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The Blue Hammer
Ross Macdonald
Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life
Diarmaid MacCulloch

Smug as f***

— feeling smile
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke - Jeffrey C. Stewart

Yesterday the 2018 National Book Awards were announced, and among the winners was Jeffrey Stewart for his biography of Alain Locke. I was really happy to see that he won, not just because it's a worthy choice, but because I read it earlier this year. I always get a nice smug feeling when I read award-winning books before they win, and this was the first time I was ahead of the curve for the National Book Award. I think I'll take the rest of the day off to bask in my awesomeness.

End-of-the-year book musings

With Thanksgivings calorie-o-rama just around the corner, my thoughts are increasingly dominated by the holiday season. Over the past few years the holidays have become a time when I get to lounge at my in-laws' farm with a couple of good books chosen out of pure interest and enjoyment — nothing driven by reviewing needs or podcast interviews. For me, there really is no better gift than that.


Of course, this raises the question of what to bring with me to read. I added a collection of Ross Macdonald novels to my Christmas wish list, but I've learned long ago not to base my reading plans on books that I don't have in my possession. There are a few titles that I might read for the upcoming semester (the thought of embarking on my long-delayed Spanish-language reading project won't go away), but the thought of tackling one of the long neglected tomes on my shelf may be too tempting to ignore.

Podcast #124 is up!

The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson - Mark R. Cheathem

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Mark Cheathem about his new book on presidential campaigning in antebellum America. Enjoy!

Oh, crap!

Woman Suffrage and Citizenship in the Midwest, 1870–1920 - Sara Egge

Today I began reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's new biography of Thomas Cromwell. It's a book to which I had been looking forward to for awhile, and I had made it a point to carve out enough time to give it my full attention in preparation for my interview with MacCulloch himself next week.


Nevertheless, something was nagging me in the back of my head. A while back I had reached out to a historian named Sara Egge about featuring her book on women's suffrage in the Midwest. She responded positively, and I even received a copy of her book, but for some reason I didn't have an interview scheduled on my calendar.


Today I did what I should have done days ago, and I searched my account for our correspondence. Sure enough, it was there all right — we had agreed to do it this Friday! Now Cromwell is on the back-burner, as I'm scrambling to read Egge's (fortunately short) book in time for our interview. Clearly I need to work on my system.

What is fascism?

The Anatomy of Fascism - Robert O. Paxton

Over the past few years, the word "fascist" has been deployed increasingly to describe modern-day political movements in the United States, Hungary, Greece, and Italy, to name a few places. The word brings with it some of the most odious associations from the 20th century, namely Nazi Germany and the most devastating war in human history. Yet to what degree is the label appropriate and to what extent is it more melodramatic epithet than an appropriate description?


It was in part to answer that question that I picked up a copy of Robert O. Paxton's book. As a longtime historian of 20th century France and author of a seminal work on the Vichy regime, he brings a perspective to the question that is not predominantly Italian or German. This shows in the narrative, as his work uses fascist movements in nearly every European country to draw out commonalities that explain the fascist phenomenon. As he demonstrates, fascism can be traced as far back as the 1880s, with elements of it proposed by authors and politicians across Europe in order to mobilize the growing population of voters (thanks to new measures of enfranchisement) to causes other than communism. Until then, it was assumed by nearly everyone that such voters would be automatic supporters for socialist movements. Fascism proposed a different appeal, one based around nationalist elements which socialism ostensibly rejected.


Despite this, fascism remained undeveloped until it emerged in Italy in the aftermath of the First World War. This gave Benito Mussolini and his comrades a flexibility in crafting an appeal that won over the established elites in Italian politics and society. From this emerged a pattern that Paxton identifies in the emergence of fascism in both Italy and later in Germany, which was their acceptance by existing leaders as a precondition for power. Contrary to the myth of Mussolini's "March on Rome," nowhere did fascism take over by seizing power; instead they were offered it by conservative politicians as a solution to political turmoil and the threatened emergence of a radical left-wing alternative. It was the absence of an alternative on the right which led to the acceptance of fascism; where such alternatives (of a more traditional right-authoritarian variety) existed, fascism remained on the fringes. The nature of their ascent into power also defined the regimes that emerged, which were characterized by tension between fascists and more traditional conservatives, and often proved to be far less revolutionary in practice than their rhetoric promised.


