Juan Williams, political commentator, author and journalist, takes an interesting approach to modern American history with "We the People," by focusinJuan Williams, political commentator, author and journalist, takes an interesting approach to modern American history with "We the People," by focusing on several 20th-century Americans who have as much right to claim to be Founding Fathers as our 18th-century heroes who created the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Williams' core point is important for anyone who wants to understand America - the United States of 1900 was, in many respects, more similar to the America of 1787 than it was to the America of 2000. In 1900, millions of Americans could not vote due to the color of their skin or their gender. Blatant discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc., was a fact of public and private life. The car and the airplane had yet to transform transportation and urban life. The American military was an afterthought on the global stage. And there was no basic concept of universal human rights.
At the risk of promoting the 'great man' theory of history, Williams describes the contributions made to 20th-century America by a select number of people, each of whom transformed our country in unanticipated and unimaginable ways - whether from the rise of the modern metropolis (Robert Moses), the expansion of natural rights (Eleanor Roosevelt), the growth of the American military (General Westmoreland), and on and on. One can argue, and Williams does so convincingly, that these Americans left behind a world forever changed - these are genies that cannot be put back in the bottle. Unlike our Founding Fathers, who are often referred to in mythic terms as demigods who never made a mistake (Williams chides Michelle Bachman for her statement that the Founders fought tirelessly to end slavery . . . what an idiot), Williams points out that many of these changes are double-edged swords. This balance and perspective is refreshing - you can do great things, and those great things may have negative consequences yet still be great.
The inherent issue with any book like this is that the brief chapters (20-odd pages, generally) focus on colossal accomplishments by fascinating people - and so it is that you must look at these chapters as teasers, gateways for future education about complex subjects. Williams acknowledges this repeatedly and cites extensive sources for future reading. Williams, for example, gives a fairly charitable interpretation of Robert Moses and his impact on New York while citing Robert Caro's far-less-enthusiastic reviews in his massive book on the subject. So, this book is probably better for those looking for a broad overview of the 20th century than for deep dives into the particular lives and accomplishments Williams focuses on. For the right reader, Williams' perspective is perfect, but for others you'll want to skip Williams' book for more focuses narratives. (This is not a criticism, just a recognition of the type of book Williams wrote.)
Ultimately, Williams' book is an interesting survey of the 20th century and most readers are sure to find some characters and events in these pages that they didn't appreciate or understand before. While Williams is no great stylist, he is thorough, brisk, and consistent - this is not a book that wears out its welcome or drops its thesis two-thirds of the way in. All in all, an enjoyable look at America's transformation in the 20th century. Recommended....more
As 9/11 recedes into history (has it already been almost 15 years?), the terrifying events of that are beginning to recede into history. Many freshmenAs 9/11 recedes into history (has it already been almost 15 years?), the terrifying events of that are beginning to recede into history. Many freshmen in high school were not yet born on that tragic day (now I feel really old). And yet we live in a country that in many ways is starkly different than it was on September 10, 2001 - and that includes a weakened Constitution that has been battered by national security advocates capitalizing on our darkest fears and rawest wounds.
Karen Greenberg ("The Least Worst Place," "The Torture Papers") has written extensively about the post-9/11 security state and now, with "Rogue Justice," she writes incisively and, on occasion, angrily about the systemic attack on our American values of freedom and privacy. These are two of the key principles that make America so special, and yet we as a people willingly sacrificed these goals in the name of security and the War on Terror. Politicians desperate to be seen taking actions to protect the country (and in many cases sincerely hoping that actual protection would result) worked with skillful, ambitious lawyers to undermine our Constitutional protections. Step by step, memo by memo, law by law, America authorized torture, suspended habeas corpus, and enabled systemic warrantless surveillance of Americans and our communications.
And in many cases, bald-faced lies were told to make these changes.
Greenberg, armed with facts and quoting extensively from original sources, explains in these pages how lawyers such as John Yoo used an Orwellian mastery of words to conclude that 'enhanced interrogation techniques' such as water-boarding did not constitute 'torture.' Other lawyers, misled by their co-workers, stood before judges and told bald-faced falsehoods about the nature of how the American surveillance system worked. And our worst fears were exploited to keep Guantanamo Bay and 'dark sites' open for business while excoriating the ability of our judicial system to handle terrorism cases.
And the blame does not fall entirely on the Bush Administration, although in Greenberg's telling the Obama Administration's sins are in many respects less brazen than his predecessor's. (With the notable exception of putting American names on the drone 'kill list,' of course.)
