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markk

markk

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Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade
Anthony Kaldellis
Progress: 38/440 pages
Pershing's Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I
Richard S Faulkner
The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution
Michael J. Klarman
Progress: 405/880 pages
Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521
Martin Brecht
Progress: 236/543 pages

Reading progress update: I've read 405 out of 880 pages.

The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution - Michael J. Klarman

Lest anyone think that Americans have changed:

"Neither side was adverse, if all else failed, to hint at a resort to violence should it lose the contest over ratification. For example, Pennsylvania Antifederalists worried that if the Constitution were put into operation despite the considerable opposition still existing in the state after the Pennsylvania ratifying convention had approved it, '[a] civil war with all its dreadful train of evils will probably be the consequence.' New York City Federalists likewise predicted a civil war if the state's ratifying convention failed to unconditionally approve the Constitution, and they stated their resolve 'to defend the Constitution by force.

 

Indeed, occasionally, each side went beyond intimating at violence to actually employing it. On the night of elections to choose ratifying convention delegates in Pennsylvania, a mob in Philadelphia attacked the private homes of local Antifederalists, as well as the boarding house where assemblymen and councilors from the state;s western counties were lodged. According to the account provided by a local physician, the officeholders were 'abused, their wives frightened, etc.' ' Does this not give a foretaste, ' he wondered, 'of this blessed Constitution?' Returning the favor, Antifederalists in Carislile, Pennsylvania rioted in the days after Christmas 1787, disrupting their opponents' celebration of the state's ratification of the Constitution and burning in protest both a copy of the Constitution and effigies of leading Federalists James Wilson and Chief Justice Thomas McKean."

My sixty-third podcast is up!

The Mercenary Mediterranean: Sovereignty, Religion, and Violence in the Medieval Crown of Aragon - Hussein Fancy

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Hussein Fancy about the employment of Muslim cavalrymen by the Christian kingdom of Aragon in the high Middle Ages. Enjoy!

An activist's life

Reverend Addie Wyatt: Faith and the Fight for Labor, Gender, and Racial Equality (Women in American History) - Marcia Walker-McWilliams

If you were to draw a Venn diagram consisting of 20th century unionism, the African civil-rights movement, and second-wave feminism, you would find Addie Wyatt where they intersect. Over the course of her long and busy life she served as a union official, a civil rights activist, and as a campaigner for women's rights. In this book, Marcia Walker-McWilliams details the range of Wyatt's activities, showing how her myriad rights campaigns were tied together by the common threads of determination, personal experience, and faith.

 

Born in Mississippi, Addie Cameron was moved to Chicago at a young age by her parents. After marrying her high-school sweetheart soon after their graduation, she sought employment as a secretary only to find her opportunities limited by her race. It was as a worker in an Armour and Company packinghouse that Addie Wyatt that she became a member of the progressive United Packinghouse Workers of America, for whom she subsequently worked as an organizer. Walker-McWilliams describes the Wyatt family's life during these years as surprisingly diverse, with Addie's skills as a pianist enabling her to participate in the vibrant gospel music scene Chicago enjoyed at that time.

 

Wyatt's position within the union enabled her to lend considerable support to the civil rights movement as it came to national prominence in the 1950s, and her growing prominence within it opened up opportunities to participate in key conferences and national commissions. By the end of the 1960s Wyatt also played an important role in the women's movement, and she worked (albeit in vain) for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Her efforts on behalf of Harold Washington's 1983 campaign for the mayoralty of Chicago proved more fruitful, and even in retirement she lent her support to the successful efforts to unionize the Delta Pride catfish processing plant in her former home state of Mississippi, as she never stopped standing up for the causes in which she believed.

 

Walker-McWilliams's book provides an insightful examination of Wyatt's life and times. The author's description of the role Wyatt's faith played in her life is particularly well-done, as it demonstrates the many ways in which it motivated and empowered Wyatt though hardscrabble beginnings and the frustrations of life as an African American woman in a world dominated by white men. It is a shame that such an interesting and accomplished person isn't better known to Americans, though hopefully this biography will help her gain the recognition she so richly deserves.

Old people suck

This is a note to my future self.

 

Right now I'm trying to arrange my next "Arguing History" podcast. For this one I wanted to do something with an Abraham Lincoln biographer and a Jefferson Davis biographer about the importance of presidential leadership in determining the victor of the Civil War. While there are plenty of the former there are only a couple of the latter, which is why I was positively gleeful when the Jefferson Davis biographer I contacted agreed to do it. He raised an objection to the Lincoln biographer I said I had contacted, however (who never responded at any rate) and gave me a list of four others, all of whom he said he would be happy to do it with.

 

In the weeks that followed I reached out to the four of them in turn. Like the Davis biographer, all of them are renowned scholars of the period, which is a polite way of saying that they've been eligible for Social Security for a few years. This wasn't a problem for me, as I felt they could increase the profile of the podcast and I always enjoy interacting with scholars that I admire. Yet three all declined to participate, while the fourth never even bothered to respond. Undaunted, I decided to contact a fifth person that my Davis biographer suggested as a possibility but whose participation would make scheduling more complicated. To my pleasant surprise I opened my email this morning to find a response from him agreeing to participate.

