Category Archives: Books

Identity Politics Uber Alles

Just a note on the diversion of our culture. Here is the Wiki page for the great novelist Allen Drury. What is the single longest section? Advise & Consent? Historical References? How He Worked? His Influence Washington and Political Literature? All fine guesses but, sadly, in our world of identity politics, it’s “Gay Characters.”

Even more to the point, the section acknowledges in its second paragraph that “gay characters are not common in Drury’s books…”

So, Wiki author/editor, why did you spend so much space writing about them??????

Sheesh, you can’t make this stuff up…

In defense of Wiki, someone seems aware that something is a little amiss, though they don’t do anything about it.

Obama Cashes In

Former King Barry I, he of the “You didn’t build that” philosophy, has cashed in on his fame with a $60 million book contract for himself and Moochelle.

Remember, Obama often castigated what he called the “winners in life’s lottery.” He viewed their “winnings” as undeserved or even ill-gotten. Therefore, in his eye, they didn’t belong to the earner but rather to other people or, as their custodian, the federal government.

But now he’s a winner of the Publishers Clearing… um… a book contract.

Gotta say, Obama has lucked into some sweetheart book deals in his life. Guaranteed that he doesn’t see himself as some kind of life’s lottery winner but thinks he really earned that money and it’s his to keep (or give away). To bad he doesn’t grant that choice to everyone else.

“Meet You in Hell” by Les Standiford

I’m constantly on the lookout for good business biographies, focused on the prime movers of the American economy — the men who built the modern world.

In that quest I recently finished “Meet You in Hell, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America.” The title pretty much says what it’s about.

The book isn’t bad but it’s not great either. It does avoid, mostly until page 300 or so, the usual lefty assault on these two great industrialists.

However, it could have been so much more. Instead of attacking them for being tough, calculating wealth and job creators it might have helped if Standiford had bothered to suss out how much the expansion of steel availability, increase in product quality and the subsequent drop in raw steel prices caused an economic explosion the world had never seen before.

Yes, working in an 1890s steel mill was probably pretty miserable but there was a reason people immigrated to America and took such jobs. The alternatives for many to such employment was starvation or working in an equally, if not more, miserable job like mining or lower paying occupations such as agricultural labor. Standiford sometimes gets a little too soft and seems to believe that steel can be produced without all that heat and molten mass.

In addition, I wanted to know more about the business side of things, especially relationships with men such as J.P. Morgan and Andrew Mellon.

The title refers to the acrimonious feelings (mostly on Frick’s side) that came from the breakup of their lucrative partnership. Frick felt Carnegie was duplicitous and had become a hypocrite — happy to enjoy the fruits of his wealth while pretending to be unaware of how they came about.

Around page 300 Standiford finally goes full liberal and whines for 10 pages that neither man paid the workers enough, especially considering how much money both of them made. The book could easily excise those pages and it would like be a smoother read.

Having said that, there was a lot to learn in the book and it was a worthwhile read as far as I was concerned.

“The Medici” by Paul Strathern

I’ve just finished Paul Strathern’s book on the Medici family, “The Medici: Power, Money, and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance.”

I greatly enjoyed it. The folks at Goodreads liked it in the way I did while there’s a small, tough crowd at Barnes & Noble that think it’s too simple.

Admittedly it is not a high-scholar book but to do that with the Medici family, from their humble medieval beginnings to their demise in the early 18th century, would require a voluminous book.

The book therefore, I feel, is a success as a decent meal that can whet the appetite to learn more about select Medici.

This especially helpful in learning about the “Medici Popes,” and the difference between the two Medici queens of France — Catherine and Marie.

Strathern also does a good job in tying the Medici into the times they lived in — the Renaissance, Florence’s turbulent history, the Reformation and the rise of science.

He might spend a little too much time discussing the physical looks and infirmities of the various Medici and, I think, his diversion into a lengthy discussion of Galileo, while interesting and informative, is a distraction.

Having said that, if you’ve heard the name and vaguely know something about Lorenzo the Magnificent but the rest of the family is merely a name, this book would be a recommended read. If you know who the Medici are and can name the Medici Popes (Leo X and Clement VII) then you might pass.

Two interesting things I learned was the Medici roots of opera and that Marie de Medici, as queen of France, should be considered the mother of French cuisine.

Corrections: On page 90 there’s a reference to Muslim armies conquering “Turkey and now threatened Constantinople itself.” The reference should probably be to “Byzantium” rather than “Turkey.”

A correction should be made on page 323 where in a blizzard of Clement VII and Charles V references are made, one is made of Charles VII. That should be Charles V.

The Twelve Caesars by Matthew Dennison

I have just finished The Twelve Caesars by Matthew Dennison. If the title sounds familiar, Dennison is consciously following the path laid by Roman historian Suetonius centuries earlier.

I would not recommend this book as a first introduction to Roman history or a beginner looking for something on the imperial age. It is not encyclopedic and, at times, only vaguely chronological. For the reader familiar with Caesar and the emperors up to Domitian, it might offer some value, or it might frustrate. The portraits of the “twelve Caesars” — Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula (who Dennison calls Gaius), Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian — are designed as character studies.

