Tag Archive | non-fiction

Book Review: Rush

Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father, by Stephen Fried

In my quest to learn more about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, I checked this out on audiobook.  I had really only heard Benjamin Rush’s name, and knew almost nothing about him.

Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father

Rush had a fascinating career in several roles central to the founding of the United States.  He earned the respect of Benjamin Franklin at a young age, who helped him get into the University of Edinburgh to complete his medical degree.  He already had a Bachelor of Arts degree (earned at the age of 14!) from the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton University.  He had also apprenticed in the medical field for several years.

Rush was a prolific writer and wrote extensively both on medical subjects and the politics of the day.  His work as a doctor for many of the members of the Continental Congress opened the door for his own election into the Congress.  He was one of the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence.  During the Revolutionary War, he was appointed to serve as the surgeon-general for Washington’s Continental Army.  He did create some controversy, as he complained about his colleagues and wrote letters behind their backs, including letters critical of General Washington.

After the war, Rush continued working as a physician and he taught at Pennsylvania Hospital.  He was a pioneer in the fields of medical illness and addiction and was also one of the first people to discuss Savant Syndrome.  However, he was also criticized, especially in later years, for holding on to the ideas of bloodletting and the use of purgatives.

The book is a comprehensive biography of his life and explores his career, his political writings, and his relationships with friends and family in great detail.  I thought Fried did a good job balancing the positive and negative aspects of Rush’s actions and personality.  And I learned so much about this less-known Founding Father.

3 stars.

Book Review: Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, by James L. Swanson

As a fan of our 16th President Abraham Lincoln, I have been wanting to read this book for awhile. It did not disappoint!

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer

We are all familiar with the story of our 16th President’s untimely death due to an assassin’s bullet in April 1865.  However, do you know the story of the plan that lead up to it?  A plan to not only assassinate Lincoln, but also to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson.  It is believed that General Ulysses S. Grant was also a target of the plot, as he was supposed to be attending Ford’s Theatre with the President that evening.

Of course, Lincoln was the only man killed, shot in the Presidential Box at the theatre about 10:15 pm by John Wilkes Booth, who with dramatic flair, jumped to the stage, breaking his leg in the process, and fled.  Booth was well known, so he went into hiding as he attempted to cross the Potomac River and get deeper into Virginia, where Confederates still held territory.

Swanson book documents the plot, the conspirators, and Booth’s flight into Virginia after the assassination.  He uses primary sources to tell the story of where Booth went after he crossed the bridge outside of DC, and why it took twelve long days to pin him down in Garrett’s barn, where the final standoff occurred.  He also weaves in little known stories of the players involved, filling out these important chapters in American history.  Did you know that Laura Keene, the actress in the play that night, made her way into the box after Lincoln was shot, asked and was incredulously granted permission to cradle the dying President’s head in her lap?

For fans of Lincoln, this book fills in some of the gaps of his assassination and the days following, and is not to be missed.

5 stars.

Book Review: White Trash

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg

This book was a pick from the library audiobook collection; I chose it because it was available and sounded interesting.

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The issue of class in American has existed since the first colonies were established in the 1600s.  Indentured servants were among the very first settlers in the new British colonies, agreeing to long periods of servitude in exchange for the chance at a better life.  Sadly, the life expectancy and risk of death in the colonies meant that many, if not most, of these indentures were for a lifetime.  Indentured servitude was never as widespread as slavery in America, and as a result isn’t as widely known.

The book details issues of class in the United States from those initial colonies up to modern times, discussing the impacts that societal and governmental policies have had on the poor.  Isenberg talks about the role of class in politics, both as a way to get elected, by claiming to be a man of the people, coming up to leadership from an upbringing in poverty, and as a way to control the poor through policy setting.  Lincoln, Truman, Johnson, Clinton, and others are all Presidents who have capitalized on their poor common man roots, some more common than others.

Isenberg explores issues such as the history of words that address class, and how they have entered the modern lexicon, to issues of housing, education and entertainment in depth.  The book is largely about class, but does at times explore the intersections between class, race and religion in the U.S. as well.  It’s often not easy to separate the issues.  Isenberg presents the information in a way that is insightful, and probably as neutral as one could be.

