The Colossus of Maroussi

by Henry Miller, originally published in 1941, Second Edition, 2010, introduction by Will Short, afterword by Ian S. MacNiven, a New Directions Paperback

This book was on a book list for our upcoming cruise to Greece and Turkey.  It is a beautifully written travelogue written about a visit that Henry Miller made to Greece in 1939.  Miller describes, in spiritual terms, his encounters with a number of characters and locations throughout his travels.

While Miller goes a bit overboard in his rapture with certain individuals as well as his dislike for anything having to do with America, his prose captures the essence of his experiences.  After traveling recently to New Zealand and having friends ask me what it was like, I could only respond that “You have to go there to see for yourself”.  This response is due to my lack of ability to describe what I felt when I was there.  Miller, on the other hand, has the ability to capture not only what he saw and did, but also the deeply felt emotions he experienced while traveling.

Miller’s style encompasses extremely long sentences that incorporate stream of thought as well as short, staccato sentences reminiscent of Hemingway.  Both seem to precisely fit when he uses them.  The thoughts expressed in the longer sentences are easy to follow and Miller seems to finally plunk down the period in exactly the right spot.

Despite at times getting annoyed by Miller’s tirades about America and its faults, I really liked his vivid descriptions of Greece and his excellent writing. Note: Skip the introduction by Will Short. It struck me as being pompous and basically a bunch of garbage.3.5 stars

I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford

by Richard Snow, 2013, Scribner, New York

I thought the subject matter of this book was absolutely fascinating.   How Henry Ford invented the Model T and then made it available to the masses is a great story, no matter how many times it is told.  He then built a company that mass-produced the automobile in incredible quantities.

The book goes on to illustrate Ford’s eccentricities that almost led to the demise of the company.  It is unfortunate that a man of such genius had such horrible character flaws and quirks. I almost shuddered to think how he would have gotten along in the current “modern age.”

The book held my attention but seemed a bit choppy at times.  I somehow didn’t get the transitions from one subject or individual to another in the book.  I did feel that the book was worthwhile to read, however.3 1/2 stars

The Swamp, The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

by Michael Grunwald, 2006, Simon and Shuster Paperbacks, New York

Prior to reading this book, I really didn’t understand the reasons why the Everglades are such a critical component of the South Florida ecosystem.  The bottom line is that, without the Everglades, it is doubtful that this area would be able to support the levels of human population that currently live here.

My wife and I took our kids into the park back in 1981, but we had absolutely no idea that the Everglades were so threatened at that time.  The author provides a great deal of history of the development of South Florida.  He then goes on to provide a more recent history and how the politics and interests of the developers have impacted the Everglades and the environment.

There are some projects currently underway to, hopefully, help restore the Everglades.  Long stretches of bridges are being built to raise portions of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami in order to restore the flow of the Everglades to the ocean.  There are also battles going on the control the release of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Chattahoochee River.  This book provides perspective as to the importance of these events.  However, because the book ends in 2006 and it is now 2014, there is quite a gap between what was going on then and now.  I will need to find some more recent material to bring me up to date on what has transpired since the book was written.4 stars

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip

by Matthew Algeo, 2011, Chicago Review Press

This book was our February book club’s selection.  It was fun reading about Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, in their new roles as ex-president and ex-first lady when they took a road trip to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York in 1953.  This was probably the last time that an ex-president attempted to assume the role of a private, ordinary citizen after serving.  Ex-presidents since Harry have all attempted, in one way or another, to capitalize on their special status.

Harry Truman was also the last President to leave office without any kind of a pension.  He had to pay his own office expense and scrape by without any substantial source of income.  He was finally granted a small pension quite a few years after he left office.

The author tried to trace the trip that Harry and Bess took by traveling the same highways and attempting to eat at the same restaurants and to stay at the same hotels.  He goes into great detail describing the changes that have occurred in the various places since 1953.

The book might have been a much better book if the author had been able to derive any significant meaning from his observations, perhaps by tying them to some larger historical or social trends.  Instead, he writes an inordinate amount about the history of the individuals and buildings Harry and Bess encountered on their trip.  The result is that the book is full of trivial facts that seem to have no particular bearing on the story.  The book was about 225 pages but the number of pages that held pertinent information was closer to 125.  The extra 100 pages were a waste of time.  2 stars

Salt Sugar Fat, How the Food Giants Hooked Us

by Michael Moss, 2012, Random House, New York

Our men’s book club did this book and I was initially skeptical that I would get much out of it.  I was wrong.  The book provided me with a great deal of insight regarding the foods I eat and also gave me some incentive to avoid some of them.

I was amazed at how much the consumer can be manipulated by the ingredients of our modern-day processed foods as well as the marketing schemes used to promote them.  On the other hand, I was also somewhat heartened by the fact that consumer preferences for healthier foods are also forcing the food companies to change, albeit in extremely small steps.  One thing that I learned that was valuable to me was that the taste buds can be modified over time to prefer less salt (although the same can’t be said for sugar or fat).

While the author seems to wander a bit at times, he has done a great deal of research and investigation which shows up throughout the book.  His tone is very even and he avoids the kind of accusatory rhetoric that is emblematic of some other authors such as Michael Moore.4 stars

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932

by William Manchester, 1984, Unabridged Audiobook version read by Frederick Davidson, 2012, Blackstone Audio

This is a very good book, enhanced greatly by the reading of Frederick Davidson.  There were times when I thought I was listening to Winston, himself, rather than Mr. Davidson.

In regard to the content of the book, I had read Citizens in London which disclosed a great deal of information about the various affairs of Churchill’s daughters and daughter-in-law.  This book went into quite a bit of detail regarding the indiscretions of Winston’s mother, Jenny, and his father, Randolph, as well as the morals of the upper class in England in those times.  Winston and his wife, Clementine, however, seem to have had a very stable, loving and faithful relationship.  This was very interesting, given the looseness of the prior and following generations.

