Book Review: Who Is Michelle Obama by Megan Stine


Author: Megan Stine
Title:  Who Is Michelle Obama?
Publication Info:  New York : Grosset & Dunlap, An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., [2013]
Summary/Review:

My song picked out this children’s biography to read at bedtime from the Who was?/Who is? series and we both noted that despite her prominence, neither of us knew much about Michelle Obama.  So it was interesting to learn her life story, one of hard work and great accomplishments, and be reminded of just how quickly the Obamas went from ordinary Americans to the White House (and Michelle likely has a lot more life to live so there will be more to her story).  The book included short features about some other First Ladies from America’s past dispersed through the text.  I thought the book tended to overemphasize Michelle Obama’s beauty and fashion sense at the expense of her talents and accomplishments, but otherwise was a good introduction to her life.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was Davy Crockett? by Gail Herman


Author: Gail Herman
Title:  Who Was Davy Crockett? 
Publication Info:  Grosset & Dunlap (2013)
Summary/Review:

I read this children’s biography to my son.  I actually knew very little about Davy Crockett (who as we learn in the biography preferred to be called David) so it was interesting to read a book that focused on the facts of his life rather than the legend.  We learned that he was a man who moved around quite a bit on the Western frontier of Tennessee, enjoyed hunting bears, served in U.S. Congress, and died fighting at the Alamo.  It was all very interesting although the book does soft-pedal the severity of his involvement with “Indian removal,” slavery, and the anti-Mexican prejudice of the Texas liberation fight.  On the other hand, it doesn’t ignore these issues.  So we’re presented with a story of a complex man who’s life may be more interesting than the folk tales he inspired.
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Horwitz
TitleMidnight Rising
NarratorDan Oreskes
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2011)
Previously read by same author:

Summary/Review:

Tony Horwitz, one of my favorite authors, presents a compelling history of John Brown and his followers and the keystone event of their raid on Harpers Ferry.  Brown’s life and family are discussed from childhood, to his involvement in Utopian abolition movements, and their targeted assassinations of pro-slavery advocates in “Bleeding Kansas.”  It’s eerie that the rhetoric and tactics of Brown and his followers while targeting the noble cause of abolition still resemble those of today’s Tea Party/2nd Amendment activists.The raid on Harpers Ferry took considerable planning and secrecy, although curiously it is uncertain what result Brown expected.  Did he really expect it to spark a nation-wide uprising, or did he intend a blood sacrifice?  Similarly, his changes in tactics during the raid itself contradict the planning.  What’s interesting is that while the raid was widely condemned, even by ardent abolitionists, Brown’s real influence came in his words and letters while in jail and on trial.  Even people who despised Brown and all he stood for came to admire his bravery and determination.  Horwitz’s book is an interesting account on this key event in American history and the ripples it would have throughout the country.

Recommended booksCloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: One Summer: America 1927


Author and Narrator: Bill Bryson
TitleOne Summer: America 1927
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2013
Other books read by the same author:

Summary/Review:

Bill Bryson’s talent is to delve deep into a subject, find all the minute details, and then tie them together into a bigger story.  For this work, the title explains it all: one summer in the United States when a remarkable number of historical events occurred, many with unexpected connections.

The main feature of this book is Charles Lindbergh and his historic flight from New York to Paris aboard the Spirit of St. Louis.  And then there is the aftermath in which Lindbergh deals with his celebrity, a level of worldwide renown perhaps unprecedented in history.  Other aviators who had hoped to contend for the Orteig Prize, are given their due as well, with descriptions of their less-famous flights (if they managed to get off the ground).

The book is balanced by the story of another hero, Babe Ruth.  In the 1927, Ruth would break his own remarkable single-season home run record and be joined in a race by teammate Lou Gehrig.  In fact, the entire Yankees’ lineup hit so well that they’re forever known as Murderers’ Row and one of the best teams in baseball history.  Bryson cheats a lot, leaving the summer of 1927 to fill in the back stories of Lindbergh and Ruth and other figures, and occasionally even peeking ahead.  But the meat of this book is stories of events from that summer, including:

  • the sensational Snyder-Gray murder trial
  • the apogee of Al Capone’s power as a mob boss
  • the government poisoning alcohol at the behest of Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League
  • the Federal Reserve makes decisions that sow the seeds of the 1929 stock market crash
  • radio comes of age
  • The Jazz Singer ushers in the talkie
  • television created
  • the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti
  • carving of Mount Rushmore begins
  • massive flooding of the Mississippi River
  • the Bath School bombing
  • Henry Ford transitions from the Model T to the Model A
  • The Long Count fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey

The whole book is fascinating and full of interesting details of a transitional time in American history.
Rating: ****

 

 

Book Review: Book of Ages : the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore


AuthorJill Lepore
TitleBook of Ages : the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Publication Info: Vintage (October 1, 2013)
ISBN: 9780307958341
Books read by the same author:

Summary/Review:

Jill Lepore, one of my favorite historians, addresses the question put forth by Virginia Woolf regarding about Shakespeare’s sister being equally brilliant but lacking the opportunity due to her sex through the history of Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane Franklin Mecom.  Jane was the youngest of the Franklin children, six years younger than Benjamin, and they were very close.  Benjamin recognized Jane’s intelligence and teaches her reading and writing until he leaves Boston at the age of 17.  From that point on the siblings would see one another very infrequently but remain close through correspondence. Jane marries young, has many children, struggles through poverty, and sees many of her children die, but she perserves.   There’s a heart-touching moment in their history when Benjamin brings Jane to Philadelphia to offer her a safe place to live during the Revolutionary Way.  Later, he would pay for a house in the North End of Boston where she would live her final year.

