Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, Hollow City & Library of Souls

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, Hollow City, and Library of Souls are a trilogy of young adult novels written by Ransom Riggs which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I picked Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, the first book in the series, up off the table at Barnes & Noble because of the cover. It was a little girl levitating. And I bought it because of the pictures inside, which were all of children in pictures doing hard to believe things. Some of the pictures were funny, some were creepy, all were in black and white, all were intriguing, and it convinced me to buy the book without really investigating it first.

So when I started it, I had no idea it was a YA book.

People piss all over YA books as if they can’t be enjoyed as adults because they aren’t sophisticated enough, and act as if you are an immature neophyte simpleton if you do enjoy them. While I find a lot of them not so good (paranormal romance isn’t much my thing – romance in general isn’t much my thing), every so often I find a YA book (or series of books) that I really, really enjoy. People are really snobby about this, but I have nothing against YA books, just STUPID YA books. But, to be fair, I’m pretty against ALL stupid books, YA and adult alike.

The premise of Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is that 16 year old Jacob Portman watches his grandfather die, killed by a monster that only he can see. It sends him into kind of a PTSD depression, which is understandable, since after telling his story, everyone thinks he’s crazy. Following a series of clues, some suggestions from his psych doctor, and taking advantage of the fact his parents are desperate for him to recover from his illness, he convinces his father to take him to Wales, where his grandfather had supposedly survived in a children’s home as a Jew during the Holocaust.

Exploring the house, which is now in ruins, Jacob meets and follows a girl who can create fire with her hands and who calls out his grandfather’s name upon seeing him. Jacob is later confused to find that the inn where he and his father were staying is different, as are the town residents. He’s rescued by the girl, named Emma, and a boy, Millard, and finds himself transported to the children’s home of the stories his grandfather told him when he was a kid. The children in the home are all “peculiars” (children with some sort of supernatural/enhanced/strange ability; Emma can create fire, Millard is invisible,  Olive can levitate, etc…) and the headmistress is Miss Alma Peregrine, an Ymbryne (a woman who can transform into a bird and create time loops).

After some investigating, Jacob discovers that his grandfather was also a peculiar, with his  ability being that he can see hollowgasts – monsters that feed on peculiars for their souls. Jacob realizes that he has inherited his grandfather’s gift and that the monster that he saw kill his grandfather was a hollowgast.

The story goes on from there over the course of that book and the other two books.

I loved these books – loved, loved, looooved. They were a fun story with all the things that make a great fantasy story – fun, adventure, epic consequences, quirky characters, friendship, loyalty, and even a dash of romance (fairly well done romance, as far as romance goes).

I also enjoyed the appearance of new characters throughout the series, but not so many it was overwhelming (looking at you, George R.R. Martin). One of my favorite characters was introduced in Library of Souls. Sharon is a boatman who ferries and guides the kids through Devils Acre. I find Sharon very darkly funny and very relatable. The books had a lot of humor in them as well – some of it rather dark, which always appeals to me.

So it’s YA lit but it’s enjoyable for any age. If you want something fun to read with your kids, or just for you, these books are it.

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Legends of the Dragonrealm, Volume I

Richard Knaak’s Legends of the Dragonrealm, Volume 1 was another book I proudly quit in 2017.

I am obsessed with dragons. Obsessed. You wouldn’t know it looking at me – I don’t have a dragon tattoo or any weird piercings or anything of the sort. I have no pictures of dragons up anywhere. I have some dragon figurines/statues/sculptures/whatever and some jewelry. But I’m obsessed with dragons. I have been since I was a little kid. I look at pictures of them, for awhile I tried to draw them, I know a ridiculous amount about them considering they’re not real, and I read about them.

This book has been sitting on my shelf forever. I bought it for a great price when Borders was going out of business and that has to be…jeez…6 years ago now? This summer, I finally sat down and started it.

It.was.awful.

Not the dragons. The dragons were interesting. So were the maps in the front of the book.

Everything else? SNOOZEFEST. Cabe, the “hero,” was very boring. Supposedly he was a magician? Or a wizard? But he didn’t know. Also, something about his hair. And his dad, who was a dark wizard? And a beautiful sorceress who was going to help him defeat his dad? And a gryphon king. Or something.

