Robert Massie has been studying and writing about the Romanov dynasty of Russia for around 50 years. He’s written a number of books about the various...more Robert Massie has been studying and writing about the Romanov dynasty of Russia for around 50 years. He’s written a number of books about the various rulers; I’ve read th one on Peter the Great and thought it was excellent.
Catherine was not a Romanov; she was not even Russian. She was born on April 21, 1729, a princess of the tiny German state of Anhalt-Zerbst and named Sophia Augusta Fredericka. At age 14, through a truly astounding set of coincidences and circumstances about which Massie writes with subdued but evident excitement, Sophia was summoned to the Russian court of the Empress Elizabeth to become the wife of her cousin Peter, nephew and the designated heir to the childless Elizabeth. Thus starting a remarkable story of a 53 year journey that was to see her crowned as Catherine the Second, empress of Russia and one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe.
Massie does an outstanding job of chronicling Catherine’s life, which, like so much of history, was far more fascinating than fiction. Catherine was a devotée of the Enlightenment, corresponding with such figures as Voltaire and Diderot. She tried to apply those principles to Russia, but indeed, as most ideologues never understand, you can not impose radical changes on a culture. Catherine, pragmatic, did what she could but could not, for instance, do away with serfdom; that was left to her great-grandson, Alexander II. She collected an amazing amount of art, establishing the Hermitage as her own private art gallery, and thus starting one of the great collections of art in the world. She was highly intelligent--read widely and was open to new ideas. Massie does a masterful job in bring out these aspects of Catherine’s character.
The book does have its oddities (too trivial to be called flaws). Massie seemed to feel the need of justifying the subtitle; as a result, there is a weird little section on Catherine’s lovers. For the empress to have lovers was nothing out of the rodinary, Catherine probably had fewer than Elizabeth. Massie, however, sums up that part of Catherine’s life with a list of her lovers, including the years they were in favor. It’s rather like reading a list of the CEO’s of General Motors, except I think that the latter might be more interesting, given that the lovers, with one glaring exception, had no impact at all on Catherine’s job as empress; she did not believe in sharing power. The one exception, who may have been her husband, is Potemkin. And that account is fascinating.
Massie’s writing style is very straightforward and not as exciting, perhaps, as, say, David McCullough’s easy narrative style. But it i more than adequate for the job, and Massie has written an outstanding book on the life of a powerful woman who in every way justified the name given to her, Catherine the Great.
Highly recommended. In fact, not to be missed. (less)
Thomas Merton was one of the most influential spiritual figures of the 20th century. In his own time, he became a legend; since his death, there have...moreThomas Merton was one of the most influential spiritual figures of the 20th century. In his own time, he became a legend; since his death, there have sprung up various foundations and centers devoted to promulgating his ideas. His many books are widely read.[return][return]However, as in all things, there is a beginning. The Seven Storey Mountain, formally an autobiography until his 33rd year, was published in 1948; it� s multi- [return]layered book. As William Shannon points out in the excellent Introduction to the 1998 edition, it� s really 3 books in one.[return][return]First, it� s a record of his life: his birth in 1915 in France, his early life and schooling, his education at Cambridge and Columbia and so on. But as Shannon points out with great insight, it� s also a memory of his life; while the memories and his interpretations of them lift the book up from a dry accounting, memory is also selective. The third and most useful of Shannon� s explanations is that it� s also a monk� s judgment of his early life, and Merton was harsh indeed on his younger self; Merton is remorseless in documenting his flaws, his sins.[return][return]But for most people, what is important is really a 4th book� Merton� s spiritual journey which took him finally to the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941 at age 26. While it is true that the monk Father Louis was very hard on the young Thomas Merton, it is within this context that Merton struggled with his desperate need to find a meaningful direction to his life, one that led to conversion to Catholicism and eventually to a life as a contemplative. That struggle and the insights and religious/spiritual experiences he had on his way are what make the book a powerful read and an inspiration to so many. As Giroux, an editor, says in his essay, 50 years later, the book is still selling steadily.