This is a spectacular book. The writing is fantastic and it draws you into the life of protagonist Griet from page 1. It's written in a straightforwar...moreThis is a spectacular book. The writing is fantastic and it draws you into the life of protagonist Griet from page 1. It's written in a straightforward but understated style which allows for a complex portrait of Griet as she goes from young girl to maid to the family of Johannes Vermeer, one of the Netherlands' most famous painters. Though it is a completely fictional imagining of the girl in the painting, I had to constantly remind myself that the story wasn't real. This was a very quick read, too. I can't recommend this book highly enough. (less)
When I was in a 7th or 8th Grade CCD class, I remember asking this to a priest: "Why don't we see any non-white portraits of Christ?" The priest said...moreWhen I was in a 7th or 8th Grade CCD class, I remember asking this to a priest: "Why don't we see any non-white portraits of Christ?" The priest said they're out there, but in the intervening years, I haven't seen many of them. That question has stuck with me, and it prompted me to pick up the book when I saw it in an academic library. "The Color of Christ" examines visual representations of Christ and how such images are intimately tied up in racial and political issues.
The book takes a chronological approach, starting with the early, manifestly iconoclastic Puritans and going all the way up to the present day, when we're as likely to laugh at Christ (think "Dogma" or "Family Guy" as revere him. A focus of the book is looking at how meetings between whites, blacks, and Native Americans changed how Christ was portrayed. The Puritans had no representations or clear conceptions of Christ. Black slaves saw Christ as a fellow sufferer, which inverted the white ruling class's use of Christ to subjugate their slaves. Native Americans alternately destroyed Christ images in a form of rebellion against whites and coopted them into their own art or worship.
One of the most interesting parts to me is the "Publius Lentulus Letter," which is referenced several times throughout the book. Claiming to be from a Judean governor during the time of Christ, the letter described Christ to be a strong, good-looking white man. The letter is laughably fraudulent, and the authors mention that the early Puritans knew it was. However, the letter was cited and referenced so much over the years that it came to be accepted as genuine.
It's no surprise that many portraits of Christ look almost exactly as the letter describes. In fact, Warner Sallman's "Head of Christ" is perhaps the most reproduced work in human history, with an estimated 500 million copies worldwide. The industrial and cultural power of the U.S. partly explain how the portrait has become so widespread. The fact that Christ almost certainly looked nothing like the portrait hasn't blunted it's power.
My main criticism is that there are so few images in the book. For a book about images, I expected a healthy dose of them, but that's not the case. I had to turn to Google to find some of the images the authors discuss. Also, the narrative can feel at times like it's just kind of going in circles and not really going anywhere, which can be frustrating. (less)
"Bring Up the Bodies" is a very good, though not great, novel. I picked it up because of its appearance on just about every "Best of 2012" list known...more"Bring Up the Bodies" is a very good, though not great, novel. I picked it up because of its appearance on just about every "Best of 2012" list known to man. I didn't read "Wolf Hall," but I don't think it's necessary to enjoy this book.
Mantel's construction of Thomas Cromwell as a complex character is very well done. Cromwell sometimes comes across as a sympathetic widower, other times as a bland bureaucrat, and, towards the end of the book, as a ruthless, revenge-driven man who will do anything to stay in the king's service. The writing, while a bit purple at some points, nevertheless flows freely and is a lot of fun to read.
My biggest qualm with the book is I felt it dragged a bit about 3/4 of the way through. That passes, but the last 1/4 wasn't as good in my opinion, either. (less)
"Catherine the Great" is a really good audiobook, but it was very long. I think I would've enjoyed reading the book better. In any event, this is a ve...more"Catherine the Great" is a really good audiobook, but it was very long. I think I would've enjoyed reading the book better. In any event, this is a very well-written and interesting look at a fascinating figure. I loved Massie's Peter the Great"," and this certainly felt like a sequel to that book.
Several episodes from the book caught my attention. Catherine was spirited away from her native Germany when she was 14 and married off to a childish and odd husband, the future Peter III, and lived under the thumb of Empress Elizabeth. I don't know how on earth she managed to stay sane during these years, but she used them to read widely and converse with many interesting people. Also, I had no idea she had so many lovers throughout her life, including Gregory Potemkin, of "Potemkin Village" fame. She may have in fact married Potemkin. Her early devotion to reforming the operation of the Russian government contrasts to her (less)
*audiobook review* This is an excellent "parallel narrative" similar to Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, where the author has two parallel b...more*audiobook review* This is an excellent "parallel narrative" similar to Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, where the author has two parallel biographical narratives for two parties to a monumental event. I learned a lot about James Earl Ray and Martin Luther King, Jr. I didn't realize Ray was able to create numerous aliases over the years or that he was involved in the 1986 Wallace Presidential campaign. I had also assumed that he was a raving lunatic; he was actually a fairly mild-mannered, cerebral guy who nobody really noticed. Of course, he was also an unredeemed racist. He clearly pulled the trigger, but there are open questions about how he got his money, which were never answered. Ray very nearly disappeared, but excellent detective work by the FBI, which Sides meticulously describes, lead to his capture.
