Category Archives: non-fiction

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches

This is the book I thought I was getting when I downloaded American Nations. SC Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon was about the 40 years of conflict between white settlers and the Comanches on the open plains of the United States.

I’m not sure why they chose to add to the title about Quanah Parker. Maybe it’s because I was actually quite busy while I listened to the audiobook but I didn’t feel like he featured a lot. There was a lot about the history (of violence) between white settlers on the frontier and the Native Americans who already lived there, but Parker was a minor player during most of the novel. He was supposedly the greatest of all the Comanche chiefs, and Gwynne didn’t much go into him, in spite of his name in the title.

That said, I really enjoyed about learning about the different types of Native Americans in the book, although the focus was definitely on the Comanches and plains Indians. I knew they were incredible horsemen, but I had no idea just how incredible, or how young they started training with horses.

I also found it fascinating that Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by Comanches at age 9 and but later adopted by a Comanche family and then married a Comanche warrior was never able to readjust to life in whitelandia after being found and returned to her actual family at the age of 33. She kept trying to escape with her younger children. Oh, she was Quanah’s mother.

Another fascinating narrative was the role the buffalo played in the relations between the plains Indians and white settlers. It made me sad that the innocent buffalo were just pawns in this conflict between two different groups of people.

I enjoyed this book as a history book, although the title was misleading. That said, there are a number of Goodreads reviewers who seem to think the book is “racist.” It’s really, really not.

Gwynne makes it quite clear that the white settlers of the time were just as capable of brutal violence as the Comanche tribe, sometimes more so. And Gwynne does use the language white settlers used to describe the Native Americans of the time; words like “savage” and the like. But context matters here. He would frequently use white people’s own language and quotes when describing their views of the Comanches. People unable to grasp context may find this book prejudiced and unflattering to Native Americans, but I think it’s just as harsh to the white settlers. The white settlers are also described as barbaric and opportunistic. This isn’t something only limited to the descriptions of Native Americans. People who want to see racism here will see it. To me, it’s just a history book. But considering how people want to stop reading Huckleberry Finn because of the use of the ‘n’ word, I won’t hold my breath that people won’t miss the forest for the trees.

Again, I think this book has a lot of good history. That Quanah Parker only shows up for the last third of it makes the title very misleading. I feel like we get a lot more of Cynthia Ann Parker’s story than Quanah’s. Quanah’s story is sort of more about how he negotiated for the tribe as their time was fading, but it wasn’t much part of the book. Still, this is a really good look into life on the plains in the 1800s and early 1900s.


Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw

I listened to two Anthony Bourdain books this year, both read by the author. The first one was Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook and the second was Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

As you probably know, Kitchen Confidential was the book that made Bourdain famous and the one that was probably the most shocking. Of the two, I liked it less.

I didn’t dislike it because of the content – the content was just fine. It was Bourdain reading it. He sounded monotone and kind of bored, and you think that maybe he recorded this book back before he’d really mastered his public persona. He does a 180 in Medium Raw, during which he sounds lively, funny, and engaged in what he’s reading.

A lot of people don’t like Anthony Bourdain. A lot of people see him as one of those guys who never grew out of the smart ass, teenage bad boy thing. He acts like he’s a badass but you don’t really believe him. They say he’s angry, and he can be vulgar and brutal. I always just thought he was being honest.

I’ve always liked his style. He’s gruff and says some wacky stuff from time to time, but Bourdain, to me, is very cool, and he’s cool because he doesn’t care what you think. He doesn’t care if he’s cool, if you think he’s cool, or what you think about him either way. He is what he is and he does what he does, and that kind of honesty and self-assuredness, is the coolest thing anyone can possibly achieve.