[return][return]Another reason for its popularity is that Merton makes those experiences so accessible. He was a poet as well, and that� s obvious, not just in the ease and smoothness of this prose in his description of his life. It is especially evident in his lyricism in portraying his exaltation, his love for God, Mary and the saints, and his joy, his gratitude for all the mercies and grace bestowed upon him. Because I feel it is nearly impossible to do justice to this aspect by description, I tried to find one of the many passages like that in the book in order to quote them here� but in fact, they really can not be taken out of context. That is the best indication of how integrally Merton� s faith is woven into his story. I suspect that that is one major reason why the book is so popular and why so many people of all faiths have found it so inspirational.[return][return]However, this is the early monk, not the later one. Even in the latter part of the book, one can still see the religious intolerance, flashes of smugness, arrogance, and sexism, as well as the judgmental way in which he views � the world� . The Catholic church of 1948 was pre-Vatican II, and Merton definitely shows that in his dismissal of all religious expression except Roman Catholicism. But what is truly ironic about the young monk is that in dismissing what he calls oriental religion and practices, even in this earliest of his works one can see that his insistence on staying with the present moment, his belief in meditation, and many of his observations can be taken right out of Zen Buddhism; it� s the clearest sign pointer to the fact that in his last years, he was indeed drawn to that way of expression� integrated, of course, with his Catholic faith.[return][return]Also, there is humor in the book� gentle, sometimes a little difficult to see, but definitely there.[return][return]Despite all the flaws, the reason why the book is so powerful is that Merton, like all mystics, penetrates to the heart of the dissatisfaction, unhappiness and longings of everyday people. He is able to express, in terms Westerners can understand, how those yearnings for direction and our fears and denials lead us to lives that are empty and filled with self-loathing. He has also shown, in an accessible and extremely powerful way, how he, a most imperfect person, worked his terribly painful way up the seven storey mountain of this struggle and his gratitude and exaltation to have reached the summit.. Few thoughtful people, especially in today's world, can fail to be affected by his story.(less)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a political genius and arguably the best President of the United States in the 20th century. [return][return]FDR came fr...moreFranklin Delano Roosevelt was a political genius and arguably the best President of the United States in the 20th century. [return][return]FDR came from a family that could trace its beginnings in the New World back to the early Dutch settlers of New York, making him a member of the "Knickerbocker aristocracy". However, an upbringing surrounded by wealth and privilege did not prevent him, through a combination of circumstances, personal adversity and a compassionate nature, from identifying with the underprivileged--the ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-clothed of Depression America. The series of social programs that he launched in his first term as President to deal in an immediate and pragmatic fashion with the economic collapse and consequent suffering of millions collectively became the New Deal. Some of those programs, such as Social Security, Federal deposit insurance, and others, form the bedrock of what social safety net the US possesses today.[return][return]Yet in their time, many of these programs were predicted to be the end of democracy, the end of society, the beginning of dictatorship and worse. Roosevelt was a controversial president particularly in his second term. Crippled by a major error in attempting to change the composition of the Supreme Court, he faced serious opposition to his social agenda at that time. The outbreak of World War 2 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor united the country behind him. He was the most effective leader in time of war since Lincoln. When he died on April 12, 1945, the world mourned.[return][return]Roosevelt's life was so rich, so complex that this is but a bare bones synopsis of the book's coverage of just his public life. His private life was no less involved. According to Smith (and others), Roosevelt's life was shaped and influence by four women: his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt; his wife Eleanor (ER); Lucy Mercer (probably the great love of his life); and Missy LeHand--secretary, devoted companion, and one of the two people in FDR's life who was never afraid to confront him with what they saw as reality.[return][return]Smith is not an exciting writer, but he presents his material well and shows flashes of sardonic humor at times. Given the thorough scholarship and the material itself, that's all that's needed; particularly in the early phases of FDR's political career, including hiis time in albany as state senator and later governor, the book reads like a page-turning thriller, as you race along, marveling at the details of the life of a man who has passed almost into myth. Smith obviously has great affection for Roosevelt; this shows, but does not prevent him from thoroughly exploring Roosevelt's mistakes as well as his successes. Given FDR, those mistakes were not trivial. Some have had negative consequences almost to this day.