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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.
The University of Kansas Press has long provided a valuable service to students of the American Presidency with its terrific volumes on each of America?s chief executives. Now the University of Kansas Press has done fans of American politics a great favor by commissioning volumes on each presidential election, all by noted historians.
Cornell Professor Joel Sibley is an expert in the antebellum era and tackles the 1848 presidential election that featured a three-way contest between a southern slave-holding Whig, Zachary Taylor; a northern Democratic Senator, Lewis Cass; and former president Martin Van Buren, running as the candidate of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party.
Silbey focuses on the messages each party used to attract votes in an election where the issue of slavery in the territories was roiling opinion in both existing parties and providing energy for a new political party committed to no expansion of slavery in the vast new lands under American control as a result of the Mexican-American war.
Sibley shows, whoever, that Free Soil anti-slavery sentiments played less of a role in the outcome than might be expected. Democratic defections in New York State to Free Soil largely because of personal loyalty to home state favorite Van Buren handed the electoral votes of the largest state in the Union to Taylor and the Whigs, but Whig defections to Free Soil in Indiana and Ohio handed an equal number of electoral votes to Democrat Cass.
More important than Free Soil anti-slavery sentiment were the differing abilities of the parties to turnout their adherents. Turnout dropped to 72% from the 80% who had voted in 1844 and the Whigs did a better job of getting its supporters to vote than did the Democrats, especially in the north.
But even the variation in turnout by party doesn?t explain all the contest, Sibley argues. The Florida 2000 or Ohio 2004 of 1848 was Pennsylvania, an historically Democratic state. And there the Whigs won in the coal counties, as normally Democratic miners either crossed over or stayed home and gave this battleground state to the Whigs.
At times dry and, after the conventions, focused more on strategy and messages than events (as is perhaps necessarily the case in the age before candidates went on the campaign trail or big large national newspapers set the tone), Sibley?s volume is an easy, sharp and interesting look at an election where the stirrings of deep, irreconcilable feelings on slavery both north and south first appear.
A really good read, this is well-written, deeply informed, and often surprising intellectual biography of the world?s first great free marketer. Phillipson argues Smith can best be understood as part of a team with his close friend David Hume that sought to create not a science of economics, but a science of man that sought to understand how man thought, spoke, understood his surroundings and sought to live his life. Seen through this prism of a quintessential Enlightenment effort, Smith?s THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS rises in importance and WEALTH OF NATIONS is revealed to be more of a philosophical treatise than an economics textbook. I strongly recommend this book: it?s brilliant, rich, and well worth it for anyone who wants to know Smith and his thinking better.
Khoury?s sequel to The Last Templar, this book is a fast-paced tale that rockets over seventeen centuries, from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to today?s Turkey. FBI Agent Sean Reilly returns, this time to rescue his kidnapped love, Tess Chaykin. Khoury offers his best-drawn villain, an Iranian Islamic extremist whose goal is nothing less than undermining, if not pulling down, the entire structure of Christianity. A great weekend escapist read, but beware: The dialogue of Khoury?s protagonists often reveals what must be the author?s antipathy towards religious orthodoxy, especially in the Catholic Church.
University of Texas historian Bill Brands surveys what the book?s subtitle calls ?The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900.? It seems Brands isn?t happy with the outcome of his story, as capitalism bests populism by convincing working class voters that free markets provide more prosperity and opportunity that populism?s class warfare could. AMERICAN COLOSSUS is written with verve, attention to detail, and breezy portraiture of the interesting actors ? many of them businessmen and financiers ? who shape this era by bold decisions, tough action, and sometimes chicanery. Though a good read, COLOSSUS peters out at the end. Nor can Brand bring himself to fully acknowledge how capitalism?s benefits include profoundly improved the quality of life and providing increasing affluence for wave after wave of often poor and ill-educated immigrants. Maybe there was a practical reason why working people rejected populism for free enterprise: the latter improved their lives and the former didn?t.
This is a powerful, clear-eyed exposition of Churchill?s wartime leader. He details the great man?s strengths (including his indomitable will) and his weaknesses (his readiness to interfere with his generals in pursuit of wild schemes of dubious value) and finds value in both.
For example, Churchill?s schemes to aid Greece threatened the British hold on the Middle East and sent thousands of the ill equipped, poorly trained, and too often badly led British troops to their deaths or POW camps. But Churchill?s pursued this course because his brutal realism made him understand the British people would not long support a supine or inert government that was unwilling to take risks and fight.
The book ends with this summary: ?...one of the greatest actors upon the stage of affairs the world has ever known...If his leadership through the Second World War was imperfect, it is certain that no other British ruler in history has matched his direction of the nation in peril.."
13 Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan
The amazing story of how a handful of Special Forces and CIA operators teamed with the Northern Alliance and helped bring down the Taliban. Especially riveting are the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif and the battle for a key fortress, Qala-i-Jangi.
The paperback has been new material on the 2008 financial crisis, making this worth a re-read, even if you?ve already done the hardback. It shows how money and the financial system came to be and how improvements in finance ? accounting, markets, financial instruments and the nature of money itself ? have fueled human progress.
Ferguson is particularly good at explaining the economics of bubbles, the work of quants, and how defaults in subprime mortgages nearly brought down the world?s financial structure.
Interesting volume on how George Washington was not just first in the hearts of his countrymen, but also of his country's early artists, whose portraits of him both drew attention to their skill. This also allowed many of them to make a living at art in a small, sparsely populated new nation on the eastern edge of the North American continent.
Science just before the hinge point where it ceased to be dominated by solitary (and often self-trained) idealists and romantics.