Both books are similar – stories of Bourdain’s time in kitchens, how the industry worked, in Medium Raw he talks about what’s changed about the industry since he wrote Kitchen Confidential, etc…

I found both books funny, but Medium Raw funnier, because Bourdain’s sense of humor about himself is on full display. He did it in Kitchen Confidential, too, but it was different. It’s easy to make fun of yourself as a goofy kid just out of college who thinks he’s really cool. It’s much harder to make fun of yourself as an adult who is supposed to be taking himself and his career very seriously.

Medium Raw also torches the Food TV industrial complex that has emerged in the last 20 or so years. That book actually came out in 2010, so Bourdain was criticizing actual chefs who had never worked in restaurants. As someone who really used to enjoy watching those chefs Bourdain made fun of on Food Network, I have to say that in 2018, Food Network kinda sucks now. They used to have actual TV personality chefs making things for most of their programming. Now we mostly watch food based reality TV shows, which are kind of interesting sometimes but mostly bore me to tears. I used to love turning Food Network on during the holidays and see what people used to make their own holidays special. Now it’s just, like, sad people competing to see who can build the biggest most structurally sound gingerbread house.

Sorry, tangent. My point is, I get where Bourdain is coming from even if he caught a lot of shit for it (and he DID catch a lot of shit for it).

I found Bourdain’s stream-of-consciousness style both endearing and conversational, writing the way most of us talk (although without maybe using so many F-bombs). I liked the stories. I know from these books that I could never work in a kitchen, so that is one regret I don’t have to suffer.

Plus, I’m a fairly adventurous eater. I’m not Bourdain’s level of adventurous (I enjoy his TV shows as well, although I don’t watch them often), but it’s nice to hear about food from someone who knows about food. If it wasn’t for him, I probably never would have tried oysters (which I now love) because I just didn’t know what to do with them.

The bottom line is that both books were enjoyable food-centric memoirs. And who doesn’t love food-centric stuff?

Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story

I don’t remember where I picked up Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story. Probably at Barnes & Noble. But I do remember why I picked it up. Our intelligence agencies have been under attack, particularly by Donald Trump, since before he was elected president. And I wanted to have a better idea of what happened at the CIA and got the opportunity.

The author, Jack Devine, worked for the CIA from the 1960s through the 1990s and now runs some kind of “security” company – which sounds like a fancy spy agency, when he describes what his new company does. He says that although he retired in 1999, he could probably have a tail on somebody faster than just about anyone else in the world. I thought this was slightly outlandish, but now I believe him.

Devine started as someone who worked in the CIA equivalent of the mail room and who rose through the ranks to become a high ranking executive. Among other things, he ran covert ops on at least three continents, lived abroad with his wife and children, and knew Aldrich Ames, one of the biggest traitors in the history of the CIA and in modern American history.

The book was fascinating. I read this one. It took me about a month because of wedding planning, but it isn’t a very long book and should be considered a must read of contemporary American history.

Devine recounts for readers how the CIA worked while he was there, and his recipes for “good hunting” – running successful spy operations that endanger as few people as possible while also gathering the most useful possible information from the most reliable sources possible. Devine details how he built relationships with his informants, how the agency operated during his time there, and what he viewed as his and his colleagues’ successes and failures during his career.

Devine also goes into what he believes are problems with the agency now, the biggest being that the emphasis of gathering intelligence has been placed on the backburner and that the CIA is involved in too many paramilitary operations and the jobs that they used to do – meeting people, gathering information and cultivating reliable sources – have been given to the military, who don’t do as good a job because they aren’t trained to do that job. The CIA has also been ensnared bureaucracy and, of late, has been highly politicized.

As interesting as the book was, I had to read it with some grains of salt. Devine worked for the CIA, and still thinks quite highly of it. Everything he says could be lies and considering it’s his legacy, he has plenty of reasons to lie.

That said, I don’t think he’s lying. I think he may sanitize some of the harsher truths and the role he played in some of the stuff that went on, but I don’t think he’s lying outright. I could be entirely wrong, of course, but he strikes me as a man of integrity. He never once calls himself a patriot, but I would call him one. He does call his colleagues patriots, and with few exceptions, thinks very highly of them, even when he disagreed with them either politically or with the actions they chose doing their jobs. It was very refreshing not to hear someone trashing their colleagues left, right, and sideways for attention.