It was all too boring for words. I was at page 200 of about 900 when I put the book down and decided life was too short. I’m glad I only bought the one book and not the second and third volumes, which I think were also available at the time. Sometimes my mother is right.

“Why don’t you see if you like it before buying Volume II and Volume III?”

Saved some money there.

I’m sure someone out there likes that book. I’m sure multiple people do. It gets 4 out of 5 stars on GoodReads. I’m not one of those people.

On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the most interesting, well spoken men I’ve heard in our time, so when I saw On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance in the audiobook library, I realized that this interesting, well spoken man had a book that combined some of my favorite things:

+ his interesting, well spoken point of view
+ New York City
+ the Jazz Age
+ jazz itself
+ art & culture

And so, naturally, I checked it out and started listening.

This was a particularly enjoyable hybrid book. Part memoir and part history book, Jabbar took us on his journey as a kid, born Lew Alcindor, to fit in, and find himself through the prior work of other African Americans.

One of my favorite parts of the Harlem Renaissance is jazz. It was a pleasure listening to Jabbar go through the clubs in Harlem, the music, the musicians, and the dancing of the time period.  I wish I could have heard Duke Ellington and Lena Horne at The Cotton Club, and while I find the ‘whites only’ restriction of the era absolutely repulsive, exploiting the talent of black Americans for money by catering only to white American audiences, to hear that kind of talent? What an amazing opportunity.

Jabbar also spoke about Zora Neale Hurston (author of, most notably, Their Eyes Were Watching God), Langston Hughes (one of my favorite poets and one of the poets I studied during a project in high school), Louis Armstrong, and the Harlem Globetrotters, among others. I loved hearing especially about Hughes.

Also: Jabbar gets into how blacks ended up in Harlem in the first place (hint: they were forced out of other areas of the city), so yes, he also went into politics and legal issues black Americans faced during the time period (which makes sense, since it was the height of Jim Crow).

He also tracked his personal journey, discovering these artists, how his mentors helped him, how they helped him become a better kid, a better basketball player, and eventually a better man.

The coolest thing about Kareem is that he is so much more than a basketball player, and he contributes so much more to our culture than just basketball – although he has no problem talking basketball with fans and seems to enjoy using basketball as a key to unlocking other people’s other interests.

“If the pinnacle of my influence as a human being was perfecting the sky hook, I would not feel very satisfied.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I loved this contribution to our cultural understanding. It was informative, interesting, and fun. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Kareem’s and basketball, but also to fans of jazz, history, art, New York, and any other number of things that intersect in the Harlem Renaissance. It was a really enjoyable book.

 

Image result for on the shoulders of giants quote

Russia, The Wild East, Parts I & II

I’ve been fairly interested in Russia for about a decade. Not enough to actually go there or study Russian or anything, but the history, yes. I know. I’m so devoted.

I thought this set of rentals were two audiobooks, but instead they were two 5 hour radio programs produced for BBC radio. I didn’t return them to the library for actual books though. I was already committed.

The first part of the series, From Rulers to Revolutions, covered Russia from the Middle Ages (maybe slightly earlier) up through the 1917 Revolution. The second part of the series, The Rise and Fall of the Soviets, covered the 20th and 21st centuries until, I think, 2014. Barack Obama was definitely still in office when this program was produced.

From Rulers to Revolutions took a look at Russian history and, particularly, how the Russian political system developed from a group of princes to one Czar and looked in depth at all the times Russia nearly became a democratic monarchy, but didn’t. In most cases, if not all, the Russian monarch simply could not bring themselves to give up their power to any kind of legislature or election process or anything of the sort. Peter the Great couldn’t do it, Catherine the Great couldn’t do it, etc…

The Rise and Fall of the Soviets, of course, looked at Lenin, Stalin, the Bolsheviks, etc… all the way through to Putin, who is an authoritarian in his own right.

I knew very little about Russian history so I thought this did an excellent job explaining at least the basics. One of the questions posed both early on and towards the end of the program was “Why does Russia always turn to despotism rather than to democracy as a solution to their problems?”

Martin Sixsmith, who wrote and presented these programs, was a journalist in Russia during the 1980s and 1990s, and tries his best to answer why Russia has never been able to truly reform itself and whether it will do so in the near future. Sixsmith painstakingly examines the country’s major events and influential rulers for clues to Russia’s pattern of behavior.

