Book Thoughts

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

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.

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.