Alexander Hamilton

by Ron Chernow, 2005, Penguin Books

This is a fantastic book that is chock-full of information about Alexander Hamilton, but, more importantly, his imprint on the structure of our federal government.  It also provides a lot of insight regarding the divisions that we currently have in how individuals view our federal government.

The book delves into the particular talents of Hamilton and how he used them to structure the government in his role as Secretary of Treasurer during Washington’s presidency.  His influence went well beyond his own cabinet post as many of the other agencies had a very limited bureaucracy.  Hamilton had the unwavering support of Washington for most of his endeavors.  Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State, on the other hand, was viewed by Washington with a high level of distrust.

Chernow’s depiction of our founding fathers is unvarnished.  He not only extolls the many talents of Hamilton, but also fully describes his shortcomings.  His depictions of some of the other founding fathers, such as Jefferson and John Adams, is highly critical.  For example, I never knew that Jefferson was such a snake when he held his post as Secretary of State.  His actions would probably be grounds for charges of treason in today’s political environment.  Likewise, Adams is portrayed as someone with personal flaws that sometimes made him appear as a raving lunatic.  He probably had a thinner skin than even our current president!

.One other insight that I gained from this book was that, although the United States was formed as a federal republic under the Constitution, the “United” part of our country’s name was and continues to be somewhat tenuous.  The federal government is supposedly the glue that holds our country together, but it is now often viewed as the oppressive institution that keeps us from doing whatever we would like to be doing.  One wonders if the Civil War, which supposedly was able to preserve the Union, did, in fact, settle it for all time as we seem to be at least as divided now as we were during the first few years of our new nation.

While the book is a wealth of information about that period in the history of our country, it was sometimes pretty tedious to read and, in some places, seemed repetitive.  It’s over seven hundred pages of fairly small print and it took me almost three months to wade through it. (It sometimes put me to sleep after only a paragraph or two perhaps due to my chronic lack of sleep rather than the subject matter).  Despite my efforts to slog through it, I would highly recommend that anyone who has an interest in how the federal government was formed read this book4 stars

The Nix: a novel

by Nathan Hill, 2016, a Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York

This book is pretty fascinating.  It interweaves topics such as computer game addiction with the anti-war protests that occurred during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, along with Nordic myths.  The author did a fair amount of research on all of these topics and managed to pull them together into a compelling novel.

As with many novels, however, the author relied heavily on some improbable circumstances which sometimes strained my belief.  I would cut him some slack in this regard as the story he spins is pretty fascinating.4 stars

Origins of a Catastrophe

Origins of a Catastrophe, by Warren Zimmerman, 1999, Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York

Warren Zimmerman was the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia and the Balkan War broke out in the 1990’s.  The book relates his meetings with the leaders of the various  republics (Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia) that split from Yugoslavia and he provides his assessment of their personalities and ideologies.  In fact the book is a little bit like a memoir in addition to a historical work.

This book was a very hard read for me as the names were hard to keep track of and I didn’t know much about these countries or their histories.  Although I have rated this book fairly high due to its content, I found myself having a hard time staying with it  In fact, I usually started to fall asleep while reading it after only a few pages.

The most startling conclusion that I came to after reading this was the damage that certain individuals can inflict on their fellow countrymen when they implement their intentions, particularly when their intentions are fused with a extreme nationalistic ideology.  In our recent presidential campaign here in the U.S. one of our candidates has professed strong nationalistic views, i.e., America First.  As I read this book I was struck by how similar the personalities and ideology of Slobodan Milosevic and  Donald Trump seem to be.  Both seem to have had a strong dislike of foreigners, want to control the press (media), and harbor feelings that they have been somehow wronged by their enemies.  These are all the characteristics of a demagogue.  Scary.

While I greatly appreciate Zimmerman’s analysis of what caused the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars, it was a bit depressing to read while at the same time our own presidential election was underway.  Both of these together was a bit too hard to take.

4 stars

The Allure of Immortality, An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet

by Lyn Millner, 2015, University of Florida Press, Gainesville, FL

This book is a history of the Koreshan movement and its settlement in Estero, Florida.  The movement was founded by a very charismatic individual, Cyrus Teed, who taught that followers who believed in him and his beliefs would somehow achieve immortality.

An added interest in the book for me is the close proximity of the Koreshan State Park to our current residence in Florida.

Ms. Milner, who is a professor at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University, treats her subject with respect and she has done an incredible amount of research on her subject.  Her writing is good, and my only negative comment is that sometimes the amount of detail she provides can get somewhat tedious.

I particularly liked how she brought the subject up to date at the end of the book with a detailed account of the current situation, both for the state park as well as the College of Life Foundation, which manages the left-over assets of the Koreshans.  I also liked her afterword in which she described some of her own thoughts and emotions as she researched and wrote the book.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in cults and how they come into being as well as anyone who has an interest in Southwest Florida history.4 stars

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr, 2014. Scribner, New York

This book, about a young blind girl and a German boy genius whose paths cross in WWII, starts a bit slow and seems a little disjointed in the beginning, but it really comes together in the end.

The author utilizes very short chapters that alternate back and forth between the blind girl and the German boy.  I found that it took a little getting used to, but this technique really adds to the overall book. 4 stars

Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965

by Yuen Foong Khong, 1992, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

This is one of the books that my son, Peter, had as a result of his master’s studies at George Washington University.  I went through the box and picked out some of them that looked interesting.  The book sat in another box for a few years until I picked it up this summer because there weren’t any other books in our RI condo that I hadn’t read.