It was an interesting program and I highly recommend it if you’re interested in at least the basics of  Russian history and its politics.

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock

I’ve been obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock since I was about…11. I think that’s about how old I was when I saw ‘The Birds,’ which, if I remember correctly, is the first Hitchcock movie I ever saw. I didn’t like it at first, but the more I’ve watched it since, the more I love it.

The random, coordinated group attacks of birds on humans for no explained reason at first left me completely unsatisfied as an 11 year old but now is one of my favorite things about almost any thriller/horror film – something completely normal that starts behaving abnormally for no explained reason. It isn’t uncommon to see a murder of crows hanging out at a park or a flock of seagulls near a bay. But when you run at them, they go away, they don’t launch coordinated attacks.

It’s a great film.

Anyway, I watched a bunch of Hitchcock films after that – ‘Strangers on a Train,’ ‘Notorious,’ ‘Rebecca,’ ‘Spellbound,’ etc…and finally ‘Psycho’ when I was 12 or 13 and my mom decided I could handle it. I loved ‘Psycho’ in a weird, obsessive way. I think I watched it a billion times. It made me want to work in movies. (Spoiler alert: my career in film didn’t work out.)

My love of Hitchcock’s films hasn’t faded although the time I have to study them since graduating from college has diminished a lot.

So I saw this (updated!) biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, and jumped at the chance to listen to it. I really enjoyed it, but I don’t know if it was because I’m such an obsessive fan or if it was because it was really very good. It was quite detailed, which I enjoyed.

I liked hearing about Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, who was an equal in writing and often cleaned up a lot of his scripts. He never filmed a script without her approval, and while their relationship seemed to be more about companionship and similar interests than passionate romance, Hitchcock could barely function whenever Alma was away or ill. When she was sick, later in their lives, he sat vigil in the hospital with her.

It’s hard to find out a lot about Hitchcock’s childhood online. It isn’t well documented, and even in this biography there were gaps. What we do know is that Hitchcock was raised Catholic. If you know anything about the Catholic Church of Hitchcock’s time, it’s not surprising that he had warped views of humor, sex, and death. In fact, Hitchcock’s sense of humor could be wicked as well, and rather nasty. He played a number of cruel pranks on people he decided he didn’t like.

But anyway, Hitchcock’s films very much reflected what was going on in his life, and reflected his Catholic upbringing, and I really liked learning about different film techniques he used and developed himself.

It was difficult for me, though, to hear for the first time “the dark side” of Hitchcock’s personality. I mean, I kinda knew, but the details are always hard for me to hear for the first time (and this is true for anyone I like, or who does something that I like, not just Hitchcock, before I fully accept the situation). Hitchcock’s obsession with film technique and story and everything that made his films so great extended to his actresses. He was obsessed with Grace Kelly, Joan Fontaine, and Ingrid Bergman, but it sounded as if he managed to control himself until he met Tippi Hedren, who he was actively cruel to and aggressive with, and who he was vengeful towards after she rebuffed his advances.

None of this was a shock to me, although yes, hearing the details made me cringe. Hedren’s been very open about this for years and I always believed her even if it was hard to reconcile my love for Hitchcock’s films with the fact that he was abusive towards her. As someone who has been dealing with this dilemma of separating the artist from the art since I was about 15 or 16, none of the Hollywood scandals of the last few months have shocked me at all, or particularly troubled me except in the sense that this is so wide spread and nobody said anything. But the “What do we do with the art?” thing now? No issue.

I’ve done it with the Founding Fathers, athletes, people I know personally, and myself. People have good and bad within them. They tend to do good and bad things. You have to separate the good from the bad or you’re not going to be able to have friends or enjoy anything. Sure, you have to have your line, and you should not tolerate abuse, and people who hurt other people should be punished accordingly. But somebody who commits adultery and also makes films? It’s disappointing, I guess, but what do I care really? Mel Gibson is a horrific human being. I’m still going to watch Signs in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.

I get if other people can’t do that. You don’t have to go the way I do. But I still stop to watch ‘The Birds’ or ‘Psycho’ or ‘North by Northwest’ whenever they’re on. They’re great films, even if Hitchcock wasn’t a great guy.

