Friday, October 04, 2013

Book review - Two Roads to Sumter.

Back to the American Civil War with Bruce and William Catton's Two Roads to Sumter. This 280 page book was published in 1963. It's the first work I have read involving Bruce Catton where he did not work alone.

Beginning with birth, Two Roads details and compares the lives of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. The political and personal lives of the two men are examined in the light of their coming destinies as presidents of contending nations during the Civil War. Along the way the stumbling of the United States towards conflict is also documented.

By the time of Lincoln's election and the secession of the gulf states, both men were primed for their moment on the national stage. The Cattons refer to both as the best their sections had to offer at that time. Interestingly, during the final lead-up to the conflict, Stephen Douglas is the only actor on the national stage referred to as a statesman. I found this particularly interesting since Lincoln is normally idolized in history books. What the Cattons take exception to is the lack of effort by either Davis or Lincoln to head off secession after the election but prior to the inauguration. Both seemed content to ride the tide of events. Only Douglas attempted to turn it. In this specific instance Davis comes off as weak and Lincoln as cold-blooded.

By the time the decision to fire on Fort Sumter is made and the book ended I felt I had a little better grasp of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. That knowledge sheds a brighter light on their actions during the war. Whether the reader is a long time Civil War buff or is looking for information on Lincoln or Davis, I would recommend Two Roads to Sumter.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Book review - The Wide World of Aaron Burr.

Published in 1975, Helen Orlob's The Wide World of Aaron Burr is a simple overview of Burr's life. In just 116 pages Orlob follows Burr from birth to death. Of course, with such limited space, the work never enters in depth into any area of Burr's life.

After having read several books about Aaron Burr or concerning areas of his life, I must say I wish I read this book first. It's a quick read and gives the basic facts of the life of Aaron Burr. If you are looking for an introduction to Burr, or an outline to fill in with other reading, then The Wide World of Aaron Burr is a book you need to take a day or two and read.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Book review - Tales of Old-Time Texas.

J. Frank Dobie's 310 page book, Tales of Old-Time Texas was published in 1955. The book is a collection of stories on various topics occurring in Texas up through the late 1880's.

The book starts off with several tales that are likely true but soon moves into tall tales and wild yarns. My favorite account was the telling of the Wild Woman of the Navidad - likely based on true accounts.

Usually Mr. Dobie introduces a new topic by explaining the type of story to be told and giving a little background of how he collected the account he relates. If he has the story in original writing he reproduces it in the body of his work.

Tales of Old-Time Texas is a quick and enjoyable read but not necessarily an informative one at all times. A few of the accounts probably took place, at least in some form. Most are likely just whoppers created by Texans in an attempt to top other similar stories. If the you keep that in mind while reading Dobie's work, you will find it entertaining and humorous.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Book review - Polk and the Presidency.

President James K. Polk is perhaps best known for putting the philosophy of Manifest Destiny into action by adding Texas, California, New Mexico, and Oregon to the United States. That's about all I knew of President Polk before I read Charles A. McCoy's Polk and the Presidency.

This 225 page work was published in 1961. It is not the typical biography of an American president. In fact, Mr. McCoy does not include any personal information about James Polk the man and only a smattering of background information about James Polk the politician prior to his election to the presidency of the United States.

What the book does do is give an in-depth analysis of the one-term administration of James K. Polk. McCoy covers Polk's effectiveness in foreign affairs, advancing his domestic agenda, dealing with congress, and attempting to shape public opinion among other areas of action. Also included is how Polk impacted how we view the office of President of the United Sates today. Following in President Jackson's footsteps, Polk continued to enlarge the scope of the presidency and make it a popular office rather than the republican office the founders envisioned it to be.

After reading Polk and the Presidency I felt as if I gained a much better understanding of just who Polk was as president and how he impacted the political lineage of the nation. If you're looking for who James K. Polk was and why he did what he did, this book is not for you. If you are wanting to better understand what impact he had on the nation, besides adding to it geographically, you should not pass up the chance to read Mr. McCoy's work.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Book review - October 1964.

My Dad, Spiff Jr, and I are replaying the 1964 National League season through the magic of Strat-O-Matic. That meant when I saw David Halberstam's October 1964 I immediately wanted to read it.

The name of the book is not an accurate reflection of the contents, there is so much more included than just October. Mr. Halberstam uses most of the book to set the stage for the October showdown between the New York Yankees and the St Louis Cardinals. That means he goes back to the Spring of 1964 and traces each team's journey to the World Series as they traveled through the season. Also included are player backgrounds to help explain the make-up of each team.

Once the foundation is laid, Halberstam uses the last quarter of his book to cover the climatic encounter pitting the aging Yankees against the young and upstart Cardinals. All seven games of the Series are walked through along with updates on how the teams were handling the results. After the World Series ends there is a short section on what happened to the key figures after October of 1964.

