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Book Review

There was only one topic I wanted to discuss in a blog post on Jimmy Carter, and that was how a Presidency could fail. It is as important, if not more so, to study failure as it is to study success. I scoured Amazon & Google for books on the Carter presidency, hoping to find a treatise on how it went so wrong.

Unfortunately, I found myself knee-deep in the right-wing hate machine. Boy, how conservatives use the failings of Jimmy Carter’s presidency as as a way to prop up their own agendas. Book after book after book is set up to just drag the 39th president through vitriol-laden mud, leaping to grandiose conclusions about “character” and “socialism”. Here’s a man, a guy who truly cares about people, whose character is almost above reproach (especially compared to most politicians), treated so harshly by such an abundance of writers, all to “prove” how right-wing ideals are just so great for this country …

Mattson Book

Anyway, before I get too high on my political soapbox, I eventually came across “What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” by Kevin Mattson. His book isn’t an analysis of the entire Carter presidency, but it is an insightful piece on the infamous “malaise speech” of 1979. Through interviews and research, he assembles not just a narrative on the crafting of the speech, but a collage of the various bad decisions leading up to it. It’s not hateful, or condescending, or serving some personal agenda. It is a fair analysis, a decent read, and, in my opinion, helpful for anyone studying not just the Carter presidency, but leadership in general.

Unbiased, analytical approaches to contemporary political events are rare. They do exist, though. You just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

——————–

Kevin Mattson at Ohio University

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Book Review: DARK HORSE: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield

The last few years have been a bit rough. Between home improvement projects, a near-career meltdown, and some (albeit minor) health problems, I’ve not only been away from blogging, but I’ve been away from my favorite hobbies. I allowed other, less interesting facets of my life to distract me from the things I love doing: traveling the National Parks and reading books on American history.

Various physical and financial barriers are easing up, and I hope to resume traveling in earnest when spring comes. In the interim, I knew I needed something to rejuvenate my reading. Unfortunately, the next subject for my blog — the home of James Garfield, 20th President of the United States — didn’t seem too promising. I knew very little about the man, and few people discuss his life or presidency. He’s all but forgotten, like a pointless tchotchke in America’s attic. I feared I would be in for another dull read. I still haven’t finished my densely boring pick for the French & Indian War. I wasn’t looking forward to a repeat of that.

I surfed around the Amazon store, and found Ken Ackerman’s Dark Horse. It had decent reviews, but I still wasn’t too confident in my selection, simply because of the subject matter.

I aDark Horsem immensely thankful I was proven wrong. Dark Horse was an excellent selection.

What Ackerman did with Dark Horse is something I really enjoy. Instead of focusing on every trivial tidbit about Garfield’s days in some ramshackle schoolhouse, Ackerman tells the important story: the sequence of events that set Mr. Garfield, tragically, on a path to his own assassination. Ackerman tells the story of Garfield’s surprising nomination and eventual election to the highest office of the land, including all the backroom dealings of allies and foes, and how a delusional slob would use factional loyalty as an excuse to commit murder. Ackerman takes all the items important to the narrative, and to the development of the characters involved, and weaves the story as a story, not as a lecture. This makes a topic as seemingly banal as Garfield’s assassination and makes it actually riveting.

Sure, this is no John Grisham novel. This is history, and history rarely lives up to Hollywood panache. But Ackerman did a great job telling the tale as it truly occurred. I am very grateful I picked this book to rejuvenate my hobby, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. I already have my next selection for my next historically-themed post on my Kindle.

So thanks, Mr. Ackerman. You’ve helped a hobbyist regain his motivation.

 

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The Best of 2012

I thought I’d wade back into the blogosphere by doing a bit of reflection. It’s the end of the year, dammit, and if everyone else gets to post their “best of” lists, then so do I! Well, maybe this isn’t a straight-up Best Of 2012 list, for (as you’ll see) there are things old & new on this list. It’s more of a list of things I experienced & liked, or as I like to call it, a List of a Few Favorite Things — 2012.

Music

I’m regressing in my musical tastes as of late: I’ve been connecting to older music from decades past. I’ve spent a lot of time filling up my iPod with classics from blues, rock, jazz and, yes, funk and soul (I love good funk/soul music, XM Radio’s Soul Town channel is on heavy airplay in the house). I had a great time re-discovering artists like Ike & Tina Turner, The Temptation, The Kinks, Otis Redding, Smoky Robinson, T Bone Walker, Big Joe turner, and many more. This is beyond hits, it’s been historical research. These cats have all done some very interesting work, stuff you don’t hear on the “classic” radio stations, it’s just fascinating to hear their evolutions from early “greenhorn” years, to chart-topping hitmakers, to uninspiring has-beens, back to Senior Statesmen of Music as their best works withstand the test of time.

