and how his relationship with his wife Martha and his first true love Sally Fairfax took place were fascinating and enlightening for me.  I was not naive to think of Washington as having lived a perfect life in terms of character, but taking the time to read these details in a book about his early life is something that all fans of Washington need to be sure to do.

Review of John Quincy Adams by James Traub

John Quincy Adams - James Traub

Every now and again I come across a book that I have no expectations for and am blown away. This was one of those books. I loved every minute I spent with this book and learned more about early American history from this read than any book I can remember in a long time.

 

This biography of John Quincy Adams is simply outstanding. The author does a fabulous job weaving the story of early America with the life of Adams (who was really a central part of the history of the country from a very young age). I felt the author was very fair in his assessments of Adams and his decisions, and he clearly shows how Adams was more or less a failure as a husband and in many ways as a father. However, his dedication to his country and his principles are second to none and as a reader, you can't help but come away impressed and in awe.

 

Adams did not accomplish very much as President, but as Secretary of State and as a member of the House in his post-presidency, Adams was a key figure in our country's history. The decades of the 1810s through the 1830s are probably not as well known by most students of history as the Revolutionary Period or the years leading up to the Civil War, but the events of those years helped shape the country and are essential to have a deep understanding of our history. This book covers all of it in detail but with inspired writing. Highly recommended.

Review of Without Precedent by Joel Richard Paul

Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times - Joel Richard Paul

I had always wanted to read more about the most important Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and this book was very engaging. This biography of Marshall tells the story of a fascinating historical figure who, for whatever reason, seems to get short thrift in the pantheon of our founding fathers. He was close with Washington, a cousin of Jefferson, Secretary of State and then Chief Justice (even at the same time for a month) for Adams, a state leader and legislator for Virginia, an important supporter of the Constitution during the ratification process - Marshall was a little bit like the Forest Gump of the Revolutionary Era. His decisions on the Supreme Court made the Court an equal branch and established our understanding of how the judiciary works under the Constitution.

 

My favorite part of the book, or at least the part where I learned the most, was during Marshall's time as a peace commissioner to France during the French Revolution and the XYZ Affair. This was the type of book where I kept learning new things and it made me want to find out more about many different aspects of that historical period. That is the highest compliment I can pay a work of history.

Need Help Adding Books

I have recently finished two books of history but they are not in the Booklikes library - or at least I cannot find them.  I tried adding them, but for both, the asin number I tried to use came up with error messages.  I was hoping someone might be able to be add these for me:

 

1. Without Precedent by Joel Richard Paul - https://www.amazon.com/Without-Precedent-Chief-Justice-Marshall/dp/1594488231/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1524335677&sr=1-1&keywords=without+precedent+john+marshall+and+his+times

 

2. John Quincy Adams by James Traub - https://www.amazon.com/John-Quincy-Adams-Militant-Spirit/dp/0465093833/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1524335804&sr=1-4&keywords=John+Quincy+adams

 

Thanks ahead of time to anyone that can help me!

Review of The General vs. the President by H.W. Brands

The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War - H.W. Brands

A great book that is basically a history of the relationship between General MacArthur and President Truman through the Korean War. I am not well read in this part of history, and I learned a great deal about the backstories of each figure from this story. I understood MacArthur was an egomaniac, and this book confirms that, but I think he probably deserves a bit more respect than history gives him for the good that he did (although admittedly, it is very difficult to like him at all as a person).

 

As always, the best compliment I can give is that I want to read more about both MacArthur and Truman after reading this book. I think the only negative to this book, and I find this in many of Brands' books, is that he never seems to have a real love or passion for the figures he write about. However, it is true that he can tell a story and keep the pages turning.

Review of On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century - Timothy Snyder

A very short, yet incredibly important read.  Snyder uses historical examples of the rise of tyranny from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and the fall of Communism to make potential comparisons to the United States and Europe of today.  While he does not necessarily come right out and say the rise of Trump is heading toward a state of tyranny (I don't believe he actually ever uses Trump's name), he does point out some scary parallels.  I think the lesson of this book is for all of us, as citizens of the nation and of the world, to be aware of what is happening and to takes steps as individuals and members of society to prevent all forms of tyranny.

Review of Women and Power by Mary Beard

Women & Power: A Manifesto - Mary Beard

This book is a simple collection of two speeches that historian Mary Beard gave on Women and Power.  the lectures look at how the role of women in positions of power have been viewed beginning in ancient times with parallels that can still be seen today.  I think this is a very important book for all people to read, and my only regret is that she did not take her themes and expand them into a full book.  However, I understand that is not the point.  With that said, it does make me want to read more in this area and it does give me a new perspective when thinking about the role of women in history.

Review of Washington's Revolution by Robert Middlekauff

Washington's Revolution: The Making of America's First Leader - Robert Middlekauff

A deeper look at George Washington and his leadership and vision from his early years through the end of the Revolutionary War.  This was an academic look at how Washington was able to always view the big picture throughout his life and while was not perfect, he was able to keep above the immediate issues of the day to outlast and outperform everyone else.  There were parts of this book that were a bit dry, but overall I enjoyed the read and developed more of an appreciation for Washington.  Oddly, I loved the chapter early in the book that looked at Washington's years as a planter after his experiences in the French and Indian War but before the issues with Britain.  The challenges of trying to run the plantation and make money through the economic system of using British agents was fascinating and not an area I had read much about.  I would recommend this book only for those that already have a solid background in the life of Washington.

Review of Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts - John Scalzi

This was a fun read that played on the traditional science-fiction tropes but did it in a way that was tongue-in-cheek and fun. Scalzi is a very entertaining writer and this was the first stand-alone novel of his that I read. Recommended for anyone that enjoys a good yarn and who may have watched an episode of Star Trek back in the day.

Review of Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Jacques Philippe

Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart - Jacques Philippe

This book was a gift from a friend at a time when I really needed to read it.  It is a collection of insights on faith that I think any Catholic would enjoy.  It's Biblical references led me to want to read more and study my faith more in depth.  Very happy I read this book at this time.