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I made an all-too-hasty promise at the start of 2010 to list my reading and comment on the books as I made my way through the year. I failed, in large part, because my book tour (110 cities in 90 days) put me behind on my own reading and way behind on writing about it. While I did a little bit better in 2011, this year I’ll attempt to get my notes on books I’ve read done in a more timely fashion.
So here’s what I’ve knocked out so far, starting with the book I finished most recently and working back to 2010.
At the end of last year, I found myself in Florence. There on the River Arno, on a little square and flanked by the St. Regis and Excelsior hotels, was an exquisite chapel long founded by a wealthy member of the Vespucci family. The best-known member of the family is the 16th century merchant, explorer and self-proclaimed master of navigation, Amerigo Vespucci. Fernandez-Armesto limes a wonderful portrait of a hustler, scammer, and visionary whose descriptions of exploits led a group of cartographers in a now forgotten corner of Europe to affix Amerigo’s name to the continent whose southern shores he claimed to have discovered.
This is a remarkable book. It goes behind the scenes to explore why James Stuart, upon rising to the British throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, made it a priority to prepare a new version of the Bible, one grounded in the earliest sources scholars could find but expressed in the richest and most passionate words possible. Perhaps the greatest expression of the English language, the King James Bible was born in a desire to unite a fractured nation, exalt its civil authorities, and make the word of God accessible – and understandable – to not just all who could read, but all who could listen.
Unger, a New York Times writer, has produced a thoughtful and well-informed study of the life of the Florentine diplomat and government bureaucrat better known for his slim book, The Prince, than for his diplomatic efforts for his beloved city-state, fading in power and influence. Unger presents a side of the cynical and jaded diplomat rarely known by even those who had read Machiavelli’s notorious collection of practical and often amoral advice to the prospective ruler. He was friends with Leonardo and Michelangelo, retainer and adversary to Popes, and civil servant in a city-state that drained his wealth, stripped him of power, exiled him to the country, and yet could not extinguish his passionate patriotism. Placing Machiavelli firmly in the events of late 15th and early 16th century Florence and Italy makes it easier to understand The Prince and Machiavelli’s other works.
Thor’s terror war super-operative, Scot Harvath, makes only a token appearance in this fun, trashy, wild ride of a thriller. The story centers on a special operations team made up of four attractive women, who conduct snatch-and-grab operations in Venice, recon missions of the ruins of former Nazi underground facilities, and an assault on a heavily guarded fortress of a shadowy international conspiracy that’s on the verge of a sci-fi assault on America’s most important research base. It’s just the thing for a long plane ride or two or a rainy afternoon without football.
This is a fun volume on an often-over looked presidential contest. After having lost the Republican nomination in 1940 to Wendell Willkie, now-New York Governor Tom Dewey navigates the 1944 primary season and wins the GOP convention, only to be denied the White House – in large measure – by one effective and biting speech delivered by the dying FDR that crystallizes for the American people the price of changing chief executives in the middle of a world conflict. FDR effectively made it a contest between a candidate (himself) whose values and views have made it possible for the country to win and one whose actions and philosophy in the years leading up to the war the nation now considers wrong. Jordan covers some of the same ground covered by Richard Norton Smith in his THOMAS E. DEWEY AND HIS TIMES, but with more detail and color. This book is worth it for the political junkie who wants to check the 1944 election off their list.
Once again, the English historian and biographer has written a slim, brilliant volume on a man who moved history. In this instance, it is the ugly, ungainly son of a stone carver and a mid-wife who singlehandedly created the philosophy of ethics, of how every person should strive to understand and attain the “Good Life,” Socrates of Athens. Johnson is a powerful writer whose books are joys to read. This small volume of 198 pages is no exception.
When it came out in 1979, I read Morris’s THE RISE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT in nearly one gulp. The story of TR’s adolescent and rise to political prominence was riveting, powerful and beautifully written. I couldn’t wait for the next of Morris’s three promised volumes. Well, we all had to learn patience because it was nearly 22 years before the sequel appeared: THEODORE REX. It took another decade for the final volume to appear and it’s a great read. It’s not a happy one, however. TR’s worst traits come into full and dominant view after he leaves the White House and grapples with the loss of political power and the spotlight. But even the raging and dying lion makes his mark felt in the affairs of the nation and the world. The final and immeasurably sad chapters of this final book of Morris’s TR trilogy are especially well-crafted and a fitting conclusion to a great life fully lived.
The Luther College classicist says he wanted to write a story that was both “authoritative and accessible” to the amateur who loved history. Freeman has. This is a rollicking, swash-buckling tale of a very young man who conquers much of the known world in his 20s and then dies at 33. Separated from us by nearly 2,400 years, the Macedonian king still has a strong hold on our imagination and Professor Freeman shows why. Ran into a fellow traveler in an airport who was (like me) clutching his copy. He complained, “I can’t put it down.” Neither could I.
Roberts again shows why he is one of the greatest revisionist historians of our time with an illuminating, challenging and invigorating volume on the largest conflict in human history. This is a terrific book, jammed full of learned insight, original research, crisp writing, fresh thinking, and well-reasoned explanations. The British-born, New York based Roberts examines why the war played out the way it did, exploring the strategic decisions that decide the outcome, as well as charting the influence of tactics, logistics, national pride, and the fighting spirit of those on the front line. He’s especially good at liming the relationships between generals and political leaders and detailing how vital Russia’s enormous contributions of lives, land, treasure and courage were to the final victory.