As great an admirer as I am of Michael Holt's scholarship, I'm having some serious problems with this book. In the preface, Holt explains that his quest to say something new about the presidential election of 1860 has led him to identify two aspects of the conventional narrative that are "misleading": that the election was primarily about slavery (which he identifies as the view of the southern secessionists) and that it was two separate campaigns defined by geography. Until now he has been addressing the first of these, and while he makes quite a few good points I'm still not entirely convinced by it. For while the issue for northerners may have been less slavery and more about "ousting Democrats from power and restoring honesty to the federal government," there's plenty of literature demonstrating that a big factor behind these anti-Democratic views was the perception of the party's domination by southerners and the excessive catering to their anxieties about slavery. So far Holt seems unwilling to address this, though.
One of the consequences of the last-minute changes to my spring teaching schedule is that I have a justification for reading some more early American history. I'm identifying some possible books to read, and among the ones I'm thinking of reading is a biography of Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall. I've had a copy of Kent Newmyer's book about him for years, and the opportunity to read it seems too good to pass it up.
The only problem is, it's not the only one on my mind. The biography of the moment is Joel Richard Paul's Without Precedent, which has received a number of positive reviews. It may be shallow of me, but I find myself tempted to pick up a copy of it instead. And I hate that, as it would mean leaving Newmyer's book to collect more yet dust on my shelf until who knows when I would get to it.
It's always been something of an annoyance to me to see book after book published about the same people or subjects. While there is no gainsaying Marshall's role in American legal history, there is no shortage of first-rate biographies on him already available. Yet instead of writing on a less well-covered subject, we have one more Marshall biography for the shelves — and I have to figure out which one to read so as to make the most of my precious reading time.
This book is proving to be a perfect example of what I find so limiting about economic history. Boyer is examining the impact of changes in welfare law upon the poor and unemployed in Britain. It's all well and good, but he never bothers to explain why Parliament changes the law. Was it a shift in morality, or because of the increasing shift of the population from rural to urban? Evidently Boyer doesn't think this worth addressing.
This might be a minor complaint, but it also highlights another problem with the book, this one being a lack of differentiation in his statistics. He tosses around numbers about the "population" and "the poor" as they were a uniform category between 1832 and 1951. He should know very well that this isn't the case, and that a lot of what was happening involved adapting a system geared towards addressing poverty in a predominantly agrarian economy to a predominantly industrial one. Given some of the arguments he makes, not addressing this leaves it flawed and subject to substantial revision, which is a shame because he makes some interesting points in his economic analysis.
My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Andrew R, Murphy about his biography of the 17th century English Quaker William Penn, who was a pioneering advocate of religious toleration and the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania. Enjoy!
After a rapid start to my 2019 reading I now find myself in a lull. I started reading Stephen Saunders Webb's book on the governors-general yesterday, but after about a couple of dozen pages in I'm worried that I erred in buying his series before verifying whether I actually wanted to read it. I pulled a couple of other books off of my shelf, but neither really grabbed me the way I was hoping they would.
Part of the problem, I think, is that my reading priorities are a little unsettled at the moment. My teaching schedule was up-ended, and while it wasn't a big deal it's forced me to reassess what I want to read in the next couple of months., I ordered a couple of books, but as they haven't arrived yet I'm in the position of waiting and not wanting to invest myself too much into something else. The solution, of course, is to read something for a podcast, but after having blazed through two in the past week I was hoping to start something non-podcast related before taking on the next title.
I said in my last post that I was finding this a quick read and it was. I slowed down once I got past the standard preliminary stuff, much of which left me worried that it presaged a predictable novel. Thank goodness I was wrong.
Blake Crouch's novel is centered around Jason Dessen, a brilliant physicist who is living a happy yet mundane life as a college professor in Chicago with a loving wife and son. Then someone in a mask shows up, drugs him, shoves him in a metal box in an abandoned factory . . . and Dessen wakes up in a lab where he is greeted expectantly after an absence of over a year. It quickly becomes clear that this is isn't his life but the life of another Dessen, one whose professional success has led to a breakthrough of frightening possibilities, all of which Dessen would trade in a heartbeat for a chance to return to his old life.
That's the premise in a nutshell, anyhow. It's not terribly original, but it gets better thanks to some turns Crouch takes that keep raising the stakes. And at the end there's a line that may by a little spoiler-y (though more likely incomprehensible without some context) that earned Crouch's book another half-star from me:
"Look," I say, "I've tried to explain to you how the box works, but forget all that for a minute. Here's the thing. The box isn't all that different from life, If you go in with fear, fear is what you'll find."