There’s only a small amount of Jane’s writing that survives, her correspondence with Benjamin and some other relatives as well as her Book of Ages where she recorded the births and deaths of family members.  Building on these, Lepore uses the writings of friends and relatives as well as women in similar positions at the time to build the story of Jane Franklin.  As the title states, Lepore also relates Jane’s opinions.  She was more devoutly religious than her brother, and chided him for that, but also relates some interesting perspective on the political debates of the time.  Her descriptions of the battles raging around Boston in April 1775 and fears that the fighting will come into the town are particularly chilling.

This is a brilliant book, which offers a well-sourced history and biography of an everyday woman of 18th-century American woman as well as the contrast of a gifted woman’s lack of opportunity compared to her famed brother.  I highly recommend reading this book.
Favorite Passages:

“Benjamin Franklin fought for his learning, letter by letter, book by book, candle by candle. He valued nothing more. He loved his little sister. He taught her how to write. It was cruel, in its kindness. Because when he left, the lessons ended.”

“The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance. Write this for a memoriall in a booke. She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains. The Book of Ages was her archive. Kiss this paper. Behold the historian.”

“Jane’s Book of Devotions was her Book of Ages. Her devotions were prayers that her children might live. And her Book of Virtues was the Bible, indelible. She explained her creed to her brother: ‘I profess to Govern my Life & action by the Rules laid down in the scripture.’  The virtue she valued most was faith. It had no place on Franklin’s list. She placed her trust in Providence. He placed his faith in man.”

“Gage had ‘sent out a party to creep out in the night & Slauter our Dear Brethern for Endevering to defend our own Property,’ Jane reported to her brother. ‘The distress it has ocationed is Past my discription,’ she wrote. ‘The Horror the was in when the Batle Aprochd within Hearing Expecting they would Proceed quite in to town, the comotion the Town was in after the batle ceasd by the Parties coming in bringing in there wounded men causd such an Agetation of minde I beleve none had much sleep, since which we could have no quiet.’ She expected that the colonial militia would march into town and continue the battle in Boston: ‘We under stood our Bretheren without were determined to Disposes the Town of the Regelors.’Instead, the militia surrounded the city.”

“‘Perhaps few Strangers in France have had the good Fortune to be so universally popular,’ he wrote her. ‘This Popularity has occasioned so many Paintings, Busto’s, Medals & Prints to be made of me, and distributed throughout the Kingdom, that my Face is now almost as well known as that of the Moon.’ She wrote back that the likenesses she had seen of him were so many and so different that his face must be ‘as changeable as the moon.'”

“I hope with the Asistance of Such a Nmber of wise men as you are connected with in the Convention you will Gloriously Accomplish, and put a Stop to the nesesity of Dragooning, & Haltering, they are odious means; I had Rather hear of the Swords being beat into Plow-shares, & the Halters used for Cart Roops, if by that means we may be brought to live Peaceably with won a nother.”

“Brown went further, arguing that history’s grossest distortion of reality stems not from its false claims to truth but, instead, from its exclusive interest in the great. In the eighteenth century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women.”

“Also in 1939: Jane’s house was demolished. In 1856, the 150th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth, the house had even been decorated for the celebration. But so little was known about Jane that the claim that Franklin’s sister had ever lived there was eventually deemed dubious. In 1939, Jane’s brick house was torn down to make room for a memorial to Paul Revere. The house wasn’t in the way of the Revere memorial; it simply blocked a line of sight.  Jane’s house, that is, was demolished to improve the public view of a statue to Paul Revere, inspired by a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jared Sparks’s roommate.”

Recommended booksA Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson and The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution by Alfred F. Young.
Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Prohibition (2011)


Title: Prohibition
Release Date: 2 October 2011
Director: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick
Production Co: Florentine Films
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | History
Rating: ****

This Ken Burns documentary illustrates the United States’ experiment with banning alcoholic beverages. The story is told in three parts.

Part I documents the adverse effect alcohol consumption had on Americans, especially men, who drank away their pay while women and children suffered poverty and abuse.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union organized to successfully (albeit temporarily) shut down saloons, and inadvertently providing a political outlet for women that helped the suffrage movement. On the other hand, alcohol played an important social role, especially in immigrant communities.  The dark side of the temperance movement is that it was made up of rural and small-town Protestants from the mid-west and south who were prejudice against the immigrant groups in the big cities.  The strongest opponents to prohibition were German-American brewers, so it was no surprise that anti-German sentiment during WWI helped sway the national opinion towards Prohibition.

Part II shows America under Prohibition.  Interestingly enough, many people (including politicians who voted for the amendment) expected beer and wine to be permitted under Prohibition.  The Anti-Saloon League under Wayne Wheeler are able to influence the drafting of the Volstead Act which enforced Prohibition by banning all beverages with more than one-half of one-percent alcohol.  There were many loopholes such as people who stocked up before the ban or those who could get prescriptions for medicinal alcohol.  While many in the heartland were pleased to abstain, places like New York City exploded with illegal importation and distilling of liquors.  These illegal activities were soon consolidated under organized crime bosses whose territorial battles contributed to notorious violence.

Part III illustrates the growing awareness that the levels of hypocrisy and unintended consequences of Prohibition, ultimately leading to repeal.

An interesting aspect of this documentary is it shows how the Prohibition story accompanies the increased role of women in American public life.  The temperance movement was led by women.  Mabel Walker Willebrandt enforced the Volstead Act in her duties as U.S. Assistant Attorney General.  Lois Long documented the glamour and sexual liberation of speakeasy nightlife in her articles for the The New Yorker.  And Pauline Sabin lead the political movement for repeal as head of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

Like Ken Burn’s other works, this was an excellent and informative documentary, richly illustrated with period photographs and films and words read from primary documents by actors and narrators.  I learned a lot from this film.

 

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: ****