The narrative of King's last days was very interesting. He was in fact having at least one affair and the FBI did have evidence of this. I thought this was just a scurrilous lie, but it was true. It's disappointing, but it doesn't make his civil rights work and nonviolence any less laudable. King was actually in Memphis to support a garbage workers' strike when he was shot. King wanted to shift his focus to economic inequality, but he never got the chance to. His "Poor People's Campaign" was held in Washington, but without him it was a big mess.
Hampton Sides reads the audiobook and does an excellent job. It's always better to hear the author read his own words. He also does passable voice imitations of the various players, so it's not a rote reading. (less)
My opinion of President James Garfield was completely changed by this book. Well, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, as I knew next to nothing ab...moreMy opinion of President James Garfield was completely changed by this book. Well, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement, as I knew next to nothing about him aside from the fact that he was assassinated while in office. He was an extraordinary man, though, being incredibly intelligent and well-read while also being one of the most fundamentally decent men ever to live in the White House.
The book recounts Garfield's life and unlikely rise to the presidency. Before entering politics, he had a brief career as a merchant seaman, but that didn't stick. His life would've been much different had he not abandoned that career and become a Civil War hero and then gone into academia and politics. Garfield was a compromise candidate at the 1880 Republican convention, but he did not actively seek the nomination. In fact, he almost dreaded becoming president but became so out of a sense of duty.
Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, was a very interesting, and very crazy character. He definitely had delusions of grandeur and thought himself to be God's gift to the world. The fact that such an obviously troubled individual was allowed to visit Garfield seeking a job is incredible to the modern reader. Garfield had zero personal protection, as was typical of presidents of the time, even though President Lincoln's assassination was still fresh in the national memory.
What I'll remember most from the book is the criminally poor medical care given to the president by Dr. Bliss after he was shot. Bliss was an extremely arrogant doctor who took personal control of Garfield's care, rarely seeking a second opinion and insisting the president was in excellent health despite numerous indications to the contrary. Even after Garfield's death, Bliss thought he'd done nothing wrong.
Bliss, like most American doctors of the day, thought that the presence of infection was good, since it showed the body was fighting and improving somehow. Bliss actually caused the president's death due to his constant probing of the president's wound with unclean hands and brutal instruments. The president's suffering throughout his descent into death is excruciating to read (or hear) and left me cringing throughout much of the book. Thank goodness for modern medicine. (less)
This is a very good book about a very, very good impostor most famously known as Clark Rockefeller, whose real name is Christian Gerhartsreiter. The m...moreThis is a very good book about a very, very good impostor most famously known as Clark Rockefeller, whose real name is Christian Gerhartsreiter. The most remarkable thing about Gerhartsreiter is the fact that he reinvented himself 4 or 5 different times. He was able to disappear so completely every time he created a new identity that the detectives working on his case say they felt as if they were chasing a ghost. Some of his identities were quite different from one another, which makes pulling them off impressive.
Gerhartsreiter's ability to don different personas and manipulate others around him began at a very early age and was made possible by his almost unparalleled ability to acquire and synthesize new information very quickly. Part of being a good impostor is acting in a manner consistent with the role, but I think an even more important part is knowing what someone in the role would know. Gerhartsreiter was able to get jobs with computers by knowing lots about them, get on Wall Street by being able to use Wall Street lingo in an intelligent manner, and playing the part of the art connoisseur by knowing a lot about artists and the importance of their work. It's astonishing to think that he was able to develop bodies of knowledge on so many different topics and be able to reinvent himself using his knowledge so many different times.
I liked author Mark Seal's conversational style. He writes the book as a narrative of his journey to understand Gerhartsreiter, but doesn't do it in an egocentric fashion and generally lets the story speak for itself. At certain times, he serves as a stand-in for the reader's sense of incredulity when he recounts how he asked Gerhartsreiter's "marks" how they could possibly buy all Gerhartsreiter's stories.
While Gerhartsreiter was a fantastic con man, he was enabled by several extremely gullible people, particularly his ex-wife. I think we all believe (or want to believe) that what people give us should be taken at face value. If we didn't have that belief, I think daily life would become a struggle. However, the sense of betrayal and anger that a victim of a con feels after the fact is unique, as shown by what the Penn State and State College communities are going through right now with the whole Sandusky mess.
