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Currently reading

Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ann Douglas
Progress: 121/640 pages
Modern Europe, 1789-Present
Patricia Clavin, Asa Briggs
Progress: 333/478 pages

The fundamental conceit of a "best books" list

This morning I find myself in a crabby mood. I need to hustle out early today, I need to straighten up the house before I leave, I needed to get the kid out the door for school before that, and he needed to straighten up his things before he left. So when I went online to find something to read while eating my breakfast I did so primed for annoyance.


And perhaps that helped me to appreciate something that has been staring me in the face for years now. It came to me when my Pocket feed coughed up this list on Slate of "The 50 Best Nonfiction Books of the Past 25 Years." It's the sort of listicle (yes, I'm using that word) that's usually catnip for me, so I clicked on the link and checked out their choices.


Now I've already acknowledged that I was primed for annoyance, yet I suspect that even if I were in a better mood this list would have triggered me. It's nothing against the books themselves: I have no doubt that all are fine works and I would probably enjoy and benefit from reading most if not all of them. But it bothered me intensely how narrowly constructed the list was, containing as it did the usual titles by well-repped authors that I have seen celebrated in a dozen similar pieces. Given the scope of the list and that it was by a "team" of two readers rather than a single one, I was hoping to encounter something a little different, or at least one or two of the titles that I as a nonfiction reader might include on such a list.


And that's when the blindingly obvious became the visible: contrary to the headline, this isn't a list of the fifty best nonfiction books of the last quarter-century, just the fifty best nonfiction books written in the last quester century that the article's authors have read. I know this is a "well, duh!" moment for most of you, but this is the moment when the underlying arrogance of the article coalesced for me. I suppose my real issue here is with how the authors represent their choices. A "definitive" list? A definitive list of nonfiction books would include far more than just the "memoirs . . . books of reportage, collections of essays, travelogues, works of cultural criticism, passionate arguments, [and] a compendium of household tips" on this list. Was Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl left off because it wasn't as good as the fifty other books, or was it because nobody pressed a copy into their hands? Did Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel not make the list simply because neither of the authors ever bothered to walk through the History section of their local Barnes and Noble at any point in the past two decades? When books like these don't make the cut but a list of essays by David Foster Wallace does, I start to appreciate how any such list is premised on a conceit, and one that we need to stop representing these as authoritative in any sense.

Podcast #163 is up!

American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford - Roland De Wolk

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Roland De Wolk about his biography of the 19th century robber baron Leland Stanford. Enjoy!

What I hate about "The Crown"

Season 3 of The Crown premiered on Netflix yesterday, and my wife and I watched the first two episodes last night. So far I'm enjoying it every bit as much as I did the first two seasons; the casting is as fantastic as before, and I especially enjoyed the contrast Peter Morgan made in the first episode between Britain's past great-power glories and their increasing impotence in the superpower era.


That being said, watching it leaves me with no small amount of annoyance with myself. Seeing the show's take on the 1960s reminds me that I have a bookcase full of titles about the period and the individuals in the show that I STILL. HAVEN'T. READ. From Oxford History surveys to biographies of Harold Wilson and that milk-snatcher Margaret Thatcher, there is plenty for me to read for my whetted appetite, yet I just don't seem to have the time anymore.


Given that I expressed a similar complaint during the second season, this suggests that I'm still not devoting the time I want to books that interest me the most. But it also indicates just how good the show is at highlighting my reading deficiencies. I would quit you, The Crown, if only you weren't so damn entertaining.

Ideal for the middle school or high school student

Julius Caesar: Dictator for Life (Revised Edition) - Denise Rinaldo

My son is currently studying Roman history at school, and during one of our trips to our local library a couple of weeks ago he picked up as many books about Roman history as he could find. This Julius Caesar biography was among them, and while it's geared to a slightly older group of learners I'm not one to tell someone what they can't read. As soon as we arrived home, though, the books landed on the floor in his room, where they've sat ever since.


One of the reasons for this is that reading it wasn't an obligation. While he has a considerable amount of homework every week, he's allowed to choose what he wants to read. Because of this, he usual meets his obligations by reading books in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Dog Man series, both of which he enjoys greatly. In addition to that, though, he also has a weekly project due that rotates between Literature, Writing, Science, and Current Events. This week Literature came up in the rotation, which means that he has to not just read a book but "respond" to it in some way. I decided to use the assignment to push him to read the Caesar biography, and for it I decided to read it myself.


For an adult it's a quick read, with plenty of illustrations and info boxes. Denise Rinaldo does a good job of presenting the basic facts of Caesar's life, with some helpful short-term background information added in for context. Overall, it's a fine introduction for anyone seeking "just the facts" on one of history's big names, and is ideal for the middle-school or high school audience to whom it is geared. Hopefully with a little help an elementary school reader can enjoy it as well!

My review of Williams's "Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King" is up!

Athelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King - Ann Williams

My sixth review is up on the Best Biographies of British Monarchs website! Please read and enjoy with my compliments

On to Æthelred the Unready!

For the past few weeks I have been wrestling with some issues with my book reviewing website. Today I had lunch with a good friend who runs a website design business and who has been advising me on my project. By the end of it I had worked out both my Amazon Associates problem and my certification issue, the latter of which I didn't even know that I had.


Now that I have figured out how to incorporate Amazon's ads into my site I need to start generating more content. My plan is to increase the pace of my review posting and keep it up for the next several weeks. My introduction to the next monarch in line the famously misnamed Æthelred the Unready — went up today, with the reviews of his biographies to follow over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 92 out of 640 pages.

Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly - Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ann  Douglas

A couple of days ago my colleague stopped by my office on his way back from teaching his class. In addition to his lecture notes he had a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin in his hand, which he had brought to class so that he could read passages to his students. When I saw it I was inspired to read it, and he generously lent me his copy.


It was a fortuitous moment in so many ways. I reference Stowe's novel whenever I teach early U.S. history, and as I discuss it I think to myself that I really ought to read it for myself someday. The problem in the past has been that such moments occur at the point of my maximum interest, so by the time I'm free to read it my focus has shifted elsewhere. This time was different, however, as I'm still a few days away from discussing the early 1850s and with my final review obligation for the year wrapped up this morning there's never been a better time to undertake it. So far it's proving to be incredibly interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing some of the themes in the book that I've read so much about.

And down another rabbit hole I go!

Henry Adams: The Major Phase - Ernest Samuels

Yesterday while driving around town listened to a podcast about the later generations of the Adams family, which as the author notes was the first political dynasty in America. It was an interesting interview, and when it was over I decided to see what else was out there on the family. In particular, I wanted to see what biographies there were about Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (who was America's minister to Great Britain during the Civil War) and his son Henry.


This is how I discovered that Ernest Samuels had written a three-volume biography of Henry Adams a few decades ago. While I had encountered his one-volume biography of Adams, I wasn't aware until now that it was an abridgment of this earlier work, which had won a slew of awards when it was originally published back in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, I had no interest in reading Samuels's single-volume work, but in what I like to think of as my Law of Proportional Tome Size (FYI, I'm still working on the name), I'm very much interested in reading a three-volume biography of him.


And so I find myself embarking on yet another reading project to add to the many that I have in progress, planned, or collecting dust on my shelves. This is one I plan on taking my time to collect: I'm going resist the temptation to simply order the volumes online and instead add them to the list of books I search for whenever I shop in used book stores.

Podcast #162 is up!

Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of a Conservative Icon - Robert Mann

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Robert Mann about his book charting the political evolution of Ronald Reagan prior to his career in politics. Enjoy!

An unexpected find

— feeling happy

Well, my book shopping trip to Tucson proved a little disappointing. The book I hoped to reacquire was gone, and the works on the War of 1812 that I somehow thought I would magically discover while I was there weren't on the shelves. Still, I found a few desirable titles that I purchased, so it wasn't a waste of time by any stretch. Best of all, though, was an unexpected discovery at our third stop.



This little collection of Ace Doubles was sitting in a bin of free items. The opportunity was too good to pass up, so I snapped them all up and added them to my haul.


Perhaps noting them as the highlight of my trip is a little sad, but I'm looking forward to systematically working my way through them. I often like to take a few days at the end of the semester to indulge myself with some fun fiction. I think I just found my reading for the next month, and you can count on seeing some reviews coming out of it, too.

Today's book haul

This week Half Price Books is running one of their regular sales. These usually involve sending out a series of coupons that escalate over the course of the week, from a modest 20% off the highest-priced item on the first day to 50% off at the end. These often provide an excellent opportunity for me to take a pass through the three branches in town and see if they have anything to offer.


This afternoon my son and I visited two of the three to see what was on offer. He left without purchasing anything; I, on the other hand, did not demonstrate as much restraint.



I was pretty happy with my finds. The Holmes biography is one that I used to own but sold a while back. I tried to read it decades ago but gave up and figured I would never read it; my impeding interview with White, however, made me regret my decision, so I was pleasantly surprised to come across a copy in good condition. The two history books are related to my latest long-term project; the Davey book was available for a song, while the Langford book was one I wasn't even aware existed. The novel was more of an indulgence: occasionally I come across mention of John Steakley as an underappreciated author and Armor as his best work. For a couple of bucks I figured I would give it a try.


But the prize was this gem:



Lavery's book is one that I've come across on occasion but didn't decide to read until recently. It's not exactly a scarce book, but to come across an unread copy when I have a 40% coupon in my hand made my day. Thanks to that and some other discounts, I acquired all of the books for less than $30, which for me constitutes a fine price for my haul.


Hopefully tomorrow is even more productive, as my son and I are heading down to Tucson for one of our occasional book shopping trips. With luck I might even come across a book that I sold down there a while ago and I'm hoping to reacquire again.