I felt that Dennison found negativity in all the Caesars and everything was rendered through a negative lens. At times one almost wonders how any of these people ascended to their throne or managed to survive as long as they did. None seems to have any positive virtue or ever does anything for a descent purpose. Dennison himself even acknowledges in his introduction that these powerful men often demonstrate contradictory behaviors.

It does have to be acknowledged that many of these emperors were not pleasant people and in climbing to such a height they had to be rough and ruthless, disposing of equally dangerous competitors.

Dennison’s writing style might also frustrate. Sentences can be long and languid, starting in one direction but ending going in another.

There can be some odd statements as well. One sentence I recall started with saying when a government is deceptive then concluded with illicit sex will follow. It seemed an odd, though probably correct, conjunction.

Equally off are some of Dennison’s judgments. I found this sentence on Pompeii particularly difficult to take: “Today Pompeii survives as a tourist destination, titivating backpackers with its insights into the scatological nature of Roman graffiti and the discomforts of the town’s brothels” (p. 325). Seriously, that’s Dennison’s takeaway on Pompeii? Not the vast archaeological record allowing insights into the daily lives of Romans (or Pompeiians) or the architectural, artistic and cultural bonanzas following excavations.

I did learn a few new words however from Dennison, titivating being one of them. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant.

When he is at his best Dennison’s style does reward the reader, however. That’s why I’d say for the knowledgeable fan of Roman history this volume is more likely to be worth the time but those less knowledgeable would be better served looking elsewhere.

Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta

I just finished a really good history book — “Japan 1941” by Eri Hotta.

It’s about (obviously) Japan during the fateful year of 1941.

While most who study World War II can name major German politicians of the pre-war period — Hindenburg, Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, et al, for most people, even those knowledgeable on World War II, Japan’s pre-World War II politics and its actors are unknown for the most part beyond Tojo and Emperor Hirohito.

Hotta does a serviceable job bringing the lesser known, notably Prime Minister Prince Konoe, to life.

She also lays out how the Japanese political culture led to an inevitable slide into war. Dominated by the (relatively recently created) tradition of the emperor, Japan’s leaders rarely spoke honestly or directly to each other, much less with Emperor Hirohito. They danced through conferences and meetings trying to avoid insults or even saying what was actually on their mind. The result was that they literally painted themselves into a corner with paranoia, sense of victimization and a self-imposed secret diplomatic deadline that was not remotely reasonable.

Few thought Japan could win a war against the United States yet no one was willing to speak against the war train once it left the station. Much of the prelude resembled World War I’s march to war — timetables and schedules drove everything. Japanese military and civilian leaders calculated that unless Japan acquired a source of petroleum, the country was under a U.S.-led petroleum embargo due to the occupation of southern French Indochina (i.e. South Vietnam), it would run out of oil in a couple of years. No one seemed to have bothered to think through the possibly disastrous ramifications of a war.

Hotta draws a picture of a military that already had its hands full with China (including the puppet state of Manchukuo) and several other mainland projects yet no one would step forward to say that.

My one complaint, and this may not be knowable due to the passage of time and the destruction of Japan during the war, is that Hotta doesn’t investigate the Japanese ultranationalist movement which held an intimidating position in Japan. She notes that they were involved in assassinations and wielded a great deal of influence in the military but that’s as sketchy as it gets.

Having said that, this is a useful volume for anyone wanting to be knowledgeable on World War II and its genesis.

“The Demon’s Brood” by Desmond Seward

A day spent at the auto dealership having my car repaired provided the opportunity to finish off Desmond Seward’s “The Demon’s Brood.” It’s subtitled “A History of the Plantagenet Dynasty,” which gives you an idea what it’s about.

The “House” of Plantagenet ruled England from 1154 (Henry II) to 1485 (death of Richard III). There are some who will argue that Henry Tudor/Henry VII was a continuation of the house as a Lancastrian offshoot but Richard III is generally considered the end of the line, which had been shredded by the splitting of the house into the Lancaster and York branches and, henceforth, the Wars of the Roses.

“The Demon’s Brood” lightly chronicles the English monarchs and leading personalities from Henry II-Richard III. It’s not encyclopedic nor is it quite novelistic. It freely skips large portions of many lives, some of which often get more treatment from other writers. He gives some kings such as Richard II and Henry IV more attention than they often get . Seward is a big fan of Edward III.

Seward repeats some debatable history (a few too many people simply die of fright and intimidation) and yet also makes good use of quotes from old texts that are often quickly dismissed or don’t always get publicity. He offers his opinions on many of these excerpts and other things. Take those for what they are — the tip of Seward’s pinky toe knows more about the Plantagenets than I do — even if I question his conclusions and analyses occasionally.

An excellent (and quick) supplemental read for those already familiar with the Plantagenets or English medieval and Renaissance era history. It could also help the beginner by providing them with enough information for them to decide on a monarch to learn more about.

I only have a few mistakes to note:
Page 21 – Geoffrey took over Brittany, not Maine (the preceding segment of the sentence assigning it to Henry is correct)
Page 280 – the word “him” should probably be added – “then had him beheaded in the yard outside.”