A disappointment compared to Vowell's other books - her asides and one-liners feel really stilted most of the time. Everything about Roger Williams (fA disappointment compared to Vowell's other books - her asides and one-liners feel really stilted most of the time. Everything about Roger Williams (founder of Providence) is money, though....more
Really interesting biography of Aaron Burr, with a particular focus on his alleged plots against the U.S., and his subsequent trial. Melton's prose isReally interesting biography of Aaron Burr, with a particular focus on his alleged plots against the U.S., and his subsequent trial. Melton's prose is very readable, and he does an excellent job of bringing all of the historical figures to life for you. Burr, in particular, is fascinating - a man who few people actually liked but who had the strange persuasive power required to be elected to the second-highest office in the country (he was one vote away from being president) and to get people to go along with his crazy schemes.
The book really shines when it gets to Burr's trial, largely because that is better documented than the elusive question of what Burr's plan actually was. The trial section is funny, and gives a lot of insight into John Marshall and the way he went about shaping our judicial system. Melton also gives a lot of really interesting input on Jefferson, whose conduct through this period does not paint him in the greatest light....more
I have this awesome picture in my head in which Jared Diamond did not write this book. He instead wrote a detailed, engaging account of the history ofI have this awesome picture in my head in which Jared Diamond did not write this book. He instead wrote a detailed, engaging account of the history of plant and animal domestication.
"But Rhiannon," you might say, "doesn't that remove his entire thesis, that geography determined just about everything about the course of human civilization?"
And, I would respond yes, it does.
"And, isn't that kind of removing the whole book?"
No, I counter. It just removes the douche-y social Darwinist parts. Plus, if he weren't trying to prove an overarching point about the entirety of human history, readers wouldn't be subjected to his style of argument, which largely consists of applying only certain parts of his thesis at certain points (see his arguments regarding the lengths of human habitation of North American versus how those same arguments are applied regarding Africa), waving away pieces of evidence that would call his thesis into question, and neglecting to include any citations, instead relying on a "Further Reading" section. Removing all of this would leave the only parts really worth reading: the stuff about plant and animal domestication. Which was awesome....more
I really enjoyed this - it's equally about the history of the first three U.S. presidential assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and aboutI really enjoyed this - it's equally about the history of the first three U.S. presidential assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and about Vowell's obsession with those assassinations and the phenomenon of historical tourism. She manages to make the presidents and their assassins into interesting, sometimes charming, characters and the whole book is funny, if you like Vowell's brand of humor (I do).
Her approach to this book is very much about making connections - between the three events in question and between the assassinations and her own experiences and surroundings. This is often a style that works for me, but these connections sometimes feel forced. On the whole, though, she pulls it off.
What most surprised me was that the Garfield section was my favorite. Vowell made the convoluted party controversies surrounding his presidential nomination interesting and coherent, and Garfield himself came across as sort of a darling. He's not a historical figure we learn much about in our high school history courses, and I was glad to read more about him.
Vowell's overwhelming reverence for Lincoln irritates me at times, but I was expecting that after Partly Cloudy Patriot....more
This is a very solid biography of Galileo, with an added focus on his relationship with his eldest daughter, who spent most of her life in a FlorentinThis is a very solid biography of Galileo, with an added focus on his relationship with his eldest daughter, who spent most of her life in a Florentine convent. The book is tied together with translations of her many letters to him (sadly, his letters to her have been lost - thought to have been destroyed by the Mother Superior after her death).
I really enjoyed this, both for her clear writing style, and for the focus on Suor Maria Celeste. We get the "great man" style of biography with the parts about Galileo - a really fascinating figure to me - and we also get a story about an intelligent woman in a period we don't have a lot of female biographies from. The parts about daily life in a convent were really interesting to me as a look into a historically female-run society.
The author's thesis seems to center on tearing down the popular idea of Galileo as an intellectual bad boy taking on the Catholic church head-on, submitting instead a view of him as a devout Catholic who didn't see a necessary confrontation between faith and science. This is a thesis I can totally support, but I feel like Sobel sometimes sacrifices scholarship for readability, in that a lot of her assertions aren't cited. There is an extensive bibliography in the back of the book, but that isn't necessarily helpful for the more casual reader. There were points where I wasn't sure where history ended and the author's inferences began, and some footnotes would have really served to clear that up for me....more
This is about the Taiping Rebellion - how one man encountered Christianity, through a series of sickbed visions determined he was the son of God, andThis is about the Taiping Rebellion - how one man encountered Christianity, through a series of sickbed visions determined he was the son of God, and gained thousands of followers and eventually controlled a large region of China.
While I was initially thrown off by Spence's use of the literary present, I eventually got into it. A lot of his focus is on Hong Xiuquan's inner circle of followers (all of whom were given majestic titles such as East King and Wing King) and the power plays between them. A primary tool used by them was claiming to be the voice of God or Jesus. I'm really fascinated by religions that see deity as something so immediate (a basic tenet of the Taiping was that God was corporeal)....more