The subject of this book holds a certain fascination for me as I was convinced that the government was lying to the American people about the motives of the intervention in Viet Nam (as well as what was occurring during the intervention).  I did not, however, have a very good understanding as to exactly what the motivations were.  This book went a long way toward providing some insight.

Khong analyzes, from a human psychological perspective, two decisions of 1965, the February decision to bomb North Vietnam, and the July decision to introduce ground troops.  Khong’s assertion is that analogies from prior historical events play a large role in making current decisions.  He also finds that using these analogies from prior historical events can lead to major mistakes in policy decisions and, once the wrong decisions are made, these same analogies invariably lead to the decision makers’ hanging on to their original thinking despite mounting evidence that they are on the wrong course.  The three analogies that were most commonly used were the Korean conflict, Munich, and Dein Bein Phu.  It appears that the analogy of the Korean conflict was the one most used in supporting the two decisions of 1965 that were examined.

One of the findings is that, in the absence of current information, the decision maker may fill in missing information with the facts from the prior situation, facts that may not necessarily be pertinent to the current situation.  The author points out that many of the decision makers in the Viet Nam era were some of the brightest and most well educated persons in our society.  Despite their smarts, they tended to make some grievous errors in judgement and tended to not listen to arguments that were in opposition to their way of thinking.

After reading this book, I could sympathize somewhat with the difficulty these individuals had in making the decisions that they did.  My particular sympathy is with President Lyndon Johnson as he agonized over these decisions and repeatedly sought opinions from all of his advisors as well as this military leaders before making these decisions.  From the questions he asked, it appears that he had the best interests of the United States at heart when he finally came to the conclusions that he did.  It is unfortunate that he didn’t get better advice.

The book also indicates that one of his advisors, George Ball, was on the right track when he used the analogy of Dien Bien Phu in predicting the disastrous outcome that would come to pass some years later.  My sympathy is with Mr. Ball because his very accurate predictions were ignored in the face of opposition from almost all of the other advisors.

While I have less sympathy for the other advisors, I can now, as a result of reading this book, better understand how they came to their positions.  Several of these advisors later admitted that they were mistaken and regretted the advice they provided (William Bundy and Robert McNamara are two such individuals).

Although I have a better understanding of the thought process that surrounded these decisions, I still can’t forgive individuals such as Walt Rostow and General William Westmorland who never recanted their views despite overwhelming evidence that they were greatly mistaken.  These are individuals who should definitely share the blame for the loss of over 58,000 American lives as well as the lives of countless Vietnamese.

Analogies at War is an insightful work.  The author researched his subject carefully and it shows.  His writing and sentence structure are very clear and he forcefully presents his arguments.  The only downside of the book, I found, was that, because of the arguments put forth and the information provided, it tended to get somewhat repetitious.

The book was written in 1992, prior to our involvement in the Iraq wars.  It would be interesting to read an updated version that would examine the decision making that went into those two wars.

4 stars

Washington Square

by Henry James, originally published in 1880 as a magazine serial, Audiobook read by Lorna Raver, 2008, Tantor Media, Inc.

This is a novel about a young girl living in New York City about 1830 and her affair with an unworthy suitor.  The novel itself is a bit dull but the reading by Lorna Raver is well done.  Her portrayal of Catherine’s aunt as a nosy busybody is superb!

I was hoping that the novel would give a little bit more insight into New York’s culture and society in those times, but the novel was so focused on Catherine and her relationships with her father, her aunt, and her suitor that it didn’t leave much opportunity to dwell on other aspects of life in New York at those times.

I think the novel would have been a bit dull to read, but I really enjoyed the audiobook.4 stars

A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh

by Jeff Shaara, Audiobook, 2012, Narrated by Paul Michael, Random House Audio

We listened to this audiobook on our semi-annual trip from Florida to Rhode Island.  The audiobook was 18 CD’s so it consumed about 2 1/2 days of our three-day trip.  Even though it was long and, at times, seemed even longer than it was, the author made it interesting.  By writing this in novel format he made the individuals seem to come to life.  At the same time, however, the historical contents were well-researched and accurate.  The narration was also very good.

We had no prior knowledge of the battle or the circumstances that brought the two armies together and this was a much more enjoyable means to gain that knowledge compared to a dry, blow-by-blow history of the battle.  I would recommend this book. 4 stars

The Boys in the Boat

by Daniel James Brown, 2013, Viking Penguin Group

This book is meticulously researched, well-written, and the author obviously has a great love for his subject.  It’s about the crew from the University of Washington that won the nine-man rowing Olympic medal in Berlin in 1936.  The story is interlaced with background information on the various members of the crew and, in particular, the life of Joe Ratz prior to his attendance at the University of Washington.  Some of the details are pretty grim, but, nonetheless, they add to the story of how they went about winning the gold medal.

Daniel James Brown also provides an accurate portrayal of what was occurring in Nazi Germany at the time and how Goebbles wanted to show the new Germany to the world through the Olympic events.  Very scary stuff.

This is a really good book, even if the reader doesn’t have a great deal of appreciation for what’s involved in the sport of rowing.  The author even gets caught up in the excitement of a race that took place almost eighty years ago.4 1/2 stars

An Officer and a Spy

by Robert Harris, 2014, Vintage Reprint Edition

I think this is an excellent book!  It is an historical novel about the Dreyfus affair and one of the officers in the military who was involved in the arrest of Dreyfus.  He later has doubts about Dreyfus’ guilt and launches his own investigation.

The book is written in the first-person, present tense so it feels as if whatever is happening is happening right now, even though the events depicted happened over one hundred years ago.  The book is very well written, the characters are superb, and the plot flows well.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone.4 1/2 stars