As always, Ellis impresses with his knowledge of his subjects and their times, and I liked his emphasis on John and Abigail's personal relationship, i...moreAs always, Ellis impresses with his knowledge of his subjects and their times, and I liked his emphasis on John and Abigail's personal relationship, interwoven with their enormous influence (and not just John's) on the birth of the United States as a nation. With that said, I thought he was a little unbalanced on John's side (he seems to blame Abigail more than John for the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts), and I would have liked to have seen more about their children, especially Charles and Thomas. Still, it's a worthy addition to Ellis's impressive repertoire.(less)
I picked up Vowell's latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, on a whim a couple of months ago and enjoyed it so much that I'm now working my way back through her o...moreI picked up Vowell's latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, on a whim a couple of months ago and enjoyed it so much that I'm now working my way back through her other books. This one is about the Puritans who sailed to America ten years after the Mayflower and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, under the leadership of Governor John Winthrop, who gave the "city on a hill" sermon President Reagan was so fond of quoting (though Reagan added the word "shining" to it).
Vowell has a knack I appreciate, for exploring history in an engaging, witty way while keeping close to the original sources, and more than that, for relating the past to the present. She makes a convincing case for how the Puritan pieces of our past influence our present America, how we are still haunted by the Puritans' vision of themselves as the chosen people, leading by righteous example. (Did you know that the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony featured an Indian with a speech bubble that reads "Come over and help us"? I hadn't, but there it is.)
For a book that made me laugh out loud several times, The Wordy Shipmates is awfully thought-provoking.(less)
In 1999, journalist Smith met Charlie and Dotty Duke, in order to interview them for a magazine article. Duke was one of the twelve Americans who walk...moreIn 1999, journalist Smith met Charlie and Dotty Duke, in order to interview them for a magazine article. Duke was one of the twelve Americans who walked on the moon (as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 16), and during the interview, they got the news that Pete Conrad, an Apollo 12 moonwalker, had died in a motorcycle accident. Duke's sad response was, "Now there's only nine of us," and therewith started Smith's personal quest to speak to all of the remaining moonwalkers.
The result is a marvelous melange of space exploration history, astronaut reminiscences, and Smith's own recollections of growing up during the moon race era. Along with Andrew Chaikin's A Man on the Moon (a straight history) and Michael Collins's Carrying the Fire (the best astronaut memoir, by the Apollo 11 command module pilot), Moondust is one of the best books I've read on the Apollo program. (less)
This was a fast breezy read which captures much of Conrad's happy-go-lucky, charming personality, but is often disappointingly sketchy. According to t...moreThis was a fast breezy read which captures much of Conrad's happy-go-lucky, charming personality, but is often disappointingly sketchy. According to the acknowledgements, Conrad and his wife Nancy spent hours making recordings of his reminiscences and filing his personal papers and photos, before his untimely death in a motorcycle accident several years ago, and the book is based largely on those, with writing assistance from screenwriter Klausner. I thought the book balanced uncomfortably on the line between memoir and biography, with neither the fully realized voice of Conrad, had he been able to write it himself, nor the level of detail I would have expected from a third-person biography. Still, it's fun and fast to read -- recommended with reservations and the hope of a more in-depth biography in the future. (less)
They should have called this John Glenn and the Other Six. This was published in 1962, after the Mercury missions, and far more attention is paid to G...moreThey should have called this John Glenn and the Other Six. This was published in 1962, after the Mercury missions, and far more attention is paid to Glenn's mission than to any of the others, while he's listed as the author of six of the book's twenty-six chapters. It's definitely a valuable addition to our space library and a engaging look at the astronauts and the program, but I could wish that it had been less Glenn-centric.(less)
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella, a slave, in New York just before 1800. She was emancipated when New York abolished slavery in 1827, and a few years...moreSojourner Truth was born Isabella, a slave, in New York just before 1800. She was emancipated when New York abolished slavery in 1827, and a few years later, she took a new name for herself and began a new career as an itinerant preacher. She quickly became famous for her stirring speeches and her championing of the rights of black people and women, and today she's one of the most famous African-American women of the Civil War period (along with Harriet Tubman).
The 1884 edition of her Narrative is made up of several parts. First, there's the "Narrative of Sojourner Truth" itself, dictated by Truth to her white friend Olive Gilbert. Then, there's "The Book of Life", one of Truth's scrapbooks which was added to the Narrative by her friend Frances Titus (also white), containing articles about Truth, correspondence with her, and a set of autographs of famous people she had collected. After Truth's death, Titus added "A Memorial Chapter", containing obituary notices and poems and an account of Truth's funeral.
This accruing of material and editing by Truth's friends results in a multilayered story of her life, often surprisingly obscure, and I was glad to have Painter's biography of Truth to read after the Narrative. (Painter also provides an extremely useful introduction to the Penguin edition of the Narrative, so it's not absolutely necessary to read her biography; I just liked the expanded analysis there.) I was especially impressed by Painter's discussion of the difference between the real Truth and how her friends and editors portrayed her. For instance, lots of articles about her quote her as speaking with a Southern dialect she wouldn't have used, since she was from the North; many white people would have thought this the normal way for all black people to speak, since black people were associated so strongly in their minds with Southern slavery. Yet Truth wasn't simply content to be seen as others wanted to see her; Painter examines also how she chose to portray herself and how she created her own persona.