By far, my favorite “old time” re-discovery this year has been blues artist Jimmy Reed. Holy cow, this cat is good! I’m a big lover of blues music, it easily takes up the bulk of my iPod storage. But I actually never heard of this guy before, just saw his name on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame listing. So I grabbed a couple of his CDs from my favorite used record store, and gave them a listen, and was blown away. His stuff is crisp, fun, rollicking, and so innovative for a guy from the 50’s-60’s. I put about 25 of his best songs on my iPod, more than all but a few of the artists on my (humbly) eclectic list.

Jimmy Reed

As far as new music goes, well, I’m not the best judge. Yes, I do listen to XM Radio’s Sirius XMU and Alt Nation channels, both of which play new music. But although I like those channels and the music they play very much, no artists have really connected with me from those channels this year. I think the modern age of music has issues, chief among those being the difficulty to make that explicit connection with an artist (unless you’re a teenage girl jonesing for One Direction or something). There’s just too many choices, too much backscatter, and too much focus on that iTune/YouTube hit.

Here is how I connect with music: live shows. I’ve always been a huge fan of live music, in my youth I went to dozens and dozens of shows including some of the larger festivals. Nowadays, I don’t do the Big Show thing anymore, but I love a little place called the Main Pub. The owner of this downtown corner bar does a tremendous job bringing in small, independent, eclectic acts and letting them do their “thang”. This ain’t your dad’s Lynyrd Skynnard cover band, this is ground-level innovation at it’s finest. This is how to see live music: intimate little clubs, favorite beverage in hand, chatting with friends & strangers, and letting the band just rock the joint. Occasionally it doesn’t work, but the Main Pub has a damned good track record. I can only recall two shows that didn’t have something to offer in all the years I’ve been going.

This year, my favorite Main Pub act has got to be Love in Stockholm. They played there earlier this year, and I grabbed a couple of their CDs at the show. It’s in heavy rotation in the car, in the house, and in the earbuds. This is a band that combines great songwriting, strong lead vocals, fun-loving instrumentals, all set to a post-modern funk beat complete with horn section. They even manage to craft a song with the word “Massachusetts” (“Alston“, one of my favorite LiS tracks, give it a listen).

Love in Stockholm

Movies

There were quite a few movies I liked this year. “Skyfall” was a rollicking adventure, riveting with actual character development quite surprising for a Bond movie. Barbara Broccoli, Daniel Craig, and a collage of talented screenwriters & directors have resurrected the franchise, tossing aside the goofy, formulaic bullshit of the Pierce Brosnan era and replacing it with something far more visceral and crafty. “Argo” was a surprisingly good historic drama piece concerning the Iranian hostage crisis era (an event that strongly affected me — I was 13 and very impressionable at the time). I’m not a big Ben Affleck fan, but I feel he’s come back around to his indie roots (and away from shit like “Armageddon” and “Daredevil”), and that suits him well. “Ted” was a funny-as-shit (literally, in one case) comedy by the creator of Family Guy. “The Avengers” was my chance to regress into my childhood: it was the comic book I read as a kid, and Joss Whedon positively nailed it. I am also compelled to give a special shout-out to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” for being the movie to see when one has the absolute shittiest day at work and all you want to do is watch something goofy, campy, involving some dude swinging an axe & decapitating vampires. 🙂

Sadly, I also found myself wasting valuable cinema time on crap. “The Master”, a tale of mockery loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and the early years of his cult, was just a sloppy, pointless mess of a film. “Total Recall” was a remake not worth making. How could anyone top the high-body-count glory that is the original? “Prometheus” was a prequel that came across like a contract commitment rather than a labor of love like the original “Alien”. By far, the worst one of the year, however, was “The Hunger Games” or, as I like to call it “The Film of the Screenplay of the Teenage Wangsty Fanfiction for the Highly Derivative Novel by an Untalented Marketing Major”. God I hated that movie! It’s on my bottom 10 movies of all time now. I relate it to hitting a skunk with your car: no matter how much you wash, you just can’t get the stink out!

But here’s my favorite film of the year: “Lincoln“. I love historical dramas, and this one wasn’t as much of a “drama” as a “highly well-crafted recreation”. The script is terrific, the set pieces are fantastic, but the performances are absolutely outstanding. It’s not just Daniel Day Lewis, either, it’s the entire cast. This was absolutely my favorite film this year, I strongly advise seeing it before it leaves theaters.

Books

I didn’t meet my reading goals at all this year. I have got to step it up (more on that later). I did get through a couple of lackluster books on FDR and the French & Indian War. But I did read one incredibly gripping tale this year, one I reviewed here earlier: Midnight Rising. What a fantastic book: historical non-fiction told in a narrative, but genuine, style, that kept me reading and looking for more. This should be the next film project of The American Film Company (makers of the excellent “The Conspirator”). It has a great cast of characters, a good chunk of action, and great set pieces. It would make a great film.