Paxton's analysis is buttressed by a sure command of his subject. He ranges widely over the era, comparing and contrasting national groups in a way that allows him to come up an overarching analysis of it as a movement. All of this leads him to this final definition:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (p. 218)

While elements of this are certainly present today, they are hardly unique to fascism and exist in various forms across the political spectrum. Just as important, as Paxton demonstrates, is the context: one in which existing institutions are so distrusted or discredited that the broader population is willing to sit by and watch as they are compromised, bypassed, or dismantled in the name of achieving fascism's goals. Paxton's arguments here, made a decade before Donald Trump first embarked on his candidacy, are as true now as they were then. Reading them helped me to appreciate better the challenge of fascism, both in interwar Europe and in our world today. Everyone seeking to understand it would do well to start with this perceptive and well-argued book.

Reading progress update: I've read 37 out of 585 pages.

George Henry Thomas: As True As Steel - Brian Steel Wills

I'm DNF-ing this and returning it to the library after I do some cataloging work with it. It's not a bad book, just one that I'm not really into reading at the moment (though Wills's writing doesn't exactly make this book unputdownable).

Opening up a Pandora's box of secrets

The Goodbye Look - Ross Macdonald

This was my first Ross Macdonald novel, and it's definitely not going to be my last. The plot was amazing, with Macdonald's merciful detective Lew Archer called in to investigate the theft of a gold box and the letters contained. What followed was an intricate tale of decades-old crimes, long-buried secrets, and innocent people caught in between. I finished the book with an appreciation for Macdonald's under-appreciated talent, one that deserves as wide an audience today as it had back in his own life.

Reading progress update: I've read 57 out of 186 pages.

The Goodbye Look - Ross Macdonald

Okay, I'm hooked.

Starts slow, but comes together well

Doctor Who: Dreams of Empire - Justin Richards

On a fortress built into an asteroid on the frontier of the Haddron Empire rests Hans Keysar. Formerly one of the three consuls of the republic, he is a prisoner after a failed attempt to become emperor that resulted in a debilitating civil war. Now on the eve of a visit by Milton Trayx — his friend, former co-consul and victor in the civil war — someone is engineering a plan of escape. But that plan doesn't factor in the unexpected arrival of the Doctor and his companions Jamie and Victoria, who arrive just as the first moves are made . . .

I must confess that early on in Justin Richards's novel I was tempted to give up on it, as it starts out slowly and introduces a number of ill-defined characters who were at times difficult to distinguish in the text. Once Richards sets the pieces of his story into place, however, the novel snaps together into a fairly entertaining book that leavens the "base under siege" storyline that was such a standard of the Second Doctor's era with a degree of political intrigue. The twists at the end — some predictable, others less so — keep things lively and entertaining as well. I'm glad I persevered with it, as it proved in the end to be worth the effort.

Branching out

Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s: (Library of America #264) - Ross Macdonald, Tom Nolan

A couple of days ago I was working my way through my backlog of TLS issues when I came across Tyler Sage's review of the new Ross Macdonald collection of Lew Archer novels published by the Library of America. Until that moment I had no knowledge of either the author or the character, but reading Sage's description has me thinking that I should branch out.


The thing is that, for all of my time spent with books, I end up reading deeply in just a few categories. There's history and biography, and when I read fiction it's almost always science fiction with the occasional literary classic thrown in. When I branch out, such as I did last year by reading C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels, though, I usually find that I'm richer for the experience. Among the genres that I have yet to sample (aside from a few Sherlock Holmes stories) is mystery, though after reading Sage's review I feel inspired to give it a try.

