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Currently reading

The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944
Ian W. Toll
Progress: 201/656 pages
Writing Home
Alan Bennett
The Paraguayan War, Volume 1: Causes and Early Conduct
Thomas L. Whigham
Progress: 257/520 pages

Defining Teddy for the ages

Theodore Roosevelt's Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon - Michael Patrick Cullinane

Presidents experience one of two fates after their death. While most recede into history and are remembered by most Americans as little more than images tacked up in rows on elementary school walls, a few become icons whose names and faces become part of the culture. Among the latter group is Theodore Roosevelt, a larger-than-life figure whose image remains almost as publicly recognizable today as it was during his heyday. Michael Patrick Cullinane's book is about the ways in which his image has endured, and the efforts of many people to ensure that it did.


The effort to define Roosevelt's posthumous image began with the moment of his death. As news of his passing spread throughout the nation, obituary writers and eulogists strove to define him in a variety of ways, all of which spoke to his multifaceted life and career. Memorial organizations soon emerged that sought to define his legacy with monuments and other programs. At the forefront of this was Roosevelt's family, though the seemingly unassailable control of Roosevelt's wife and children was soon challenged by political ascension of Theodore Roosevelt's distant cousin Franklin, who as president laid claim to Theodore's memory in ways that created a rift within the family. By the 1950s, memorializaton took on a different cast, as the generation that remembered Theodore Roosevelt was replaced by one who knew him only as a historical figure. Picking up on the themes outlined by their predecessors, this new generation continued to define and defend Roosevelt's legacy in ways that reflected efforts to establish his continuing relevance to a changing country and kept him at the forefront of the historical imagination.


Cullinane's book provides readers with a good look at how Roosevelt;s image has remained alive long after his body was laid to rest. His description of the memorialization efforts is a particular strength of the book, as he shows just how much thought and effort went into creating monuments designed to define Roosevelt's complex legacy for future generations. Yet for all of his labors, one person is surprisingly absent from Cullinane's analysis: Theodore Roosevelt himself. As good as his book is, it would have been much stronger had it begun with a chapter that examined his subject's own efforts to shape his public persona while he was alive. Given how media savvy Roosevelt was, his own efforts made him the single most influential definer of his posthumous image, with every other person involved working with the material he left them.

The first legit exciting books release news of 2018 (for me, anyway)

There's a line in one of the earliest episodes of The Simpsons where a character pays tribute to "the most beautiful moment in life! Better than the deed. Better than the memory. The moment... of anticipation." It's a line that I've come to appreciate holds especially true for me when it comes to books, as no matter how good a book is, often the promise I invest in it is richer than any payoff within its pages. Perhaps that is why I enjoy collecting books faster than I can read them. It's also probably why I enjoy reading about forthcoming books. So far the news for the upcoming year has been a little disappointing, with no news about new releases by the authors or major series that I follow.


Then this morning I came across a literary calendar highlighting some of the releases for the upcoming year. Most are of only passing interest for me, but then I saw that Diarmaid MacCulloch's biography of Thomas Cromwell is listed as coming out in September. This is a pretty big deal in terms of Tudor history; MacCulloch is a major historian and if his biography is anywhere near as good as his award-winning one on Thomas Cramner (which I own but admittedly haven't read yet -- see the previous paragraph as to why), then it promises to be the new standard by which Thomas Cromwell biographies are judged. Time to carve out some space on my crowded shelves!


Reading progress update: I've read 80 out of 304 pages.

Theodore Roosevelt's Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon - Michael Patrick Cullinane

So far Cullinane has been focusing on the memorialization of Roosevelt in the decade after his death. It's interesting stuff, but I think he missed an opportunity by not preceding it with the interaction between how TR was remembered after his death with the image Roosevelt constructed of himself during his long public career.

A delightful meditation on the value of reading

The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

This was an absolutely delightful meditation on the value of reading. The idea of the Queen becoming a voracious reader was inspired, as was Bennett's description of how her staff responds to this dismaying development. But how he used the premise to comment on what makes reading worthwhile is the real value of the book. If anything the book has become even more relevant since it was first published, making it a real testament to Bennett's brilliance as a writer and observer of the modern world.

Podcast #87 is up!

Arthur Vandenberg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century - Hendrik Meijer

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Hendrik Meijer about his new biography of the 20th century United States senator Arthur Vandenberg. Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 21 out of 120 pages.

The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

     'But ma'am must have been briefed, surely?'

     'Of course,' said the Queen, 'but briefing is not reading. In face it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.'


Well put!

I can already tell that I'm going to like this book

Writing Home - Alan Bennett

My copy of Bennett's first collection of diaries and essays arrived today; I opened it to a random page and came across this passage:


3 March, Yorkshire. I take a version of a script down to Settle to be photocopied. The man in charge of the machine watches the sheets come through. 'Glancing at this,' he says, 'I see you dabble in playwriting.' While this about sums it up, I find myself resenting him for noticing what goes through his machine at all. Photocopying is a job in which one is required to see and not see, the delicacy demanded not different from that in medicine. It's as if a nurse were to say, 'I see, watching you undress, that your legs are nothing to write home about.'


I can already tell that I'm going to like this book.

An excellent narrative about the naval war in the Pacific

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 - Ian W. Toll

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 caught the U.S. Navy by surprise in more ways than one. For not only did Japan succeed in disabling a major portion of the Pacific Fleet, the attack by waves of bomb- and torpedo-carrying planes inaugurated a new style of naval warfare for which the United States was unprepared. The learning curve that the U.S. was forced to undertake serves as a key theme of Ian Toll's book, which chronicles the first six months of the war in the Pacific. During these months the Japanese enjoyed virtually free reign in the Pacific, as their planes and ships swept aside what opposition the Western powers could throw together on short notice. The result was a succession of victories won at a pace that astonished even the Japanese themselves.


