Reading and Viewing

These are some of the books, audiobooks, and movies that I've chosen to experience, the most recent listed first. For each, I share my thoughts on what made the experience worthwhile. Have a look around and feel free to send me your thoughts on what I've said or to make additional recommendations to me.

  • Image of No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden
    Author: Kevin Maurer, Mark Owen
    Publisher: DUTTON Books (2012)
    Binding: Hardcover, 316 pages

    Mark Owen's book offers an engaging first-hand account of his life as a Navy Seal and his eventual involvement in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. While some criticized the book for lacking critical reflection on the events, the narrative is quite effective with its rather blunt, no-nonsense narrative voice that lets the details of experience do most of the talking.

    While the recent film, Zero Dark Thirty, provides an understanding of the intelligence that led to Bin Laden being brought to justice, this book gives you greater insight into the lives of the men who had to put their boots on the ground and actually confront the monster in his lair. The book details some fascinating distinctions between the culture of the special forces and other military units, explaining how the Seals train, arm themselves, and operate in the field. Several other important missions experienced by the author are also explained in some detail, including the April 2009 rescue of an American sea captain from Somali pirates.

    Ultimately, Owen's experiences illuminate the professionalism and dedication of America's fighting elite, and give readers insight into a historical moment when one of the most nefarious terrorists was finally taken out of commission.

    4
  • Image of The Sage of Monticello (Jefferson & His Time (University of Virginia Press))
    Author: Dumas Malone
    Publisher: University of Virginia Press (2006)
    Binding: Paperback, 551 pages

    Malone's last volume on Jefferson's life explores his final retirement to Monticello, Jefferson's efforts to create the University of Virginia, the renewed correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, and finally the financial turmoil that drained Jefferson's resources.

    More than any other chapter in Jefferson's life, this one seemed the most tragic. The man who was so recently president and head of the most powerful political party in the United States, is basically reduced to desperation. He made a last effort to use a lottery to obtain needed cash to pay his bills. However, these hopes are ultimately defeated and he dies in financial ruin.

    One of the more interesting chapters explored University of Virginia students who professors deplored as being woefully unprepared for university study. These early students also formed into riotous, masked mobs that assaulted faculty members with rocks. Such details made me wonder if there ever was a truly "golden age" when higher education was without such difficulties.

    Ultimately, this volume provides a bitter-sweet ending to Malone's biography. It ends with the most amazing detail of all, and perhaps the most legendary: Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of signing of the Declaration of Independence and on the same day of John Adam's death.

    4
  • Image of Jefferson the President: Second Term, 1805-1809 - Part 1 (Jefferson and His Time, Vol. 5)
    Author: Dumas Malone
    Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks (2007)
    Binding: Audio Cassette, pages

    The second to last volume in Malone's massive biography covers Jefferson's embargo with the British and his attempts to enforce loyalty to his federal policy, especially in the northern states where the negative effects of the embargo were most strongly felt. Here, perhaps more so than in any other volume, the reader sees Jefferson's extreme difficulties in maintaining his position as a proponent of liberty and as an acting chief executive. While this book delves perhaps too deeply into the tedium of politics, it does give readers insight into the nature of the presidency, in particular the part of that job that made Jefferson yearn for retirement at Monticello.

    His bitter confrontations with Aaron Burr and John Marshall are also explained in further detail. In the end, despite Malone's often apologetic and defensive prose, readers will likely see a paradoxical Jefferson who advocated individual liberty, but who enlarged the powers of the president more than any of his predecessors.

    4
  • Image of James Madison
    Author: Richard Brookhiser
    Publisher: Basic Books (2011)
    Binding: Hardcover, 304 pages

    Brookhiser's biography on Madison is an effective overview of the era in which Madison lived. As such, it covers a great deal of material that will be very familiar to readers of Jefferson's biographies or general histories of the time.

    I'm not sure I gained a better understanding of Madison than what I had already acquired from Wood's Empire of Liberty, Brand's Andrew Jackson, and Stewart's The Summer of 1787 (among others). This book ends up being a good overview of the time and Madison's major contributions. Brookhiser also has an enjoyable narrative style, but readers who want a thorough exploration of the man himself should look elsewhere.

    3
  • Image of James Madison and the Making of America
    Author: Kevin R. C. Gutzman
    Publisher: St. Martin's Press (2012)
    Binding: Hardcover, 432 pages

    Gutzman's biography of Madison does a fine job detailing the founding father's contributions to early American politics during the Revolutionary War, his participation in the writing of the U.S. Constitution (which was considerable), his instrumental involvement in the Constitution's ratification process, his founding of the Republican Party, his part in creating the Bill of Rights, and his work as Jefferson's Secretary of State.

    Madison's failings and successes as the nation's chief executive are also chronicled here. Ultimately, this is a successful biography that best details the public life of the fourth president of the United States. There is little here about Dolly Madison's or Jame's Madison's private lives or experiences, but a reader will gain a clear understanding of Madison's political philosophy and contributions to the fledgling United States government.

    4
  • Image of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States)
    Author: Gordon S. Wood
    Publisher: Oxford University Press (2011)
    Binding: Paperback, 800 pages

    Empire of Liberty, by Gordon S. Wood, is a thorough account of United States history 1789 (the end of Washington's presidency) to 1815 (the conclusion of the War of 1812).

    I enjoyed Wood's style more than Robert Middlekauf's (in The Glorious Cause). Wood's work is more recent and his prose a bit more modern; however, this book is similar to its predecessor in the Oxford History of the United States Series. It is dense and covers a vast array of events through this 26 year period.

    As I commented on my other experience with a book in this series, I don't think I would appreciate the events and historical chronology as much if I wasn't also reading biographies on the presidents who presided over the country during these years.

    That said, this work covers more than those biographies can hope to cover and I feel that I have a much more confident grasp of the people and the times after reading this book. Particularly memorable was Wood's discussion of slavery and the differences between plantations in different areas of the United States. Plantations in South Carolina, for example, tended to be much larger and supported a more segregated and distinct African American culture. This was partly due to the more rigorous undertaking and subsequent labor force required for cultivating rice and cotton. Traditionally, the plantations further to the North, such as the tobacco plantations of Virginia, employed far fewer slaves and were much smaller operations overall.

    In the end, Wood's book not only offers readers a solid overview of major events like the War of 1812, but also a glimpse at the people of this time and their evolving attitudes as Americans.

    4
  • Image of Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801-1805 (Jefferson & His Time (University of Virginia Press))
    Author: Dumas Malone
    Publisher: University of Virginia Press (2006)
    Binding: Paperback, 539 pages

    Malone's fourth volume, on Jefferson's first term as president, covers the landmark case of Marbury vs. Madison, Jefferson's struggles with Federalist appointees, his efforts to appoint Republicans, and his ultimate success in securing the purchase of Louisiana. Although James Monroe and Napoleon's misfortunes in Saint-Domingue might best explain this success, Jefferson's first term was still bolstered by this expansion of the union and the president was at least visionary enough to put aside constitutional quibbles to add to his "Empire of Liberty."

    In addition to these successes, Malone chronicles family engagements between the president, his daughters, and his son-in-laws. These moments convey Jefferson's humanity and warmth, but only in small doses. While the tragic loss of one of his daughters, as explained in the later pages of this book, can't help but make you sympathize with Jefferson, there is still very little in personal correspondence to help readers truly appreciate his grief or other intimate feelings throughout this period. There is also little discussion of Sally Hemings and her alleged involvement with the president. An appendix does discuss the controversy, but modern historians have certainly commented on the issue at greater length.