She doesn’t offer solutions to eliminate or lessen the impact of class on social mobility, but she does bring light to a subject that isn’t often discussed or well understood.  It isn’t exactly a scholarly book, but there is a fair amount of compiled research and understanding of the last 400 years of North American history here.  Certainly a worthwhile read, especially in today’s times!

4 stars.

Book Review: Grant

What an incredibly comprehensive Presidential biography!  Grant, by Ron Chernow, tips the scales at 1074 pages (I read the audiobook version), and details the entirety of Grant’s life.  Unlike Grant’s own memoirs, Chernow explores his marriage and family as well as his professional life.

Grant

Grant was a complex man.  He was born to a middle class stable family that was strongly religious and emotionally distant.  Grant excelled as an equestrian and ended up getting an appointment to West Point though his father’s connections.  He was a mediocre student, getting good grades in courses he liked and not doing well where he wasn’t interested.  He graduated in the middle of his class.

He married Julia Dent, the daughter of a slave-owning Missouri farmer, after courting her for years while working to get his future father-in-law to accept him.  It was during that time that he served in the Mexican American War, and began to display his skill in combat operations.

Grant floundered for a while after marrying Julia.  His military career took him away from her for long periods, and he didn’t do well on his own.  He began drinking heavily, and there is some evidence that a drinking episode led to his resignation from the Army in the 1850s.  He puttered away unsuccessfully as a farmer, selling firewood, trying to get a civil appointment as an engineer, and finally went to work in his father’s tannery – which he absolutely despised.  It wasn’t until the Civil War began and he went back to the Army that he found his way.  And boy did he ever.

This is likely the part of the story that you know.  Grant rose though the ranks of the Western theater, capturing Fort Donelson and later implementing a successful siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Having caught the eye of President Lincoln, Grant was appointed as the Lieutenant General of all Union Armies.  Rumors of drinking binges continued to haunt Grant from time to time, and multiple people sent stories to Lincoln, leading to one of Lincoln’s now famous quotes, “I cannot spare this man.  He fights.”  Ulysses S. Grant brought the war to a close, accepting the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Grant continued as commander of the Army after the war ended, leading the Army’s role in reconstruction in the South.  Reconstruction failed for many reasons, but Grant did everything he could to advance peace and the rights of the former slaves.  He believe more than most at the time that blacks deserved equal rights and the opportunity to vote in the post-war era.

Riding on the coattails of his wartime fame, Grant was elected to two terms as President.  Most believe that his Presidency was mediocre; he ended up being caught in a number of political scandals as a result of his trust in his friends who were participating in a variety of nefarious activities.

Chernow documents Grant’s life thoroughly and he tries to speak of Grant’s strengths and failings in equal measures. He is clearly biased towards Grant though, always willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, preferring to think of Grant as an innocent soul who was duped by dishonest friends and political appointments rather than being complicit in their activities.  We will probably never know how much Grant knew.

The only real annoyance for me was Chernow’s obsessive focus on Grant’s drinking.  By all accounts, Grant had largely gained control of his alcohol problem by the time he went back to the Army, and no one ever alleged that Grant’s drinking got in the way of his ability to command his Army.  Yet Chernow seemingly explores every single allegation, acknowledging that they all sounded similar before dismissing most of them.  Whether Grant fell off the wagon or not seems largely irrelevant in the context of his later career and life.

Chernow clearly did extensive research on Grant, reading his letters, military orders and Presidential papers, in addition to researching many of Grant’s contemporaries and what they had to say about him.  He quotes President Lincoln, General Lee, General Sherman, General James Longstreet and many others to round out his descriptions of this great man.

Spoiler alert – as with most biographies, Grant dies at the end…  I cried.  Well done and worth the read.

4 stars.

Book Review: Curse of the Narrows

Curse of the Narrows, by Laura M. MacDonald

On December 6, 1917, during the middle of World War I, a ship carrying high explosives in Halifax Harbor collided with another ship.  Predictably, it exploded.

