46 Following


Currently reading

The Man Who Made the Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox
Vanda Krefft
Progress: 277/944 pages
The Paraguayan War, Volume 1: Causes and Early Conduct
Thomas L. Whigham
Progress: 192/520 pages

Funny and surprisingly wise

Bossypants - Tina Fey

So last week I embarked upon my cruise a little worried (unnecessarily as it turned out) that I might burn through all 1,400 pages of reading material that I had brought with me. Because of this, I decided to stop at the ship's cafe where they kept a small collection of titles left behind by other passengers (something i had done myself once before, and which I had planned to do but for the delay in receiving the book I had ordered to bring along). Three titles stood out; the one that looked the most appealing was Tina Fey's 2011 memoir, so I decided to give it a try.


Her book proved the perfect read for the trip. It was every bit as funny as I expected from a comedic writer of her caliber (30 Rock is easily one of the best sitcoms of the millennium), and its lightness was ideal for my mood. What I hadn't expected, though, was the vein of wisdom running through the book. Not only does Fey provide a humorous look at her life, but along the way she made observations and drew lessons subtly from it that I found very perceptive. The contrast here for me was with Amy Poehler's Yes, Please which I recall being funnier but less coherent as an account of her life. Fortunately, we live in a world where I can read and enjoy both books for what they have to offer.


Oh, and I should add that this is another excellent reason why I'm glad I don't have an e-reader, as not having one led me to seek out and read a book that I might not have otherwise picked up. Yet another way that print books make me a richer person!

Podcast #77 is up!

His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt - Joseph Lelyveld

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Joseph Lelyveld about his account of the last year and a half of Franklin Roosevelt's life and presidency. Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 192 out of 520 pages.

The Paraguayan War, Volume 1: Causes and Early Conduct - Thomas L. Whigham

It’s taken to here to get to the war itself. The background certainly helps convey the epic nature of the struggle, but Whigham expects a little more familiarity with the geography of that region of South America than I possess.

Reading progress update: I've read 48 out of 520 pages.

The Paraguayan War, Volume 1: Causes and Early Conduct - Thomas L. Whigham

Whigham doesn't mess around when it comes to detailing the causes of the war -- he starts with pre-Columbian human migration and the Spanish settlement. His points about the different societies are persuasive, too, but it still feels a little excessive compared to Leuchars's book

The usual 11th hour book panic

So I'm on the eve of a week-long trip, and yet again I find myself stressing over what books to bring. My initial plan to bring volume 2 of Robert Skidelsky's biography of John Maynard Keynes fell through as I wasn't able to reread volume 1 in time. Plan B was to take the first volume of Thomas L. Whigham's history of the Paraguayan War, and while I still may my perusal of it last night didn't fuel me with anticipation for it as a vacation read. So now I'm rang through my options in my mind, and of course I've convinced myself that books that aren't options would be perfect. FMFWPL


Ah, well, at least my backup book is set.

My seventy-sixth podcast is up!

Marketing the Third Reich: Persuasion, Packaging and Propaganda - Nicholas O'Shaughnessy

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Nicholas O'Shaughnessy about his new book looking at the sophisticated political marketing techniques the Nazis developed to craft their "brand." Enjoy!

I've discovered my new holiday tradition!

The consolidated metropolis

Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 -  Mike Wallace

In 1999, the first book of a projected three-volume history of New York City was published, Entitled Gotham, it covered the history of the city from is beginnings as a Dutch colony to the 1898 consolidation that merged the city with east Bronx, Brooklyn, western Queens County, and Staten Island, and won its authors, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for their labors.


It has taken eighteen years for the second volume to be published, yet the result is well worth that wait. Picking up where the last volume left off, Wallace (who is now soldiering forward solo in his efforts) describes the development of the city in all its particulars, covering its many economic, social, political, and cultural aspects. Though diverse in its scope, much of it is united by a common thread of consolidation, which in many respects was only just beginning. Consolidation was a popular concept of the age, with economic combinations emerging in American industry that dwarfed what had come before. Much of this was possible thanks to the financing provided by Wall Street, which served as the beating heart of the new, ever-more nationalized economy.