    In addition to his larger successes, Jefferson's efforts to balance the federal budget are notable (and perhaps unparalleled in terms of their success), but this narrative foreshadows his policy of federal economy that would leave America vulnerable to British hostilities in the years leading up to the war of 1812.

    Also covered in this volume are Jefferson's and the Republican's fallout with Aaron Burr and Jefferson's conflict with his brilliant adversary, John Marshall. Overall, this is perhaps the most eventful and engaging of Malone's first four volumes on Jefferson's life.

    4
  • Image of The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (Oxford History of the United States)
    Author: Robert Middlekauff
    Publisher: Oxford University Press (2007)
    Binding: Paperback, 752 pages

    While I didn't actually enjoy this book, I respected it. It is part of the Oxford History of the United States, an award winning series that is seeking to completely and chronologically cover all of United States history.

    Perhaps I didn't find it as interesting since I've already covered this historical era through several biographies, McCullough's 1776, and Ferling's Almost a Miracle.  Even though I received a more thorough education about the beginnings of the American Revolution (it takes hundreds of pages for the narrative to even make it to the Declaration of Independence), I felt I gained more knowledge about the build up to the Revolution from H.W. Brand's biography on Benjamin Franklin. 

    I'm finding that there is something about historical biography that better enlivens history.  Expansive historical narratives, such as this one, tend to cover so much ground that the writing can't help becoming a list of chronological events.  Sometimes chapters within this book exert an interesting focus on a particular issue or related series of events, but there is never the uncompromising focus on a single human being that refines the direction and purpose of the narrative.

    What this book did do: it gave me a comprehensive overview that, collectively, the biographies from the period could never quite deliver.  Certainly there are gaps between the biographies of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Hamilton and Jefferson that are filled in by this work.  In the end, though, it felt like I was reviewing material for a test on American history, rather than reading something that truly made me enjoy that history.

    Still, you can get more out of reading a book than mere pleasure, and this book gave me a clearer understanding of the major events leading into the Revolution and occurring during the founding of the nation.  It gave me a more thorough understanding of the concerns of the period and a better insight into the character of the colonists and early Americans.  The statistics and demographics are quite thorough and may better recommend this as a reference book rather than a form of entertainment.

    Since I am a glutton for punishment, I'm now going to dive into Empire of Liberty, the sequel!

    4
  • Image of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War
    Author: Nathaniel Philbrick
    Publisher: Penguin Books (2007)
    Binding: Paperback, 463 pages

    The story of the pilgrims and their founding of Plymouth Colony is one that looms large in the creation mythology of the United States.  Mayflower digs deep beneath the story of the first Thanksgiving and the cliché caricatures of benign pilgrims and idealized native Americans.  It provides a window into the actual historical events that surrounded one of the earliest and arguably most significant English settlements in North America.  

    As it turns out, Nathaniel Philbrick's explanation of the first Thanksgiving (actually a harvest festival, as opposed to the Pilgrims more solemn day of “thanksgiving” to God) is actually more fantastic than grade-school murals and traditional accounts.  The image of this harvest feast isn't an orderly group of Indians and pilgrims sitting around a table.  Instead, groups of people gathered around fires with fresh game sizzling on spits.  Native Americans played games and intermingled freely with their puritan neighbors.  It is a beautiful vision to conjure in one’s mind, and Philbrick’s writing effectively facilitates such visualization. It’s a particularly positive scene, given the terrible days of the Pilgrims' first winter, when nearly half of the colonists died.  Even if it wasn’t called Thanksgiving by the Pilgrims, there can be little doubt that these colonists were truly thankful to be alive and to have food. 

    Philbrick also brings to life the eventual fallout between the pilgrims and the natives.  If the first Thanksgiving was an Edenic moment of American history, then King Philip's War is the Fall.  The foreshadowing of this comes in the figure of Miles Standish, who will one day be played by Joe Pesci, reprising the same basic character he played in Casino.  Yes, Pesci could capture the short stature and brutality of Standish like no other.   But it is King Philip, the son of Massasoit (the Indian chief of the Pokanokets who attended the first Thanksgiving), who ultimately starts a very long war with tragic consequences.  Those who were friends with Philip's father ultimately become the son's enemies.  Some of the most startling information about this war includes the death rate of “The Great Swamp Fight,” where it was actually higher than D-Day or as horrific as the worst battles of the Civil War (in terms of the percentage of fighting men who died).  In the end, war parties of Indians ravaged colonial towns with fire, scalping, and abductions.  However, it was the Indians who lost the most.  The war almost entirely displaced and decimated the native American population of New England.

    This historical details in Philbrick’s book do much to dispel the simple mythology of the exploited native and the exploitive European.  One side is not the romanticized martyr, and the other side is not the vilified monster.  Instead, Philbrick's book gives us a more honest portrait of two peoples who seemed to initially have a chance at peaceful coexistence.  However, we see this degenerate into greed and corruption (on both sides of the ethnic divide). 

    Overall, this narrative history will provide valuable insight into some of the first people who sought to live in the new world, their struggles, their friendships, and their eventual enemies.  This is not an idealized story, but one that is all the more compelling and informative because of its authenticity and thoroughness. 

    I highly recommend the audio version, read by George Guidal, who is one of the better readers I've ever heard.

     

    5
  • Image of Jefferson's War: America's First War on Terror 1801-1805
    Author: Joseph Wheelan
    Publisher: PublicAffairs (2003)
    Binding: Hardcover, 336 pages

    After a rather exciting initial description of a confrontation between a pirate ship and a U.S. frigate, it takes a while for Joseph Wheelan's narrative to heat up.  The first part of this book elaborates upon the various negotiations and rising tensions between the Barbary States and the United States.  No doubt, this information is essential for better understanding the historical and national significance of this naval conflict during the early years of the nineteenth century, but it doesn't make for the most interesting collection of historical events.  The impotency of the United States and European powers is more frustrating than engaging, yet a reader who wants to best understand historical truth shouldn't always demand that history be entertaining.  I suppose it's the title of the book that causes the tedious nature of some of this material to be somewhat unexpected.

    I suspect that a biography focusing on William Eaton or Presley O'Bannon might be a more eventful or enlivening way to convey the information in this book.

    Still, the material is ultimately fascinating, explaining the United States’ earliest involvement with the countries, people, and ideologies with which we are still clashing in today's Middle East.  Wheelan does briefly try to relate the aggressive actions of the Barbary pirates to the actions of the September 11th terrorists, but he generally lets the history speak for itself.  This was a relief, since the title suggested that this could be a more revisionist history designed to speak directly about the current problem of terrorism.

    I like my books on history to give me more objective facts than commentary, and generally Wheelan sticks to this approach.   After finishing this book, I felt I had gained useful insight into the some of the United States’ Navy's earliest battles, including those during the Quasi-War with France from 1798to 1800, and during the Barbary War from 1801 to 1805.  Wheelan also explains how these conflicts schooled a new generation of sailors who would therefore be better prepared for the War of 1812.  In the end, this information fills in some interesting gaps if you are exploring the presidential biographies of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson.  While these conflicts on the high seas are explained to some degree in the presidential biographies I've read (including Dumas Malone's massive work), they are not explored in effective detail.  This book illuminates what was only a dimly shadowed corner or footnote in the other books I've read.