Yet as Toll demonstrates, the United States was quick to absorb the lessons of the new style of warfare. Here he focuses on the carrier operations that formed the initial response to the Japanese onslaught. While the famous Doolittle raid gets its due here, Toll rightly highlights the often overlooked strikes on Japanese bases in the Marshall and Gilbert island chains Not only did these strikes give the U.S. Navy valuable experience, but they were central to Admiral Yamamoto's decision to stage an invasion of Midway Island in an effort to draw the remaining U.S. forces out for a decisive engagement. The resulting battle in June 1942 proved the turning point of the war in the Pacific, however, as the sinking of the four carriers that formed the core of the Kido Butai deprived the Japanese of their ability to conduct further offensive operations.


Toll describes these months in a text that engages the reader with dramatic yet straightforward prose. His pen portraits of the major commanders -- men like Chester Nimitz, Ernest King, and Isoroku Yamamoto -- are a particular strength of the book, as is his integration of the role American codebreakers played in this stage of the war. Though he bases his book almost entirely upon previously published works, his analysis and his evocative writing style make this a book that even readers familiar with the subject will find well worth their time. It's a promising start to what, when completed, could prove to be an enduring go-to source for anyone interested in reading about the Second World War in the Pacific.

Reading progress update: I've read 269 out of 597 pages.

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 - Ian W. Toll

I am really enjoying this book. Toll has a good writing style -- very dramatic and evocative, with nice pen portraits of the major commanders.

Reading progress update: I've read 124 out of 597 pages.

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 - Ian W. Toll

No matter how many books I read about the Second World War, I always seem to find new ones to enjoy. I suspect it's because it's the modern-day historical epic, with stark contrasts of good and evil and a dramatic arc where underdogs overcome initially daunting odds to emerge triumphant.


Toll's book is no different. As the first volume of a project trilogy, it's all about the "underdogs" phase of the war in the Pacific, when Japanese forces ran the proverbial table in Southeastern Asia. I've read a half-dozen books that cover this period, yet I'm enjoying it no less for my familiarity with the subject. And even the seventh book contains information new to me, such as Admiral Yamamoto's passion for geishas. Reading it is proving a satisfactory way to pass the weekend, and I'm already looking forward to reading the next volume in a future one.

Grumpy about reading

I have three books on my "Reading" shelf right now, but I'm not all that grabbed by any of them right now. For some reason I just want to pick up a big fat book on World War II and lose myself in it this weekend. Fortunately I have a few options (read and unread) on my shelf, and I'll see what's at the local library when I stop by there tomorrow to pick up some books that I have on hold.

Reading progress update: I've read 186 out of 480 pages.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease - Daniel Lieberman

This is proving to be a different book than I was expecting, as what I had thought was going to be an explanation of how the human body works is more about how evolution created the bodies that we have today. I'm not sorry to have read it, but I would still like to read the one I believed I was getting.

Talk about your lucky bastards

Have you heard of Randall Hansen? He may have already clinched the 2018 award for luckiest bastard of the year for having the foresight to have published a book nearly a decade ago with the same title as Michael Woolf's insider account of the Trump White House. The sound of grinding teeth that you're hearing is coming from the ill-disguised envy of historians everywhere.


(At some point someone needs to tell Hansen about Amazon's generous return policy on misordered items).

Supposedly some Trump supporters are buying copies on purpose. Considering that it's about the effects of a bombing campaign upon a civilian population, if those goose-stepping morons actually read this book instead of burning it they might develop misgivings about the violent use of American airpower as a tool of foreign policy. Now that would be ironic!

The new and improved Doctor Doom

Infamous Iron Man Vol. 1 - Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev

I knew that Marvel has decided to make Doctor Doom a good guy (for now, anyhow), but it wasn't until a couple of days ago that I learned that they had an entire series devoted to nuDoom.


So far it's a fun read premised on the concept of what would happen if the worst of the worst tried to become the best of the best. It's an interesting question on so many levels. Is redemption truly possible? How can people look past the man he was and accept him as the man he has become? And what does it take to right the scales on such a scope? Answers are still forthcoming, but so far Brian Michael Bendis is managing the feat of making Doom a good guy while still maintaining many of the core personality traits we have associated with the character.

Of course, all of this has been superseded by a more real-world question: what will happen now that Bendis is leaving for DC? I can't seem to find any reportage to answer the question, but while the series has been well received, it's difficult to imagine that a change like this to such an iconic villain will be permanent -- which is unfortunate considering the rich vein of possibilities the premise has opened up for Marvel.

Tapping out a third of the way through

Modernity Britain: 1957-1962 - David Kynaston

That I'm moving this to my "DNF" pile isn't a knock on the book; it's every bit as evocative and illuminating as his previous three volumes (even if he dwells a lot on housing). But deadlines are starting to appear and I just don't have the commitment to finish the hundreds of pages still ahead of me,


I'm kicking myself for not starting this last month. I decided to read it after watching season 2 of The Crown (which covers almost exactly the same number of years as this book), and i definitely would have had the momentum then to finish it quickly. Now it will await finishing on a later date -- and reside on my "to read" shelf until then (grr).

My eighty-sixth podcast is up!

Lincoln’s Sense of Humor - Richard Carwardine

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interviewed Richard Carwardine about his excellent book examining the role humor played in Abraham Lincoln's life (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!