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review 2020-06-23 22:39
Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe by Monique Frize
Laura Bassi and Science in 18th Century Europe: The Extraordinary Life and Role of Italy's Pioneering Female Professor - Monique Frize

This is a lazily researched, poorly-organized and poorly-written book, that nevertheless proved interesting to me by covering the biographies of 18th century female Italian scientists, which I have not found elsewhere. Biographies available in English are overwhelmingly Anglocentric and a historical biography of a non-English speaking woman without an adventurous sex life is a rare find indeed.

But unless you have a strong interest in that subject, you probably shouldn’t read this book. First of all, it’s poorly researched. The author apparently cribbed most of it from the dissertation of a researcher who died prematurely, and that researcher appears to have done much more work on it than this author, who regularly cites to Wikipedia (!). Second, she seems to run out of material about halfway through after already having covered Laura Bassi’s biography and some background on science at the time, so spends the rest of the book summarizing letters Bassi exchanged with various men (unclear why this isn’t simply incorporated into the biography portion) and providing mini-biographies of other Italian women active in science.

Third, the writing is just bad; I think the author is a science professor who is interested in the subject but very much not a writer. She struggles with appropriate prepositions, capitalization, and hyphenation, and there’s frequent awkward sentence structure and word use (words like “obtention” and “embracement”). She also frequently reminds readers of things we’ve already been told, going so far as to use Bassi’s full name and remind us of basic facts such as the city in which she lived well into the book, giving the impression that no final read-through was conducted to streamline the writing. Overall, it’s just rather awkward and jagged.

That said, it definitely is an interesting subject: Laura Bassi was a professor of science in 18th century Italy, which was quite an achievement for a woman at the time, and if the book doesn’t exactly bring her to life, it definitely introduces a lot of facts about her. As it turns out, Italy offered somewhat more opportunities for educated women in the 18th century than other European countries, largely based on the notion of the “exceptional woman,” whose brilliance reflected well on her family and city because since women were assumed to be less intelligent than men, if a woman was that smart, how brilliant must their men be? In general, these “exceptional women” were expected to adorn civic occasions rather than make actual careers, and to be very much the exceptions to the rule: the father of one of them, who had championed his own daughter’s advancement, argued successfully against the same university granting a degree to any other woman on the grounds that it would somehow cheapen his daughter’s achievement. Bassi managed to turn her degree into an actual career though, with some help from unexpected places, namely the Pope, an old friend of hers who wanted to improve the state of science in Bologna at the time.

I would love to see someone write biographies of the women discussed here for a general audience; there’s so much rich material that would be new to most English-speaking readers, and the information included here certainly expanded my understanding of history a little. That said, it is very difficult to recommend this particular book.

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review 2020-03-31 03:10
Daily Life in 18th Century England by Kirstin Olsen
Daily Life in 18th-Century England - Kirstin Olsen

This is a textbook, but it's a very readable one and quite interesting if you are curious about the subject, without the academic pretension or dryness that can drag works down. Chapters cover subjects such as food and drink, clothing, entertainment, politics, religion, education, race and class, family relationships, the economy, the state of science, and more. The second edition reorganizes the chapters and expands a few of them, as well as including more primary documents, but the short, clearly labeled chapters of the first edition are handy if you want to skip around and read it in bite-sized chunks.

A couple of fun facts: clocks with minute hands were a new thing in the 18th century (previously they only had hour hands), and non-poor people were mortally offended by poor people keeping dogs.

I wish I could find such cogent, detailed and accessible studies of other parts of the world during this time period, but if you're interested in England, Olsen has you covered.

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review 2020-03-08 23:51
Henry Clay: The Essential American
Henry Clay: The Essential American - Jeanne T. Heidler,David S. Heidler

One—if not the most—of the most influential politicians in American history who never became President, though he tried several times, was praised and vilified throughout his life then slowly forgotten in the century and a half after his death.  Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler follows the dramatic political rise, the stunning setbacks, and tragic family life of the man who became Andrew Jackson’s great enemy and Abraham Lincoln’s great hero.

 

The Heidler’s begins moments after Clay’s death and describes the journey of his body to Lexington with the outpouring of honor along the way then turn their attention as to how Clay became so honored.  Born in eastern Virginia as a scion of a long-time colonial family and fatherless early in life, Clay was fortunate to have a stepfather and several mentors who gave him opportunities which he took hold off and used to establish himself in the legal profession in Kentucky.  Though idealistic early in his political career, especially on the issue of slavery in the state, Clay downplayed it sooner after to gain connections especially through marriage and accumulation of wealth in which slaves were an important facet though he would continue to advocate for his brand for emancipation throughout his life.  Clay’s time in the Kentucky legislature foreshadowed the parliamentary advancements he would bring to the House and later the Senate, especially the Committee of the Whole which allowed Clay as Speaker of both the Kentucky and U.S House to join debates.  A staunch Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican, Clay’s views and future policies would shift to include several Hamiltonian policies like a National Bank and tariffs but in Republican language.  Upon his arrival in Washington in 1811 until his death 41 years later, Clay would be the most influential man in the city even though he never resided in the White House which would be occupied by either his allies or his avowed enemies though he would campaign for the Presidency either actively or with the am to from 1824 to 1848.  Three times during his time in Washington, he championed the Union in the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the 1833 Nullification crisis, and the Compromise of 1850 his final political act as slavery threatened to ripe the country apart.