    In addition to explaining the first U.S. Marine engagement on foreign soil, the material in this book covers a variety of interesting stories within this story: the formation of various Barbary States through earlier migrations and historical conflicts, much of it being motivated by the divide between Christian and Islamic civilization.   This vast amount of information can prove overwhelming at times, and I felt that I will need to return to much of this content in future reading to gain a firm grasp of it.

    Overall, this book offers a substantive exploration of the United States’ war with Tripoli and teases its readers with a deeper story about the larger conflict between Islam and Christianity.  

    While the audio presentation of this book was uneven (the volume of the narrator goes up and down, with cuts and edits being a little too obvious), Patrick Cullen still does a fine job as narrator.

    4
  • Image of Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty
    Manufacturer: Little, Brown
    Part Number:
    Price:

    Malone's third volume covers Jefferson's life while he was Secretary of State and Vice President.  The content in The Ordeal of Liberty is far more interesting than what Malone cover's in Jefferson's earlier years.  While you might expect that Jefferson's existence would have been compelling or even thrilling during the American Revolution (after all he wrote the Declaration of Independence), it's not until he faces off against Hamilton that Jefferson becomes an engaging figure (at least in this reader's opinion). 

    It's really as a politician and an opponent of the Federalists that the so called philosopher and advocate of liberty really shines.  Jefferson, despite his legendary repute as the "Sage of Monticello" and the father of republican virtue, seems most effective and interesting when he is acting like a modern politician (minus the billion dollars in campaign funds and stump speeches).  In fact, despite Malone's rather heavy-handed defense of this Virginian aristocrat, Jefferson appears every bit the schemer and the manipulator of public opinion.  Instead of Adam's inflexible devotion to principles, Jefferson (in his devotion to the singular principle of liberty) seems just fine shattering all other principles (all for the "Spirit of 1776").  It's no wonder it took decades for Adams to reconcile with his southern friend. 

    While Jefferson was no Aaron Burr (in terms of his intrigues), I am still shocked at the contrast between him and his Federalist opponents such as Washington, Adams, and even Hamilton.  While Hamilton can be characterized by his ambition and political ferocity to some degree, it seemed (from Chernow's biography and even Malone's) that Hamilton was at least willing to directly confront those with whom he disagreed.  Instead, Jefferson's intrigues against Hamilton, Adams, and even Washington were sealed in private letters and disclosed to his associates like so much bad gossip.  Malone goes to great lengths to vindicate Jefferson as a patriot and staunch idealist, but his methods seem far less ideal and far less honest than those employed by his political enemies.

    Malone is successful in explaining the Republicans' fears of the Federalists and the effects that the Alien and Sedition Acts had upon free speech.  This volume also illuminates where Jefferson saw the limitations of free speech; in particular, Malone suggests that Jefferson did see the need for governments to protect communications between diplomats-- that such information should not simply fall into the hands of the general public (much of this would be good reading for those who think Wikileak's mission is a positive one or that it can have a positive outcome—based on Malone’s writing it would have been impossible for Jefferson to see eye to eye with the likes of Julian Assange).

    What is becoming most apparent to me concerning Jefferson: it is ironic that this slave owning member of the blue blood Virginian planter class has been conveyed to modern Americans as the original “man of the people.”  When compared to Hamilton (who started as a penniless orphan), and Washington (who had little formal education and served without pay in the military), and Adams who worked his own farm without ever owning slaves, Jefferson was more like a feudal era king than any of the Federalists who he accused of being monarchists. 

    Perhaps the greatest evidence of Jefferson's skill as a politician is that people, even in the Twenty-First Century, often think of Jefferson the way that Jefferson likely wanted them to see him.  However, plenty of Jefferson's private letters survived and even Malone struggles to make Jefferson look like the mythologized saint of early America.  For those who want to get a better view of the truth, they will see a more complicated portrait of this man even in Malone's positive appraisal. 

    Jefferson, by Malone's account of him, was indeed an amazing figure and a devoted patriot.  However, his star dims a bit when compared with his less heralded contemporaries.   I'm looking forward to exploring his presidency in the next two volumes.  The accounts contained therein will no doubt justify the legend to some extent, covering the Louisiana Purchase and other notable accomplishments.

    4
  • Image of Jefferson And The Rights Of Man - Jefferson And His Time, Volume Two
    Manufacturer: Little, Brown And Company
    Part Number:
    Price:

    Dumas Malone's second volume on the life of Thomas Jefferson is more interesting than the first. 

    While I would have expected the story of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War to be a dramatic part of Jefferson’s life (after all, Jefferson penned the timeless words in the Declaration), it was actually a rather dull period for him (at least in comparison to the experiences of Franklin, Adams, Washington, Hamilton and others during this tumultuous time).  In volume one, readers will see a Jefferson who really played second fiddle to revolutionaries who were in the middle of diplomacy, war and politics.  In all three areas, you will find more interesting accounts when reading about other Americans who lived through the excitement (Franklin for insight into diplomacy, Adams for an insight into revolutionary politics, and Washington or Hamilton for an understanding of the war).

    In The Rights of Man, however, Jefferson begins to emerge as an early leader of the Republicans' opposition to Hamilton, and a central player in the diplomacy of early America.  He begins to act like the devoted politician who will become the third president.  It's interesting to compare Malone's second volume to the more recent Chernow biographies on Washington and Hamilton.  Malone develops a better understanding of Jefferson's motives and actions against Hamilton's financial system and a clearer sense of his worries about monarchy.  For once, Jefferson actually seems very consistent in one of his battles for a strict neutrality, which opposed Hamilton's favoritism toward the British.

    Still, the Jefferson portrayed in this biography seems more reactionary and short sighted than his federalist opponents (after reading biographies on his political enemies). 

    Also, Malone's writing is so devoted, in an overly self-conscious manner, to covering everything of significance in Jefferson's experience, that he seems to miss opportunities to bring the man himself more vividly to life.  For instance, when describing Jefferson's time in France, Malone tells us that Jefferson

    went to Versailles almost every day during the summer, reported events with care, and made illuminating comments on men and issues.  He told a story which was fresh to him and to his correspondents, but there is neither space nor need to retell it here.  We are chiefly concerned with the attitudes he took and with any personal part he may have played in these momentous events.

    In passages like this, Malone seems agonizingly distrustful of the historical details and their ability to tell an important story in and of themselves.  Either way, I have the sense that this is Malone's Jefferson, very consciously crafted by Malone's own purposes.  More negatively, Malone's writing seems to paraphrase Jefferson's life, where it could better reveal it through Jefferson's own words and firsthand accounts of these experiences.  Instead of a more active understanding of how Jefferson saw the world and acted in it, readers are left with a somewhat passive narrative: the historian's heavy handed interpretation never lets us imagine for a moment that Jefferson's world is alive and moving on these pages.

    I know that perhaps the more modern biographies of Brands and Chernow, for example, may be creating a stronger narrative illusion of objectivity (with which a historian may be shrewdly uncomfortable), but this objective tone and more active inclusion of primary source material (letters in the historical person's own hand) make for a more engaging experience.

