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The Election of 1860: "A Campaign Fraught with Consequences"
Michael F. Holt
Progress: 50/272 pages
The Three Axial Ages: Moral, Material, Mental
John Torpey

Reading progress update: I've read 50 out of 272 pages.

The Election of 1860: "A Campaign Fraught with Consequences" - Michael F. Holt

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.

The incredible annoyance of the latest effort

John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court - R. Kent Newmyer

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.

Reading progress update: I've read 47 out of 384 pages.

The Winding Road to the Welfare State: Economic Insecurity and Social Welfare Policy in Britain - George R. Boyer

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.

Podcast #131 is up!

William Penn: A Life - Andrew R. Murphy

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!

Stuck between books

The Governors-General: The English Army And The Definition Of The Empire, 1569-1681 - Stephen Saunders Webb

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.

Reading progress update: I've read 352 out of 352 pages.

Dark Matter: A Novel - Blake Crouch

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.

Podcast #130 is up!

The Revolution of ’28: Al Smith, American Progressivism, and the Coming of the New Deal - Robert Chiles

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!

A necessary stop for understanding Mazarin, but not the first one

Mazarin: The Crisis Of Absolutism In France - Geoffrey Treasure
In the mid-17th century, France emerged as the dominant power in continental Europe. While this development was the result of a range of historical factors and personages, one of the people who played a decisive role in bringing it about was the Italian-born Jules Mazarin. As chief minister of France for nearly two decades, he served as the main architect of French policy during this period, establishing the kingdom's preeminence through war and diplomacy. By the time he died in 1661 France had eclipsed Spain militarily, while the marriage Mazarin arranged between the Spanish princess Maria Theresa and the young Louis XIV helped to end France's ongoing wars with the Habsburgs and cemented its status for decades to come.
Given his achievements, Mazarin deserves a thorough biography that details his life within the context of his times. One of the things that makes Geoffrey Treasure's account of his life so impressive is that he manages simultaneously to both succeed and fall short in providing one for his readers. In it he charts Mazarin's life from his early years as a precocious young Italian nobleman through his years as a papal envoy (during which time he became a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church) to his emergence as Richelieu's deputy and successor as chief minister. Throughout it he describes the development of Mazarin's considerable diplomatic skills, his application of them in the service of both the papacy and the French monarchy, and his broader influence on policy. While an admirer of Mazarin's, Treasure does not hesitate to identify his flaws and the errors he made in both politics and policy, which he weighs against his many accomplishments to provide a nuanced examination of his subject.
It is for these reasons that Treasure's biography is an valuable resource about Mazarin and his role in events. Yet the author's style often inhibits his efforts. His book is a dense text that assumes the reader is already well-versed in the context of 17th century French and European history, which can be problematic given the range of complex subjects he addresses, from state finances to international diplomacy. Treasure's excessively florid prose only exacerbates this problem, with some sentences so convoluted as to be indecipherable. As a result, while his book is a necessary read for anyone seeking to understand Mazarin, to fully benefit from its value it should by no means be the first one they tackle.

Reading progress update: I've read 233 out of 432 pages.

Mazarin: The Crisis Of Absolutism In France - Geoffrey Treasure

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.

A tasty treat of a novel

The Crystal Bucephalus (Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures) - Craig Hinton
In humanity's 10th millennium the Crystal Bucephalus is a technological marvel: a restaurant that transports its elite patrons back in time and space so as to allow them to dine in the most culinarily famous places in history. When the head of the galaxy's main criminal syndicate is assassinated while eating there, the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough are wrenched from the past and accused as his murderers. As they are drawn into the investigation, they find themselves in the middle of a conspiracy involving the kidnapping of a religious leader, dueling temporal scientists, and the efforts of a megalomaniac to cheat death and take over the universe in one fell swoop.
I must confess that I approached this book with a degree of ambivalence, as the idea of reading a Doctor Who novel that was premised on a minor gimmick adapted from Douglas Adams wasn't appealing to me. Yet while the idea of time traveling diners is one that can seem excessively ridiculous, Craig Hinton uses it to build one of the most breathtakingly ambitious novels in the Virgin Missing Adventures series. Key to this is his integration of time travel into the plot, which instead of being employed simply to transport the Doctor and his companions to some exotic locale is used as the main driver of events. These unfold over the course of the book to reveal a story of impressive complexity, albeit one dependent on hiding key details until late in the book in order to maintain a sense of mystery. This is a minor complaint, though, when weighed against Hinton's success in providing a multilayered adventure that comes together in an exciting conclusion to rank as among the best Doctor Who novels that I have read so far.

A world of presbyters with claymores

Menagerie - Martin Day
When the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe materialize at their latest destination, they find themselves on a stagnant world ruled by a group of armored warriors dedicated to holding their society to a medieval level of technology. Arrested soon after their arrival, they soon set out to decipher the mysteries of the place, particularly the lingering presence of an earlier, more advanced civilization of humans upon the ruins of which the existing society was built. As they investigate further they discover that underlying it all is a danger that threatens to wipe out all life on the planet, one for which the inhabitants of the world are singularly ill suited to stop.
Martin Day's novel is a book that is more successful than it has any right to be. The premise and setting draw upon elements from over a half-dozen Doctor who stories, all of which executed them in more refreshingly entertaining ways. The level of bloodshed is almost shockingly high, thanks to a threat that is very atonal for the Doctor Who universe. That Day pulls it off as well as he does is thanks in equal parts to his plotting (which keeps things moving at a decent enough pace and introduces enough elements to engage the reader) and the way in which he layers his antagonists, many of which display a degree of nuance that makes them different form the one-dimensional baddies that they might otherwise have been. While the end result may not rank among the best of the Missing Adventures series, it is one that makes for an enjoyable, if occasionally graphic, read for fans of the franchise.

Podcast #129 is up!

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely - Andrew S. Curran

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!

A new approch to my reading resolutions for the year

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 2018 Reading Year in Review


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!

A disappointing entry in the Missing Adventures series

Dancing the Code - Paul Leonard
In a small North African country, government forces campaigning against rebels suddenly vanish without a trace. In the rebel encampment, a British reporter witnesses a battered UNIT jeep crash into a tent, driven by a dying man exuding a honey-like substance. And in England, the Doctor detects a vision of the future, one in which the Brigadier will shoot both him and Jo Grant in cold blood. Together the three events point to the latest alien threat facing the Earth, one that threatens to consume all of humanity unless the Doctor can stop it.
This was the second of Paul Leonard's contributions to the Doctor Who franchise that I have read, and i approached it with expectations shaped by his previous novel for the Virgin Missing Adventures series, Venusian Lullaby. Perhaps this is why I was so disappointed with the work. Unlike his previous novel, which drew its strengths from its quirky setting and immersion into a truly alien culture, this one suffered from a tired premise poorly developed by it. With numerous characters hurriedly introduced into the plot there is little investment in their fates, nor is there any suspense in a climax that doesn't measure up to its supposedly epic scale. With an ending that is equal parts rushed and predictable, the result is a book that is not among the better contributions to the series.

Fighting evil aboard a floating courthouse

The Romance of Crime - Gareth Roberts

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.