Written thirty years after the fact, October 1964 is largely drawn from personal interviews the author had with some of the participants in the drama and from accounts written at the time or shortly thereafter. The result is predictably interesting. Halberstam does an excellent job of crafting the tale and drawing the reader into the story. It almost feels as if the 1964 season and World Series is unfolding as he writes.

Whether you are a baseball fan in general or a fan of one of the two teams involved you owe it to yourself to read this book. I had high expectations when I picked it up and none of them were disappointed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Book review - Ante-Bellum.

Ante-Bellum is a 256 page 1960 reprint of three short books published by southern authors just prior to the civil war. Editor Harvey Wish opens the book with a short introduction and then lets the books speak for themselves.

First off is George Fitzhugh's Sociology for the South. Fitzhugh is a Virginian and is writing to defend slavery. He attempts to tie all the ills of crime and poverty to a free society. What prevents these ills he claims, is slavery. As proof of this he waxes eloquent about the absence of such ills in the American South as compared to the Northern states.

Fitzhugh also gets the second word with his follow-up book, Cannibals All! This time around he attempts to demonstrate that slavery is the natural state of mankind and is the purest, most effective form of socialism ever devised. Of course he approves of slavery and by default of socialism. Fitzhugh's distrust of the free market system becomes evident as the book proceeds. Again Fitzhugh is remarkably lacking in any statistical support for his positions.

Fitzhugh was regarded at the time he wrote as an intellectual light-weight. Time has not improved his work. Lacking any facts or figures to support his theories, Fitzhugh embarks on an anecdotal journey heavily sprinkled with his own philosophical musings. I found his use of socialism to justify slavery to be particularly interesting from both the slavery and socialism viewpoints. Trying to view Fitzhugh's works from the vantage point of a middle class non-slave owning Southerner prior to the war I found his arguments unconvincing.

The third book reprinted in Ante-Bellum was one I had heard of but never read, Hinton Helper's The Impending Crisis of the South. Helper hailed from North Carolina and, while opposed to slavery, was no friend of the black race. His ultimate solution was to free the slaves and resettle them all in Liberia.

Unlike George Fitzhugh, Helper uses facts and figures to present his case: that the South is lagging far behind the North with the cause being slavery. Tables of figures and recitations of census tallies are sprinkled throughout Helper's work. He ably shows how far behind the South is in all areas and attempts to correlate the deficit with slavery. For the most part he succeeds. Unfortunately for Helper and the South, his target audience was non-slaveholders. The illiteracy rate among that group in southern states was high and the state governments colluded to keep his book from widespread circulation.

As a Civil War buff I find the origins of the war to be of great interest. That made Ante-Bellum a particularly interesting read. If you're interested in the war, the politics leading to the war, or the discussion over the abolition of slavery in the United States this book should be on your must read list.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book review - Crazy '08.

I picked up Cait Murphy's Crazy '08 at Half-Price Books a few days ago on a whim. I like baseball and I like history. A book about the 1908 baseball season is right up my alley. Of course I didn't expect the book to live up to it's dust cover hype.

I was wrong. For 299 pages Ms. Murphy brings the spring, summer, and fall of 1908 to life. Just like it was happening right now. The book is about the baseball season (referred to as the greatest in baseball history) but the time period naturally shows through as well.

Starting during the winter following the 1907 season, Crazy '08 follows the off-season maneuvering of teams trying to get that final piece to the puzzle or just a few players better than the previous year. The Cubs look to prolong their World Series dynasty, the Giants look to dethrone the Cubs, several other teams might sneak in under the radar. In the American League there is much more parity and much more flux as teams swap players and scout young talent while trying to scheme their way to the top. Proposals are voted on or ignored at the owner's meetings.

Spring Training lasts for a little over two months. Seems like a long time now but it was little enough for players who didn't work out all winter as they do now. The drama increases with rookies and worn-out veterans trying to make the rosters. More well-established players such as Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner stage their own holdouts. Fans rejoice when Wagner gets a raise and mutter when Cobb does.

Opening Day and the season is off. Through the twists and turns of the campaign Ms. Murphy brings the players, fans, executives, and ball parks to life. While most of the emphasis is on the National League the American League does get a little ink as well.

With the season coming down to the wire, the American League sees the White Sox, Tigers, and Naps (later the Indians) in contention. The race is decided in the last days. In the National League the Cubs, Giants, and Pirates are in the mix up until the last day of the season. The race there is a bit more exciting due to the controversy surrounding the Cubs-Giants rivalry.

Ms. Murphy ends her book with a quick overview of the 1908 World Series - perhaps the only part of the season which does not rate well when compared to other years. Some of the fall-out of the season is explained and a series of short biography's of the major names rounds out the book.

Crazy '08 lives up to it's dust cover hype. I found it to be impossible to put down and one of the best baseball books I have read in some time. Published in 2007, the book serves as a fitting 100th anniversary observance of what it makes a compelling case was the greatest season in Major League Baseball history.