Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Reviews,Part II

As I said in my return post, I'm going to write some very brief reviews of books I read in 2014. Maybe I'll eventually review what I'm currently reading too. We'll see. Anyway, here are a few more books for your consideration. I won't give too much detail...nor any spoilers.

Washington, A Life, Ron Chernow. Penguin Books, 2011.

This won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and certainly deserved it. I read a few biographies this year, and this was the best. It was another lengthy book, but everything a biography should be. Chernow provides fresh analysis of the well-known events in Washington's life and the not so well known areas. Chernow looked in depth at Washington's marriage to Martha Washington (more of a friendship than a romance), his flirtatious relationship with neighbor Sally Fairfax, his frustrations in command of the Continental Congress, and the successes and failures of his presidency. Some might argue that this book borders on hero worship. I beg  to differ. As Chernow points out, for two hundred years people have tried to dig up dirt on Washington--unsuccessfully. Chernow examines and refutes many of the claims against our first president.

The Man Who Saved the Union, H.W. Brands. Doubleday, 2012.

If you're looking for a quick read on what Grant did throughout his life, you might enjoy this. If you're like me and want more analysis into Grant's relationships, feelings, attitudes, etc., look elsewhere. You might want to read Grant's memoirs instead.

Catastrophe 1914, Max Hastings. Knopf, 2013.

The second book on my list by Sir Max Hastings (see last post), this looks at the first months of the First World War. I actually read this around the time of the centennial of the conflict's beginning. The political intrigue, the tangled alliances, the question of whether or not Britain would intervene, were fascinating.

I Wish I'd Been There, Byron Hollinshead. Vintage, 2007.

I like the concept of this book--twenty historians picked events they would have wanted to witness. Though some of the essays were good, like the piece on the Salem Witch Trials that look at the relationship between the trials and the fear of war with Native Americans, and Joseph Ellis's piece on Washington's efforts to forge some sort of agreement with the Native Americans in the Midwest. Others, less so. I guess it was predictable that Robert Remini's piece on the alleged "corrupt bargain" between Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams in the Election of 1824 annoyed me. Remini seemed to want to find some sign of corrupton to vindicate his hero, Andrew Jackson, bu alas, he had to agree with the historical evidence. Was there an implied agreement between Clay and Adams? Probably. Was there a formal deal? No.

John Quincy Adams, Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo, 2012.

I haven't gotten to the Fred Kaplan bio on Adams that came out in 2014 yet, but Unger's work was excellent. The more I read about John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, the more I'm impressed with him...aside from his unsuccessful presidency, of course. I found the sections on John Quincy's relationship with his parents, John and Abigail Adams, to be quite intriguing. In short, they pushed him hard and messed him up for life. Yes, the Adams Presidency (1825-29) was a failure, but he showed his genius as a diplomat, senator, secretary of state, and as representative. For those of you who don't know Adams was the only person to serve in the House of Representatives after his presidency.

Freedom's Cap, Guy Gugliotta. Macmillan, 2012.

This was one of my favorites this year. Gugliotta looks at the transformation of Washington, DC from a country town to an urban center in the 1850s. The center of his focus? The U.S. Capitol. The 1850s and 1860s saw the Capitol get closer to what we see on the news. A Philadelphia architect named Thomas Walter designed the current chambers of Congress, occupied by the House and Senate in the late 1850s. At first, he cooperated well with army engineer Captain Montgomery Meigs, but soon, there was a clash of egos. Two very talented men felt threatened by the other. At the center of it all was Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, who was, as Gugliotta successfully argues, the most influential political figure behind the construction of the new chambers of Congress  and the Capitol dome. He laid the groundwork for the projects as a senator in 1851-52, had the work transferred under the War Department's jurisdiction while he was secretary of war, then when he returned to the Senate, he kept an eye on things. In the background to all of this is the rising tensions between northern and southern congressmen. Davis, for instance, was an ardent supporter of states rights and slavery while having a very nationalistic vision for the Capitol. He believed a great country ought to have a great building for its representatives. He held to that until he could no longer reconcile this paradox.

The final few reviews coming soon!

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