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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.
Gallagher, one of the nation?s preeminent Civil War scholars and a professor at the University of Virginia, deals in his latest book of the question of why did the North fight? His answer is in the volume?s first sentence: ?The loyal American citizenry fought a war for Union that also killed slavery.? This fast-paced review of the controversies that civil war historians have been arguing about is opinionated, well-informed, provocative and just the thing any American history buff needs to read this spring as our country gears up for the sesquicentennial of the conflict that made the United States begin to live up to the Declaration?s words that ?all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.?
This is an entertaining and illuminating volume about the 17th century's revolution in science and math that saw, among other things, the creation of calculus by Isaac Newton, followed by his towering work of pure genius, Principia. A small group of philosophers, mathematicians, scientists and eccentrics worked to explain how fundamental laws govern the universe?and succeeded. Among the book?s better points is a description of what life in the 1600s in one of the world?s modern countries was really like. Dolnick does a good job of explaining complicated mathematical concepts: you?ll be able to understand this book even if you consider yourself math-challenged.
I read everything this man writes that I can lay my hands on. He?s an opinionated, deeply informed, pungent, pugnacious, provocative and often surprising writer. On these scores, his latest book doesn?t disappoint.
A companion volume to British television series of the same name, this trans-Atlantic historian (he teaches at Harvard and Oxford and this year at the London School of Economics) argues the West grew to world dominance because it embraced competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law and representative government, modern medicine, a consumer society and the Protestant work ethic. He suggests much of the rest of the world (particularly China) is embracing these same ?killer aps,? as he calls them, leading to a relative decline of Western power. The question is whether this relative decline will suddenly turn into a complete collapse, as other once dominant world powers suffered.
With economy, precision and superb pacing, Ms. Hillenbrand has written a jewel of a book. Hers is a tale of achievement, danger, survival, humiliation, degradation, liberation, despair and, ultimately, salvation through faith. This telling of Louis Zamperini?s extraordinary life reveals the indomitable American spirit that allowed our nation to prevail in the greatest conflict in world history. Read this one. And wait patiently for the next volume from this superb writer, who also crafted Seabiscuit: An American Legend.
Eleven short tales of now largely forgotten people, events or places from throughout history, from the Moorish slave turned scholar to the botched practice for D-Day that cost more lives than were lost in the actual landings the first day on Utah Beach. A quick read, this volume will probably only find favor with the historically obsessed.
A short, brash book by a respected Baylor University professor, this volume provides a healthy dose of revisionism about the Crusades. Stark argues they were not an act of colonial imperialism, but instead the rational response of a beleaguered West to centuries of aggressive Islamic expansionism. The core of the Crusades were deeply religious families who mortgaged their lands and depleted their fortunes for the cause of liberating the Holy Lands. And the whole enterprise eventually dwindled and then was extinguished not by the superior fighting prowess of the Muslim world but by the rejection in West of the onerous taxes needed to sustain the Christian warriors and their fortresses. A darn good quick read.
Marc Egnal, a history professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, makes a powerful, well reasoned (and ultimately unsatisfying argument) that the Civil War resulted more from the clash of the economic systems of the North and South than it did from slavery.
For me, Egnal?s argument fails to convince because it is hard for him to see how the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Act energizing previously disinterested or largely uninvolved Northerners, converting their mild concerns and creeping suspicions about slavery into deep and powerful fears of am ambitious and bellicose ?Slave Power? eager to spread slavery throughout the entire United States.
Regardless, this book is well worth it for Civil War buffs and students of American economic history. It?s well written and provocative.
A gem: brilliantly written and deeply informed, this fast-paced blockbuster of a biography is stuffed with surprises on almost every page. And what can you say about a book about the world?s richest woman that?s stuffed with tales of adultery, murder, civil war, incest, high-stakes international politics, religious cults, back stabbing, double-dealing, and dazzling displays of wealth. Pick it up. Read it. You?ll thank me.
Through the personalities of the big men that ran them, a Canadian historian examines five government-sponsored monopolies that governed as dictatorial machines over vast swatches on the fringes of an expanding world between 1600 and 1900. These companies raised their own armies, ruled the lives of employees and native peoples, and ruthlessly squeezed profits to send to absentee investors back in their homelands. These trading enterprises included the British East India, Russian American, Hudson?s Bay, Dutch East and West Indies and De Beers Consolidated Companies.
The book is a little dry at points (Brown has the annoying habit of making critical points about people or institutions by quoting other writers) but he?s particularly good at liming portraits of the company?s principals (especially that of George Simpson of Hudson?s Bay Company) and explaining the economic, political and cultural disruptions these massive business enterprises caused.
19 Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
I admit I'm a Simon Winchester fan. I met him with THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, a slim and fascinating book about the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Being the son of a geologist, I was wowed by THE MAP THAT CHANGED THE WORLD and blown away by his KRAKATOA. So I was eager to dive into ATLANTIC. It's good, but not great. Winchester is a wonderful storyteller, particularly good at coming out of left field with a connection of Point A and Point B that's unexpected and brilliant. But too often in this book, he introduces jarring notes (representative democracy first emerged around the Atlantic in the second millennium AD and NOT in Greece? Really?) and it ends with alarmist and Club of Rome-like pronouncements like no one should build in the coastal zones of the US and all the glaciers around the Atlantic are disappearing at a alarming rate, leavened by footnotes that "glaciers have slowed again...to levels last seen in the 20th century...which removed some of the politically convenient drama." Read chapters 1 and 5, then set the book aside and read chapters 6 and 7 later so if you are disappointed with them, you can consider them part of another volume and it won't ruin the rest of the book.