While reading this book, Seal shows time and again that Gerhartsreiter rarely told the same story the same way to two different people. This reminded me of the Joker from "The Dark Knight," who told a different story about how he got his scars to each new person he met. I think this shows the cunning and perniciousness in both characters, one fictional and one all too real. (less)
Let me start by saying that I enjoy David Brooks' NYT columns and his weekly appearances on the PBS Newshour. He's a conservative, but he has a sense...moreLet me start by saying that I enjoy David Brooks' NYT columns and his weekly appearances on the PBS Newshour. He's a conservative, but he has a sense of humor about him and is quite level-headed in his arguments. I was looking forward to listening to this audiobook, but I found it pretty uneven and ultimately somewhat disappointing. The book's main goal is to explore how neuroscience demonstrates that our unconscious and our social nature play a larger role in our lives than previously thought. I thought the early parts of this exploration were interesting, as he talked about mirror neurons and the way babies bond with their mothers, both of which were interesting and new to me.
The biggest problem with the book is that Brooks attempts to meld this narrative of neuroscience to a fictional narrative about a couple, Harold and Erica. Brooks follows Harold and Erica from their births to deaths as a vehicle for discussing various life stages and events. This is a novel and interesting approach, but the trouble is that I ended up becoming more interested in Harold and Erica and forgetting most of what Brooks was using them to illustrate. There were even many points where I was saying, "what about Harold and Erica?" This therefore completely turns the book on its head and it sometimes made it difficult to separate the fictional narrative from the neuroscience discussion. I was also bothered by the big gaps in the life course of Harold and Erica and the lack of discussion of their decision (or lack thereof) not to have children. That said, I did enjoy learning about these characters and they are fairly well realized, so maybe the execution rather than the idea of the fictional anchor is the problem.
One final note: I listened to this audiobook in a very chopped way over the course of a month or so. Therefore, my difficulties in remembering specifics about the book probably has a lot to do with that. (less)
Let me start by saying that I really like and respect Jim Lehrer. I think the Newshour is the best news program by far. You learn a lot more by watchi...moreLet me start by saying that I really like and respect Jim Lehrer. I think the Newshour is the best news program by far. You learn a lot more by watching one episode of the Newshour than you do from watching 24 straight hours of any of the cable news networks.
This book recounts all the presidential debates, even the ones Lehrer wasn't involved in. I found most of the stories about the non-Lehrer debates to be largely uninteresting, with the exception of the 1988 presidential debate, in which Bernie Shaw of CNN asked Governor Michael Dukakis an astonishing question to open the debate. (Video of that can be found here). I had forgotten that incident. Even in today's more mean-spirited politics, that question would be viewed as out-of-bounds by most people. The story behind that question is interesting, as well.
The meat of the book is Lehrer's tales of mishaps and walking on a knife's edge during his participation in the presidential debates. He recounts near-disasters and highlights the few awful questions and debates he had.
This is one of the few books that almost HAS to be consumed in audiobook form. It's great to hear Lehrer read the book and made it much more memorable for me. The most important part of the audiobook, though, is the ability to hear the audio clips from the TV debates and interviews with most of the debate participants that Lehrer conducted for a separate project. It greatly enriches the material when you're able to hear exactly what Lehrer's talking about.
In any format, this is a short, well-written book. (less)
This is a very good book about a very interesting subject. The Allies' use of a "Trojan Horse" to try to deceive the Nazis is at once a great idea and...moreThis is a very good book about a very interesting subject. The Allies' use of a "Trojan Horse" to try to deceive the Nazis is at once a great idea and an incredibly audacious one, and Macintyre does an excellent job of conveying those two senses. The people involved are fascinating, including later James Bond creator Ian Fleming, the very interesting (and very British) intelligence officers behind the plot, and an unbelievably sycophantic Spanish official who passed the plot's falsehoods on to the Germans while adding half-truths of his own. It's amazing that the plot succeeded, and it required incredible good luck, gullible Spaniards, poor intelligence analysis by the Spanish and Germans, and a huge amount of group-think. It's a read I'd recommend to anyone. (less)
This is a pretty good overview of the Battle of Marathon, about which I previously knew little. It's a quick read. It's not superbly written, but it's...moreThis is a pretty good overview of the Battle of Marathon, about which I previously knew little. It's a quick read. It's not superbly written, but it's not terrible, either. It has a lot of backstory about how Persia and Athens came to war, but much of it was dense and really hard to follow. I think it takes a more skilled writer than Lacey to really explain this part. The latter part of the book about the actual Battle was quite good, though, and Lacey offers pretty good evidence for his thesis that the Athenian hoplites were a professional, coherent force that the Persians were unprepared for.