Consolidation was also important at the local level, as the city’s leaders now sought to turn the political achievement into a practical reality. To that end, they created a common infrastructure that tied it more closely together, which they did in a vast construction boom that created many of the institutions and arteries upon which the city relies today. Their efforts were emulated by others, as groups from Broadway to the criminal underworld embraced the benefits of combination. Yet not everyone was accommodated in the process, and Wallace’s book chronicles the many disputes that characterized an often painful growth of Gotham into the global metropolis it became by the end of the First World War.


Comprehensive and engaging, Wallace’s book is a worthy follow-up to its award-winning predecessor. Though its size is daunting, the division of the material into subject chapters makes it easily digestible, while Wallace’s ability to use the stories of individual New Yorkers to tell the larger history of the city makes it enjoyable reading. In Wallace the city has found a worthy chronicler, and with the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, and another world war looming, it is to be hoped that readers will not have as long to wait for the next volume.

Podcast #75 is up!

Beeronomics: How Beer Explains the World - Devin Briski, Johan Swinnen

My seventy-fifth podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Devin Briski about the book she coauthored with Johan Swinnen about the beer and the development of the modern-day beer industry. Enjoy!

Goodreads's "Best Books of the Year" and an offer to you

Today I received an email from Goodreads with the subject line "Vote for the Best Books of the Year!" My first thought is, "Holy shit, is the year almost over?" Then I click on the link, go to my favorite category (History & Biography, of course), and then I look at the choices.


And then i have my second thought: "Who in the hell chooses these books?"


Now, I appreciate that when it comes to books my tastes can be a little esoteric. There's a reason why I don't shop at Barnes & Noble, and why I special order many of my books. So I don't expect to find the book that I thought was the best history book of the year on it. But come on! At least one  and arguably a second aren't even biographies -- they're autobiographies, which are in a separate category. Two others would be more accurately described as "current events," which would make them a better fit in the Nonfiction category I could quibble about a few more, but it would be pointless.


So I cast my vote for what I thought was the best book on the list. I also voted in two other categories that I cared about, but I passed on the others, which bring us to the offer I want to make: if you consult the list would like for me to vote for a favorite book of yours, just identify the book and the category it's in in the comments below, and will happily do so. This of it as a way of amplifying the power of your choice, Is it a demonstration of questionable integrity? Possibly, but then so is assembling a list of "best books" that's based on what advertisers paid the most to promote them. So feel free to list which books you liked, and I'll cast accordingly.

Monroe overload

James Monroe: The Quest For National Identity - Harry Ammon

Though published over forty years ago, it is easy to see at a glance why Ammon's biography of James Monroe has never been bettered. This is an exhaustive examination of the political life of our fifth president -- and an exhausting one. Ammon goes through Monroe's life with a thoroughness that makes this a book an excellent source of information about Monroe, but at the price of making it an excruciatingly dull read at times. If you want to know everything there is to know about Monroe's political career or about diplomacy in the Federalist Era, then this is your book; otherwise, I would recommend either Noble Cunningham's The Presidency of James Monroe or Gary Hart's short biography of James Monroe in the "American Presidents" series.

Reading progress update: I've read 103 out of 192 pages.

Beeronomics: How Beer Explains the World - Devin Briski, Johan Swinnen

This is such an infuriating book. The authors are trying to provide a clever look at the development of the global beer industry, but the history that makes up the first third of it is so riddled with such sloppily elementary errors that I can't fully trust anything that follows it.

The rise and fall of the Know-Nothing movement

The Know Nothing Party In Massachusetts: The Rise And Fall Of A People's Movement - John R. Mulkern

The Know-Nothings have long been treated as a historical curiosity: a political party that flared onto the scene in the mid-1850s – even running a former president as their nominee in the 1856 presidential election – before flaming out even more spectacularly by the end of the decade. Yet given their proximity to perhaps the most heavily-studied event in American history surprisingly little has been written about them, in no small part due to the secretive origins which led to their nickname. As a result, they remain an under-examined organization, one usually dismissed as secondary or irrelevant to the much larger tumult that was taking place nationally over slavery.


