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review 2020-03-27 23:10
An enduring biography of an important senator
Henry Cabot Lodge: A Biography - John A. Garraty

From Daniel Webster to Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts has a storied tradition of electing United States senators who enjoy an outsized presence on the national stage. One of the most prominent among this group is Henry Cabot Lodge, the Boston Brahmin who over the course of his three decades in the Senate exercised a profound and enduring influence on both national and international events. Drawing upon Lodge’s personal papers and the records left by his contemporaries, John A. Garraty pushes past the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding Lodge to better understand the man and his legacy as a politician.


Garraty begins his book by recounting Lodge’s early years. The son of a prominent upper-class family, he enjoyed a privileged childhood and an elite education in which he earned both a legal degree and a Ph.D in history and government. Though initially an academic, he soon gravitated towards public office and was a rising star in Massachusetts politics in the 1870s and 1880s. These were formative years for the budding politician, during which time Lodge took up the cause of civil service reform and campaigned against the corruption of the Grant administration. Yet by the early 1880s Lodge had abandoned his flirtation with party heterodoxy and became a committed party man, a stance he would maintain for the rest of his long political career.


Lodge enjoyed a rapid ascent in politics due to his wealth and his social connections, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1886 that he would hold until his election to the Senate in 1892. His ascent in Congress coincided with the growing importance of foreign affairs in national politics, a subject dear to Lodge. An advocate of both a stronger navy and intervention in Cuba, he emerged as a leading supporter of American expansion abroad, a stance he shared with his good friend Theodore Roosevelt. Their relationship receives considerable attention throughout Garraty’s book, as he shows how the two men personally remained close even after Roosevelt’s bolt from the Republican Party in 1912 put them at political odds with one another.


Yet the attention Garraty gives to Lodge’s friendship with Roosevelt pales before that of the space devoted to Lodge’s clashes with Woodrow Wilson. These chapters take up nearly a quarter of the book, describing an epic political confrontation between the two men colored by a high degree of personal hostility. This conflict culminated in an epic fight over the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, the legislative battle over which Garraty recounts in considerable detail. Here he demonstrates that the outcome was not a foregone conclusion, and was decided as much by the personal qualities of the men involved as much as they were the broader issues at stake. Though Lodge emerged the victor in the sense that the treaty to which he objected failed to win ratification, it proved the climax of his career, as his influence faded with the return of the Republicans to the White House just three years before his death in 1924.


Ever since it was first published in 1953 Garraty’s book had stood as the definitive biography of Lodge, and it’s difficult to imagine how it could be bettered. The author’s coverage of Lodge’s career is thorough in its scope and penetrating in its analysis, pushing through his subject’s justifications and dissembling to provide an understanding of Lodge that is both critical and fair. Though some aspects of Lodge's career could have been explored in greater detail (such as his views of Roosevelt’s domestic policies as president), it remains the best biography available about Lodge, one that endures thanks to Garraty’s solid scholarship and his perceptive assessments of his subject.

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review 2017-02-10 14:33
Wherein I discuss my totally rational fears + reminisce on blog beginnings
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania - Erik Larson

Today I'm going to tell you about Deep Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania aka reason #5022 why I will never go on a cruise. I have an odd fascination with shipwrecks but also a deep, crushing fear of them. I cannot deal with images of sunken ships, statues, or really anything submerged under the water and nestled at the bottom of the ocean floor (you can also substitute ocean with sea, lake, or deep pool). Here is also where I confess that I am woefully ignorant about World War I. I always struggle to remember who was fighting in the war and what it was really about (I think this is still being puzzled over in some places). As far as the Lusitania, the only thing I knew was that it was a large passenger ship that had sunk (filling me with terror like the sinking of the Titanic and the film Poseidon with Kurt Russell). So I went into this book pretty much as a blank slate and by 30 pages in I was already spouting facts about it to my coworkers (who may never go on a cruise either). Like with all of Larson's works, he focuses on a major topic while interweaving storylines that occur parallel to the main event. For example, this book is about the Lusitania and its final voyage but in order to put that into context Larson had to discuss WWI and President Woodrow Wilson's state of mind in regards to the neutrality of the United States in that war (Wilson was one passionate dude, ya'll.). So not only did I learn about the machinations of the leading world powers of the early 20th century (Germany, Great Britain, and the U.S.A.) but I also got a glimpse into President Wilson's personal life, learned how submarines operate, and discovered that people really liked to smoke in 1915.


PS As mentioned in other posts, I love reading the end notes of nonfiction books because there are always fantastic little tidbits there that just didn't fit in the overall narrative of the book. Dead Wake was no exception. It led me to The Lusitania Resource which is a website dedicated to uncovering all of the facts of the sinking of the ship including primary documents, articles concerning the controversy of its significance to WWI, and much more. I highly recommend you check it out if nothing else than to whet your appetite for Larson's book. (Yes, I know that it's insane for me to be obsessed with this site after referencing my very real fears of traveling on a cruise ship but I like to have all of my facts ready for those trying to change my mind. It's perfectly normal.)

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2015-07-15 16:14
A lighthearted look at one man's alternative life
The Woodrow Wilson Dime - Jack Finney

Ben Bennell is a man unhappy with his life. Bored with his wife Hettie and stuck in a dull, undemanding job with little outlet for his creativity and ambition, he fantasizes about other women and hunts in vain for the big idea that will make him rich. Then a chance encounter with an unusual piece of change transports him to an alternate world, one where he enjoys wealth, success, and the woman of his dreams. Yet an encounter with the Hettie of his new home leads him to realize where his heart truly lies, and he begins a madcap quest to do whatever it will take to win her back.