Podcast #161 is up!

Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth - Iain MacGregor

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Iain MacGregor about his oral history of the Berlin Wall. Enjoy!

Interesting idea, easily overused

Dark Nights: Metal - Dark Knights Rising - Frank Tieri, Peter J. Tomasi, Sam Humphries, Joshua Williamson, Dan Abnett, James, T. Tynion

After reading a review a few days ago of a new issue of a Batman comic involving a battle between the Dark Knight and the Batman Who Laughs, I decided to read a collection containing an introduction to the character. Basically the idea behind the Batman Who Laughs is a Batman-Joker mashup created when an alternate-universe Batman is infected with a Joker toxin that rewrote his morals while retaining his ability for strategic thinking. The result instant supervillain.


An evidently it's a popular one, too. What a started out as one of a number of new "Nightmare Batmen" created for an "event" storyline has evidently become a new fan favorite. And while I can see why, it strikes me as a concept that can get old pretty damn quickly. Because, like the Maestro Hulk and the Maker version of Reed Richards in Marvel comics, while creating a powerful evil doppelganger makes for an interesting one-off, it wouldn't take too many defeats for the Batman Who Laughs to become another sad part of the "rogue's gallery."

The rest of my reading year

— feeling shocked
Law in American History, Volume III: 1930-2000 - G. Edward White

Is it possible to feel proud of oneself and like an idiot at the same time? Because that's how I feel right now.


Ever since I resumed my interviewing, I've contemplated reaching out to G. Edward White to offer an interview about his latest book. For me he's in the category of authors of whom interviewing would be a tremendous honor for me. He's a giant in the field of American legal history who has written some truly excellent books, including (as a co-author) a volume in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Devise. His new book is the final volume of a trilogy he has been working on for over a decade summarizing the history of American law from colonial times to the present. Simply put, interviewing people like him about books like that is the main reason why I took on this podcasting gig in the first place. Plus, interviewing him for a podcast would spare me the expense of buying a copy, so there's that.


My initial plan was to contact White after I returned from my summer trip to England. My internet service issues threw a wrench into that, though, so when my access improved I considered the issue again. Finally I sent him an email last week; to my pleasant surprise he was happy to participate, and in less than a week (Oxford is awesome like this) a copy arrived in my mailbox. And it is huge. At over a thousand pages, it's a positive brick of a book, crammed full of a lifetime of learning and lived experience with the law (White clerked for Earl Warren, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, back in the 1960s, so this volume covers a lot of what he witnessed firsthand).


And that's why I'm pleased with myself and kicking myself at the same time, because I don't know how I'm going to master it in time for our interview. I have at least three books ahead of it which will be nowhere hear as difficult to cover, but they will take time. More problematic is my review of Glantz's book on the battle of Belorussia during the Second World War, which is almost as large and for which I need to produce a 1000-word review in a little more than a week. And of course there's the reviewing for my own website, which I'm trying to let slip so as to try to generate steady traffic. And of course there's the life stuff on top of all that, which is going to take up a bigger chunk of my free time as the holidays approach.


Why do I do this to myself?

The evolution of a conservative icon

Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of a Conservative Icon - Robert Mann

Robert Mann's book is about Ronald Reagan's political evolution from his early days as a New Deal liberal to his famous 1964 speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater's doomed presidential campaign.  Though no acolyte of Reagan's, Mann treats his subject seriously as he charts his emergence as an orator and political activist while flagging Reagan's frequent exaggerations and fictions in his statements. The result is a clearly-written and well-argued account of the emergence of one of the key political figures of postwar American politics, one that can be read profitably by anyone seeking to understand how an earnest young actor began a career that would end in the highest office in the land.

Christmas came early this year

As you may recall, every year my wife and I treat each other to one Christmas splurge. In years past this has been an expensive book or a set of expensive books, but this year I decided on something else: an 8-disc set of the Showa-era Godzilla films.


This was an indulgence to my inner child. When I was growing up there was nothing I enjoyed more than watching Godzilla films on a Saturday morning. When I tried collecting them on DVD a couple of years ago, though, I learned that many of them were out-of-print and consequently very expensive. This made Criterion's set too appealing too pass up, so when my wife asked me what I wanted this year I asked for it.


Normally I would have had to wait another couple of months before enjoying it. But when my wife's gift ⁠(a set of Powerbeat Pros) arrived, she decided she didn't want to wait until December. So once the DVDs showed up we wrapped them and exchanged gifts.


And the set was even better than I expected:




To accompany the DVDs, they provided a short essay on each movie, which they accompanied with some fantastic artwork:



Of course, it's all about the DVDs:



Now I'm spending the weekend indulging in a nostalgic immersion into two decades' worth of classic Japanese kaiju movies. I'm alternating between my favorites and ones I missed seeing when I was young, and it's been fascinating seeing them again after all these decades.