 

And then before I could inform the Davis biographer of the good news I received an email from him withdrawing his agreement to participate.

 

I immediately sent him a reply saying that one of the Lincoln biographers he recommended did respond positively to my solicitation, but I've been reluctant to check my email ever since because I don't think he will change his mind. His participation was somewhat tentative to begin with, but I had hoped that getting someone he had identified as an historian he would be willing to participate with would be enough to lock him in. Now I suspect it will be too late.

 

In retrospect I should have seen this coming. While most of my podcasts are relatively straightforward interviews, what I do with "Arguing History" is a little different. Looking back at my previous efforts it's probably no surprise that both of them were with historians who skewed more towards middle age, which is probably why they were open to participating in a relatively new media experience. Nevertheless, it's no end of frustrating to see people deterred from doing something that I do my best to make rewarding and even fun just because it's a little different.

 

So my note to my future self is a reminder that when you are old you shouldn't be afraid to do things that you have never tried before. Because even if they sound difficult you may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome -- and even if you don't enjoy it, you'll be richer and more alive for the experience.

Reading progress update: I've read 238 out of 880 pages.

The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution - Michael J. Klarman

Proof that the men who drafted the Constitution were not infallible:

 

"As Pierce Butler explained after the convention, the delegates probably would not have created such a powerful and independent executive 'had not many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington as president and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president by their opinions of his virtue.'"

Reading progress update: I've read 213 out of 880 pages.

The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution - Michael J. Klarman

This is proving to be an extraordinarily enlightening read for me about the Constitution. I just finished the section about the debates during the convention over the upper house (i.e. the Senate), which were by far the most contentious that took place during it.

A rare achievement among alternate history novels

The Berlin Project - Gregory Benford

In the alternate history genre, it's commonplace to have historical figures as important characters. It's far less common, however, for the author's characterization of those historical figures to be based upon their firsthand knowledge of them. As a physicist who knew personally some of the leading figures of the Manhattan Project, Gregory Benford is one of the select few for whom such an accomplishment is possible, and he employs it to full effect in this novel exploring the war that might have been.

 

Benford takes as his point of departure the use of centrifuges to separate the U-235 from uranium hexaflouride. As he explains in the afterword to the novel, this is the primary means most nuclear powers today obtain the critical isotope for building atomic weapons, yet in 1942 it was abandoned for what proved the far less effective method of gaseous diffusion. Edward Teller was among those who theorized that had the centrifuge process been used, the United States would have obtained sufficient material to build an atomic bomb in 1944 rather than in the following year.

 

Benford's scientific knowledge gives him the foundation for establishing an extremely plausible premise, yet it is skills as an author which turn this premise into an entertaining work of fiction. Building his novel around the pivotal figure of Karl Cohen (who was Benford's father-in-law), he walks readers through the development of a more efficient atomic bomb program, one that has a bomb ready to use in concert with the Normandy invasion. In a lesser author's hand the reader might get bogged down in the details of the physics and chemistry of nuclear weapons development, yet Benford knows how to interweave intelligible explanations of the science with plot and character development in such a way as to keep the reader engaged. His postulation of the historical effects of the use of such a bomb are a further tribute to his ability, as instead of a Pollyanish outcome he works through some of the likely ramifications of using a weapon upon an advanced industrial power capable of responding in kind. It all makes for an alternate history novel of the first rank, one that deserves to be regarded as one of the finest examples of its kind.

Reading progress update: I've read 65 out of 480 pages.

The Berlin Project - Gregory Benford

The first part of the book proved a real demonstration of Benford's strengths as an author. It's difficult to think of many writers, even in science fiction, who can make scenes of physicists and chemists discussing nuclear fission interesting.

The unbearable anticipation of a forthcoming book

Napoleon: The Spirit of the Age: 1805-1810 - Michael Broers

Today I discovered that volume two of Michael Broers's biography of Napoleon Bonaparte is coming out next year, which is great news. To me when it comes to books there are few things more tragic than a great series that is left incomplete. The publication of this book moves at least one ongoing multi-volume project closer to completion.

 

The down side is that now I have to wait until April to read it, which for some reason weighs more heavily than the uncertainty of a book's publication. It's doubly annoying, considering that between now and then over a dozen other books are coming out which I'm eagerly anticipating. And what turns the annoyingness up to 11 is the likelihood that, upon acquisition, pretty much all of them will be parked on a shelf with hundreds of other books awaiting my attention.

 

Oh, well, perhaps i can prioritize this one by getting a podcast out of it,

Podcast #62 is up!