The strength and intelligence of Truth's personality shine through all of the multiplicity of sources of the Narrative; Painter's incisive analysis helps make clear the outlines of Truth's life and provides an even more vivid portrait of her character. I was pleased to have read the Narrative and gotten to know more about a woman I really knew only by name, and I was even more pleased to follow that up with such an excellent biography. (less)
This is an utterly eye-opening, fierce, and challenging book which makes a compelling link between sexual violence and American colonialism, both hist...moreThis is an utterly eye-opening, fierce, and challenging book which makes a compelling link between sexual violence and American colonialism, both historical and contemporary. Some of what she writes about historical violence against American Indians was known to me, but her exploration of present-day abuses was much newer to me, surprising and horrifying. I was particularly struck by the chapters on environmental racism (and will be looking much more closely at the mail I get from the Sierra Club), medical experimentation, and sterilization abuse, and the penultimate chapter on strategies for fighting gender violence. I was especially impressed, in fact, with the way that Smith doesn't stop with documenting the issues; she also focuses on how to solve them. It wasn't an easy book to read, but it is shocking and illuminating and important, and I'm glad I read it.(less)
Takaki brings together a multitude of voices to tell the rich, complex story of the non-Anglo peoples of the United States: African Americans, Asian A...moreTakaki brings together a multitude of voices to tell the rich, complex story of the non-Anglo peoples of the United States: African Americans, Asian Americans, Indians, Jews, Latinos, and more.
He begins with the colonization of North America by the Europeans and "the racialization of savagery", whereby the Europeans came to believe that the Indians were different from and inferior to them, and that this difference was based on race and skin color. Then he goes on to examine the experiences of other peoples, taking a roughly chronological approach and devoting each chapter to a specific group and their experiences in a particular period.
Takaki lets his subjects speak for themselves constantly; the text is full of quotations from songs, poems, prose, and interviews. This is one of those books which opens your eyes to the history you're not necessarily taught in schools and to many overlooked aspects of the rich cultural and ethnic heritage of the United States. (less)
Lili'uokalani was the last reigning sovereign of Hawaii. In 1893, the monarchy was overthrown by a group of mainly American businessmen; in 1895, Lili...moreLili'uokalani was the last reigning sovereign of Hawaii. In 1893, the monarchy was overthrown by a group of mainly American businessmen; in 1895, Lili'uokalani was arrested, imprisoned in Iolani Palace, and forced to abdicate the throne. Hawaii became a protectorate of the United States, and the monarchy was no more.
The book provides an interesting picture of late nineteenth century Hawaii's society and government, though the social parts are occasionally overfull of details about who visited whom and long lists of names. I especially liked the parts about Lili'uokalani's visits to England and her outsider's view of the society there. Queen Victoria showed her and her party friendship and respect, though I've read elsewhere there was racism behind the scenes, unbeknownst to the Hawaiians, when certain other sovereigns refused to escort the Hawaiians because of their skin color.
The second part of the book is more chilling. Lili'uokalani narrates the political machinations of the American businessmen who first forced her brother, King David Kalakaua, to sign the Bayonet Constitution, which stripped the monarchy of much of its remaining power and disenfranchised much of the populace. Upon Kalakaua's unexpected death, Lili'uokalani assumed the throne, but not for very long. When she tried to draft a new constitution, the opposing side took steps to neutralize her and remove her from power.
I'd call this an essential book if you're at all interested in Hawaiian history, and certainly an important book on American imperialism.(less)
Hospital Sketches describes Alcott's sojourn (cut short due to illness) as a nurse in a Washington, D.C., hospital during the Civil War; it's witty in...moreHospital Sketches describes Alcott's sojourn (cut short due to illness) as a nurse in a Washington, D.C., hospital during the Civil War; it's witty in a rather Dickensian style (Alcott calls herself Tribulation Periwinkle, for example) and touching even though sentimental. I mostly enjoyed it, though I was bothered by Alcott's condescending attitude toward the black people for whose freedom she enthusiastically worked; although she rejoices at the Emancipation Proclamation, she also clearly stereotypes blacks, as "obsequious, trickish, lazy, and ignorant, yet kind-hearted," and does not provide the kind of individual portrait she does for the white soldiers and doctors. The edition I read is part of the Bedford Series in History and Culture, which are intended as teaching texts, and I thought the editor, Alice Fahs, did an excellent job in her introduction in placing the book in the context of its time, both literary and historical, and examining Alcott's racial attitudes.(less)
This would probably be a decent introduction to the subject for a novice, but I've read enough about the space program that there wasn't anything new...moreThis would probably be a decent introduction to the subject for a novice, but I've read enough about the space program that there wasn't anything new to me in the discussion of the American program. The Russian bits were more interesting, but insufficiently in-depth; I guess I need to find a book focusing on that, instead. (less)