It is this absence which makes John Mulkern’s book so worthwhile. It is a study of the Know-Nothing movement in Massachusetts, the state where they enjoyed their greatest success. There in the elections of 1854 the Know-Nothing Party won an overwhelming victory, taking over not just the governorship but sweeping both houses of the state legislature as well. To explain how they accomplished this feat, Mulkern begins by explaining the context of Massachusetts politics in the 1850s, where the Brahmin-dominated Whig Party long enjoyed control. Catering as they did to the old-line business interests, the Whig leadership did little to address the growing issues of working-class voters, particularly migrants from other parts of New England who had moved to the state seeking work in the rapidly growing factories Though these voters were hostile to the increasing numbers of Irish immigrants congregating in Boston and the other coastal towns, Mulkern makes a convincing argument that immigration was just one of many concerns determining their vote.


It was the lack of attention to the broad range of their concerns which Mulkern sees as driving the rise of the Know-Nothing movement.  Their lodges drew disaffected voters form both the Whig and Democratic parties, with the secretive nature of the movement concealing the coming upheaval from the complacent party leaderships. Once in office, the Know-Nothings enacted a wide-ranging legislative agenda, one that Mulkern sees as anticipating those of the Progressive movement two generations later. Yet their success soon drew to the party the very same ambitious politicos against whom the party’s early leaders railed against, and their capture of the Know-Nothing leadership Mulkern sees as proof of Michels’s iron law of oligarchy. Henry Gardner personified this takeover; elected governor on the Know-Nothing ticket, he soon subordinated the party’s efforts to his own personal ambition, alienating the voters who had initially supported it. As a result, and with slavery overtaking immigration as the defining issue in even state politics, by 1858 the Know-Nothings were supplanted in state politics by the Republicans and quickly dwindled into nonexistence.


By detailing the rise and fall of the Know-Nothing Party in Massachusetts, Mulkern has made an extremely useful contribution to our historical understanding. Though frustrated by the lack of information about its origins, his use of personal archives and contemporary accounts provides the best account available of how Know-Nothingism came to exert such dominance in the state in such a short period of time. Yet his book is worthwhile reading as more than just a regional study of a 160-year-old political movement, as it offers insights into the dynamics of nativist populism in American politics that are relevant even today. For this reason it deserves a far wider readership than its narrow focus might suggest.

Podcast #74 is up!

The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics - William J. Cooper Jr.

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview William J. Cooper about his biography of John Quincy Adams (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 115 out of 236 pages.

The Know Nothing Party In Massachusetts: The Rise And Fall Of A People's Movement - John R. Mulkern

In my eagerness to post my previous quote, I forgot this gem from page 72:

Veteran newspapermen likewise missed the [Know-Nothing] trend. Only scattered references to the new party appeared in the major newspapers during the first half of the year. In mid-August, the state's leading Whig newspaper, the Boston Daily Advertiser, finally took notice. The newspaper admitted that it did not have much information to go on, but it condemned the strange new party anyway for its secrecy and its "ridiculous gossip about guns, and poison, and massacre." Apparently, the secret order's chief purpose was to deprive "friendless servant girls and Irish lumpers" of their livelihood. A party so dedicated and so contrary to republican principles, the Advertiser assured its readers, could never win.

It seems that media condescension is also nothing new.

Reading progress update: I've read 85 out of 236 pages.

The Know Nothing Party In Massachusetts: The Rise And Fall Of A People's Movement - John R. Mulkern

I should have read this book a year ago:

That so many urban Whigs and Democrats should have suddenly abandoned their parties in 1854 in favor of [the Know-Nothings] then, cannot realistically be explained in terms of an overnight conversion to political nativism or antislaveryism. . . Antislavery voters and prohibitionists hopped on the Know-Nothing bandwagon to implement their agendas. Rank-and-file Democrats and Whigs, on the other hand, were drawn into the secret order by its vision of a people's party enrolled in the service of the people. If the promise contained within that vision spelled hard times ahead for the state's Irish Catholic minority, it also conveyed the idea of a positive government response to the ravages of an unharnessed industrial order. Whig and Democratic urban dwellers, in particular, had cause to turn to the new party. For them it promised relief to the festering problems of modernization, like the tyrannical factory system, slum housing, unsanitary streets, lack of public bathing facilities, and inadequate fire and police protection.