Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis

by J. D. Vance, 2016, Harper (Kindle Edition)

This book is very pertinent to what is occurring in the United States today.  Individuals are angry and upset, don’t trust the government, don’t trust the media, and are prone to false news and conspiracy theories.  Vance’s book sheds a lot of light on how the “hillbilly culture” affects how many in the rust belt and Appalachia are affected by this culture.

Vance’s memoir of his life growing up in a dysfunctional hillbilly family with a mother who was untrustworthy, an alcoholic and drug user, and an abuser, illustrates the impacts of this kind of culture.  He was extremely fortunate to have grandparents who provided him with enough stability and belief in him to enable him to escape from his roots.  Unfortunately, the situation he experienced and the subsequent opportunities that opened up are fairly rare.  He is definitely an exception.

My only criticism of the book is that I think Vance suggests that the dysfunction is unique to the hillbilly culture.  I believe that there are similar forces present in many of the other cultures (Black, Hispanic, and even wealthy white families) that are creating similar behaviors.

The book is well-written and easy to follow.  I would recommend this book.3 1/2 stars

Honor’s Voice, The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln

by Douglas L. Wilson, 1998, Alfred A. Knopf, New York

I had always eyed this book as it surely targeted a subject that I was interested in: the transformation of Abrahams Lincoln from a backwoods youth to the person who had possibly the greatest command of the English language ever.  While the book did answer some questions for me, unfortunately it bored me to death.

I think the major problem with the book is the author’s approach to the subject.  He took a forensic approach to each of the events in the period from 1831 to 1842 and tried to logically make a case for the most accurate accounting of each. The first chapter is about Lincoln’s fight with Jack Armstrong shortly after he arrived in New Salem.  The author goes through several different accounts of this event and tries to determine which is the most likely.  The chapter went on and on to the point where I had to skip about twenty-five pages because it was so redundant.  Also, it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference which accounting was the most accurate as the point was that a fight occurred where Lincoln was involved and, as a result, he earned some new found respect that he previously didn’t have.  ‘Nuff said!

After skipping much of that chapter, I went on to read the rest of the book.  It followed the same path but I eventually made it through to the end.

At the end of the day, I discovered that Lincoln in his early years was prone to making personal attacks on his opponents via anonymous articles submitted to the local newspapers (Twitter wasn’t invented at that time).  This behavior was fairly despicable, even for those times.  It eventually caused Lincoln to be challenged to a duel.  I also learned that he had a penchant for reading Shakespeare and Byron’s poetry.  I think this might have been a key to his mastery of the English language in his later years.

I think the book could have been a lot more enjoyable to read if the author had dispensed with a lot of the detail and focused more on his conclusions.  This would have made the book a lot shorter, but he also could have expanded the time period he examined beyond 1842 as I don’t believe the entire “transformation” had been completed by that time.  There were a lot more events that influenced Lincoln after 1842 including his term in Congress, his family life, etc., that made him the man who was elected in 1860.  2 stars

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

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 Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss

by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt, 2016, Harper

This book is basically a compilation of emails that Anderson Cooper exchanged with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, when she was over ninety years old.  I was impressed with how sharp and articulat his mother is at this advanced age.

The book encapsulates the kind of conversation we should all have with our parents before they are gone.  My own conversation with my mother was not very deep.  I did have several good exchanges with my father before he died, but not as deep as the conversations that were captured in this book.

What I learned was that it is important to ask your parents probing questions about their lives.  There is a lot to learn.  It’s too late for me, but maybe I can have these  conversations with my sons before I, too, am no longer here.

3 1/2 stars

In Harm’s Way

by Doug Stanton, 2003, Henry Holt & Company, New York

This book is about the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis in the Pacific Ocean toward the end of World War II.  The book is well researched and well written.  The U.S. Navy made a number of operational mistakes that led to the ship’s sinking by a Japanese submarine and the sinking probably could have been avoided.  The Navy tried to pin all the blame on the ship’s captain and court-marshalled him.  The book uncovers who the real culprits were but also tells about the sailors and officers of the crew.

This was a pretty interesting book to read although it did seem to bog down a bit toward the last half of the book.  There was a movie by the same name with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas that was made in 1965.

