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review 2017-10-22 18:59
The living link to America's founding generation
The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics - William J. Cooper Jr.

It's not unreasonable to ask whether a new biography of John Quincy Adams is needed. In recent years Paul Nagel, Robert Remini, Harlow Giles Unger, Fred Kaplan, and James Traub have all published books that chronicle the life of America's sixth president, which raises the question of what William J. Cooper offers that is different from these other works. His answer is embodied in the book's title, as he sees Adams not as a figure of the antebellum-era politics in which he served but as more reflective of the generation of the "founding fathers" that preceded it. It's an interesting argument, and one that Cooper supports not just by detailing the commonalities between Adams's politics and those of his father's generation, but also by describing Adams's religious beliefs and enthusiasm for intellectual discovery, which are closer to the Enlightenment-era thinking of the Revolutionary generation than the more Romantic ideas that would characterize the 19th century.

 

The sense of Adams as a man out of step with his times emerges over the course of Cooper’s book. Part of the reason for this was his upbringing, which was itinerant due to his accompanying his father on diplomatic missions during the American Revolution. Traveling through Europe exposed him more directly to Enlightenment ideals, and gave him the motivation to master several different languages. Such an education helps to explain why President Washington selected the 27-year-old Adams as minister to the Netherlands, as he brought to his job a level of knowledge that belied his youth. This was the start of a succession of diplomatic appointments over the next two decades, broken by a term in the United States Senate, and which culminated in eight years as Secretary of State.

 

Cooper describes Adams’s early career and presidency in a fairly straightforward manner. It is when he gets to Adams’s post-presidential career in the House of Representatives, however, that his narrative hits its stride. This is understandable given Cooper’s background as an historian of the antebellum South, as he brings a different set of insights to Adams’s involvement in the political issues of the 1830s and 1840s than previous biographers. Foremost among them is Adams’s role in the debates over the “gag rule” over slavery in the House during that time, which Adams was at the forefront of the fight against. Cooper’s explanation of Adams’s relationship with the abolitionist movement during this period is a particular strength of this book, as is its role in his development of his nationwide celebrity. As Cooper demonstrates, even Southerners who opposed his championing of antislavery petitioning esteemed the elderly Adams as a living link to their legendary past, which contributed to the national mourning that greeted his death in 1848.

 

Cooper’s approach makes for a valuable appreciation of Adams’s significance as both a politician and a national symbol. While concentrating on his political career comes at the coverage of his personal life – with his family absent from the text for pages at a time – this seems an accurate reflection of the life Adams lived, in which public service was always at the forefront. It makes for a book that is an excellent resource for anyone seeing to learn about Adams’s long and distinguished public career, as well as what it represented to a growing nation.

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text 2017-10-18 17:32
What we get wrong about the military history of the Civil War, and why it's relevant today
Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations - Howard Jones

Lately I've been groping toward one of those revelations that may be obvious to some but is incredibly illuminating of some of the problems in our country today, which is that we focus on the wrong things when it comes to the military history of the Civil War.

 

This is something that I've come to appreciate only gradually. When I was growing up what I knew about the Civil War was defined by the literature generated by the centenary of the conflict, during which authors such as Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote wrote highly readable (and still widely read) series about the conflict. These books generally concentrated on the war in the eastern theater, where the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia butted heads for four years before the Union forces finally ground down the Confederate Army. This is where most of the memorable battles (First Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg) were fought, and where some of the most recognizable names served. This conception stayed with me though high school (surviving even my largely uninformed reading of James McPherson's classic book on the era) and up through college, though more through lack of reexamination than anything else.

 

It wasn't until I read Brian Holden Reid's short study of the major wars of the mid-19th century that I began to appreciate how misguided I have been. Reid pointed out something that seemed so obvious in retrospect, which is that, contrary to the narrative of a conflict that was decided only with the defeat of Robert E. Lee in Virginia, the war was really won by the Union much earlier, through the effective adoption of Winfield's Scott's proposal to economically strangle the South with a combination of blockade and control of the Mississippi River. Focusing the war on this aspect of it change the conceptualization of the war dramatically, from one in which Union generals are continually outmatched by the military genius of Robert E. Lee to one where the Union asserts a steadily growing dominance over the South over the course of the war, while the Confederacy increasingly finds itself in a struggle it cannot win.

