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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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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 2017-10-18 01:46
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames - Kai Bird

"THE GOOD SPY: The Life and Death of Robert Ames" is a book with a dual character which tells a history of U.S. diplomatic and espionage activities in the Middle East during the Cold War. First, it is a story about a most remarkable CIA officer, Robert Ames, who devoted the whole of his 23 year career in the Middle East to helping develop and secure peace in that troubled region through engaging with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at a time when the U.S. disavowed any contacts with it. And it is also a story of the evolution of U.S. Middle East policy between the 1960s and the early 1980s. 

Reading "THE GOOD SPY" rekindled some of my earliest memories of the Middle East from the 1970s. And for that reason, it was both refreshing and a much appreciated learning experience to receive from Kai Bird fuller accounts and analyses of events as diverse as the Black September murders in Munich during the 1972 Summer Olympics; the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975; the courage Egyptian President Anwar Sadat displayed in his attempts to make peace with Egypt's erstwhile enemy, Israel, which culminated in the Camp David Accords of 1979; and the 2 tragic events of 1983 in Lebanon which profoundly altered the U.S. approach in dealing with what is now (as was then) a seemingly intractable conundrum in the Middle East. 

"THE GOOD SPY" is a book I recommend to anyone who wants to understand why efforts to obtain peace in the Middle East have proved illusory since 1948. It also gives the reader insight into the sincere efforts of Bob Ames (he was one of the CIA's premiere Arabists who spoke fluent Arabic and loved the people of the Middle East and its varied cultures) to help provide a platform from which Israelis and Palestinians could establish ways of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation - and the realization of the 2-state solution and a lasting peace.
 

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review 2017-10-17 04:03
Beneath a Scarlet Sky
Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel - Mark T. Sullivan

5 stars for story

4 stars for narration

4.5 stars overall

 

I loved this. It's easily the best thing that has come out of Amazon Kindle First ever, and I'm so glad I picked it up. 

 

This is a "novel" only because the author wasn't able to verify all the facts of the story that Pino Lella told him about his time in Italy during the last two years of the war. As it explains in the foreword, a lot of documents were "lost" after the war, and many people who lived through it chose not to talk about it and simply let it fade into history. Being unable to 100% verify every detail, the author decided to call it a novel, but it is a biography. 

 

As such, I can't really critique this the same way I normally would any other story. These are real people and real events. There's no ultimate struggle of good vs evil (well, there is but as we all know, humans are complicated and things aren't always so black and white) and there are no tropes to rely on or subvert. This is just what happened, and it's both inspiring and infuriating. 

 

Without giving too much away - and assuming you're not a WWII history buff and might know some of these details already - Pino Lella was seventeen when the war came to Italy, and in order to avoid being conscripted and forced to fight on the German front in Poland, where many Italians pressed into service were losing their lives, he instead "volunteered" to work for Operation Todt. All he knew about it was that it was less likely to get him killed and would keep him off the warfront. Things don't go as planned and he ends up in a prime position to work for the resistance, getting them valuable information that helped the Allied invasion. 

 

For the first third of the book, things move pretty slowly. Pino is at first hidden in the mountains near the Switzerland border and helps refugees escape over the border. When his parents bring him back to Milan, things start to pick up and slowly get more complicated. And yet, things seem to almost go too well. Then the end of the war is in sight, and that's when things really hit the fan. The writing in the last third is especially strong and emotive, and I really had to work not to cry in the car as I listened to this on my daily commute. 

 

As for the narrator, Will Damron, he takes the Kevin Costner approach to accents. I would honestly have no accent at all than to listen to a really horrible Italian accent, so I wasn't bothered by this. He does do a decent German accent though. He's very clear and easy to follow along with, and he reads at a good pace. At first, his narration was almost matter-of-fact, but he can really bring the emotions when it's called for. I would say for the most part, he's a 3 star narrator, but the ending was strong enough to bump it up to 4 stars. (And he's certainly popular with audiobooks, so he has his fans.)

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review 2017-10-15 20:21
Edith Cavell: Faith Before the Firing Squad by Catherine Butcher
Edith Cavell: Faith Before the Firing Squad - Catherine Butcher

This biography is concise and inspiring. It features a woman who would not have expected to have her life story interest others, but that is part of what makes Edith Cavell so compelling. She is the sort of woman we all hope we would be if circumstances challenged us the way they did her.

 

Edith's faith was a significant element of her life and story, and it is included appropriately in this book. From the day she was born until the day she died, the love of God and promise of heaven guided Edith's actions. She did not wish for recognition, only to help others. "When Reverend Gahan said, 'We shall always remember you as a heroine and a martyr,' she replied, 'Don't think of me like that, think of me only as a nurse who tried to do her duty.'"

 

The author demonstrates how Edith became the kind of woman who would selflessly assist others, even when she knew she was endangering herself. This vicar's daughter, governess, and nurse grew up with the desire to serve a vital part of her character. Not that she is portrayed as unbelievably perfect. Mistakes and faults of character are also explored to give readers a comprehensive picture of who the real Edith Cavell was.

 

She was an intelligent woman with a servant's heart who willingly gave up her lives for others. Even when Edith knew she was being spied upon by Germans, she continued to help those trying to escape. When she knew the next person she helped might be preparing to betray her, she wouldn't take the chance of turning away someone who truly needed her. Once she was convicted of her 'crimes' she worried only about those she was leaving behind.

 

The recent 100th anniversary of Edith's execution has stirred up renewed interest in her, and she is a woman worthy of remembering. Her strength and courage in the face of deceit and violence is an inspiration to us all.

 

I received this book through NetGalley. Opinions are my own.

 

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