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review 2017-07-21 10:42
An excellent naval history of the Civil War
War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 - James M. McPherson

A few years ago I decided I wanted to read a naval history of the Civil War. To my surprise, I learned that, for all that has been written about the conflict, there are relatively few books about its naval aspects and the ones I found proved disappointing. Had I waited a little longer I would have discovered that this book was a perfect fit for my needs, as James McPherson brings his expertise as the nation's foremost Civil War historian to the study of its naval aspects. Drawing upon both primary sources and secondary studies he surveys the various components of the naval war, from the Union blockade that was a critical dimension of the conflict to the revolutionary development of steam-powered ironclads, all of which he describes in his clear and assured prose. If there is a complaint to be made about this book it is that the apparent parameters of the Littlefield series for which he wrote it limited the amount of depth in which he can explore his subject, yet within its confines he has provided the best single-volume history of the Civil War at sea there is or is likely to be for some time to come.

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review 2017-07-20 22:43
Podcast #59 is up!
The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece - Jennifer T. Roberts

My fifty-ninth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jennifer Roberts about her new history of the Peloponnesian War (which I just reviewed here). Enjoy!

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review 2017-07-20 18:16
Setting the war in its context
The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece - Jennifer T. Roberts

The Peloponnesian War is one of those subjects which, whenever a new book is published about it, begs the question, "do we really need <i>another</i> book on it?" This is understandable considering that 1) having been written about for nearly 2,500 years it has been one of the most worked-over events in human history, 2) the first of these books, Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, ranks as one of the foundational texts of Western historiography and in many respects will never be bettered, and 3) recently (i.e. within the past half-century) Donald Kagan wrote both a four-volume history of the war AND a single-volume condensed version which are difficult to top as a modern account for the conflict. With all of these books, is there space for another?

 

The answer, as Jennifer Roberts proves, is a clear yes. She demonstrates this by fitting the conflict within the context of Greek city-state relations in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. By widening her focus, she shows the war not as the culmination of inter-city-state rivalry as it has sometimes been presented, but as one of a series of conflicts which neither began nor ended with the war itself. This is not a novel revelation (anybody who has more than a passing familiarity with Hellenic Greek history understands this), but by adopting this approach Roberts makes several more obscure points clearer, foremost among them being that Sparta was not so much the ultimate victor as merely temporarily ascendant among the city-states, with their defeat of Athens setting the stage for their own downfall a generation later.

Roberts's approach offers one of the best assessments of the impact of the war upon ancient Greece. While lacking the immediacy of the ancient sources or the thoroughness of Kagan, she draws upon both sources as well as others to provide a clear-eyed understanding of its true significance. It makes for an excellent resource for anyone seeking to understand a conflict which became one of the great referential points of Western history, because while it may have been only one of many wars the Greeks fought with each other, it has endured in the popular imagination in ways which make it relevant even today.

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review 2017-07-20 13:58
Martyr by Rory Clements
Martyr - Rory Clements

First of all, let's just take a moment to appreciate that I finally finished a monthly read for More Historical Than Fiction. Yay, me! I know, I know. That's not really applause worthy, but I'm taking my successes where I can get them.  ;-)

 

This book was a quick, enjoyable read for me. As a fast-paced mystery with a likable protagonist and a skilled creation of the Tudor world, it captivated and held my attention. I liked the fact that even though Queen Elizabeth never appears in a scene, the reader is given a strong impression of her character and heavy hand on events.

 

"Those who caught her eye lived a life between heaven and hell depending on her moods, which were as changeable as the weather: one moment sunshine and balm, the next thunder and rage."

 

Digging a little bit deeper, this book has a few flaws. John Shakespeare makes a great first impression, but I began to wonder what it was that he really believed and stood for as the book carried on. He is willing to risk his life to do his job, but why? The religious battle that grips the country seems to matter little to him, and he has no problem arresting one Catholic and sleeping with another.

 

Yet it wasn't until the odd Mother Davis bit that I took this book out of 5-star contention. I'm not even sure what to say about that strange episode.

 

The conclusion of the book felt a bit rushed after all the suspense of getting there, but the appearance of Will Shakespeare was a fun way to wrap things up. This is a series that will go on my TBR.

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review 2017-07-19 11:27
The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

The Lost Hero of Science is not hyperbole.  It's one of the great tragedies of history that this man's name is no longer on the tip of every man, woman and child's tongue (at least in the English speaking world).

 

I don't know where to begin, but to put it as concisely as possible, read any headline about environmental science today and Humboldt called it almost 200 years ago.  Deforestation: check.  Desertification: check. The long term devastation of monoculture: check.  Climate change: check.  At the more extreme ends, he was calling for the creation of the Panama canal decades before it was a glint in America's eye and he insisted that even rocks contain life (they do - look it up).

 

Humboldt was acerbic, impatient, and had a level of energy few can imagine without pharmaceutical assistance.  He devoted his life in every way to science and nature, eschewing most personal relationships in favour of relentless study, but he was also generous with his knowledge and money - much to the betterment of the world and the detriment of his finances.  He was in almost every way a true hero, as the title claims, and unarguably a role-model for more than just fellow scientists.  Without Humboldt we very likely would not have Darwin (Darwin himself said without Humboldt, he would not have found his calling on the Beagle).  Without Humboldt we wouldn't have those lines on weather maps, either (isotherms/isobars).

 

In short, his life was incredible and Wulf does a better than creditable job illustrating not only his adventures and indefatigable levels of energy, but his impact on the world; not just scientists, but artists, authors, poets and politicians.  She writes a very readable narrative and communicates what must have been an enormous amount of information in a way that remains coherent throughout.  She remains objective but is never dry or academic.  My half-star demerit is only because some of the chapters devoted to others I found less interesting that the star of the book himself.

 

I'd like to insist that every single person read this book, but realistically... every single person should read this book.  For those that enjoy science and history, it's a definite do-not-miss.

 

(This was a BookLikes-opoly Free Friday Read for July 7th and was 341 pages (minus the various appendices and index).

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