Podcast #123 is up!

Yuan Shikai: A Reappraisal - Patrick Fuliang Shan

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Patrick Fuliang Shan about his new biography of Yuan Shikai, the imperial official who became president of China before embarking on a failed bid to become emperor. Enjoy!

Podcast #122 is up!

Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny  - Edward J. Watts

My latest interview is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Edward J. Watts about his history of the fall of the Roman Republic and its relevance for us today. Enjoy!

Still a classic, but showing its age

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States) - James M. McPherson

I first read James McPherson's classic history of the Civil War era when I was in high school. At the time I had a pretty callow understanding of history; because of this, while I took a lot from McPherson's book, many of his arguments and details went largely unappreciated. In the years that followed his book remained on my shelf as a valued resource that I drew from, even as I moved on to more focused studies about the period. Recently, however, a friend's request brought me back to the book for my first cover-to-cover reading of it in decades. This proved an extremely interesting experience, for several reasons.


Foremost among them was the opportunity to learn the things I had missed the first time around. I credit this to my maturity, as I have a far greater range of interests than my 17-year-old self ever did. This helped give me a deeper appreciation for McPherson's book, as I saw the balance and nuance he displayed on the numerous topics he addressed.  I also found myself admiring even more so the fluidity of McPherson's presentation of the era and his ability to range from topic to topic in a way that never weakened my engagement with the text.


Yet for all of the book's strengths and my increased admiration for them, I also saw flaws that I missed the first time through. Foremost among them is McPherson's scope, for as brilliantly as he covers the lead up to the Civil War and the war itself, this remains his predominant focus. Other subjects relevant to the era, such as cultural developments, are ignored so long as they are irrelevant to his focus on the war and the events leading up to it, making his book less comprehensive than some of the others in the series. Another is the increasingly dated nature of the text. Unlike Robert Middlekauf with his volume on the Revolutionary era, McPherson has stated before that he has little interest in updating his work. Though his decision is understandable in some respects, the absence of the considerable amount of Civil War historiography that has been published over the past three decades erodes its value and will continue to do so as time went along.


Because of this, I finished McPherson's book with an appreciation both renewed and more tempered than before. While it remains the single best book on its subject, it is one that is showing its age. I expect that I will turn to it again in the years to come, but when I do it will be an awareness that it no longer can serve as the solitary go-to source for understanding this pivotal era of American history.

Reading progress update: I've read 55 out of 336 pages.

The Anatomy of Fascism - Robert O. Paxton

From page 41:

In that sense, too, fascism is more plausibly linked to a set of "mobilizing passions" that shape fascist action than to a consistent and fully articulated philosophy. At bottom is a passionate nationalism. Allied to it is a conspiratorial and Manichean view of history as a battle between good and evil camps, between the pure and the corrupt, in which one's own community or nation has been the victim. In this Darwinian narrative, the chosen people have been weakened by political parties, social classes, unassailable minorities, spoiled rentiers, and nationalist thinkers who lack the necessary sense of community. These "mobilizing passions," mostly taken for granted and not always covertly argued as intellectual propositions, form the emotional lava that set fascism's foundations.

Before I started this book, I was dismissive of descriptions of the political movement around our current president as fascist. After reading this, I'm less so.


Reading progress update: I've read 23 out of 336 pages.

The Anatomy of Fascism - Robert O. Paxton

Robert Paxton's goal in this book is to define fascism for his readers, and so far it's proving a disturbingly fascinating exercise.

Reading progress update: I've read 276 out of 904 pages.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States) - James M. McPherson

Now that I've read a few books on the secession crisis, I can't say that I fully agree with McPherson's interpretation of it. Had he done a new edition, it would have been interesting to see if he would have revised it in light of some of the more recent works on the subject.