Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Napoleon: The Decline and Fall of an Empire: 1811-1821 (Michael Broers)

In a few short years, a man that had fought for France’s legitimacy on Europe’s stage and then the rest of Europe to stand shoulder to shoulder with England as one of the premier global powers of the time, lost his global standing and title as Emperor of the French and spent his last days in secluded exile in a remote part of the Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon’s rise was as sudden and dramatic as his downfall, and Michael Broers captures the final ten years of Napoleon’s life in the well-researched Napoleon: The Decline and Fall of an Empire: 1811-1821.

Broers, who has written two other books on Napoleon, starts by covering the run-up to Napoleon’s march on Russia and subsequent retreat, the loss of his title after an invasion of France by Russia and her allies in 1814, and Napoleon’s subsequent exile to Elba. From there, Napoleon’s escape and attempts to rebuild his army and his empire are beautifully detailed by as we see how Napoleon worked himself to the point of exhaustion before the infamous battle at Waterloo. The former Emperor was then exiled to a remote island in the South Atlantic to spend his last days in gradually worsening health.

Napoleon covers the battles fought by the book’s namesake in great detail, including personal correspondence from the Emperor to his supporters and French military leaders throughout his final years in charge of France. For historians who study and read up on Napoleon, this book is a great addition given the inclusion of Napoleon’s personal correspondence.


Monday, November 14, 2022

Path Hit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe (David Maraniss)

Author David Maraniss has written a number of biographies throughout his career, including When Pride Still Mattered, about football coach Vince Lombardi. Jim Thorpe has had a number of biographies written about him but not one that captures the modern historical perspective. In Path Hit By Lightning, Maraniss covers the turbulent and, at times, troubled life of Jim Thorpe.

Thorpe is known by many for his athletic prowess, winning gold medals in the 1912 Olympics that were stripped from him for several decades because of his summer stints playing minor league baseball. He was a multi-sport star that excelled at football and track but also played professional baseball for over a decade, including several years in the National League with the Giants, Reds, and Braves. Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox tribe, also dealt with discrimination, forced assimilation into broader American society, and alcoholism that developed late in his athletic career but continued for much of the rest of his life. Thorpe died in 1953, ultimately buried in a town he never spent time in thanks to the efforts of his third wife. Thorpe’s legend on the athletic field, captured largely without film and television, took on mythic proportions thanks to a number of champions in the press.

Maraniss does a good job of covering the struggle Thorpe faced throughout his life. The struggle to get his gold medals back. The struggle of being a Native American in a white-dominant society. The struggle with alcohol. All in all, his coverage of Thorpe is powerful and persuasive.


Saturday, November 5, 2022

Mad Honey (Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan)

I've been reading Jodi Picoult for over 20 years, and up until recently, have absolutely devoured her books. The past few have been very disappointing however, so I went into Mad Honey quite tentatively. I'm happy to say that I again devoured this one.

Let's give credit where it's due though -- this book really came about because of co-author Jennifer Finney Boylan, who one night dreamt that she wrote a book with Jodi Picoult. She tweeted this exact fact, to which Picoult responded asking what the book was about. The rest is a match made in heaven.

In Mad Honey, Olivia McAfee escapes her husband's abuse and moves with her son, Asher, to New Hampshire to take over her deceased father's beekeeping business. Lily Campanello also moves to the same town with her mother, Ava. Upon meeting, Asher and Lily fall head over heels for each other, but soon, Lily is dead and Asher is arrested for her murder.

From the beginning, Picoult has written about issues in the headlines, and Mad Honey is crammed with them. I was worried about this because her books sometimes don't work if they focus on too many. But for some reason, this one does, and I actually feel that the book wouldn't be the same without all of them. This books is both heartbreaking and suspenseful -- Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan are a great team.


Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure (Rinker Buck)

In the 1780s, Jacob Yoder faced a dilemma. His traditional market for selling his harvest was England, which was in the midst of peace negotiations to settle the American War for Independence with the former 13 colonies. Yoder decided to improvise on a solution to take goods to market by hauling them to Western Pennsylvania and sailing down to New Orleans by boat. Yoder’s journey was the impetus of revolution in transportation that helped fuel the growth of the new American republic. The flatboat, a small wooden structure with a flat top and square ends, hauled millions of tons of food and countless slaves and helped fuel expansion of America through the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. 