    In the end, though, I'm willing to push these reservations aside and truly voice admiration for Malone's work.  Even though there is an undoubtedly reverent and positive explanation of Jefferson in these pages, it is a very knowledgeable explanation and very worthy of study.  I'm confident that these six volumes will carry me into a far greater understanding of the man who was the United States third president.  I also predict that each subsequent volume will become more interesting to me as they delve into historical events that were not covered in the other biographies I have already read.  Thank you, Mr. Malone, for your diligent efforts to so thoroughly cover a complicated and sometimes mysterious (or even mythological) historical figure.

    4
  • Image of Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
    Author: H.W. Brands
    Publisher: Anchor (2006)
    Binding: Paperback, 656 pages

    H.W. Brand’s biography of Andrew Jackson offers an engaging and sometimes disturbing examination of a man who was an American patriot, a farmer, a brutally successful general, and a determined national leader.  Jackson, according to Brands, was most importantly the United States’ first president who was a common man of the people.  He grew up in Tennessee, on what was then the American Frontier, far removed from the privileged planter class of Virginia and the New England or New York pedigrees that gave previous national leaders their footing.   Unlike Washington, Adams (both John and John Quincy), Jefferson, Madison, or Monroe, Jackson was a descendent of recent Scotch-Irish immigrants who were poor and seeking their fortune in the new nation.

    Despite these humble origins, Jackson participated in the Revolutionary War as a young boy, was wounded in captivity and imprisoned.  After his parents and most of his close relatives died, Jackson fought to make something of his life, becoming a lawyer, a judge, and eventually the leader of the Tennessee Militia.  Throughout these struggles, Brands shows Jackson as an engaging and often flawed human being.  The characteristics that made him indispensable as a military leader against the Creek Indians, the Spanish in Florida, and the British at the end of the War of 1812, also made him a person who made enemies as easily as friends.

    While this biography illustrates his more compassionate side through his relationships to his wife, Rachel, and his sons (including an adopted Creek Indian boy), it also shows us a temperament that led to duels (and Jackson killing his adversary in one of them).  Brands carefully navigates the evidence of this man’s life, showing us his toughness, but also his sometimes irrational and reckless pursuit of honor.  At one point, Brands even examines the potential effects that irritable bowel syndrome might have had on this man’s disposition.

    Jackson’s life culminates in his successful bid for the presidency and his two terms in office.  His leadership on the issue of the National Bank and on the Territory of Texas proves that he was a man who was just as capable in political battles as he was in actual warfare.   At the same time, his dispute with the Supreme Court over Indian treaties ultimately leads to the removal of scores of Indian tribes to eastern lands on the other side of the Mississippi (including the infamous Trail of Tears).   Jackson left no record of regret on this matter for historians to ponder.

    While a complicated historical figure, Jackson is rendered in ample detail in this biography, convincing me that Brands has captured the man’s personality and historical significance (warts and all).  The violence and swagger of this man are placed in their proper historical context, so that his actions are not excused, but at least properly explained.  In this biography, readers will find a slave trader who none-the-less sold his own lands to pay for a legal defense of his slaves (accused of participating in a slave uprising and murdering whites).   Readers will also find a man who fought viscously against the Creek Indians, but who let their leader live in order to guide his people into peace after the conflict.       

    As much as Benjamin Franklin or Alexander Hamilton, Jackson is an early example of an America that allowed men to transcend the limitation of their upbringing and become victorious against adversity.    He also exemplifies the violence, struggle, and sacrifice that shaped a young nation.  The unabridged audio book is wonderfully read by John H. Mayer, who voices the quotes from Jackson and others with great skill.  This is an excellent biography and well worth the time among its pages or its audio rendition.

    4
  • Image of John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (Library Edition)
    Author: Paul C. Nagel
    Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010)
    Binding: Audio CD, pages

    Paul Nagel's biography of JQA (John Quincy Adams) offers a thorough explanation of the sixth president's life.  While only devoting a single chapter to his rather ineffectual presidency, this book draws upon the abundant personal and historical information surrounding its subject, offering a thoughtful and well supported discussion of who JQA was as a man, a professor, a literary scholar, a father, and a public servant.   Nagel's writing ultimately amounts to a clear and mostly chronological narrative of JQA's life from childhood to death.

    Here, Abigail Adam's domineering relationship with her children contrasts with a more positive depiction in McCullough's biography of JQA's father.  Comparing biographies of people who acted different parts in the same moment of history can often reveal insight into the complexities of what truly happened.  This book is no exception to this rule.  In addition to the somewhat negative portrayal of Abigail (especially in her treatment of JQA), this biography also contradicts Unger's biography on James Monroe by explaining quite clearly that JQA did in fact formulate the Monroe doctrine before James Monroe made it a doctrine.  Unger argues that this is not the case.  However, Nagel is far more convincing in his explanation of events, giving JQA much of the credit.

    Also illuminating are the book's descriptions of JQA's time in St. Petersburg with Czar Alexander I, before and during the time of Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia.  As the United States first ever minister to Russia, JQA quickly befriended the young Czar who shared his interests in literature and offered to be the godfather of one of Adams' children.  In addition to his respected work in Russia, Adams helped create the treaty to end the war of 1812 and became a successful Secretary of State for James Monroe's administration.

    At times, he was also a vigorous writer of poetry and a successful translator of literature (especially German works), earning himself a place not only among politicians, but also among men of letters.   He actually considered literature a higher calling than politics, but eventually accepted that his career would carry him more directly into the service of his country.  In this biography his eventual devotion to country is clear, although it is sometimes checked by reluctance and periods of depression.  Also apparent to readers of Nagel's writing will be JQA's devotion to family through his efforts to financially assist his parents and his children.  Nagel gives us a portrait of a very dutiful man on many fronts.

    What is most enjoyable about this biography is the arc of JQA's career, which begins with restraint, social awkwardness and failed expectations, but ends with his passionate advocacy of liberty.  Here is a man who broke out of his proverbial shell in order to confront the corruption and wrongs he saw emanating from the southern states.  One of the great moments of this conflict occurs when he becomes instrumental in the efforts to free the slaves of the Amistad.  This moment, and others that comprise the final battle of his life, offers a climactic finish to a story that is riddled with its ups and downs, with family tragedies, diplomatic triumphs, political enmity, and finally popular admiration.  Nagel's biography on JQA shows its readers not only one principled Christian man's strivings to fulfill his destiny, both politically and spiritually, but also a period of important developments for the United States.

    While Jeff Riggenbach's narration is somewhat stern in tone, his reading of the audio book is clear and professional.  This is definitely worth a listen or a read.

    4
  • Image of The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness
    Author: Harlow Giles Unger
    Publisher: Da Capo Press (2010)
    Binding: Paperback, 400 pages

    Harlow Giles Unger's biography of the United State's fifth president was an illuminating book for me.  I understood from earlier reading on Jefferson and Hamilton that Monroe was of some importance during the Revolutionary War, that he played a role in exposing Hamilton's scandalous affair with Maria Reynolds, and that he was a loyal supporter of Jefferson throughout the Jefferson administration.  I also understood his role in the Louisiana Purchase, which is further explained by Unger.