'Rogue Justice' is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand what the American government did in the name of security following 9/11. As Greenberg details, the undermining of the Constitution was serious and extensive, not just the paranoid fantasies of the ACLU attorneys. Thanks to the heroic efforts of Americans to buck the tide and take a stand for the Constitution, the pendulum appears to be shifting back toward a respect for human rights, privacy, and freedom of expression. But we still have a long way to go.
"Rogue Justice" is too short to be considered a definitive treatment of post-9/11 America, but it's an essential read nevertheless. Highly recommended....more
Theodore Roosevelt crammed more living into a single life than ten men - President, Nobel laureate, governor, author, progressive, reformer, state legTheodore Roosevelt crammed more living into a single life than ten men - President, Nobel laureate, governor, author, progressive, reformer, state legislator, police commissioner, war hero . . .. and naturalist. It is both natural and unfair to focus on just one aspect of this amazing man's biography, but his achievements on occasion demand it.
By 21st century standards, attaching the label of 'naturalist' to Roosevelt jars the sensibilities. Roosevelt had a classic 19th-century perspective on nature in many ways - including that one proved one's manliness by stalking and killing a wide variety of animals. In a perverse way, it was even more noteworthy to kill one of the last members of a species - you were able to bag it before it was gone forever. To many of us today, this perspective borders on the barbaric and the foolish.
But Roosevelt is a difficult man to pin down, as Darrin Lunde depicts in his new book, "The Naturalist." Roosevelt was definitely a man of his time, although there were plenty of people who decried Roosevelt's rather bloodthirsty take on nature. But Roosevelt also listened to other men, those whom he recognized as men of serious thought and accomplishment. And Roosevelt learned from a few of these men that the 19th century tactics would soon, stupidly, eradicate entire species that should be preserved. Roosevelt, accordingly, applied his boundless energy to establishing reserves for the protection and propagation of future generations of bison, of bears, of elk . . . although to be fair one of Roosevelt's primary reasons for doing so was so that there would be big game to hunt in the future.
Roosevelt was also, from a very young age, an energetic scientist hungry for knowledge. He compiled specimens to form his own museum of natural history, and his contributions to famous museums in New York and Washington DC can still be seen today. Indeed, the climax of Lunde's book is Roosevelt's safari to Africa, where Roosevelt hunted for specimens to be sent back to the Smithsonian, a new museum looking for exhibits.
Lunde's book is an interesting contribution to the Roosevelt bibliography, but it is far from the top tier. Edmund Morris's epic trilogy on Roosevelt has a much more entertaining perspective on Roosevelt's naturalism and is no less thorough, plus Morris places the naturalism in the full context of Roosevelt's achievements. It's also a bit jarring that Lunde does not mention in any detail Roosevelt's ill-fated voyage to the Amazon, profiled in Candice Millard's "River of Doubt." The Amazonian voyage may not have yielded the big specimens that Roosevelt brought back for the Smithsonian, but it is no less an aspect of Roosevelt's naturalism....more
I've been a fan of Barry Eisler since his first John Rain novel, "Rain Fall" (now retitled as "A Clean Kill in Tokyo"). Rain, a half-American, half-JaI've been a fan of Barry Eisler since his first John Rain novel, "Rain Fall" (now retitled as "A Clean Kill in Tokyo"). Rain, a half-American, half-Japanese assassin, lived a fascinating solitary life pursuing his most marketable skill - making murder look accidental. If you were not squeamish and you needed an enemy to have a heart attack or car accident, Rain was your guy. The series suffered from its success, as Rain and his sidekicks became too likeable to be believable - at some point, the assassin has to be a bad guy. But the early books in this series worked well.
And so I applaud Eisler's willingness to leave Rain behind - unlike, say, Lee Child's unwillingness to let Jack Reacher go off into the sunset, Rain is now idling away in Eisler's imagination rather than being spun out for future book sales. In "The God's Eye View," Eisler drops into the world of global surveillance and espionage, and the result is a refreshing thriller that actually provides some thrills. (There may be a lot of thrillers on the market, but very few deliver the actual goods.)
Eisler shows the inner working of a group within the government that knows all - no secrets are free from their prying eyes. In the information age, that kind of access actually yields real power. The big question with that kind of power is where to draw the lines as to who gets access to those secrets, with the corollary of what do you do to anyone who crosses the line.
In Eisler's world, the circle is kept very small, and the consequences of breaking the circle are . . . dire.
But this is exactly what happens - a conscience, a relationship with a journalist, and an opportunity are all that it takes to get the lethal wheels of power spinning in motion, and within a few pages Eisler has hit men traveling the world practicing their trade with ruthless efficiency. And then there is the question of trust - what do you do if you suspect, but cannot quite prove, that someone will betray your secrets. Again, in Eisler's world, the hitmen start limbering up for work.