[return][return]The names associated forever with FDR--Louis Howe, Harry Hopkins, Cordell Hull, Jim Farley, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Frances Perkins and others--come alive in Smith's treatment. The reader gets a real feel for who these people were and what their contributions were. Through it all, FDR himself stands as a self-confident leader of tremendous vision who had incredible intuitive insight into people, instinctively choosing those of talent and putting them to work in areas perfectly suited to their abilities. This was especially true in wartime--again, he had an uncanny ability to select the right men for the job. Marshall, Eisenhower, Nimitz all appear as they rose to influence and leadership under FDR.[return][return]This is a biography of FDR. Yet, Smith deals extensively with Sara Roosevelt and ER. Both played prominent roles in FDR's career. Smith goes into the affair with Lucy Mercer and shows how that influenced FDR's public and private life for over 40 years. ER's life is documented as appropriate, but Smith rightfully doesn't attempt her biography. Yet, he gives enough detail to give the reader more than a glimpse into an immensely complicated, productive, and influential life.[return][return]Basically, Smith presents FDR's family life as a remarkable political partnership between FDR and ER, but a dismal failure in both the marriage itself and as far as their 5 children were concerned. FDR ahd the interest in his children, but no time; ER is portrayed as having neither, just a sense of duty.[return][return]The run-up to World War 2 and American entry is breathtaking. The tension, as events unfold, is as good as any best-selling mystery thriller, probably better.[return][return]The pace of the book slows down somewhat after American entry into the war. Personally, I think that's due simply to the task of trying to select and condense the enormous amount of relevant material into what was meant to be a one-volume biography of FDR and not a detailed exploration of everything he did as Commander-in-Chief. I believe Smith has suceeded admirably.[return][return]The photos included in the book are excellent. Partiicularly striking are the ones taken in July and August, 1944. Comparing the two, the difference in Roosevelt's appearance is shocking, showing the rapid decline in his physical health. Roosevelt's death was probably preventable, and was due to a combination of medical ignorance and arrogance and incompetence on the part of his personal physician.[return][return]There is one flaw in the book as far as I'm concerned, although it's a very minor one. In the chapter "Heritage", Smith goes into the geneology on both sides of FDR's family. Given the number of ancestors involved, there are a LOT of names. Family trees would have been extremely helpful--can't tell the players without a score card--but unfortunatley there aren't any. However, I consider this lack a trivial annoyance.[return][return] One of the overwhelming impressions a reader takes from the book is Roosevelt's confidence in the American people. When I read possibly the most famous sentence among many he uttered during his career, given towards the end of his first Inaugural Address:[return][return] "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."[return][return]When I asked myself which of today's leading political figures in 2007 has the faith in the American people and the American system to make such a statement, I couldn't think of one.[return][return]There is almost no way to adequately convey the excitement of this book. Suffice it to say that there has to be something engrossing about it if the account of FDR's attempt to pack the Supreme Court and the political battle that followed is gripping enough to keep a reader up past 1 am![return][return]Highly recommended.(less)
A well-written although somewhat dry in style, detailed look at Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's life. Jordan does an excellent job of recountin...moreA well-written although somewhat dry in style, detailed look at Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's life. Jordan does an excellent job of recounting Hancock's service during the Civil War, which he makes into an exciting read. [return]While well-known for his Civil War contributions, where he earned the nickname Hancock the Superb, he spent a brief and somewhat disastrous period of time as an Indian fighter in Kansas under Sherman's command, a far less well-known aspect of his career. Afterward, as military commander of the 5th District, stataioned at New Orleans, his leniency in administration earned him the gratitude not only of Louisiana but of the entire South. [return]This stood him well in his adventure into political life. Although pushed as a candidate for the Democratic nomination during two Presidential elections, he was not chosen until the 1880 campaign. Jordan does an excellent job of describing the political forces of that time. Hancock lost, narrowly, to James Garfield, thanks to a controversial mayoral candidate choice on the part of Tammany Hall in New York City. Again, Jordan makes the campaign come alive. Hancock did not survive long after the 1880 campaign, dying in 1886 soon after Grant and McClellan.