    However, Unger introduced me to many reasons why I might want to revisit this historical figure in future reading. The Last Founding father shows Monroe as a devoted husband, a devoted and formidable servant of American interests oversees, a strong leader during the War of 1812, and a president whose popularity allowed him to essentially put an end to partisanship in Washington.   Because of this latter success, Monroe seems more similar to George Washington than any other founding father.  Unger draws several parallels between Monroe's and Washington's performances as commander in chief, creating an appealing portrait of the Virginian.  Topping this off with the lasting significance of the Monroe Doctrine, this book argues for the importance of Monroe as "the last founding father."

    While the book is informative and enjoyable, I did begin to take some of Unger's views with a grain of salt.  At times, his writing appears to exaggerate or become too forceful in its insistence on Monroe's greatness (it's certainly hagiographic).  This sense of aggrandizement is further inflated by the narrator of the unabridged audio book, Michael McConnohie, who seems to be narrating a movie trailer for the next Bruce Willis action spectacular.  I suppose it makes for a lively reading, but not one that seems particularly historical and authentic.

    Maybe Unger's narrative would have received fairer treatment if I had read it the old fashioned way.  As it is, I like the book and enjoyed the information I gleaned from it, but another biography might be in order so that Monroe doesn't remain merely an action hero in my mind (one complete with Revolutionary War action fatigues, realistic battle scars, and rifle grip).  

    To make Monroe seem more human, I wouldn't mind hearing a more complicated discussion of certain issues related to his politics and to his life.  For instance, Unger's account of Monroe only lightly addresses the man's disposition toward slavery and then offers a rather superficial defense of the fifth president's views on the matter.

    For a man who endorsed the American Colonization Society and its goal to settle freed African American slaves in Liberia (aka Monrovia), I would guess that there is a great deal more of interest available on the subject to historians.  However, Unger doesn't delve very deeply in such areas. 

    Still, his writing is clear, sometimes descriptive, and always enthusiastic.  This biography is worth your time if you don't have a more academic or historically objective work in mind (perhaps Ammon's Monroe).  Unger might even offer a nice break from the more pedantic voice of a Joseph Ellis (I have trouble forgiving Ellis for his excessive prose elaborating on what can be known of Jefferson's hair color) or the more plodding approach of a Dumas Malone (which I'm still enjoying, but will still be enjoying, and working my way through all six volumes of his single biography, long after I've finished with ten biographies like Unger's).

    3
  • Image of Jefferson the Virginian (Jefferson and His Time, Vol. 1)
    Author: Dumas Malone
    Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (1948)
    Binding: Hardcover, 484 pages

    Dumas Malone won the Pulitzer Prize for the fifth volume in this six volume biography of Thomas Jefferson.

    The first volume, titled “The Virginian,” covers Jefferson’s background, heritage, birth, and regional service as a statesman and lawyer to the colony of Virginia.  While it also covers his momentary foray into a larger spotlight, when he drafted the Declaration of Independence, the book is much more detailed about his efforts as a young scholar, a member of Virginia’s assembly, and as Virginia’s frustrated governor during the American Revolution.

    Dumas Malone also covers Jefferson’s personal life which, by the end of this book, collapses in the tragic demise of his wife.  While Malone’s book covers the important details about the loss of his first home to fire,  the building of Monticello, the death of a close friend, and the loss of many infant children, the writing in this book does little to make you relate to the human suffering or the personal treasure at stake in this story.  Perhaps this is due to the lack of personal letters (such as those between Abigail Adams and her husband), or even because of Jefferson’s more stoic disposition as he left it for posterity.  Perhaps understandably, he did not think his personal life with his family was the proper subject of history. 

    Yet, I also think that Malone’s writing is vastly different than the likes of H.W.  Brand’s or David McCullough’s.  This could be explained by the latter writers’ more modern narrative style or even a recent concern with humanizing the subjects of biography.  Malone is also using a style that might seem more appropriately historical and rhetorical in nature.  Despite having the writing style of a historian, however, Malone combines his writing with rather grand and unsupported claims about his subject.  Malone, in his introduction to his second volume (for example), states that “I don’t try to sum him [Jefferson] up completely anywhere and will certainly not do so here.”   Yet, several paragraphs further on, Malone seems to do just that: “He [Jefferson] was a true and pure symbol of the rights of man because, in his own mind, the cause was greater than himself.”  Such proclamations are common in Malone’s first volume as well. 

    And with this example, Malone isn’t simply talking about how a modern historian or reader might see Jefferson as a symbol now (as Ellis does in American Sphinx), but he is asserting that Jefferson actually became this in his own time.  Perhaps he did embody this in his own time, but a reader should not expect Malone to support many of these points (as he routinely does not).

    While this biography proved detailed and rather thorough, I was surprised by the strange and paradoxical nature of the work: at one level it is written in the voice of a diligent historian, but on another it sounds like idolatry.

    Despite the odd nature of the narrative, the research (as indicated in the exhaustive footnotes) is quite extensive.  I will look forward to the additional volumes of this expansive biography, as there is surely a vast amount of useful knowledge contained therein.

    4
  • Image of The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin
    Author: H.W. Brands
    Publisher: Anchor (2002)
    Binding: Paperback, 784 pages

    H.W. Brand's biography on Benjamin Franklin was well worth the 36 hours of listening time required for the unabridged audio book.  The audio version is read by Nelson Runger, the same reader who did such a fine job delivering McCullough's biography on John Adams.

    In addition to that similarity, Brand's writing shares McCullough's skillful narrative style.  Franklin's life is told with great attention to historical detail, but the book is also crafted into an enjoyable and comprehensible story.    While an author like Dumas Malone explains Jefferson with the voice of an academic, we hear, in both Brand's and McCullough's narratives, the enthusiasm of storytellers who want to evoke a sense of setting, dramatic importance, and the humanity of their subjects. 

    Neither of them sacrifices authenticity for the sake of entertainment; they don't dumb-down their writing or skip historically significant but less dramatic aspects of their subjects' lives.  Both authors are effective narrators who don't waste a reader's time with subjective proclamations or tangential discourse that strays away from the lives they are portraying.

    One unfair advantage for Brands is that his subject is possibly the most interesting figure in early American history.  An aspiring writer and printer at the age of twelve, a run-away at fourteen, the originator of Philadelphia's first fire department and library, a leader of the Pennsylvania militia, one of the prime movers and shakers during the start and end of the revolutionary war, and a respected scientist and the foremost researcher of his time of electricity, Franklin's contributions to human civilization should not be taken lightly.  His life is an inspiration, and his accomplishments are a model of what a talented and determined person can accomplish in a single life.

    Anyone interested in the history of the American Revolution will also be greatly rewarded by this book.  Brand’s biography does a fine job of explaining the politics that led to the ultimate split between Great Britain and the thirteen colonies.  This explanation is due to Franklin’s position as Pennsylvania’s representative in London at the outset of hostilities.  While leaders like Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and even Washington were much quicker to advocate independence, Franklin initially took a moderate position.  While this is mostly explained by his diplomatic role in London before 1776, it also says something about his temperament.  While he satirized British policy in his writings, he was also willing to work on a compromise in order to avoid war.   He did not give up on compromise until he was ultimately accused of being an inciter of rebellions.  Only then did he return to America and step squarely and completely onto the side of independence.