I loved The Dark Side of Genius. Again, I’m a huge fan of Hitch’s work, so I may be biased about the book, but I found it fascinating. Any movie buff who likes Hitch’s stuff should read it. The reader gets so much more background and it makes watching the films so much more interesting.

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

This is another one of those books that I listened to because there’s a gaping hole in my education. After the adoption of the Constitution through to the Civil War, there wasn’t a  detailed study of what was going on in the country in my education. The presidents between Jefferson to Lincoln didn’t get a lot of play. Or maybe I just don’t remember. But mostly I think they didn’t get a lot of attention.

So, I borrowed American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham to begin filling that hole.

Meacham said he wrote the book to show the contradictions that defined Jackson. He represents both the best and worst of us, and had an enormous capacity for both kindness and callous cruelty. If you were his friend, he’d do anything for you and never believe a bad word about you (see: The Petticoat Affair). If you weren’t? He was a ferocious opponent who would stop at nothing to win the argument or get his way (poor John C. Calhoun).

Andrew Jackson is one of those presidents nobody talks about anymore in any kind of connotation that isn’t completely negative. People use the term “genocide” when referring to Jackson’s policy of Indian removal. While there is absolutely no justification for this policy, which was incredibly racist and cruel, I think it’s a stretch to call it “genocide.” Don’t get me wrong, obviously the Road to Hell and everything, but part of reading this stuff is looking at context. Jackson wanted the Native Americans land, but wiping them out was never something he wanted to do. Jackson also believed he could only accommodate Indian self-rule if they were on lands west of the Mississippi River.

Naturally this drama took place in the South, because that bastion of liberty and equality just never stopped giving us shining examples of truly enlightened thinking. Some of these tribes were the same ones Washington tried to make peace with but failed because he couldn’t enforce the treaties he signed. One historian actually argued that Jackson’s policy saved some of these tribes, because the tribes that didn’t relocate from the southeast disappeared entirely. I thought that was a real stretch but I suppose it’s true? Preserving native cultures was clearly not Jackson’s intention either.

I liked this quote, that Meacham wrote, regarding Indian Removal policy.

“There is nothing redemptive about Jackson’s Indian policy, no moment, as with Lincoln and slavery, where the moderate on the morally urgent question did the right and brave thing. Not all great presidents were always good, and neither individuals nor nations are without evil.”

But there was a lot more to him than this one policy.

Jackson had no children but was a family man, loved children, and adopted two Indian children who he loved as his own (again, the whole “contradictions defined him” thing). He and his wife were guardian to his wife’s brother’s children after his brother died. He was a respected military leader who won a resounding victory over the British in the battle of New Orleans in the final battle of the War of 1812. He worked to bring democracy and independence to even the poorest of white people (but was an unrepentant slaveholder).

And Presidents that followed, including some of the Presidents we hold in highest esteem (Lincoln, FDR, Theodore Roosevelt, etc…) considered Jackson a great president. Jackson was a unionist above all other things. Without the Union, there could be no progress of anything else. Jackson actively opposed nullification in favor of a strong central government. He worked against those who proposed seccession. He changed the presidency to a tool to use directly on the behalf of the people who elected him rather than a mostly impotent position on the periphery of the government.

Jackson was a skilled politician and media manipulator. He, more or less, invented the Democratic party. He fought against the National Bank, believing it gave creditors too much power and the people at its mercy too little. His faith in the American people was second to none.

Understanding the world Jackson lived in helps us understand our own, because in a lot of ways, his political environment wasn’t so different from our own. The best and worst of Jackson is the best and worst of the United States. As Meacham writes:

“He was the most contradictory of men. A champion of extending freedom and democracy to even the poorest of whites, Jackson was an unrepentant slaveholder. A sentimental man who rescued an Indian orphan on a battlefield to raise in his home, Jackson was responsible for the removal of Indian tribes from their ancestral lands. An enemy of Eastern financial elites and a relentless opponent of the Bank of the United States, which he believed to be a bastion of corruption, Jackson also promised to die, if necessary, to preserve the power and prestige of the central government. Like us and our America, Jackson and his America achieved great things while committing grievous sins.”

I loved this look at Jackson’s time in the White House. American Lion helped me understand Jackson as a politician and a man. And I loved the voice of the man who read the audiobook (whose name I don’t know). This was truly a great audiobook and a balanced, interesting look at the seventh President of the United States.