 

Given this, I've come to appreciate just how skewed our focus of the war is in the popular imagination. This has its origins in the war itself, as the eastern theater was better covered in the press, which highlighted the clash of the two armies and their respective efforts to capture the other side's capitals. In the process, though, they understated three other aspects which were decisive to the war's outcome: the fighting in the "west" (i.e. the Ohio and Mississippi Review valleys), the U.S. Navy's blockade of the South, and the diplomatic aspects of the war. Perhaps it's understandable why these didn't get more attention at the time -- the naval blockade was grindingly dull for the most part, and the diplomatic developments were largely behind the scenes -- but it was those parts of it which determined the fate of our nation, and where we should be focusing our attention when we study it now.

 

That we have focused both then and afterward on the more narratively exciting aspects of the war is one of the reasons why our popular understanding of the war has been so mistaken. There's another factor that I think is at play, though, which makes my relatively esoteric point here relevant -- our misguided focus on the eastern theater has contributed to the romanticization of the "lost cause" of the Confederacy. By focusing so much attention upon the one theater where the Confederate forces performed the best, we have exaggerated the viability of the Confederacy and made its defeat seem more tragic as a result. That Southerners then and their descendants since have done this is perhaps understandable, but that we continue to do this more generally is inexcusable. It's hardly the only, or even primary reason why we have neo-Confederates running around today refusing to accept the outcome of what was largely a doomed effort from the start, but it certainly doesn't help.

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review 2017-10-18 04:51
The American Plate
The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites - Libby H. O'connell

A collection of "bites" about significant foods in American history, sometimes including recipes. I enjoyed this book at first and read half of it right away and then it took me a year and a half to read the second half. :(

 

What I liked: the historical trivia, the recipes that included the author's suggestions for contemporary or portion variations, and the broad selection of foods discussed. (Although honestly, I would not have minded not knowing about Kraft cheese. My childhood is ruined.)

 

What I didn't like: the soapbox politics that took up page space that could have been used to tell me more about the food. It seemed to get worse in the second half as the "bites" approached 20th century food culture.

 

As the title states, this book is also American-centric. YMMV on that bit.

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review 2017-10-12 18:45
The Trials of Solomon Parker by Eric Scott Fischl
The Trials of Solomon Parker - Eric Scott Fischl

 

The Trials of Solomon Parker is a difficult novel to define, other than awesome!  Set in Butte, Montana in the early 1900's, it features Native Americans, deep ugly coal mines, mob bosses, boxing, lots and lots of drinking and, oh yeah, second chances.

 

Solomon Parker is a hard working man who has fallen on some hard times. His wife seems to be suffering from postpartum depression, his infant son is colicky and never stops crying, and Sol just wants to gamble and drink it all away. Add to that a fire in the coal mine and an ugly scene between mine owners and union organizers, and things only get worse. Then, Sol meets Marked Face and has the opportunity to gamble for a second chance. Will he do it, and more importantly, will he win? You'll have to read this to find out.

 

I requested this book from NetGalley, solely based on the description and the cover. I ended up seriously impressed-most especially with the quality of writing. There were scenes during that mine fire where I felt like I had trouble breathing-they were so smoky, claustrophobic and scary. I felt like I was there.

 

Interspersed with the main narrative was a bit of Native American back story. This wasn't tribe specific, but it did involve a number of traditional stories that rang true to me, (and really weren't all that different than stories from other religions and belief systems.) The skill with which this was all woven together was admirable, easy to follow, and hard to break away from.

 

Thinking about this story overnight, I raised my rating a little. This book captured and kept my imagination. It brought Butte, Montana to life, and showed real prowess depicting what the day to day was like for people back then. And that's before all the really cool stuff is taken into account!

 

So however one wants to label this book, be it historical fiction, a western, a native American fable, or a story about second chances and fate, you can be sure to label it DAMN ENTERTAINING and unique. I highly recommend it!

 

*Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the free e-ARC of this novel in exchange for my honest review. This is it.*

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text 2017-09-30 06:00
Reading progress update: I've read 67 out of 336 pages.
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places - Colin Dickey

I'm debating not finishing this one. It's not bad, but with Halloween Bingo I'm not sure if it's where I want to put my reading energy, especially since it's not as interesting as expected. I have time so I guess I'll just wait and see.

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