The subject matter (the 1889 Exposition in Paris) and cover of this book seem designed to invite comparison with Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White...moreThe subject matter (the 1889 Exposition in Paris) and cover of this book seem designed to invite comparison with Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City. This book is similar in that it weaves together a number of stories of various historical figures whose paths crossed in Paris on this particular summer (Eiffel and the challenge of constructing the tower, Gauguin, Whistler, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Thomas Edison, etc.), but the structure is somewhat less determined by the subjects themselves. In Larsen's book, two central narratives (planning and preparing the fair, and the crimes and capture of Dr. Hill) drive the story, where here the narrative periodically returns to each character as the summer marches on. This varies from the relatively momentous (e.g., Edison's trip to Paris where he meets many luminaries and is lauded as a genius) to the fairly random (newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, for example, is revisited every once in a while, but seemingly for no reason other than to tell more anecdotes about how he would randomly, and drunkenly, fire his employees). While this makes for an interested read, with lots of rich historical tidbits, neither the fair nor the tower that provide the backdrop really do much to tie the strands together.(less)
When I first picked this book up, I'm not sure I could have told you why I was reading it. I wanted to learn more about American involvement in the Vi...moreWhen I first picked this book up, I'm not sure I could have told you why I was reading it. I wanted to learn more about American involvement in the Vietnam War, clearly, but what exactly piqued my curiosity?
Now that I've finished, I think I better understand why this was important to me. I wanted to make sense of Nixon's role in ending the war (short answer: he did work to end it, but not before increasing bombing), Johnson's role in committing us (short answer: he kept getting us ever more deeply engaged, including extensive bombing of the North but especially the South), Kennedy's stance and what might have been (short answer: he was reluctant to start a ground war or approve bombing, but it's hard to imagine that he would have held out given that he shared the Cold War ideology underlying U.S. intervention). I've read too many other books where some understanding of how we got there and what made us stay for so long is taken for granted, that I felt I needed to look at this chapter of U.S. history (and this book's focus is on the war and it's position in the world of U.S. politics, rather than giving much background on the history and culture of Vietnam and it's role there). But more than that, it brings home the point that this is the same argument we keep having, over and over, whether it's bringing troops home from Afghanistan or whether to continue bombing raids on Libya. We're not going to bomb the way to freedom, for ourselves or for anyone else, no matter how smart our bombs get.
Robinson's a skilled writer, and she artfully sketches a narrative of the conflict (especially U.S. decision-making), from the end of World War II through the end of the war to the 1990s (when the book was written). I was a bit disappointed in the end notes, where on some occasions I would turn looking for more information and find it was unclear what exactly was supporting a certain statement in the text. As I indicated above, the U.S.-centric perspective of this book is intentional (and was appreciated in certain ways), but did lead me to want a more general history of Vietnam and Indochina, in which our invasion is just one amongst many foreign interruptions in their history.(less)