All this said, considering he did support and sign the Indian Removal Policy which led to countless deaths, he should probably be off the money. On the other hand, considering he hated the National Bank, his being on the money (the most common bill!) is kind of the ultimate troll.

But that’s a debate for another day. We’ll fix the money in our own good time, I guess.

“The people, sir – the people will set things right.” – Andrew Jackson

The Shining

I keep telling myself I’m going to read more of Stephen King and so this was part of my attempt to keep that promise to myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Stephen King (what I’ve read) and I don’t look down on him for not being high literature or anything of the sort. I’m just bad at commitment. But I did TWO Stephen King books this year, the first being this one.

This one was really good.

Stephen King is remarkable at pulling you into a story. In the first few paragraphs, he can hook and reel you in to his stories the way an experience fisherman can reel in a trout. That happened to me here.

The Shining reminded me a lot of The Haunting of Hill House – except much more elaborately fleshed out – and I remembered later that King was a big fan.

Anyway, this has been out for a long time, book and film alike, so I’m not too worried about spoilers. Basically, Jack Torrence is an alcoholic and a screw up, and in an ongoing effort to rebuild his life, brings his wife, Wendy, and their six year old son, Danny, to the Overlook Hotel, where he’s to be the caretaker for the winter.

The Overlook is nestled in an extremely picturesque but remote part of the Rocky Mountains and nearly impossible to reach safely once winter comes and the snow starts in earnest (November-ish). The family will be months without contact from the outside world.

The story is told from several points of view, the main one being Jack’s, but also with Wendy, Danny, and a gentleman name Dick Hallorann, who, like Danny, has what he calls “the shine.” The shine is telepathic abilities that allow Danny to read minds and have premonitions, both awake and asleep. Each person’s “shining” varies in strength and ability, but Hallorann tells Danny that Danny’s is very strong.

Meanwhile, strange things start happening at the Overlook once all the guests are gone, and we learn more and more about its history, which is fairly dark. At first, things begin strangely. Stuff just seems off, and Danny won’t go to certain parts of the hotel and its grounds because, unbeknownst to his parents, he sees things there. Wendy and Danny both figure out before they’re trapped that it would be best to leave the hotel, either with or without Jack (who is on his last chance from his last remaining friend) but decide to stay because they think in the end the experience will help the family.

But things begin to spiral in earnest once the family is trapped by the snow, and Jack, Wendy, and Danny all start seeing ghosts from the Overlook’s past. While Wendy and Danny are both also experiencing hallucinations and ghosts from the Overlook’s checkered past, both remain the same in terms of behavior. But Jack’s alcoholic habits all reappear without actually drinking, including constantly wiping his mouth, popping Excedrin without water and verbally abusive, sometimes physically violent, outbursts.

Long story short, Jack loses his mind entirely, Danny has to call for help to Hallorann using “the shine” because this story was written before cellphones and the phone lines were out and Jack destroyed their radio, and they barely get out of the Overlook alive. For those who aren’t familiar (all five of you), I’m not clarifying who “they” are, but they do make it out alive.

The Shining is an older book at this point, 40 years old, and Stephen King seems pretty evolved on his social takes, so I wonder how he set out to write Jack and how he views him, then and now. We learn pretty early on in the book that Jack broke Danny’s arm after an alcoholic binge for a minor infraction, and while Jack has spent years trying to make up for it, I never really liked him after finding that out.

Wendy spends a lot of her time as narrator telling the reader about the “real” Jack, but I always viewed Jack as a violent guy who can control himself when he isn’t drinking but whose “real” personality rears its ugly head whenever he meets up with his buddies Jack, Jim, and Johnny. I didn’t like him. And since I did know the premise of the story by just knowing pop culture basics, and knew what was eventually going to happen, I just kept waiting for it.

It was a really good story, but was I supposed to like Jack? Or feel sorry for him? I didn’t. I’m not sure I was supposed to. Wendy’s tolerance of his behavior made me dislike her too, but not to the same extent.

I have a thing about books and movies in closed in spaces where there’s a limited set of characters and circumstances. ClueThe Haunting of Hill HouseThe MousetrapMurder on the Orient ExpressAnd Then There Were None, etc… are some of my favorite stories. Characters are “trapped” in a specific setting and the story has to be clever enough to take away movement as a plot point.