    I could ramble on and on about the breadth of this man’s accomplishments, as described so thoroughly in this biography.  He was one of the writers of the Declaration of Independence, a framer of the United States Constitution, an ardent abolitionist, an inventor, and a writer of literary significance.  Franklin is perhaps one of the most amazing people you could ever read about.  As the title of this book suggests, he is “The First American.”  I highly recommend this biography.

    5
  • Image of Almost A Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence
    Author: John Ferling
    Publisher: Oxford University Press (2009)
    Binding: Paperback, 704 pages

    Ferling provides a fine overview of the American Revolution in this single volume.  After reading 1776 and two biographies on George Washington, I needed a better understanding of the entire war and all of the fighting that occurred after the early months of 1777 (the early years being covered wonderfully in McCullough's 1776).  I wasn't disappointed with my choice.

    Ferling's writing offers a clear narrative which at times delves deeply into single important moments of the war (turning pivotal battles into effective and riveting scenes), while at other times steps back to offer an overview of the big picture, including the overarching strategies of generals and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic (and the conflict).

    Amazingly, Ferling's book provides a compelling and well written account of the battles and the historical significance of the war's important events, while simultaneously revealing the humanity of the participants and the dreadful cost of American liberty.

    5
  • Image of Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
    Author: Stephen E. Ambrose
    Publisher: Simon & Schuster (1996)
    Binding: Hardcover, 511 pages

    Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose, explains the story of Lewis and Clark, the Core of Discovery, and their amazing journey up the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains, and to the Pacific Ocean.  Even more than this, the book really offers a biography of Meriwether Lewis.  It tells the story of his youth, his eventual enlistment in the army, and his emergence as Thomas Jefferson’s trusted secretary.  In some ways, Lewis’s opportunities grew out of his association with Jefferson, much in the same way that Alexander Hamilton’s opportunities resulted from his connections to Washington.  But Ambrose’s writing also illustrates Lewis’s tragic failings after achieving early success.  Ultimately, this book offers a portrait of a man who was fated for an even more desperate fate than the one Hamilton met in his duel at Weehawken, New Jersey.

    However, before Lewis’s untimely decline and demise, this story focuses the now famous adventure led by Captains Lewis and Clark, their encounter with new lands, animals and plants previously unknown to science, and a diverse number of native American tribes, both friendly and hostile.  While Ambrose points out other published accounts of the adventure that are perhaps more thorough or exhaustive, Undaunted Courage is both detailed and engaging.

    It helped me acquire a more complex understanding of early westward expansion, native American culture, and the sheer wonderment of Lewis’s and Clark’s voyage of discovery.  These men ventured out into an unknown content, where they anticipated encounters with woolly mammoths, lost tribes of Welshmen, and the prized water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

    While their accomplishment was underappreciated in their own time (due to the absence of the coveted water route), Ambrose explains the true legacy of these amazing explorers.  This is a fantastic, eye-opening description of a very important time for America, when the identity of our country was being forged upon a new and uncertain frontier.

    4
  • Image of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
    Author: Joseph J. Ellis
    Publisher: Vintage Books (1998)
    Binding: Paperback, 440 pages

    Joseph Ellis helps readers explore the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and the third president's somewhat contradictory public, personal, and intellectual existence.  The allusion to the Sphinx, in this book's title, seems quite appropriate, as Jefferson's identity, both in its historical context and in its contemporary application, remains a riddle of sorts.  Ellis's biography is really a series of essays that seeks to explain the turning points of this founder's life, and through those crucial moments, develop an accurate depiction of the enigmatic man.  While too many of Ellis's words are spent discussing the possible facts surrounding Jefferson's appearance and physical mannerisms, or otherwise creating an authentic voice of academic inquiry, Ellis does provide a thought provoking analysis of what makes Jefferson tick.  I'm sure that this work is no substitute for Dumas Malone's masterpiece, but I still found it to be a useful source of insight into Jefferson's worldview.  This book strenthened my growing sense that Jefferson's reputation has been built more on the basis of American mysticism and mythology, as opposed to historical fact.  Even though Jefferson's credentials as an American Revolutionary and founder are unquestionable, I agreed with Ellis's initial contention that John Adam's view was more often correct than the view of this Virginian sage.  Furthermore, this book illustrates that Jefferson, above all else, was an impassioned radical who, more often than not, saw the ends as justifying the means.  Rather than a principled philosopher, this book shows us a Jefferson who better fits the mold of a poltical opportunist.  While he is deeply passionate, he is also deeply flawed.  Maybe we should replace the visage of Jefferson on Mount Rushmore with either Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, or even John Marshal?  While I find a great deal to admire in Ellis's depiction of a bookish intellectual, I was simultaneously repulsed by the descriptions of Jefferson's hypocrisy and blind idealism. 

    3
  • Image of Alexander Hamilton
    Author: Ron Chernow
    Publisher: The Penguin Press (2004)
    Binding: Hardcover, 818 pages

    Ron Chernow's biography on Alexander Hamilton couples nicely with McCullough's biography of John Adams. While the Adams biography left me with Adam's own bitter view of Hamilton, Chernow portrays him with much greater and deserved complexity. He was a revolutionary war hero, framer of the constitution (and perhaps more importantly the principle author of the Federalist Papers), devotee of the union, advocate of industry and commerce, and most impressively an inspirational foe of adversity. This book recommends Hamilton as Thomas Jefferson's political equal, at the very least, if not in many ways a superior adversary.

    Even though Hamilton's moral flaws were made more obvious than Adams' or Washington's (an extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds, for instance) his faith in the union and in God were perhaps the most fervent and apparently sincere (especially at the end of his life).

    For example, his remaining words, after being shot by Aaron Burr included, "I have no ill will against colonel Burr. I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened." Furthermore, he reportedly said: "I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am a sinner. I look to Him for mercy; pray for me."

    Through this invaluable biography, I especially enjoyed comparing Hamilton's achievements to Madison. Although Madison is usually considered the father of the constitution, Hamilton may have become its greatest champion during the Constitution's ratification and beyond.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring U.S. history and to those who wish to better understand politics, both in the eighteenth century and the twenty-first.

    4
  • Image of The Historian
    Author: Elizabeth Kostova
    Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (2005)
    Binding: Hardcover, 642 pages

    Kostova's novel is told through letters that cover various time periods and characters. While this makes the narrative a rather complex and interesting quilt of correspondences, it also throws the story into a perpetual past tense, and therefore there is little immediacy or urgency to the action or much anxiety about the outcome of events. While mystery pervades the story, and there is a pleasurable pursuit of historical clues that lead toward the novel's resolution, everything seems as though it is rendered in slow motion through the lens of research and dusty libraries (which to a great degree does seem to fit the nature of the characters and the historical subject of Vlad the Impaler).

     

    While this novel does not latch onto your jugular and induce the sheer horror of the undead, it has a setting rich with the various cultures of Europe. The description of architecture, art, and people seems quite authentic (even given the apparent oversights mentioned by other reviewers), and the relationships between the story's characters subtly deepens throughout. Even though my thirst for vampires wasn't quite satiated here, this book represents the talents of an emerging author who is likely at the beginning of an interesting career.