Lastly, some of the good writing in this book is clearly attributed to cowriter Vernon Loeb, who is a professional writer. Props for that.

I highly recommend Good Hunting. Part memoir, part history lesson, I thought it was a well written, highly educational, and very enjoyable read for anyone interested in the inner-workings of the CIA.

The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans

This book was one of my best literary surprises of 2017.

Everyone knows the horror stories that came out of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. The mass executions, forced labor, illness, starvation and almost any other torture that can be imagined probably has a home in a Nazi death camp. My own grandfather was in the United States Army and had pictures of liberated prisoners. From what I understand, his unit helped liberate the camps. When he died, my mom told me my grandmother didn’t know what to do with them. She didn’t want to keep them because they were so horrifying, but didn’t have the heart to just get rid of them either. I’ll have to ask my mom what happened with that. I don’t remember.

This story, however, was kind of new to me. As we’ve put World War II further and further behind us, some of the stories have started to fade, and aren’t as well known. I remember vaguely hearing once that the Nazis made things from the human skin of the people they murdered, but it never really stuck in my mind. Maybe I dismissed it as too horrible to be real, or whatever, but The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans dives right in to that particular rumor and turns it inside out.

The book was written by Mark Jacobson, a journalist, who ends up with a lampshade purchased by Skip Henderson for $35. Henderson bought the lampshade in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from a sidewalk rummage sale in New Orleans. I can’t remember if he actually bought it from self-described neo-nazis, but the lampshade was advertised by the seller as made from victims of the Holocaust.

Henderson, who couldn’t figure out what to do with the lampshade and the idea of having a murdered somebody’s skin in his home made him restless and uneasy, sent the lampshade to Jacobson and basically said, “You’re the investigative journalist, investigate!”

And Jacobson sets out to investigate the lampshade. Genetic testing initially confirmed that the lampshade was made from human skin. Jacobson went on to visit Buchenwald, where such items were supposedly made, Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington DC  (which both refused the lampshade and maintained that items made of human skin were a myth), Holocaust deniers/neo-Nazis, a psychic, the mythology surrounding items supposedly made of human skin, the mythology surrounding the Holocaust, and the black market in which these kinds of taboo items are allegedly bought and sold.

I say allegedly, because in spite of the fact that human skin artifacts were widely reported by prisoners in the death camps, this lampshade is the first grisly artifact of this type to be discovered and subsequently investigated. Most Holocaust museums maintain that objects made of human skin were a legend, some kind of mass hallucination in the mind of desperate prisoners who, with good reason, saw even more exaggerated evil than was really there. Still though, most (contemporary) legends have some roots in historical truths.

I loved this book. First of all, I listened to it, and the narrator, Johnny Heller, really did a great job. I liked his voice, and he did a wonderful job balancing the seriousness of the subject matter with the dark humor Jacobson employs all through his investigations in Poland, Germany, Israel, and the United States. It’s clear Jacobson doesn’t take neo-Nazis seriously, but he does try to get to the bottom of their insanity. And some of the stuff these people say is darkly hilarious except for the fact that they’re serious.

I don’t remember exactly what happened to the lampshade but IIRC, at the time of publication, Jacobson still had it and could sleep at night having done the best he could to get to the truth. Or something of that nature.

So The Lampshade comes highly recommended by me. It was a well researched report on a grisly topic that is significant in not just remembering the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Third Reich, but that there is a continued ongoing effort made by good people to put things right in small ways after an unimaginable horror. For all the research about the Holocaust, this book happened because neither Skip Henderson nor Mark Jacobson could live with the idea that a lampshade allegedly made of a Holocaust victim’s skin was in their possession and they made no attempt to do justice by the victim – in this case, the only justice available being to discover the truth and tell the story.


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.

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 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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