The Shining follows in that tradition. I didn’t like Jack, but I really liked The Shining. And I liked it much better than the film with Jack Nicholson. If you’re going back and forth on picking it up, pick it up.

The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism

I’ve always been a fan of the Jews. My parents enrolled me in a Jewish nursery school, I am well versed in Jewish traditions for a non-Jewish person, and if I had to pick an organized religion to belong to, it’d probably be Judaism. I can’t really suspend my disbelief enough to be part of a religion, but if forced by the state or something, I’d be Jewish.

And honestly, what’s not to like about a non-violent group of educated people who mind their own business and like reading and feasting? Nothing. That’s what.

But as we all know, Jews get a lot of flack from…well, most other groups. They’re blamed for everything from the black plague epidemics int he middle ages to the reason Germany was in such bad shape after World War I. (Spoiler alert: neither of these things were the Jews fault.)

Most things Jews are blamed for aren’t their fault, and so, as a sympathetic gentile, I started listening to The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

I don’t know what I thought I was going to hear, but it wasn’t this.

The book went a lot into historical antisemitism, from the the early days of Christianity through to very recently. The stories from the past, about how Jews were blamed for disappearances, murders, disease during the Middle Ages, and then again during the 20th century where it was believed they were masterminds of a global conspiracy to…I don’t even know what, I was familiar with and understood.

Antisemitism does take a lot of forms and has changed over time, but some of the stuff Goldhagen cites as modern antisemitism I’m not sure is, particularly later stuff. The best example being that policy disagreements with the state of Israel are antisemitic. Sure, a lot of people who oppose Israel’s policies ARE antisemitic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is. There were a lot of blanket statements here I found too broad.

Goldhagen also takes shots at recent scholars but I don’t know enough about them to really form an opinion on whether or not they’re antisemitic. Goldhagen certainly sounds as if they are, but I really don’t know them well enough and his argument is clearly spun to sound like it.

Anyway, some of this stuff was so ridiculous I nearly turned it off (it was an audiobook). I ended up listening all the way through but a lot of it felt like it was a reach and they really could have made a shorter, better book if they’d left some of the later, wilder claims. I believe he was accusing all of Europe and the United States for being antisemitic for…reasons. I’m not denying antisemitism exists, I’ve seen it myself, but this idea that everything is done with antisemitic motivation is over the top.

It also didn’t help the audiobook’s cause that I felt like the person reading it (whose name escapes me now) was practically yelling at me. It sounded more like a political speech than a book, and it went on for hours. Outrage and anger and volume are not really what makes a good audiobook for me.

There was some interesting history in this book. There really was. A lot of the stuff about much earlier antisemitism I didn’t know and was fascinated by its origins, but the whole later part of the book, to me, was a waste of time. I’m sure there are other books on antisemitism out there, and I’d recommend one of those before this one. The last parts of this book felt more like grasping at straws than a lot of enlightening information.

I’d go with a different book.

Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea

One of my favorite activities is finding out all the gaps in my high school education. I don’t know why I love doing this. It’s usually in a spirit of complaining about all the things Yorktown High School could have just done better. I have a lot of critiques of literally everything about my high school education.

One thing I never understood when I was in US history class was why we skipped learning about the actual wars the country was involved in. We’d study all the way up to the war and skip the war entirely, and move on to the aftermath of the war. Seriously. As 16-17-18 year olds, it made us so angry. The war was the interesting part.

Naturally we spent a lot of time leading up to the Civil War and then immediately skipped the Civil War and moved on to Reconstruction…

…which means I missed this whole thing about Sherman’s March to the Sea and exactly what it entailed. My mom was stunned when she mentioned it and I, having never studied the actual Civil War in any fashion, had no idea what she was talking about.

So when I saw Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea by Noah Andre Trudeau, I figured this might be a good opportunity to catch up on some history I wasn’t all that familiar with.

Well. It kinda worked.

I absorbed a lot of information about the strategy of the Union Army and what Sherman was doing. I ask again, since Sherman effectively conducted the campaign that won the Civil War for the Union, why wasn’t he put on the money?

What I didn’t learn was much of where Sherman went or when.