Televison

This year, the best thing I did was disconnect cable TV. Went to a Hulu/Netflix/digital antenna model. Know what? I barely miss it. TV is just such crap nowadays. Before the Big Disconnect I tried (I really tried!) to get into current hits like The Walking Dead and Doctor Who, and found I just couldn’t get into them. Dead turned into Melrose Place with zombies, and (I’m sure I’ll get hate mail for this) Doctor Who is so jerky in plot, writing, filming, & acting I’m surprised it hasn’t been pulled from the airwaves for causing epileptic seizures. I’ve just lost interest in it after David Tenant’s fabulous turn as the Doctor.

I did get into a couple of things this year. I watched the entire re-imaging of Battlestar Galactica and enjoyed it immensely. I also heavily enjoyed Game of Thrones. What a fabulous series that is! Makes me almost want to start reading fantasy fiction again (I overdosed on it a couple of decades ago, wallowing in lousy Book of the Month club picks until my brain shouted at me to stop).

Current Events

I won’t go into Everything Politics, for I have a tendency to get on my soapbox straddling my high horse and no one wants that. But I have to shout out with glee that big money failed to elect their toadies. I consider it very heartwarming that personal fortunes and corporate funding resulting from the horrible Citizens United campaign finance decision failed to elect either Mitt Romney and Linda McMahon. Sure, you can hate Obama if you want (I’m not the biggest fan, believe me), but the day that big money can simply buy elections will be a horribly sad day for our country. Citizens United needs to be repealed. Only we the people should have the right to set our destiny, not the checkbooks of faceless conglomerates.

Personal Life

I managed to do a few cool things this year. I renovated my kitchen (laying tile is backbreaking work, I tell ya). I went to New York Comic-Con (a sloppy, overcrowded mess, but I did meet a lot of talented artists & bought way too much cool shit). I managed to eek out a trip to Cape Cod (where I badly sprained my ankle & used it as an excuse to get fat & lazy over the summer). I caught an interesting production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at the Hartford Stage. I learned to appreciate sake. I hung out with my good friends and had far too many arguments about guns, religion, the Republicans, and Guns ‘n Roses. But by far the best thing I did this year was go through a career change. I won’t go through the details, but my last job literally sucked the joy out of my life. I held onto it for about four years, and it was the worst experience in my professional career. It was just something I was not psychologically qualified to do. The good part is I met some really cool people while doing it, people I hope to keep in my life for a very long time, but the work itself was just not compatible with my personality type. It turned me into a monster, and I’m glad to be done with it.

Hopefully next year will see me back on track. I hope to finish my home renovations and get back to traveling this nation’s national park sites. I hope to read more. I hope to blog more. I hope to live more, and I hope you do to. Get out there and do something you love, whatever it is, and have yourself a happy new year and a great 2013.

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Compelling History

“Ugh, history is SOOOO boring!”

I hear ya, eighth grader! It’s not your fault. The fact is, most history writers suck. They may be brilliant historians but, by and large, they are lousy writers.

—-

I had my angle for my post on FDR plotted out before I wrote it. The site in question was FDR’s home, I felt the need to write about who he was rather than what he did. Yet most of my prior reading was on the latter: FDR and the Depression, FDR vs. the courts, FDR  at war, etc. There’s a lot of interesting reading there, but these isolated issues don’t give a full measure of the man. 

I knew what I needed. I needed to sit down & read a book spanning his whole life. Only that would let me understand FDR himself. But let’s be fair: writing a biography of one of history’s great figures is hard enough, but putting it in one volume while covering it well is damned near impossible. The stories of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Napolean, Gandhi, and FDR can’t adequately be covered in one volume. But I did some scrolling through Amazon’s reviews, and I found a book that had good recommendations. “FDR”, by Jean Edward Smith, might meet my need.

So how does one fit a momentous life into one volume? Well, this is my first complaint about Smith’s effort. He took a monumental, perhaps impossible, writing challenge, and wasted the entire first chapter on FDR’s family ancestry: Roosevelt’s wealthy forebears and Dutch family tree. Right off the bat, the book is as boring as the Book of Numbers! Who begat who, from wence did they come. Madness! Why bother with that stuff? It’s not really relevant. Sure, his upbringing is important (his relationship with his mother, Sarah, is crucial), but all that farfle about how his family emigrated to the U.S. and continually married their cousins? Who cares? It’s eating up valuable pages, and by doing it right up front, it’s setting a horrid tone for the book.