Curse of The Narrows

Unfortunately, a number of factors came into play in the worst possible way, and the explosion obliterated nearly everything within a half mile radius of the ship, including a heavily populated neighborhood of the city.  More than 2,000 people were killed and over 9,000 were injured. To add insult to injury, communications lines were knocked out, and a blizzard struck the evening of the explosion, making survival uncertain for those who initially lived through the blast.

It was, simply put, the largest man-made explosion up to that point in time.

Boston, receiving word of the disaster, mobilized its Red Cross contingent immediately and sent a relief train to provide assistance to the people of Halifax.  Several other nearby cities did as well, but the Boston relief train was the largest and most well organized, with doctors, nurses, supply coordinators and all sorts of relief supplies.

Rumors of German sabotage pitted people against each other, and sent officials off on wild goose chases to determine if a German bomb or submarine was responsible. Meanwhile the people of Halifax struggled with horrific and long-term injuries, lack of housing in the middle of winter, and the sad process of identifying and burying the dead.

The book details the day leading up to the explosion, and the stories of the people who lived and died in its aftermath.  Historical records research and first hand accounts provide grim detail of the experience, and MacDonald weaves the stories together into the larger narrative.  She does not shy away from the gruesome details of victims injuries, the trauma of separating families, and the legal battle after the initial relief effort ended.

My only criticism of the book is that it is rather poorly edited, with numerous typos and grammar errors, but that doesn’t take away from the story as a whole.  It is a well researched and well written book on an event that was once widely known, but has been largely forgotten to time.

4 stars.

Book Review: Into the Water

Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

The “Drowning Pool” has long been known as a place where women go to end their lives, as well as a place where men take women to end them.  It has acquired a life of its own, with stories stretching back hundreds of years.  This is a place where witches were taken to sink or swim, and where troubled women made their last troubled decision.

Into the Water

Jules is shocked to learn that her older, estranged sister has become the latest victim of the drowning pool.  She was not your typical troubled woman though; she had a career and a 15 year old daughter – Jules could not believe that her sister would have taken her own life.  And so soon after another tragedy; the daughter’s best friend had taken her own life at the pool just a few months before.

Was it suicide, or was it more sinister?  Hawkins’ takes the reader on a circuitous path towards the truth, examining the thoughts and motivations of each character in the small town, and making you realize that no one is truly innocent.  But was there even a crime?  This novel will keep you on the edge wondering if you will ever truly know…  Along the way, there is a path of healing, as Jules comes to terms with her memories of her sister, embraces her daughter, and makes a new start.

The author’s character development is superb, and the audiobook version was very well done, with different voices for each character.  Well worth the read.

4 stars.

 

Book Review: Dare to Lead

I chose to read, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations.  Whole Hearts., as a result of the name recognition I had for the author.  I first heard of Brené Brown from her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.  She is a professor with degrees in social work, and a best selling author and keynote speaker.

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

She speaks about a number of topics in this work, but there is one over-arching theme.  What one must do in order to become not only a good, but a great leader.  She talks about embracing vulnerability, learning to let go of what others think of you, and owning mistakes and moving on.  She speaks to the requirement to develop courage.  The book goes through the steps needed to develop courage, lean into vulnerability and lead with empathy and compassion, while maintaining accountability.  She speaks to the the body of research that has informed her work, and the successes she has achieved, as well as her failures.

She emphasizes over and over again that in order to get there; you have to do the work.  It is uncomfortable and awkward, and there will be times when you choose the easy road.  There are several salient points to be found in her book.  I found her method of communication to be a bit hokey at times, like an unending conversation with a therapist.  But her points are good, even if the delivery sometimes seems a bit scripted.

3 stars

 

Book Review: The Testaments

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

I read The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, in college in 1995; it was assigned reading in an American literature class (we will set aside the fact that Atwood is Canadian).  It was so interesting.

The book follows the idea of a United States (now called Gilead) that experiences a takeover by a totalitarian, Puritanical regime, and people are segregated into roles.  Commanders (those running the country), Wives, Marthas (servants), The Eyes (the security force).  The book focuses on the role of the Handmaid, the women who are selected to be breeders for the Commanders; a necessity because some unspecified ecological disaster has caused infertility in most people.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, and in recent years has become wildly popular, with modern-day readers drawing parallels (whether real or imagined) with the current political climate. Hulu picked up the rights and created a television series, which is very well done.