Several years ago, author Rinker Buck reenacted Yoder’s flatboat journey. He constructed his own wooden flatboat, with some modern conveniences such as radio, a boat motor, and an updated American flag, and followed the course Yoder took to New Orleans from Western Pennsylvania. He details his journey and our nation’s history with flatboats through his book Life on the Mississippi. In it, Buck discusses the reasons for his journey, his family, but also the hidden messages that were mixed in the book. First, that you can slow reality down. A two month journey in a wooden boat will certainly do that. Second, that the history of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, like that of our country, is complex and there is a lot hidden just beneath the surface or just out of sight. Third, there is a lot of misinformation out there. From a rogue cop giving their definition of “facts” to a plethora of people warning about the certain death of a river journey, Buck deals with misinformation in numerous forms and shows how to get through it. 

Buck’s journey through our nation and our history is rich and detailed. Life on the Mississippi is a great story of separating fact from myth and learning to adapt.


Monday, October 10, 2022

Fixing the Climate: Strategies for an Uncertain World (Charles F. Sabel and David G. Victor)

In Fixing the Climate: Strategies for an Uncertain World, authors Charles F. Sabel and David G. Victor believe that the world’s current climate policy frameworks (such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement) are not working as they are intended to. As carbon emissions continue to increase, they feel that different solutions are needed to address the climate, arguing for a different course of action that takes the power out of elected leadership.

The authors argue that to reverse greenhouse gas emissions, solutions must arise from local communities through a combination of government and business. In their idealistic scenario, they see the two working together through a model of experimentation, working with new technologies and promoting those technologies that offer the best solutions to address climate change. They cite such examples as the rise of electric vehicles, addressing the ozone layer and acid rain in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and Europe’s successes in combating water pollution from industry and agriculture. Their view is that elected leaders and business leaders should encourage more experimentation and a “bottom up” approach to innovative solutions on the climate issue.

The book has detail and depth on some of the technical examples that they cite, which is useful in understanding some of the issues that face the environment. It isn’t the easiest book to read, but their arguments are well-researched and thoughtfully advocated.


Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (Michael Mandelbaum)

Michael Mandelbaum’s The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower describes the nation’s changing views towards international relations and its gradual increased influence as a world power.

The four ages are roughly defined into 50 to 80 year periods that correspond with major domestic or international events that see America’s role on the international stage transformed. The weak power phase covers the United States’ history through the Civil War, with the great power phase taking it to the conclusion of World War II, at which point the nation became one of the two global superpowers along with the Soviet Union. The fall of the Soviet Union corresponds with the United States’s transition to hyperpower as the only major power internationally. However, the author ends the hyperpower phase in 2015 as China’s rise and America’s unwillingness to be as engaged in international trade and peace relations is setting the stage for a new phase that is to be determined in length and just what America’s role is.

Mandelbaum does a very good job chronicling major American decisions and policies over the country’s history and how those choices impacted the domestic and world stage. The author  highlights the positives and negatives, offering a fair perspective of the country’s foreign policy history. Summing up over 240 years of history into 450 pages is a tough task. While this book does not get in the weeds on every single part of American foreign policy, the major points and concepts are covered with proper care.


Sunday, September 25, 2022

Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000-Year History (Ian Morris)

From isolation from continental Europe to integration with it, whether it be by brute force, religious ties, or economic support, the British Isles have had a long, conflicted relationship with Europe. For those of us in America who watched Brexit take place from 3,000 miles away, the context of this struggle between England and Europe was new. However, as Ian Morris points out in his book Geography Is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000-Year History, Britain’s relationship to Europe has been a continual ebb and flow between close ties and distance.

Morris’s book tackles England’s history to the broader world context, but the heaviest focus is on its European relationships. The author talks about the changing worldview and England’s relationship to it - from one where England was the literal edge of the known world (to Europeans), to one where they were the metaphorical center of it, to a geography where they are one of the outsized players on the world’s financial stage (albeit not *the* principal player like it once was). Morris, with brilliance and humor, explains how England evolved and its relationship to the world changed over the centuries.

In about 500 pages, Morris does a wonderful job explaining the major points of British history and its context to modern times. In many respects, what’s past is repetitive prologue in the sense that history has set the stage for the present and that it has, in some ways, repeated itself. Examples of this include England’s relationship to Scotland and Ireland or its relationship to Europe. For us in America, Geography Is Destiny is a great tool in helping us understand English history…and, as a bonus, how one historian perceives our independence in 1776.