    3
  • Image of Washington: A Life
    Author: Ron Chernow
    Publisher: Penguin Press (2010)
    Binding: Hardcover, 904 pages

    Chernow's biography of Washington is more thorough and comprehensive than Joseph Ellis's His Excellency, and I would certainly recommend it over that slimmer account.  It was interesting to compare them, however, and Chernow wasn't above quoting Ellis here and there to expand his discussion of America's first president.  A Life is far more detailed in its coverage of Washington's family, friendships, and possible romantic involvements (which included Sally Fairfax and Elizabeth Powell). Chernow covers all of the first president's life with attention to detail and an eye for significance. 

    One interesting difference between Ellis and Chernow is observable in how both authors cover Washington's death.  Ellis spends time resolving the first president's often contested height (the undertaker provides some physical measurements after all).  Ellis also explores the implications of Washington not calling a minister to his death bed, suggesting a lack of religious devotion on Washington’s part.   Chernow, on the other hand, suggests that this could have been due to the suddenness of Washington’s death and the possibility that the doctors did not initially expect him to die.  Either possibility might be considered by a historian, but Chernow’s biography also does a better job explaining Washington’s stated faith, which would make Ellis’s suggestion less likely.

    Despite Ellis’s stated desire to reveal the man behind the marble bust, Chernow actually does this better (perhaps as well as can be done without the help of fiction). Still, Chernow’s writing cannot make the distant figure of Washington all that accessible, who unlike Adams, is not preserved through personal letters to his wife (or the same kind of transparency we see in Adam’s early journal writing).  The primary source materials for this biography are the more public and official correspondences of a very professional man who was entirely conscious of the way he wanted to be perceived by history.   This is not a biography that lets us understand the humanity of Washington, although there are certainly hints of the man's passions and obsessions throughout this book.

    And I still couldn't help but yearn for the more narrative style of David McCullough.  Ron Chernow's prose, while clear and exhibiting a robust vocabulary, does not tell a story as well as McCullough's writing.  The writing here is more expository and editorial, whereas McCullough's John Adams is brought to life in vivid scenes.

    At a different level, this biography was also useful to compare with McCullough's John Adams, as Chernow provides a much less flattering portrait of Adams and his roles as Washington's vice president and as Hamilton's nemesis.  Chernow offers a more sympathetic portrayal of Hamilton, which is no doubt due in part to his work on Hamilton’s own biography.

    In the end, Chernow does a fine job of conveying a thorough, if not exhaustive account of Washington which should be read by any history sleuth wanting an updated account of the founding fathers and the history surrounding the Revolutionary War.

    4
  • Image of The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution
    Author: David O. Stewart
    Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2007)
    Binding: Hardcover, 368 pages

    Stewart, a lawyer who has argued before the US Supreme Court, is also a capable writer and story teller.  While his book is thoroughly supported by notes and letters from first-hand accounts, it also manages to bring the story of the US Constitution to life: it has an intriguing plot that stretches through the Philadelphia summer (driven by the turning points surrounding contentious issues and their resolutions), it has engaging characters, both major and minor (all are constitutional delegates whose agreements and compromises form a composite protagonist), and of course a fierce antagonist out of the same delegates’ divisive self-interests, especially the Southern delegates’ attachment to slavery, a sin which unfortunately remains unvanquished at the end of the constitutional convention.

    Stewart’s narrative effectively explores this conflict, illustrating how the Constitutional Convention gave this most regrettable evil, slavery, even more prominence in shaping the early character of our country.  However, The Summer of 1787 also explains the great number of delegates who opposed this nefarious practice and even advocated its abolition at this early stage of United States history.  In reading this part of Stewart’s story it is difficult to resist a certain hypothetical question:  had Washington and Franklin more openly opposed slavery (something they might have done given their moral objections to the practice), would it have been possible to avoid the American Civil War or at least reduce it to a smaller rebellion?

    Most importantly, this story makes it clear that the very survival of our young nation depended on a stronger, healthier, central government, and this necessary strength came about because wise men were able to put aside their own interests for the interests of the greater good.  And while Stewart does not portray the Constitution or its authors as infallible or above criticism, his book gives its readers every reason to admire the formation of the United States and the hands that helped to shape this "more perfect union."   Now if we could just have Fourth of July celebrations that mirrored the 1790 "jubilee of allegory" in Philadelphia (as described by one of Stewart’s later chapters), we might do a better job of reminding ourselves of the great hopes and real achievements that constitute the fabric of the still young, yet more perfect, United States.

    4
  • Image of His Excellency: George Washington
    Author: Joseph J. Ellis
    Publisher: Recorded Books (2004)
    Binding: Audio CD, pages

    Joseph J. Ellis is no David McCullough, and this biography on Washington is only 352 pages, which gives readers a very thin account of Washington's life.  Chernow's more recent 904 page account, Washington: A Life, is most certainly more thorough and expressive of the years that Washington walked the earth (Chernow's explanation of Washington's childhood, for instance, makes Ellis's account seem non-existent).

     

    Still, Ellis is able to use those 352 pages to capture a reasonable overview of our first president's existence, from his time in the French Indian War to his final years of retirement at Mount Vernon.  The unabridged audio version is pleasantly read by Edward Herrmann.

    3
  • Image of The Hurt Locker
    Director: Kathryn Bigelow
    Starring: Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Brian Geraghty, Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner
    Rating: R (Restricted)

    Jeremy Renner's performance in this film is entertaining and one of the main reasons I ended up enjoying it.  The scenes in this movie are polished; a stand-off between "U.S.A. friendlies" and insurgents demonstrates the ability of the director to capture the details of action and use them to construct a compelling narrative.  This particular scene, which drags on monotonously through the Iraq heat, illustrates the less than glorious aspects of warfare, which appears to capture something authentic about warfare-- the idea that war consists of long stretches of boredom that are punctuated by moments of abject terror.

    However, in the same scene, the slow motion shot of a bullet casing falling through the air and bouncing off the desert sand might illuminate another realization: this movie is all Hollywood.  And while initial criticism of this film suggested its honest portrayal of warfare, a later NPR interview with men who served in an Iraq EOD unit exposed the fact that this film was somewhat laughable from the perspective of the men who actually do the job of bomb disposal.

    Perhaps hearing this interview on NPR before I saw the film is responsible for my own skepticism.  However, I'm not sure any wary film-goer would easily swallow the depiction of a US serviceman sneaking off base to pursue justice in the style of Dirty Harry.  Audiences should be skeptical of this turning point and the movie's portrayal of the chain of command in the U.S. military (the EOD unit seems to have almost despotic authority to do what they want).  In this way, the film seems more interested in action movie cliches than it is concerned about a legitimate portrayal of our men and women serving in Iraq.  

    That said, the movie is entertaining and its overall theme responsibly conveys a sense of the sacrifice our men and women are making in that far off country of heat, sand, and peril.  The Hurt Locker will probably give many members of its American audience a good kick in its desensitized gut.  

    Ultimately, admirers of the film might argue that this movie is art because of what it says about the identities of Americans serving in the Iraq War and they may be right.  But when those same men and women, serving overseas, find obvious faults in how they are portrayed by this art, I have to wonder if the shortcomings overpower its artfulness.

    3
  • Image of Death in the Afternoon
    Author: Ernest Hemingway
    Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (2007)
    Binding: Audio CD, pages

    Hemingway's fantastic and thorough exploration of bullfighting is not just about matadors, picadores, the faena and the muleta.  The great author's explanation of this tradition transcends the bullfighting ring and is a commentary on showmanship and art, culture and history, and ultimately life and death.