I love encountering obvious-yet-profound points when I read novels like this, because they're little gifts in that they're unexpected reminders of important truths. And this is an especially good one that I need to keep in mind when I'm facing some of the oppressive stuff in my own life, no matter how bad it can get.
My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Robert Chiles about his study of Al Smith's role in American progressivism and it's political legacy (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
This is proving to a more advanced of an examination of Mazarin and his times than I was prepared for when I requested a copy of the book. I'm focusing for now on wrapping it up, but I definitely need to return to it after I've improved my knowledge base about 17th century France.
My first podcast of the year is up! In it, I interview Andrew S. Curran about his biography of the French philosophe Denis Diderot. Enjoy!
While writing my last post about my reading achievements in 2018 I came across my reading resolutions for the year. Reviewing them engendered a little disappointment, not so much because I didn't make them (although admittedly that was part of it) but because I had forgotten that I made them in the first place.
Upon reflection, I think the problem is that I forget they exist as they gradually descend down my blog feed. Because of this, I was inspired by a review of my feed to try it differently: rather than make an overarching set of reading resolutions for 2019 I'm going to subdivide them into thirds. This plays into something that I already do, which is set summer and fall reading goals depending upon where I am at that moment. This may cost me a little in terms of my broader reading development, but it will help in terms of ensuring that I don't forget what I'm hoping to achieve in the months ahead.
So, what are my reading resolutions/goals for the next four months? Three stand out at the moment:
1. Rein in my podcasting and its related reading requirements. This is a carry-over from my 2018 reading resolutions. While I did moderate my requests to authors, this was offset somewhat by an increase in the number of books proposed to me by the site editor. This reduced my rate of reduction, but I think it points to a direction in terms of my podcasting output that I can continue to fine-tune so as to free up my reading time for:
2. Reading books about England! Our upcoming summer trip to England (assuming England survives or escapes the Brexit omnishambles in May, of course) has wetted my appetite for reading more about English history, particularly history related to London and the Cotswolds. Currently in addition to the books I mentioned in a previous post I'm planning to read Jerry White's trilogy about modern London, the England-related books on my TBR list, and possibly a biography of Edward Elgar, though the latter two might be sacrificed to the exigencies of time.
3. Read poetry! This was the 2018 resolution that totally got away from me last year. Again, I'll try to harness National Poetry Month to inspire myself to pull down a volume of Yeats or Auden to enjoy.
I'll revisit these when I set my summer reading goals in May to see if my new approach works. Fingers crossed!
My reading in 2018 broke another personal record, as I completed 159 books over the past year. Of that total, 102 were works of nonfiction and the remaining 57 were novels, which was a more balanced ratio of fiction-to-nonfiction than last year. When it came to my reading resolutions for the year, though, I enjoyed only modest success (though I whittled down my TBR list by seven books!), and I'll have to redouble my efforts for those goals in 2019.
Again I was fortunate in my reading choices for the year, which makes choosing the best book I read a little difficult. What I best remember the year for reading-wise, though was my discovery of the mystery novels of Ross Macdonald, which opened up for me a whole new genre that I haven't really explored until now. Picking the worst book is a lot easier, as the best that can be said for Dana Fredsti and David Fitzgerald's novel Time Shards is that reading it was a mercifully brief experience.
On to the new year!
In the human-colonized Uva Beta Uva system, justice is dispensed from the Rock of Judgment, an asteroid converted into a roving courtroom in which cases are heard and sentences carried out. When the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 arrive, they quickly become entangled in an investigation by a newly-arrived lawman into suspicious activities on board. For despite all of the seeming normality aboard the Rock, events are unfolding that are tied to the inexplicable murder of a survey team on the eleventh planet, one that suggest the return of the most feared criminal in the history of the system — despite her execution aboard the Rock years before.
Gareth Roberts was at the beginning of a prolific career as a writer and contributor to the Doctor Who franchise when he wrote this novel, the first of four he would contribute to the Virgin Missing Adventures series. It is a work that evokes the "base-under-siege" trope familiar to fans of the franchise, albeit one that was less in use at this point in the series. It helps that the base in the story is not the typical scientific station or military outpost but a floating courthouse, one that allows Roberts to draw upon his experience as a Court of Appeals clerk for an unusual setting for the franchise. Combined with a pair of narrative twists that keep the plot going in the later chapters, it all comes together to make for an entertaining adventure that fans of the characters will enjoy.