A few notes of caution about the book: most of it is pure conjecture. The main source for the time period and the Battle of Marathon itself is Herotodus, who has been proven to be unreliable in many instances. Besides him, there just aren't that many ancient sources apart from him that exist. Lacey always gives reasons for why he agrees or disagrees with Herodotus on a given point. Also, get a good map of the regions or the battles! This is a very hard book to follow without maps. There are maps provided, but they're not very detailed and are hard to see on an e-reader. I found some excellent maps by poking around the Wikipedia entry for the Battle of Marathon.(less)
This is an okay book that seems to be more repetitive padding than substance. It's not a good sign when the main subject of a book doesn't even show u...moreThis is an okay book that seems to be more repetitive padding than substance. It's not a good sign when the main subject of a book doesn't even show up until page 68! It covers a two-year period in which TR was one of 4 police commissioners in New York City. The book is filled with minutiae, most of which seemed unnecessary and uninteresting. However, it was never bad enough that I just gave up. The most interesting parts were the accounts of TR's late-night rambles through the city in order to catch beat cops unawares and thereby bring disciplinary charges against them. TR was over-zealous in his efforts, of course, but he did genuinely want to clean up the police force, which was far, far less professional and efficient than it is these days. If you're really interested in TR or turn-of-the-century New York politics, it might be worth your while. Otherwise, it'll probably just frustrate everyone else.(less)
This is an excellent look at an aspect of the Civil War I knew nothing about. The subtitle is not an exaggeration, as British ports were the main ship...moreThis is an excellent look at an aspect of the Civil War I knew nothing about. The subtitle is not an exaggeration, as British ports were the main shipyards of Confederate warships and raiders and also a significant source of funds for the Confederacy as well. I was shocked to learn that U.S. Secretary of State Seward threatened to go to war with Britain mostly to drum up support for the U.S. government. Britain and the U.S. came very close to going to war over the Trent affair and the Confederates' use of Canada as a staging ground for raids in the U.S.
To me, the most interesting parts of the book were the diplomatic maneuverings by both the North and the South to try and get the British government to openly endorse their side. Had the British recognized the South, the war would probably have ended with the Confederacy intact. The Southern agents in Britain were incensed that Britain remained neutral for the entire conflict, but it seems to me they never fully grasped just how deeply distaste for slavery ran in the British public and government. The South also banked on the cessation of U.S. cotton imports forcing the British to side with the Confereracy, but British society succeeded admirably in limiting the damage of the cotton embargo.
Foreman does an excellent job of weaving in the politics, personalities, and battles together into a coherent narrative. I particularly enjoyed the political cartoons from the British newspaper Punch. They do an excellent job illustrating elite British opinion of the time. The one minor gripe I have is that at times it was tough to keep track of everyone, even with the list of players in the front of the book. An excellent book for anyone interested in history in general and the Civil War in particular. (less)
This was a great book. Granted, it's about the Civil War, so it's not a "fun" read, but it was a good read. Gilpin Faust does a terrific job conveying...moreThis was a great book. Granted, it's about the Civil War, so it's not a "fun" read, but it was a good read. Gilpin Faust does a terrific job conveying the enormity of the 600,000 deaths caused by the Civil War. The death toll was nothing like anyone had seen and certainly not what either side expected when the war began. The main preoccupation among soldiers and civilians alike was with the Good Death, the "proper" way to die: bravely, with one's family in mind, with meaningful last words, and displaying Christian faith. Communication of as many elements of the Good Death as possible to the bereaved family was deemed crucially important among soldiers.
The new technologies and lack of professionalism among the hastily-built armies also caused a new "type" of killing, one in which the individual had more personal responsibility for the kill. This may have led to many soldiers not even firing their weapons, which was new to me. It was also interesting that snipers were deemed to be cowardly and were treated particularly harshly when caught.
Burying the dead and accounting for them were huge tasks of unprecedented scale, for which both sides were woefully unprepared. Cease-fires had to be called to retrieve the dead and burials were often done in a careless and slipshod way, with bodies resurfacing after a heavy rain. Ambulance services had to be created from scratch to ferry the wounded away and to burial plots. Class and rank distinctions were clear in who was buried and the manner of their burial, with officers getting much better treatment on the whole. A battlefield's victors treated the bodies of the opposing force brutally, leaving them unburied or even desecrating the bodies. This level of brutality is thankfully rare among modern professional armies.
Mourning for the dead was a very ritualized process featuring different phases, and the sheer number of dead made mourning a prominent part of society, particularly among widows. Many advertisements were made for more "fashionable" mourning clothes because of the huge market available.
It's interesting to note that a huge expansion of federal power occurred due to the need to name and bury the dead. It took a massive amount of time and money to figure out who exactly was dead and where they were buried. The creation of National Cemeteries for the Union forces were a controversial and expansive undertaking of the federal government.
While this was an informative read, it was also a great one. Given the subject matter, this book could have been a slog at times, but Gilpin Faust weaves everything together so beautifully the book just flows smoothly. She weaves facts, quotations, and her own conclusions together better than almost all books in recent memory. There are passages that are almost poetic. (less)