    Old Lady: But aren't there some people who object to such savagery?

    Hemingway:  Yes, but as you well know, madam, such people have no appreciation for the finer things in life, like you and I

    Old Lady: I agree; I find it all quite thrilling.

    Hemingway: As do I, madam.   

    And while not all people will have a stomach for attending an actual bullfight, as the author eventually recommends in Death in the Afternoon, I would be inclined to recommend this work even to more timid souls.  It conveys a sense of Spanish history and culture that is informative in its own right.   The unabridged audio verison is also expertly and pleasantly narrated by Boyd Gaines.   I highly recommend this book, whether you experience it the old fashioned way or on your MP3 player as you commute to work.

    4
  • Image of The Town
    Director: Ben Affleck
    Starring: Blake Lively, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Ben Affleck
    Rating: R (Restricted)

    This film actually left me with a twisted stomach, as if an angry pretzel exacted revenge on my digestive track.  I thought it strange that I paid for such an experience, but my discomfort was related to an unusually high level of tension between the story's protagonist and its almost equally compelling antagonist.  While the film thrilled with its robbery scenes and whizzing bullets, the thrill ride took a back seat to the story's drama and characterization.

    Perhaps it was not a great film; it was none-the-less a very good one.  My chief satisfaction was derived from the protagonist's morally complicated disposition and the film's unflinching portrayal of his choices and their consequences.  For me, the violence evoked contemplation and genuine shudders of disgust, rather than mere distraction and excitement; its graphic portrayal of predatory men confronted me with the humanity such men can apparently posess.

    In the end, The Town made me appreciate my own upbringing which was far from the terror of urban crime and poverty.  And even though, after walking out of the theater, the sight of security guards almost induced an instinctive desire to hide behind some bulletproof barricaddes (at least for the first few sightings), the movie mostly made me glad that I have never robbed a bank or found myself running from the FBI.

    4
  • Image of 1776
    Author: David McCullough
    Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (2005)
    Binding: Audio CD, 10 pages

    I was inspired by McCullough’s biography on John Adams to read 1776.  While this book is nowhere near as thorough as his biography of the second president, it is still an excellent portrayal of the dramatic events that happened in this pivotal year.   One of the amazing insights this book avails to its readers is the simple fact that George Washington survived.  The man who was to become our first president, almost didn’t become anything at all.  Due to his own poor decisions in the opening of the revolutionary war (and so many decisions look poor with the clarity of hindsight), Washington very well could have been captured, killed, and/or had his reputation completely destroyed. 

    Instead, McCullough’s book covers the end of 1776 and beginning 1777, where the general of the Continental Army makes an improbably comeback, as good as any comeback readers will find in human history. 

    I hope that McCullough does indeed write a sequel that details even more of the revolutionary war and its leaders.  I am also optimistic that the film version of 1776 might someday prove more successful than HBO’s version of John Adams (which I admired for its effort, but which I thought ultimately fell short of portraying the Adams who is detailed in the biography).  1776’s length, in contrast, is better suited for adaptation to a screenplay  and is filled with scenes that could make for a powerful and visually impressive film.

    4
  • Image of John Adams
    Author: David McCullough
    Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (2001)
    Binding: Audio CD, pages

    David McCullough's biography on John Adams is an excellent book.  I listened to the unabridged audio version, which is well read by Nelson Runger, whose clear voice renders the dialog and narrative with clarity and without injecting too much of himself into the work (he lets McCullough's language speak for itself).

    I enjoyed this book so much that many of my friends have probably tired of me talking about it.  McCullough's thorough research and gift for historical storytelling illuminate what had become, for my history deprived mind, a fuzzy and vague chapter of American history.  Since the late eighteenth century is paramount to understanding the origins of the United States and therefore the modern nation we have today, I would recommend this biography to anyone who has become jaded and cynical about democracy, and everyone who has an appetite for politics and history.   Adams's example has the potential to reinvigorate minds that have soured from America's failures and party politics.

    While McCullough reveals Adams to be a human being who has flaws, his writing also shows readers a person who was incorruptible and dedicated to his principals throughout his life.  Adams's marriage is also a fine example of the life a man and woman might share together, if respect, love, commitment, and faith are at the center of the relationship. 

    Overall, this book has encouraged my interest in the revolutionary period of the United States, a period when our founding documents were written and our independence was established.  The knowledge and clarity I gained from this book were indispensable and have started me on a new journey into the American past (which is not soon to be satisfied or concluded).

    5
  • Image of Shutter Island
    Director:
    Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Leonardo DiCaprio
    Rating: R (Restricted)

    Martin Scorcese's suspence thriller, staring Lianardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, didn't get as much praise as it probablty should have from critics.  While the film might seem improbable from some angles, the tension is palpable, the acting sound, and rather worth the disturbing journey.  An engaging movie is made up of memorable scenes, and among the well crafted twists and turns through this narrative, there is one that stands out that I will not soon forget.  It's a momentary exchange in a jeep, between DiCaprio's character and Shutter Island's warden.  That scene and this movie does more than simply offer tension between mouthfuls of popcorn; rather, it says something rather uncomfortable about the violent imaginings of the human mind.  The fact that such darkness can be made meaningful and even entertaining is testament to the talents of both the screen writer and the director.

    Another interesting theme for this film is its emphasis on the role of community over the aspirations of the individual.  The story ultimately offers audiences a moralistic fable about the limits of individualism.

    4
  • Image of The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction
    Author: Brian Kiteley
    Publisher: Writer's Digest Books (2005)
    Binding: Paperback, 272 pages

    This is a 250 page volume of almost entirely exercises.   Within these pages readers will find challenges that will stretch the abilities of beginners and advanced writers alike.  If nothing else, the prompts and games (yes games) are bound to encourage new strategies and playfulness in writers who may have grown too comfortable with existing habits.  Definitely something that you can carry around and defer to if you ever get a case of writer's block.  I would liken this book to a child's sand box full of possibilities for imaginations that are willing to pick up the basic tools of the trade and dig.

    5
  • Image of Turning Life into Fiction
    Author: Robin Hemley
    Publisher: Graywolf Press (2006)
    Binding: Paperback, 256 pages

    This book offers an insightful perspective on how to use the palette of one's life as the foundation for fictional creations.  If you really think about it, after all, everything you write must be somehow based in reality, even if it is the most imaginative or speculative type of storytelling.  I found Hemley to be a knowledgeable and transparent guide who isn't at all hesitant to offer up the personal details of his own existence in order to help us think about ours.   The book includes well organized chapters that cover everything from the writing process (keeping journals) to imposing fictional order on the chaos of reality.  There is a fantastic chapter on legal and ethical concerns that some recent and well known writers of "non-fiction" should have read before they published their books.  Hemley also includes some sample fiction from various contemporary writers, including a couple of his own stories that were inspired by his own reality.

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    This is a fantastic book if you are interested in writing fiction. Stephen King offers very useful and friendly guidance for your writing. This is not aimed primarily at writers of horror fiction, which may be the assumption considering the author's own work in the genre. Instead, King's advice should really appeal to anyone who is interested in telling a story and interested in telling it well. The content here is easy to digest, but seeks to challenge writers to improve their habits and their craft.. This book may not be as advanced as John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, but King's own experience as a prolific story teller help distinguish this book from anything else that is available.

    5