A somewhat depressing, cynical thriller, "The God's Eye View" is nevertheless a very good read. Eisler knows how to write a page-turner, and the occasional coincidence or stock character is easily forgiven thanks to Eisler's ability to ground the story in today's headlines.
Recommended, especially for a cross-country flight. (You just may not look at your cell phone the same way again.)...more
John Feinstein's "The Legends Club" will be required reading in North Carolina, recommended reading in the 'old ACC' (before the conference went nutsJohn Feinstein's "The Legends Club" will be required reading in North Carolina, recommended reading in the 'old ACC' (before the conference went nuts and added fifteen or twenty new teams), and on the bookshelves of college basketball junkies.
But readers of Feinstein will recognize "The Legends Club" as more of the same for Feinstein, a sportswriter who gives a great anecdote but is as tough as cotton candy on his subjects. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise, but "The Legends Club" is hagiography of the highest order for the three coaches he focuses the book on - North Carolina State's Jim Valvano, North Carolina's Dean Smith, and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski ("Coach K").
Full disclosure - I am a graduate of both North Carolina ('93) and Duke ('96) and a college basketball fan. So I am extremely familiar with the territory Feinstein covers.
Feinstein writes about the white-hot rivalry of these three coaches, each united by an unyielding drive to win and yet as different as different can be. The oldest, Dean Smith, brought a rigid sense of justice and liberalism to the game, but was also incredibly competitive and sensitive to every slight. He built the most admired college basketball program in a basketball-mad part of the country. Coach K came in to coach Duke, North Carolina's top rival, with no pedigree but with a genius for the game - and a chip on his shoulder equal to Dean's. And then there was Coach Valvano, the funniest guy in every room he walked into but also a basketball savant, but who was also restless as a national title-winning coach (still asking himself 'what will I be when I grow up?'). These men led the ACC to the top of the college basketball world, dominating a conference when the ACC was arguably the best college basketball conference of all time.
Only one of these men is still with us. Valvano died far too young of cancer, but not before gaining national recognition, if not love, for handling his disease with a grace and charm that brought tears to your eyes. Dean Smith tragically wasted away for years through dementia, his razor-sharp mind reduced to foggy ruin. Coach K is still with us, consistently guiding Duke to championships and earning tens of millions of dollars each year as arguably America's finest coach and corporate spokesman.
Feinstein has unparalleled fly-on-the-wall access to these three men, their families, and their players. And yet the book is as unsatisfying as all of Feinstein's recent books. Many of the stories Feinstein tells are well-known legends in the Research Triangle. Also, and more frustrating, is that Feinstein is as willing as ever to excuse the flaws of his subjects. Perhaps it's the price of access, but as someone who personally witnessed some less-than-flattering behavior by at least two of the three coaches Feinstein writes about, I can vouch for the fact that Feinstein failed to describe many of the warts that these three hypercompetitive men had. He touches some of the issues lightly - such as when Valvano got run out of NC State following a series of abuses - but Feinstein is all too willing to take the side of his subjects and indict their accusers.
I think it's clear that Feinstein intended to write an entertaining feel-good book about three legendary coaches. It's fun to read about the humble early days when Coach K thought he was going to get fired, and the glorious 1983 run when Jimmy V took NC State from obscurity to basketball immortality. Feinstein nitpicks Dean Smith's quirks, but it's clear that Feinstein, a Duke grad, knows that a lot of Carolina fans will be reading his book, so his profile is more than generous.
But Feinstein has written a softball story at a time when big time college athletics deserves harsh scrutiny. The three men he glorifies each enjoyed tremendous personal success from a system that has fallen from its noble perch. Feinstein is always willing to slam the NCAA for its hypocrisy. Someday a writer of Feinstein's caliber will challenge the great coaches who profit from the current system, but Feinstein doesn't do that with "The Legends Club."
This is a very enjoyable book for a basketball junkie. But it's a trifle, easily read and easily forgotten....more
Fans of alternate history and Roman historical fiction have reason to celebrate - the second novel in Alan Smale's "Clash of Eagles" trilogy, "Eagle iFans of alternate history and Roman historical fiction have reason to celebrate - the second novel in Alan Smale's "Clash of Eagles" trilogy, "Eagle in Exile," is here. The stoic Roman praetor Gaius Marcellinus and his friends and enemies among the Cahokian nation are back for further adventures.