Best known for his time travel novel Time and Again as well as his oft-adapted Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jack Finney was a master of nostalgia-flavored tales romanticizing the past. These elements are here in this novel as well, in which Ben Bennell's utopian alternate world is one more relaxed and respecting of its heritage than its fast-paced real-world contemporary. This is also a novel more comic than most of his other works, with a tongue-in-cheek approach best demonstrated by his main protagonist's series of harebrained schemes to win Hettie back. At times the novel can border on the ridiculous, but it is never less than entertaining and offers a lighthearted look at how the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence, even when one can cross from one side to the other.

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review 2014-01-13 00:00
The Woodrow Wilson Dime
The Woodrow Wilson Dime - Jack Finney For my full-length review, please visit Casual Debris.

Discontented advertising clerk Ben Bennell finds himself in an alternate reality after purchasing a newspaper using a Woodrow Wilson dime. Unhappy with his work and his wife, in this new reality he finds himself married to an old flame and riding high in a great advertising career. Though there is nothing deep or challenging about The Woodrow Wilson Dime, the novel is a great read, genuinely funny and highly entertaining, and with Finney's many scripted stories, I am surprised this one hasn't yet made it to mainstream cinema as a romantic comedy.

Though often referred to as science fiction, The Woodrow Wilson Dime is more appropriately fantasy. The fantastical element is made up of time travel and an alternate New York, yet the time travel method to this alternate landscape is pure fantasy with no allusions to science whatsoever. Bennell stumbles upon the portal uniting the two realities by using a coin from the other world to purchase a paper in this one, and logically the way back is the same, by substituting the Wilson dime with one from his own New York. The alternate New York is almost identical to our narrator's New York but with gaps in technology, such as the absence of motor bikes and zippers, along with gaps in culture, such as the music of Cole Porter. The alternate world is on a different course from our own, with different former presidents occupying the face sides of coins (though we know Wilson was president in both universes), and people pursuing different steams and obtaining different levels of success.

The main flaw in the novel, if we were to look at through a serious lens (as opposed to its clearly playful approach, only partially interested in the finer points of the co-existing realities), is what happens to Ben Bennell Two when Ben Bennell One enters his world? When Ben I enters World II, his counterpart is nowhere to be seen, and the logical assumption is that Ben II transfers over to World I whenever Ben I enters World II. This is evinced by the fact that we learn Ben I's relationship with Hetty progressed while he was away. Further deductive assumptions would lead us to believe that no matter where Ben II is at the moment Ben I transits into his world, he in turn is tele-ported to the other, so that the Bens can never co-exist in the same reality. And yet there is no concern for this Ben II and his plight from successful ad executive to measly ad clerk. No suspicions from Hetty who must've been freaked out by a Ben II claiming not to belong to this world, appearing at her doorstep wondering who she is, likely having discovered Ben I's address as Ben I discovered his. Moreover, Ben I does not even consider the implications of flip-flopping between realities, likely sending Ben II into a crazed whirl, driving him to all levels of madness.

The novel is a pleasure because of its original ideas, the zany concepts Bennell devises, the constant scheming to not only win his wife back, but in obtaining capital. The novel is fresh, energetic and charmingly silly, and though the characters are two-dimensional as they would be in most romantic comedies, the writing is genuinely funny.

Based on Finney's short story "The Coin Collector," originally published as "The Other Wife" in The Saturday Evening Post, 30 January 1960. The novel was first published in 1968, and was updated for the 1987 omnibus volume, Three By Finney. The updating was done (sadly) in an attempt to make it more accessible to contemporary 1987 readers, which becomes completely absurd since our narrator from 1968 references the likes of Cindy Lauper and quotes prices astronomical to the late sixties, where a newspaper is still worth a dime. If you can, hunt down a copy of the original, and you'll have that great cover, the images on which make sense once you've read the text.
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review 2012-09-26 16:12
An excellent and sympathetic biography of America's 28th president
Woodrow Wilson: A Biography - John Milton Cooper Jr.

Woodrow Wilson ranks among the most controversial presidents in American history. Elected at the peak of the Progressive movement in the United States, he secured passage of a number of new measures that fundamentally transformed the government’s relationship with the economy, yet presided over the introduction of segregation at the federal level. While promising a new approach to foreign policy governed by morality rather than crass personal interest, he initiated Latin American military interventions little different than those pursued by his predecessors. And while he led his nation into a war to make the world safe for democracy, the resulting peace only laid the groundwork for another, even more devastating conflict just two decades later.


For these reasons, Wilson has not wanted for historical study, yet a good biography has long proved elusive. John Morton Blum’s Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality and Kendrick Clements’s Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman are both valuable short introductions to Wilson’s life, but a more detailed examination that fits Wilson within the context of his time has been lacking until now. John Milton Cooper has meet the need for such a work with this book. A scholar who has spent his career studying Wilson and the Progressive era, he brings the benefits of his extensive knowledge to bear in this study. While not uncritical, he is generally sympathetic towards Wilson, and works to dispel the image of the stern moralist that persists in the popular imagination. His Wilson is at his core an educator, a president who was most successful when he explained his proposals and intentions to the public. Such efforts helped win for Wilson a number of impressive legislative and other policy achievements, while his failure to do so (such as in the fight over the League of Nations) often emerges as a major factor in his greatest failures.


Such an approach can seem forgiving, and at times Cooper can come across more like an advocate for the defense than a scholar weighing the evidence. Yet this is a minor complaint when weighed against the scope of his achievement with this book. Cogently written and supported by a wealth of material, it enriches its readers' understanding of Wilson as a person and a president, and will likely be the standard by which future biographies of our nation’s 28th president are judged for decades to come.

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