3 1/2 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

Boom!, Voices of the Sixties, Personal Reflection on the ’60’s and Today

by Tom Brokaw, 2007, Random House, Inc., New York

I first encountered this book at a lecture given by Tom Brokaw at Brown University probably back in 2008.  His latest book, Boom! was the topic of the lecture.  During the first half of the lecture Brokaw reviewed the events of 1968 one by one.  I was then in my junior year at Brown so Brokaw’s retelling of the events was as if I was reliving them.  I couldn’t believe how the impact of this part of the lecture was so raw and emotional for me.

Brokaw then, in the second half of the lecture, related how the events of the sixties were impacting the political and cultural world of 2008.  At the end of the lecture I had the opportunity to buy the book and, as Brokaw signed the book, I told him about our graduation experience at Brown when we turned our backs on our commencement speaker, Henry Kissinger.  Tom Brokaw said he hadn’t been aware of that incident.

After the lecture, which I attended with my son, Peter, and his future wife, Erika, we went to dinner.  When I asked them what they thought of the lecture, they said the first part (the revisiting of the events of 1968) didn’t have much interest for them.  The second half they found somewhat interesting, however.  It was then that I realized how much difference a generation can make in how the events of history are perceived.

I took the book home, and I didn’t pick it up again until this year.  Because it was written almost nine years ago, it is somewhat dated.  Barack Obama was just starting to pick up momentum in his first campaign for the presidency.  Hillary Clinton was still the frontrunner.  Brokaw decries the hard divisions that existed between the right and left, but was expressing some hope that we could come together and begin solving some of the pressing problems of our country and the world.  After eight years of one of the most divisive presidencies ever, I wonder how he would view our situation today.

The book provides some interesting vignettes of some of the major players in the sixties and their current thoughts and perspectives on those times and the issues and how they evolved.  Because of my interest in that era, I thought that most of them were quite interesting to me.  I doubt, however, that my son or daughter-in-law would find them quite as interesting.  Brokaw also provides much of his own experiences in meeting those individuals back then and his thoughts and perspectives.

Where the book fails, I think, is that the author didn’t do a very good job of tying things together at the end.  In the final chapter, where he had a chance to really delve into the issues and provide his final thoughts, he continues to focus on some additional individuals.  By the time I got to this point, I was ready for him to wrap it up rather than bring more people into the spotlight.  I was a little disappointed that he left it hanging as much as he did.

It was an interesting read for me and brought back many memories.  In addition, it provided some information about some of the individuals who were front and center during those times.  I would, however, have liked the author to bring it together a bit more at the end.  It would be nice if Tom Brokaw would be willing to author a short afterword to bring us up to date on where the world has moved since he wrote the book.3 1/2 stars

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, The Forgotten War that Changed American History

by Brian Kilmead and Don Yaeger, 2015, Random House, New York

This is a quick book to read and it is done pretty well.  The authors keep it moving so the reader never gets bogged down.  It tells the story of the first Barbary Pirate War and the actions that took place.  The book also makes reference to the second Barbary Pirate War that was conducted later by President Madison.

The book was of interest to me as I didn’t know much about what transpired during this war.  The authors also did a good job of capturing the importance of this war to the United States.3 stars

The Presidents’ War

by Chris DeRose, 2014, Lyons Press, Guilford Connecticut

This was a very interesting book for me to read as it had a wealth of information about the five former presidents who were alive when the Civil War began.  I didn’t know much at all about these presidents, much less about their support or lack of it for Lincoln’s efforts to prosecute the war.

The efforts of the former presidents during the war varied from mild support (Martin Van Buran, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan) to vigorous opposition via promotion of slavery (Franklin Pierce), to outright treason and engagement in the Confederacy (John Tyler).  None of the former presidents gave their whole-hearted support to the northern cause, however.

As I read the book I thought of our current president and the silence that George W. Bush has maintained since he left office.  With the exception of a bit of politicking on behalf of his brother’s failed presidential campaign, George W. Bush has been fairly silent on the issues.  After reading this book, it appears that this may be the sensible course.  The president has a job to attend to and it appears that the efforts of the five former presidents prior to and during Lincoln’s term probably did more harm than good.

I would recommend this book to anyone having an interest in reading about some little-known history during that time period.3 1/2 stars