 

First and foremost this was a political biography which the Heidlers expertly detailed for the reader, however Clay was a family man with a particularly tragic tinge as all of his daughters predeceased their parents with Clay’s namesake dying in the Mexican-American War while another was to spend half his life in an asylum.  The issue of slavery is given significant space in various parts of the book as the Heidlers put Clay’s views in context of their time and how he was as a slaveowner, but don’t excuse him for hold human beings as property.  Though not stated explicitly this was also a light history of the Whig party primarily because, until slavery tore it apart, Henry Clay embodied the party even when younger members decided to jettison its ideological center for Presidential victory.

 

Henry Clay: The Essential American details the life of the most important politician of the Antebellum era.  The husband-wife historian team of David S. and Jeanne Heidler write a very scholarly yet lively history of the man and his times that gives the reader a view of how important their subject was during his time on the national scene.

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review 2019-12-31 00:17
Western Civilization since 1500
Western Civilization Since 1500 - Walther Kirchner

Covering over 450 years of history in a little over 300 pages seems a daunting task, even more so when it begins in Europe and slowly spreads across the globe.  Western Civilization since 1500 by Walther Kirchner is a survey of the rise of European global dominance from the beginnings of “modern times” to the generation after World War II when the periphery powers of the United States and Soviet Union rose to dominance.

 

Kirchner spends the first 20 pages doing a quick recap of Western Civilization from its Sumerian beginnings to 1500.  Then over the course of the next 300 pages, Kirchner divides the approximately 450+ years of history into 20 chapters of specific “eras” whether political and/or cultural developments and happenings.  Unlike Kirchner’s previous survey, there was no real “highlight” for the general reader though the significance of some cultural individuals—writers, painters, composers, etc.—that in my own Western Civ and World History classes in high school and college were never mentioned or those that were mentioned that Kirchner didn’t thus showing the difference 30-35 years makes in historical studies.  Kirchner obvious adherence to the Marxist theory of history was on full display, but it did not necessarily mean a favorable view of Communist regimes or leaders.  As study aid for college students in the mid-1960s there were some interesting miscues (the misdating of the Battle of Yorktown stands out), omissions (the genocidal famine caused by the First Five Year Plan), and downright lies (that the U.S. citizens were sympathetic to the British from the beginning of WWII).  Given that this book is over 50 years old there is dated terminology that wouldn’t be used today, not all for politically correct reasons, that would make the reader do a double take if they didn’t know when this book was published.

 

Though this small volume is meant as a study aid to college students and a quick reference for general readers, to which is essentially succeeds, it is pretty old and should be used by astute history readers to learn how the study of history has changed over time.

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review 2019-12-08 00:06
Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times - H.W. Brands

Considered by some the most dangerous man to be President and others as one of their own that deserved the office, he ushered in a sea change in Washington and American politics.  Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands follows the future President of the United States from his birth in the South Carolina backcountry to frontier town of Nashville to the battlefields of the Old Southwest then finally to the White House and how he gave his name to an era of American history.

 

Brands begins with a Jackson family history first from Scotland to Ulster then to the Piedmont region of the Carolina where his aunts and uncles had pioneered before his own parents immigrated.  Fatherless from birth, Jackson’s childhood was intertwined with issues between the American colonies and Britain then eventually the Revolutionary War that the 13-year old Jackson participated in as a militia scout and guerilla fighter before his capture and illness while a POW.  After the death of the rest of his family at the end of the war through illness, a young Jackson eventually went into law becoming one of the few “backcountry” lawyers in western North Carolina—including Tennessee which was claimed by North Carolina—before moving to Nashville and eventually becoming one of the founders of the state of Tennessee and become one of it’s most important military and political figures especially with his marriage to Rachel Donelson.  Eventually Jackson’s status as the major general of the Tennessee militia led him to first fight the Creek War—part of the overall War of 1812—then after the successful conclusion of the campaign was made a major general of the regular army in charge of the defending New Orleans from British attack which ultimately culminated in the famous 1815 battle that occurred after the signing of the peace treaty in Ghent.  As “the” military hero of the war, Jackson’s political capital grew throughout the Monroe administration even with his controversial invasion of Florida against the Seminole.  After becoming the first U.S. Governor of Florida, Jackson left the army and eventually saw his prospects rise for the Presidency to succeed Monroe leading to the four-way Presidential contest of 1824 which saw Jackson win both the popular vote and plurality of electoral college votes but lose in the House to John Quincy Adams.  The campaign for 1828 began almost immediately and by the time of the vote the result wasn’t in doubt.  Jackson’s time in the White House was focused on the Peggy Eaton affair, the battle over Bank of the United States, the Nullification Crisis with South Carolina, Indian relations, and finally what was happening in Texas.  After his time in office, Jackson struggled keeping his estate out of debt and kept up with the events of around the country until his death.

 

In addition to focusing on Jackson’s life, Brands make sure to give background to the events that he would eventually be crucial part of.  Throughout the book Brands keeps three issues prominent: Unionism, slavery, and Indian relations that dominated Jackson’s life and/or political thoughts.  While Brands hits hard Jackson’s belief in the Union and is nuanced when it comes with slavery, the relations with Indians is well done in some areas and fails in some (most notably the “Trail of Tears”).  This is not a biography focused primarily on Jackson’s time in the White House and thus Brands only focused on the big issues that is primarily focused on schools instead of an intense dive into his eight years.

 

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times is a informative look into the life of the seventh President of the United States and what was happening in the United States throughout his nearly eight decades of life.  H.W. Brands’ writing style is given to very easy reading and his research provides very good information for both general and history specific readers, though he does hedge in some areas.  Overall a very good biography.

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