Podcasts of the Week Ending October 27th


Believed :: The Good Guy

This podcast series from Michigan Radio investigates the story of Larry Nassar, the women’s Olympics gymnastic doctor found guilty of sexual abusing his patients for decades.  This first episode depicts how Nassar was seen in the gymnastic community as a respected and lovable figure, not appearing as a monster despite performing monstrous acts.  There are obvious content warning for rape and trauma for anyone considering listening to this episode.

The Memory Palace :: The Dress in the Closet

This Halloween episode is a ghost story of sorts telling the sad story of Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone and how they were haunted by being guests of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on the night of his murder.

Hit Parade :: The Oh. My. God. Becky Edition

The Hit Parade visits the charts circa 1991-1992 when hip-hop hits finally reach #1.  It was a transitional period for hip-hop between its party song roots and the West Coast gangsta rap that emerged as a hit-churning style later in the 90s.  The new styles sampled pop and R&B songs and featured more conscious lyrics.  Artists included De La Soul, PM Dawn, Arrested Development, and … Sir Mix-A-Lot.  Host Chris Molanphy credits the newfound success of rap on the charts partly to Billboard introducing the new SoundScan system which more accurately tracked record sales and airplay.  This was another nostalgic episode for me as I liked a lot of the rap music from this period but never cottoned on to gangsta rap.

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


AuthorGeorge Saunders
TitleLincoln in the Bardo 
Narrator: Cast of Thousands
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This is a curious, experimental novel that is built upon the true story of President Abraham Lincoln making several visits to a crypt to hold the body of his recently deceased son Willie.  The “bardo” is a Tibetan Buddhist concept that of an intermediate state where a person doesn’t know if they’r alive or dead. The author gives voice to dozens of deceased people who comment Lincoln & Willie but also tell their own stories and interact with one another.  A third element to this novel are sections which are merely collages of writing, newspapers clippings, and historical works about Lincoln and his times. The novel is an oddly abstract attempt at understanding grief and coming terms to death, both on Lincoln’s personal level and the large scale trauma of the Civil War.  The audiobook is particularly interesting since each character is read by a different actor, several of them quite famous, lending it the quality of an audio play.

Recommended booksThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust  and Severance: Stories by Robert Olen Butler

Rating: ***

Book Review: A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg


AuthorAmy S. Greenberg
TitleA Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico
Publication Info: Knopf (2012)
ISBN: 9780307592699
Summary/Review:

Like many Americans, I know very little about the Mexican War, which is a shame since what I learned from this one-volume history, we Americans keep repeating the same mistakes our nation made in this war.  Greenberg writes a page-turning narrative starting with the drumbeat for war – ostensibly caused by the United States annexation of the Republic of Texas, but with many American leaders hoping to annex California and other Mexican lands as well.  The United States first war with another republic was one guided by a greed for land and featured many atrocities – pillaging, rape, massacres – by American soldiers against the Mexican populace.  The American troops were able to occupy Mexico City and hardliners desired to annex all the land of Mexico.  But if the Mexican War is overlooked in American history, even more so is the first American anti-war movement prompted by reports from returning soldiers and embedded reporters of the real horror of the war.  In the conclusion of this book, Greenburg documents how the Daughters of the American Revolution grew out of this war, an attempt to reclaim the virtue and glory of the founding war and overshadow the avarice and criminality of the war with Mexico.

A Wicked War is by no means a comprehensive history of the war with Mexico.  Greenburg focuses her narrative on five historical figures.  The first is President James Polk who Greenburg describes as an apprentice of Andrew Jackson, a hard worker determined to meet his goals, and unusual for his time considered his wife Sarah an equal partner in his political career.  While a hard worker, his aims seem less admirable as Polk is depicted as wanting to seize the Southwest by any means and with this expand the slaveholding territory of the United States.   Opposing Polk is anti-slavery and anti-war candidate Henry Clay in his third and last failed campaign for President.  Clay’s son Henry, Jr. would go on to fight and die in the war adding to the elder Clay’s agony at this time.  But he would rally for one more great speech that would inspire the nation’s response to the end and aftermath of the war.

Another featured figure is John J. Hardin, a popular Illinois congressman who went against his fellow Whigs to support the invasion of Mexico and volunteered to fight.  His death at the Battle of Buena Vista became an image of glory for the war supporters even at a time when support for the war was flagging.  Hardin’s death also opened the door for his friend-turned-political rival Abraham Lincoln who was elected to represent their district’s seat in Congress in 1846.  Inspired by Clay, Lincoln would speak out against President Polk and the War in Congress despite the unpopularity of his views among his constituents, who saw to it that he would serve only one term.  The final figure in this book is Nicholas Trist, a diplomat sent by Polk to negotiate the Mexican surrender.  Upon growing familiar with the reality of the war and the conditions of the Mexican people, Trist refused to follow Polk’s instructions and negotiated a fairer deal with Mexico that ceded a smaller amount of territory to the United States.  After negotiation the Treaty of Guadalupe, Trist wrote “My feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than the Mexicans’ could be.”

I found this historical work very compelling and a good introduction to a bad war.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer by Fred Kaplan


Author: Fred Kaplan
Title: Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers, c2008.
ISBN:  9780060773342
Summary/Review:

A different approach Abraham Lincoln, focusing on his life and legacy through the lens of his writing.  Kaplan contends that Lincoln may be of few Presidents to write his own speeches and probably the last one. In addition to his oratory Kaplan analyzes Lincoln’s political writings, poetry, and even his raunchy jokes and puns.  As a self-taught man, writing played an important role in Lincoln’s education as well.  This book provides a unique take on the life of the great leader.

Recommended books: Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills and The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Radical and the Republican by James Oakes


This year for my annual tradition of reading a book about Abraham Lincoln for Lincoln Day, I read The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2006) by James Oakes. This is an excellent dual biography tracing their parrallel lives in the fight against slavery. Oakes does a great job at describing the huge chasm between antislavery politics (Lincoln’s way) and abolitionism (Douglass), the former accepting slavery as Constitutionally protected but endeavoring to stop it’s spread (and thus hasten it’s demise) while the latter sought to go beyond politics and completely eliminate slavery and racism. Oakes also shows how Lincoln and Douglass brought the two together as Lincoln would become an emancipator while Douglass increasingly became involved in Republican politics.

Interestingly, the two men only met three times, each meeting detailed in the book. These meetings and correspondence engendered a friendship that irrevocably changed each of the men. The insight given to these meetings and thoughts Lincoln and Douglass had for another are tilted towards Douglass since he outlived Lincoln and had the opportunity to write and reflect on their relationship. I enjoyed reading this book and found it a valuable for its insights into these two great American leaders of the 19th-century.

Abe at 199


Lincoln Cent

Today is the 199th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, America’s greatest President and one of the great leaders of all time. Coincidentally, that is also the exact same birth date of Charles Darwin. Can you imagine any two more influential figures of the 19th-century?

This is one of my favorite days of the year and one that Susan and I make a special effort to commemorate. This year we read The Abraham Lincoln Joke Book to our son to initiate him into the joys of Lincoln Day.

Here are some Link-olns for the day.

Other people commemorating the day:

I also have started a tradition of reading a book about Lincoln each year starting on his birthday. This year I’ve selected The Radical and the Republican by James Oakes. Previous selections:

Previously: Abraham Lincoln Day 2007