I was very impressed with Clementine and the sage advice she provided Winston, who was somewhat of a hothead at time.  The letters she and Winston wrote to each other are almost of the same quality that John and Abigail Adams wrote.  She was quite a lady.

Finally, the book went to great lengths to dispel some of the blame that Churchill received for the Gallipoli disaster.  It seems apparent that much of the blame should be placed on Lloyd George and the cabinet’s dithering when a decision to attack Constantinople was needed.  Kitchener’s last minute intervention also had much to do with creating the fiasco.  If the English ships had sailed on to take Constantinople as originally planned, the entire campaign in Gallipoli could have been avoided and, perhaps, would have even shortened World War I.

My only criticism of the book may be the amount of detail that it contains.  I must admit I was lost sometimes when the author delved into the various players in the political scene.  Also, it seems he recited every single letter Churchill ever wrote to his mother, his governess, and later, his wife.  It seemed to be a bit of overkill after a while. 4 stars

George F. Kennan: An American Life

by John Lewis Gaddis, 2010, Penguin Books

This book was on my dad’s Kindle which I inherited after he passed away.  Dad always had an interest in George Kennan’s career and had read many of his books.  Since I already had the book, I decided I should read it.

The biography was fairly well-written but it was a bit repetitious at times, continually returning to the same points the author was emphasizing.

What I didn’t realize prior to reading this book was how strange an individual Kennan was.  As an employee of the State Department, he knew more about the Soviet Russians than probably any other American.  He was able to articulate a foreign policy for the U.S. toward the Soviet Union that served us very well in the Cold War.  On the other hand, there were several instances when his tunnel vision caused him to get things totally wrong.  His personal issues, which included depression, marital problems, poor health, and an insatiable desire for recognition, caused  him quite a few problems, both in his life and his career.  Despite this, he managed to live to a ripe old age of 95 before he died.  On the whole, his contributions to U.S. foreign policy were substantial.3 1/2 stars

An Innocent Man, Murder and Injustice in a Small Town

by John Grisham, 2006, Audible Audio Edition, narrated by Craig Wasson, 2006

I listened to this book on CD driving down to Florida from Rhode Island this year.  I didn’t pay much attention to it when I checked it out from the Narragansett Library, so when I put it on, I thought it was fiction.  I went through the first one or two CDs before I finally figured out that Grisham had written this non-fiction account of a trial in Oklahoma. Until that time I was thinking that the book had way too much detail to be an enjoyable.

The book was interesting, but Grisham seems a bit too emotionally involved to give an unbiased account of what happened.  The individual who was falsely convicted had some deep character flaws which made it somewhat difficult  for me to totally sympathize with him.  Grisham does, however, show how the justice system can miscarry to convict an innocent individual, especially in a case where some law enforcement officers are corrupted with drug dealings.  I wish that Grisham had delved into the police corruption angle a bit more as he only touched on that aspect. The focus of the book seemed to be more on the impact of the wrong conviction on the individual rather than the underlying causes of it and this made the narrative a bit repetitive.2 1/2 stars

Armies of the Night

by Norman Mailer, 1968, The New American Library

I picked this book up and decided to try it again as I had tried to read it back in 1968 in college when I belonged to a book club.  I found a bookmark at page 42 so I assume that was as far as I got.

I think now that I understand why I didn’t get any further.  Although Mailer seems to have a pretty good grasp on the issues and emotions of the time, his writing is pretty disjointed.  The premise of the book is that he is writing a novel about what a character (Mailer, himself) went through during the march on the Pentagon in 1967 while a portion of the book is devoted to the history of the march and, as such, is detached from any specific character.  Mailer is in the unusual position of being a conservative radical when it came to his views on the war which gives him the enviable position of being able to observe both the crucial elements of the times as well as its absurdities.

The main problem with the book is Mailer’s writing.  He can spin a pretty good narrative for a while and then he gets all tied up in a sentence that goes on and on without any specific direction.  He definitely has a mind of an intellectual and it’s almost as if he wants to prove it every so often.  He is at times profound and at other times his message gets all mushed up in the verbiage.

At any rate, I found it interesting to go back and revisit the times which were some of the most trying this nation has ever endured.  Unfortunately, having observed the recent Iraq war and its results, it appears that a lot of the lessons we should have learned from the Vietnam War were lost.

 

In the Garden of Beasts, Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

by Erik Larson, 2011, Broadway Paperbacks, New York

This is a fascinating book, well-written and extremely well-researched.  I was amazed at how well the author could reconstruct events that occurred so many years ago.  I couldn’t help compare his work to The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan which I had recently read.  In that book the author apparently had the opportunity to interview many of the participants in that particular piece of history and did a poor job of bringing those insights to his book.  In the case of Larson’s book, he did not have an opportunity to interview many of the persons involved in his book because almost all of them are deceased.  Nevertheless, he did a much better job of relating the events that occurred.

Another aspect of the book that I appreciated was that the author didn’t attempt to over-embellish the narrative.  He just describes the events and lets the reader react.  All too many times an author seems to try to pound home his or her particular views (e.g., Stacy Schiff in Cleopatra and Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals.  I much prefer Larson’s style where he leaves it up to the reader to react and form opinions.

It is chilling to read about this period of time in history when almost an entire population of a so-called civilized county was highjacked by a ill-educated megalomaniac and his henchmen.  In current times where there are very real dangers in our own country that require extra vigilance (i.e., surveillance) by our government of individuals’ actions, it behooves us to ensure that adequate processes and protections are in place to ensure that a similar result never occurs.
four stars