I listened to this book as an audiobook but I think I probably should have done it as a real book. I assume a real book would have some maps? I have no idea what the geography of Georgia or South Carolina is. I don’t know where the crucial rail lines were. I’m not familiar with the finer points of the terrain down there. The significance of long descriptions of military tactics, movements, and actions that cut off Georgia and South Carolina from the rest of the Confederacy were all lost on me.

It was an interesting book, I think someone getting into Civil War history would really like it. I think someone reading the book would really like it. I don’t recommend the audiobook for beginners though. It was just too hard for me to follow without also checking out a visual guide.

Joseph J. Ellis (Part II)

So, as the conclusion to Part I, here is Part II! (I know, I know. Lame.)

I listened to two other books by Joseph J. Ellis this year.

The first was Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence. It examined the middle of 1776 (from May to October, so a little more than the actual summer), probably the most consequential 6 month period in the creation of the United States, and wove narratives of newly minted Americans George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as those of British Admiral Lord Richard Howe and General William Howe, into a compelling, day to day political and military narrative of the period.

The Continental Congress and the Continental Army were so short of money and supplies that they had to make a lot of decisions on the fly. The book looks at the role of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet, and how it fueled the revolutionary fire. It explained the rules of honor in the 18th century, which explained why Washington was so willing to engage the British when he really had no chance, and how the British military’s arrogance contributed to their eventual loss of the war. They could have crushed the American Revolution in its infancy, but they just didn’t take it seriously enough to destroy the Continental Army once and for all.

It was a very good book, although a lot of it I already knew. What was refreshing, though, was the British perspective. A lot of American history books gloss over, or entirely eliminate, what happened on the British side of the Revolutionary War. (I can only imagine that in Britain they go over it, but who knows?) It was nice to get some of that here.

The last book in this vein I listened to this year was The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. It dove into the creation of the federal government and the adoption of the Constitution. The sheer amount of work it took Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay to sell the Constitution and centralized federal government to an American populace disinclined to allow the growth of any centralized national government (understandably, as the Revolutionary War came at great cost) is nothing short of political brilliance and skillful manipulation on a scale I’m not sure we’ll ever see again.

People don’t seem entirely aware that the colonies banded together to fight the common threat of Great Britain and then planned to mostly go their separate ways (for more about that, read this book). This presented a series of problems that made the country completely ineffective at, basically, being a country.

Hamilton and Madison get a majority of the credit for the Constitution, and they deserve the lion’s share: they wrote the majority of what we now know as the Federalist Papers. Hamilton had to manipulate Washington to some extent, as he was very conscious of his legacy. Washington retired from public life after the Revolution, and only came back into service when he felt he had no choice. Washington threw his support behind the Constitution and national government when he realized all he fought for during the war would be lost if the country fell apart, and he knew going in that he’d have to serve as first President, even if he didn’t really want to.  Madison had to out argue Patrick Henry (arguably our greatest orator) for support of the Constitution (Henry was staunchly against a stronger government) in front of the Virginia legislature – no small feat. John Jay, in addition to contributing to the Federalist Papers, was a cerebral diplomat but also wielded a lot of influence with people in the position to influence. He was a respected lawyer, and supported a stronger government because as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1784-1789, he lacked the authority needed to make treaties under the Articles of Confederation.

The book gets into some other issues, but it also shines a light on men who don’t get much attention when it comes to the creation of the country, most notably Gouverneur Morris, who wrote a lot of the Constitution, including the all important preamble, and Robert Morris (no relation), who more or less financed a huge portion of the Revolutionary War out of his personal fortune, and who, along with Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, built the American financial system from scratch. If I remember correctly he, more or less, created the concept of “credit.”

Robert Morris was probably my favorite discovery in this book. I had heard of him but not that much about him, and the way Ellis explained his individual role (the others too, but Morris especially) really hammered home how much things have changed. He financed the war because basically he felt it was his duty. That old JFK quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you” etc… that WAS Morris.

In the same vein, I didn’t fully realize or understand the role honor played in the creation of the Constitution. These people didn’t want to be remembered as the people who improbably won a war but who failed at creating a country afterwards. They knew they were going to remembered, and they worked to create how they were going to be remembered.

It was a really solid, interesting look at how the United States became the United States. I highly recommend it, especially if you know the basics but you’re a little fuzzy on the time period. It’s illuminating.

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