The Draining of the Fens: Projectors, Popular Politics, and State Building in Early Modern England (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) - Eric H. Ash

My sixty-second podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Eric Ash about his history of the draining of The Fens in eastern England in the 17th century (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

A masterful study of an industry's prehistory

The History of the British Coal Industry, Volume I: Before 1700 - John Hatcher

In this book John Hatcher has provided readers with a superb study of the prehistory of the British coal industry. "Prehistory" is the word for it, too for as he makes clear early in the book "There was no British coal industry before 1700. Nothing which remotely resembled a national industry ever existed within our period."(59) What Hatcher details instead is a series of local and regional industries which were the antecedents of the national industry that would emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries. To do so, he delves into the previously underutilized local studies of the collieries, which he integrates into the economic history of medieval and early modern England. The result is masterful account of its subject, one that is almost encyclopedic in terms of its description of nearly every aspect of coal mining and coal consumption and of enormous value to anyone interested in the subject.

Reading progress update: I've read 126 out of 880 pages.

The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution - Michael J. Klarman

It turns out that unjustified complaining about the poor in America has a history as old as the country itself:

From the perspective of more affluent Americans, people's failure to pay taxes [during the depression of the 1780s] was primarily attributable to their indolence and licentiousness. Governor William Livingston of New Jersey . . complained of the "lazy, lounging, lubberly" fellows who sat around drinking, "working perhaps but two days in the week and receiving for that work double the wages [they] earn and spending the rest of [their] time in squandering those . . . non-earnings in riot and debauch," yet they dared to complain "when the collector calls for his tax of the hardness of the times." The farmer who protested he could not pay taxes was "a man whose three daughters are under the discipline of a French dancing master when they ought every one of them to be at the spinning wheel," and while they should be "dressed in decent homespun, as were their frugal grandmothers, now carry half of their father's crop upon their backs."

Plus ça change . . .

Box o' books

So this arrived yesterday:

 

 

The good people at New Books Network sent it to me as part of a shelf-clearing measure. I'm under no obligation to do interviews for any of them, but there are at least a couple of interesting titles that may be coming soon to a podcast.

 

Gosh, I love getting boxes of books.

Paeans to my favorite books - VII: What It Takes

What It Takes: The Way to the White House - Richard Ben Cramer

This morning I opened Facebook to see one of my friends had posted this:

 

 

Now I get why he would post something like this. Joe Biden was a popular vice president (I suspect all of those Onion memes had a lot to do with this) whose candidacy would appeal to many of those white working-class voters who voted for Donald Trump last year. But it's not going to happen: even if you set aside his age (he will be 78 in 2020), there is another major impediment that would hobble his presidential hopes.

 

He is a seriously flawed campaigner.

 

For those of you who don't believe me, I strongly recommend reading Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes. It's an account of the 1988 presidential primaries that, though a quarter-century old, has remained remarkable relevant, in no small measure due to the candidates the author chose to focus on; in addition to the eventual winners (Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush), he also followed the candidacies of Biden, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, and Dick Gephardt. Through a combination of biography and reportage he tries to understand what it was that led people to subject themselves to the grueling and often demeaning sacrifices of a presidential contest -- the campaigning, the attacks, the toll it takes on one's family and reputation. Yet it's not just the fortuitous selection of candidates (three of whom went on to become their party's nominee and two more of whom remained prominent politicians and presidential contenders for decades afterward) that makes it worthwhile reading, as Cramer's immersive approach and almost novelistic recounting of them captures many fleeting moments that offer fascinating insights when connected to the description of the personalities that he provides.

 

The result has been lauded as possibly the best book about political campaigning ever written, one that has inspired a generation of political journalists much as Theodore White's The Making of the President, 1960 did a generation previously, I've only read Cramer's book once (and then over two decades ago), but the understanding it provided into the people he chronicled has never left me. It's why I can say with confidence that if Biden were to run he would never get the nomination, because the things that made him so endearing as vice president (such his gaffe-prone bluster) are the same things that would derail his ambitions -- just as they did in 1988.

Reading progress update: I've read 73 out of 880 pages.

The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution - Michael J. Klarman

Klarman's description of the myriad problems facing the Confederation government was incredibly persuasive. I had read somewhere once that, given time, it might have evolved into a workable parliamentary democracy. Klarman makes it clear that the crises it faced meant that its survival was never a realistic proposition.

Damn you, Christpher Nolan!

With a weekend getaway coming up and no podcast interviews scheduled, I was all set to start reading Michael Klarman's The Framer's Coup. It's exactly the sort of immersive read that I enjoy on a vacation, and I've needed to fill that particular gap in my knowledge for some time now.

 

And then I went and saw Dunkirk, which left me with an itch to read some more books on the Second World War.

 

Such is the power of imagery, I suppose. The scenes with the Spitfires have me longing to dip back into Stephen Bungay's The Most Dangerous Enemy or start Juliet Gardiner's The Blitz. I also have a book on the Channel Islands' occupation that I would probably enjoy reading as well. But none of them are Klarman's book, which now risks taking up permanent residence on my shelf with all of my other doorstoppers because I don't have sufficient time to devote to them. Damn you, Christopher Nolan!