Then there’s Smith’s penchant to retroactively drop in characters. Out of nowhere, Smith will bring in a character who, it turns out, knew FDR since college! But wait, he already wrote about those college years.  Why didn’t he mention this person then? No, he drops him in and talks again about the past to bring us up to speed about this one guy and then gets moving along the main path again. This rubber-banding doesn’t happen too frequently (thank goodness) but when it does, it’s certainly annoying.

But here’s the worst part. Smith ends the book abruptly. “FDR died. The end.” No denouement, no nothing. Just “he’s dead.” Not even a wrap-up, or a summation, or an epilogue. Nothing but bibliography. It’s like, in the end, FDR’s life didn’t have any meaning. In reality he got a tombstone and a monument in Washington, but Jean Smith couldn’t be bothered to write another couple of paragraphs about his funeral train or the eulogy delivered by Winston Churchill. Perhaps he was as tired of writing the book as I was of reading it.

—-

History is A STORY. I love history, and historians love history, because it’s a fascinating story. Tell it like one! FDR’s life had all the hallmarks of a great novel: a man of privilege and bearing with a fairy-tale existence, suddenly struck with adversity. A man who learned, from that adversity, to become a leader of a troubled nation. A man who formed a powerful alliance of capitalists, monarchs, tyrants, egotists and soldiers that would go on to defeat the greatest evil of the 20th century and, when all was said and done,  would still remain as perplexed as the rest of us by that elusive thing known as love. What a story! But, sadly, told rather poorly in this case.

In this day and age, no one can go through their professional life with only one set of skills and hope for success. Doctors are learning to be business managers to succeed in their practices. Business managers are learning about databases in order to target their customers. Computer programmers are learning how to be salespeople so they can garner their next consulting gig. And historians need to learn, too. They need to learn how to write, how to craft a narrative. They need to learn about plot, and dialogue, and character development, and how to engender empathy through prose.

This is not to say historians should fabricate or embellish the story. I’m not suggesting they create Twilight: The Yalta Conference. I am suggesting they learn through their studies what narrative exists in the history that’s real, and use good writing to bring it out and make it interesting.

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Last year, it dawned on me that I simply don’t read enough. I don’t do a lot of things enough (like exercise, or travel, or any of a number of things I want to do but don’t). So last October I bought myself a Kindle. I also had to create a post on Harper’s Ferry, and I found the story of John Brown so compelling, I knew that post had to be about him. So I went ahead and downloaded my first e-book:  Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz.

And I found it brilliant.

It’s really hard to write good, compelling history books. Most of the time, authors simply tell what happened. The last print book I read, The French & Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America by Walter R. Borneman, suffers from this in spades. It’s just a straight, dry retelling of the war, from young George Washington’s encounter with French soldiers along the Youghiogheny River to the French defeat in Montreal and the loss of Canada. Reading that book has so far (for I am still not done) been a chore.

So now some of you may cry “shenanigans!” on this. History, after all, is just a story of what happened. Well, yes, but the elements of storytelling are important whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, and one of the biggest elements of storytelling is character. You’ve got to make these people interesting, you’ve got to give the reader enough to make them really care about who these people are, what motivates them, and why. This is how people get invested in the story. Do we care that some guy sailed a boat to the far reaches to find a whale, or do we care that Captain Ahab was a hard-nosed fanatic who was willing to risk his entire crew for vengeance, even though he knew it would not earn him any reward? We care about the story because we care about the character.

Far too many history authors miss this point. Borneman does this: he tells the story of the French & Indian War but does not make the reader interested in the characters involved. A lot on what Lord Amherst did, not a lot on who he was, and the same for his French adversaries, the various colonial commanders, and the hodgepodge native tribal chieftains. A story without character is just a chain of events. It’s a Wikipedia article.

Horwitz, however, succeeds at this in Midnight Rising. He gets into John Brown’s head: his rough childhood, his business failings, his drive and passion, and even the creepier aspects of his behavior (like his notion that he should be Commander In Chief over the entire U.S. government). Because we become invested in John Brown, we become invested in a story, right down to the disastrous consequences.

Horwitz also doesn’t stop with John Brown. He infuses life into most of the characters in the story, from Brown’s extremely sad wife, to his children (forever damaged from their father’s actions), to his followers, to the few slaves he managed to free, to the men who fought back, took him prisoner, and eventually hanged him. All along the path, Horwitz develops these characters, gives them life, and you either love them, or hate them, or pity them, or at least understand them and their motivations.

This tie-in to the people involved is what makes this book compelling. I heartily recommend it to not only fans of American history, but even for those interested in the psychology of fanaticism. There’s a lot in this book that directly translates to today’s terrorism and the dangerously extreme measures we’re taking to counter it.

Big fan. Permanent spot on the “recommendations” page.

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