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

The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination

by Barry Strauss, 2015, Simon & Schuster, New York

This book was our men’s book club selection for March.

Perhaps this book is more enjoyable to those with a greater interest in ancient history, but I think that one of my difficulties in staying with it has more to do with the author’s failure to relate the assassination of Caesar to larger, overarching themes in history.  Strauss does go into a brief discussion of the chaos that followed immediately after Caesar’s murder, but he doesn’t offer many clues as to what was the actual significance of the act in terms of world history.  What if Caesar had died of natural causes?  Would the same result have occurred or would there have been another probable outcome?

Another difficulty of the book for me is the attempt to capture the personalities of the individuals involved when there is such scant evidence remaining (with the possible exception of Cicero, whose voluminous writings give us a pretty good picture of the man).  To me, most of these individuals remain mere shadows of the men and women they once were.

I think I had the same problem when I read the book, Cleopatra, and found that most of the information presented was supposition on the part of the author (which is understandable given the few scraps of evidence remaining).  I just can’t seem to get my arms around these figures of history as individual personalities, despite these authors’ attempts to portray them as living, breathing human beings.  This is probably my issue as many readers seem to enjoy these portrayals, but I am much more comfortable with biographies and histories written about more recent persons and events.

The book seemed well researched and I learned some things about how the assassination transpired, but I had a hard time sticking with it.3 stars

The Wright Brothers

by David McCullough, 2015, Simon and Schuster, New York

I thought this book was interesting, primarily because I didn’t know that much about the Wright brothers, even though I had made one visit to Kitty Hawk.  McCullough, as usual in his books, provides a lot of information about the capabilities, personalities, and idiosyncrasies of his primary characters, in this case Wilbur and Orville Wright and their sister, Katharine.

My reaction to the book is that it certainly isn’t McCullough’s best effort.  He accurately depicts the lead up to the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, but the rest of the book seems like a catalog of the various rewards and accolades the Wrights received afterward.  From 1903 to 1910 the Wrights must have made significant advances in the technology of flight, but McCullough only mentions these in passing.  The book would have benefited greatly from a collaboration with an aeronautical expert.  McCullough apparently is not one of those as he describes only the duration of the flights, sometimes the altitude, and who of note was in the audience. The first flight was only twelve seconds and, by 1910, the Wright brothers were able to fly for over an hour.  Much of the improvement was due to their additional experience in flying, but certainly their ingenuity must have led to technological advances that they applied to each iteration of their aircraft.  McCullough mentions some increases in horsepower of the subsequent engines, but not much more.

I was intrigued on my visit to the Edison museum with the advances in design and technology that Edison applied to each succeeding of his phonographs.  The Wright brothers essentially invented the first powered aircraft and also learned how to fly it. I would be interested in knowing more about how they improved upon it over the years following.

Also of interest might have been the lineage of the Wright Company and the fact that it subsequently became a part of the Curtiss-Wright Company, a company that survives today.  McCullough mentions the Wright brothers’ rivalry with Glenn Curtiss during the early years of powered flight.  It seems ironic that the two companies later became part of one company.

I very much enjoyed reading this book.  I think it would have been much better, however, if the author had provided some additional information about what was developed after the initial flight.3 1/2 stars

A Spy Among Friends, Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

by Ben Macintyre, 2014, Crown Publishing, New York

This story is fascinating as it probes how an upper-class gentleman in British Society could betray his country.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t give all the answers and leaves quite a bit to conjecture.  This may be due to the fact that so many of the records of the British Secret service pertaining to Philby remain sealed, but I would have liked to have come away from the book feeling a little more satisfaction that I understood Philby and the world he lived in.

The book also tends to be a bit repetitive in that it depicts the social situation that Philby lived in as being absorbed in endless drinking and the telling of ribald stories.  This, too, is unfortunate as the same story repeated numerous times tends to get old.

Nonetheless, it is an interesting book.  I just felt it should have given me a bit more.3 1/2 stars