In Book One, Smale engaged in a massive and successful feat of world-building as he explored 13th-century America as seen through Roman eyes. (The fiction is that the rumors of Rome's decline were very much exaggerated and the Romans had used Viking longships to discover the New World - brilliant.) Marcellinus follows a now-traditional character arc for Europeans encountering the 'savage' nations of the New World - arrogance and contempt grudgingly give way to appreciation and respect. But Marcellinus's "Dances with Wolves" arc is interrupted by a mighty invasion of Cahokia by the Iroqua, and the first book ends with the Cahokians in shocked defeat.
Book Two opens as if Book One finished with a semi-colon - we are immediately back into the chaos and misery of defeat. Marcellinus wants to help Cahokia rebuild, but the survivors blame him for their woes as the Iroqua had used a lot of Roman innovations to wreak devastation on the Cahokians. So Marcellinus finds himself literally alone in the wilderness, as his few friends have enough problems on their own that they really don't have much time for him.
Eventually Marcellinus and a few allies are on the Mizipi River, fleeing enemies and unsure where their next meal is coming from. This river journey allows Smale to explore more of 13th century America and the various nations who live along the river, and that's a treat. Smale creates a Byzantine world of alliance and betrayal as the nations begin to incorporate European innovations and ideas into their own cultures, which makes Marcellinus alternately a source of vital information and a blight to be eliminated.
Smale provides more than his share of combat, but the book offers far more than blood-and-guts. Smale's New World is a fascinating setting for an enjoyable, surprising cast of characters. Highly recommended....more
Alan Smale's "Clash of Eagles" launches his alternate-history take on the question, "What if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen and tried to expand into tAlan Smale's "Clash of Eagles" launches his alternate-history take on the question, "What if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen and tried to expand into the New World?" While it may be a seemingly random question - we all know that the Roman Empire fell and it's a long way across the Atlantic, Smale finds a spectacular line of inquiry to follow - what would have happened to the local nations if they had discovered Roman battle tactics and technology?
Smale's protagonist for this tale is the Praetor Marcellinus, a true soldier of Rome. In the opening chapters, the Romans march from the Mare Chesapica into the American interior, brushing aside the local tribes and their inferior technology (essentially, no steel) and tactics (no Roman discipline) with ease. But then they meet the Cahokia in battle, one of the larger nations along the Misipi River. Within a single afternoon, Marcellinus finds himself the only survivor of a catastrophic defeat.
Perhaps lucky for Marcellinus, the Cahokian leaders pardon him for his crimes in the hopes of learning from this strange man, for even though the Cahokians took out the entire Roman legion, the Cahokians are sufficiently impressed with the Romans to desire to learn from them. For the Cahokians, while a mighty nation, still battle the Iroqua and other nations for supremacy in a long-running Mourning War. Roman technology and tactics just may shift the balance in power completely in their favor.
In the hands of a lesser author, "Clash of Eagles" would be just another "Dances With Wolves" knock-off as a European finds himself among the noble savages. Smale takes this in an entirely new direction (after setting the reader up) with a much more ambiguous tale.
"Clash of Eagles" has led to a sequel - great news! Highly recommended....more
"The Coyote's Bicycle" provides yet another reminder that for all the wonderful imaginations that authors bring to bear, sometimes the real world offe"The Coyote's Bicycle" provides yet another reminder that for all the wonderful imaginations that authors bring to bear, sometimes the real world offers the most startling and original stories.
Kimball Taylor, a surfer and writer ("Return by Water," "Drive Fast and Take Changes," Surfer Magazine, etc.), literally stumbles across a story while researching a tale of environmental damage along the U.S.-Mexico Border near San Diego and Tijuana. He finds a literal graveyard of over 7,000 bicycles, bikes of all types, sizes, and purposes, and it leads him into the bizarre parallel universe that is the human trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border. That such a bizarre, inhumane and yet all-too-human story can be found within a short drive of San Diego causes the mind to reel (and, if you are so lucky, for the reader to thank Fate for allowing him to be born in El Norte).
Taylor's story revolves around a remarkable young man who walked from his village to Tijuana and who made it to the United States. More than bummed (or horrified) by the prospect of washing dishes in a greasy spoon for the rest of his life, the young man returns to Mexico to become a coyote, a modern-day blockade runner who trades in the desperate and the dispossessed. Kimball follows the story as an empire is slowly built, run, and then abandoned seemingly without a second thought.
Taylor is a fine writer (there are some over-written passages for my taste - your mileage may vary) who usually lets his story tell itself. "The Coyote's Bicycle" is a perfect tonic if you feel caught in a rut or feel like you've been reading the same old story over and over again. Not only will Kimball's bizarre tale of humanity (and inhumanity) show a side of humanity most of us have never seen, it forces us to appreciate what we have - there but for the Grace of God go we....more