Atwood wrote a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, called The Testaments; it was published in 2019, almost 35 years after the original novel.  It picks up with the stories of Gilead, 15 years later.  An active underground continues to try to destabilize and overthrow the government of Gilead and restore the United States.  Gilead is showing cracks in the system.  It follows the stories of three individual women whose lives are woven together.  All strong women; Atwood doles out their secrets over time and reveals a backstory that the reader might not have guessed.

The Testaments (The Handmaid's Tale, #2)

Again, Atwood writes a novel that draws the reader in and holds your interest, but unfortunately I didn’t find it quite as compelling as the original novel.  Although I’m sure that people will be talking about both for years to come.

3 stars.

Book Review: Valiant Ambition

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Despite being very interested in history, I haven’t spent much time on the Revolutionary War. Maybe it is the stockings… or the wigs… both things I have a long-standing aversion to. Just ask my mom about the time when they dressed me up as Princess Leia in Star Wars, complete with the funny buns on the side of my head. I was about five, and I don’t have much hair, so she did the hairstyle with a wig. Which I removed and refused to put back on about two houses up the street. Times have not changed…

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

But anyway, back to the book. As one might now have guessed, this is a book about the Revolutionary War. It weaves its way through various parts of the war, from Washington’s struggles at the beginning, to Benedict Arnold’s glorious victories early on, to later events where Washington changes his strategy and starts seeing success. And of course, it recounts Benedict Arnold’s eventual treason and defection to the British Army.

It is a fascinating overview of the long years of the war, hitting several highlights for the Northern, Central and Southern corps of the Continental Army (they were called something else, but you get the gist). It tells the story through the perspective of several officers on both sides of the conflict: Washington, Arnold, Gates, Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as weaving in stories of some of the soldiers who were fighting on the front line.

While Philbrick follows a generally chronological timeline, he does bounce forward and back some as he shifts between storylines. The reader should also be aware that the book is not intended to be a complete history of the Revolutionary War, with Philbrick covering some portions and leaving others out entirely. Of course, a comprehensive history would be far outside the scope of one book, but he does seem to pick and choose which events he portrays, and some seem less relevant that others. I say that even knowing that the book is focused on Washington and Arnold…  That said, it is a worthwhile read that gave me a good general overview of some of the major points in the war that founded our country.

Extra points for the fact that the audio-book was read by Scott Brick, one of my favorite readers!

3 Stars.

Book Review: The Pioneers

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough

I’m a big fan of David McCullough’s books; he always does such a great job of making his history topics interesting and relatable.  This book is no different.

The book covers the period from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, and the settlement of what was then the far west of the United States, and what is now Ohio.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

Manasseh Cutler was a clergyman who was born in Connecticut, and served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War.  He became an agent of the Ohio Company, which he helped form in order to develop land in the Western territories.  He was responsible for ensuring that Congress financially backed the venture, and was a part of the original group created to explore and establish the new colony in present day Ohio.  Cutler also pushed for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which created the Ohio territory and ensured that there would be no slavery in territories formed from that land mass.  It was controversial at the time, and required him to assert his strong will and influence to ensure it passed.

It is a story that is told in generalities in middle and high schools across the nation, but without the specific names of men who played a part.  It is often glossed over in favor of the stories of later westward expansion through the Plains States, so it is nice to see this story told in more detail.

The book is about Cutler and a small number of white men who played a role in establishing the territory; it tells the stories of their efforts and trials along the way.  Some critics have pointed out that McCullough does not tell the stories of the Native Americans who were already living there, and were killed or pushed off the land by the white men who settled there.  I understand their criticism, but also believe that the book would be overly long and broad if McCullough tried to tell the story of everyone who played a role.  As it is, he worked from primary source documents and journals left by Cutler and the other men who founded the colony, and the view of the Native Americans clearly comes as a product of their time.  That said, it would be nice if there were a companion book that told the other half of the story.

There is some repetitiveness in the story, and times when it felt like the action moved very slowly.  But overall, it was well written and well researched, as all of David McCullough’s books are.

3 stars.