[return]Jordan does a good job of portraying Hancock the human being as well as Hancock the military man, particularly in the latter part of his life. Hancock seemed to be deservedly well-respected and well-loved by those who knew him, making few enemies (although one was Grant) and many friends.[return]This is a better-than-average biography that is for the most part fairly lively and at times exciting. Hancock's important and even crucial service in the Civil War is fairly well known even to those with only a casual interest in that conflict. This biography does an excellent job of illuminating his post-war life as well. Highly recommended.(less)
It� s really only been in the relatively recent past� maybe 20 years, maybe less� that there has been a coalescing of opinion around Abraham Lincoln a...moreIt� s really only been in the relatively recent past� maybe 20 years, maybe less� that there has been a coalescing of opinion around Abraham Lincoln as the greatest President the United States has ever had. It probably came with a recognition that Lincoln as the president of a democracy engaged in a civil war managed to both prosecute a war and preside over a bitterly factionalized country with astounding success. It is a fact that until 1864, no country had successfully held an election in the midst of a civil war; the American accomplishment was both unique and downright awe-inspiring.[return][return]At least as far back as Shelby Foote� s 3-volume masterpiece, The Civil War; A Narrative, in any in-depth history of the Civil War, Lincoln comes across as a decisive leader and politically shrewd; in fact, most historians call him a political genius. His compassion and concern for reuniting the country and healing its wounds is appropriately legendary; few leaders in such circumstances have shown such insight and humanity. He has his rightful place in history as the author of the emancipation Proclamation, the first step in eliminating slavery from the nation. With all these accomplishments and more, Lincoln is head and shoulders about the rest of the pack of Presidents. His tragic death, assassinated on good Friday of 1865, is just the last scene, that of martyr and savior, in a lifetime leading up to a nearly mythological place in history.[return][return]But what we see in those histories are the results of his decisions, not the process. What Donald attempts to do in his biography, through quotations from Lincoln� s numerous writings and the letters and memoirs of contemporaries, both friends and enemies, is to show that process, to show the man behind the legend and the statue in the memorial.[return][return]He does accomplish this, but at times of leaning so far in the direction of showing Lincoln� s doubts, his missteps, his inexperience and awkwardness, that you begin to wonder how in the world the man ever got the reputation he did for being such a political genius? This is especially true of Donald� s reconstruction of the year 1864, which was the darkest year of the war. It does jar, after reading chapters of minutely detailed meetings, confrontations, and behind-the scenes maneuvering where Lincoln is shown at his worst in this book, that suddenly in the very next chapter Donald proclaims once again Lincoln� s political genius. [return][return]While that� s a flaw in the book, it should not take away from the wealth of information that Donald provides to back up every statement he makes about Lincoln� s life. Certainly, to any student of the Civil War, no matter how casual, Lincoln� s role in it leaps out, dramatic and crucial; those facts are well known. Donald provides us, however, with details of Lincoln� s early life and especially his years as an Illinois lawyer and politician, years which shaped him with his regard for the law and the Constitution, and provide us with critical information about Lincoln� s attitudes which he brought to bear on his decisions about the Union, reconstruction, and emancipation of the slaves. It really is impossible to understand the White House years in any depth without knowing, in the kind of detail that Donald provides, about the Illinois years.[return][return]Donald� s style is somewhat dry and pedantic, at its worst when recounting the early years. However, the subject is of enough interest to keep the reader going. When he reaches the White House years, the drama of the Civil War takes over, and even the scholar gets caught up in the press of events and the excitement and tension of the war. Slow going at first, the book� s pace picks up.[return][return]The book ends with Lincoln� s death. The last paragraph makes up for all faults� it left me in tears.[return][return]Highly recommended.(less)
The problem with any bio of Buford is a lack of original documents, such as correspondence. This hurts the picture of his early life and career. Longa...moreThe problem with any bio of Buford is a lack of original documents, such as correspondence. This hurts the picture of his early life and career. Longacre, despite his writing style which is staid and uninspired, does his best. It appears that most of the original sources for his Civil War contributions, outside of the Official Records, come from Burford's colleagues.[return][return]Longacre does a good job of pointing out errors in Killer Angels by Shaara. However, Longacre loves the book as a wonderfully entertaining introduction to the batttle of Gettysburg.[return][return]The usual complaint--not enough maps. For the Battle of Gettysburg, the names of roads used--such as Harrrisburg Pike, York Pike--that are not on the maps are presented in such a way that the reader does not know in what direction troops were headed. Also, map symbols are not explained; they can be figured out only by very close attention to the text.[return][return]Excellent description of the 1st day at Gettysburg although it's marred by descriptions of troop movements along roads unmarked on the map provided.[return][return]Good accounts of Buford's engaagements and participation in the pursuit of Lee's army after Gettysburg.[return][return]Buford died in December, 1863; Longacre believes that he died of typhoid.[return][return]Longacre sums up Buford's contribution to cavalry tactics in two words: speed and flexibility. These might seem self-evident, but Buford developed them in ways that were unique for that time.(less)
I knew very little about the US Revolutionary War history before I started this book. Although I knew John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams had bee...moreI knew very little about the US Revolutionary War history before I started this book. Although I knew John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams had been presidents of the US, I don� t think I could have told anyone that the father was was the 2nd president and the son the 6th. And I thought that the late colonial and revolutionary war periods were sort of boring.[return][return]Well, I certainly was wrong about the boring part! McCullough� s splendid biography of Adams brings both periods to life and provides a fascinating account of the politics of the time (sleazy). He offers truly intriguing portraits of the prominent figures of the times: Jefferson ( a lot less noble than he is ordinarily made out to be); Washington (fairly inscrutable); and of course Adams himself along with his remarkable wife, Abigail. all these people and more and the times they lived in are vividly portrayed mostly though their own words. It was a letter-writing era, and some of the most important and most illuminating have survived. The correspondence between John and Abigail alone is worth reading the book. Abigail was no demure � little woman� , submissive and silent, leaving important matters to her husband. On the contrary, she was quite a match for John, who was one of the most erudite men of his age--more so, actually, than Jefferson.[return][return]Through these letters, between these prominent figures (and Abigail kept up a spirited correspondence of her own with Jefferson), we see the age and its issues in quite a different, more vibrant light than is usually taught in history books. Far from boring, it actually is thrilling; we know the end of the story, that US independence was won, a constitution framed and signed, and a young republic born. But how this was done--what the controversies were, the terrible odds against all of it coming to pass, the intrigues in England and France--are never exposed so thoroughly as in the letters that passed among all the principals.[return][return]I know that many times I� m tempted to think that US politics has never been worse than they are at the moment, that there have never been politicians of such low integrity, such partisanship as exist in our times. Actually, slander of all types--lies, smearing of reputations (the noble Jefferson was adept at this), blatant falsification of positions--was much worse right after the US was born that it is even now. And the US public was just as gullible, just as uninformed as it is now. McCullough does modern readers a service to point out the origin of these attitudes and behavior; while it may be depressing, it perhaps can give some comfort to know that modern US politics is no different from the way it� s always been, and that the basic issues have not changed. That may not be McCullough� s intent, perhaps; if not, then it is a serendipitous result of an affectionate look at the second president of the US.[return][return]It's also an account of a remarkable family--not just John and his wife, but their other children as well who, with the exception of the brilliant John Quincy, led tragic lives. [return] [return]McCullough is not the best writer of the current crop of historians, but he is more than adequate for his subject. A very fine book--highly recommended.(less)