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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’


Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection.

Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection. link

This post is long overdue.  I am currently reading about Teddy Roosevelt, almost a century beyond Thomas Jefferson in my quest to read about each U.S. President.  I had hoped to write about each President, but at this rate, I may be dead before I get to Obama!  Anyway, without further ado….

Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson left me puzzled about one of the most revered leaders of the revolutionary era.  Jefferson is an enigma, a complex amalgam of the best and the worst of American characteristics, a man to both revere and despise.

Known as he “the Sage of Monticello” and “the Apostle of Democracy”, Thomas Jefferson gets no shortage of encomium. Politicos of all stripes love to quote Jefferson, rallying the illustrious founder from his long dirt nap in support of or opposition to the cause du jour.  His face is on Mt. Rushmore, and he has his own monument in Washington.  Cities, counties, streets, highways, schools, particle accelerators, and even swimming pools are named in honor of the third president. But I think the most fitting tribute to Mr. Jefferson is his portrait on the face of the two dollar bill.

The Jefferson two dollar bill is legal tender, for all practical uses as good as George Washington’s greenback dollar. But we rarely see two dollar bills. Once I get one in my wallet, I’m torn. Should I hold on to it for its rarity, or try to get rid of it as fast as I can, because it is so…weird?  And so it is with Mr. Jefferson, people either love him or hate him.

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An image of John Adams from the collection of the New York Public Library.

John Adams, from the collection of the New York Public Library

If you haven’t heard from me on this site in a while, it is not because I haven’t been reading about the Presidents!  I started writing this post after reading McCullough’s “John Adams” in January.  Alas, many, many things prevented me from completing this post until now.  Enjoy!

Poor John Adams! Reading David McCullough‘s remarkable John Adams, you feel a little sorry for the guy. He was a hard-working, diligent public servant, a man of humble beginnings and humble means. Frugal, industrious, and dutifully loving towards his soul-mate Abigail, he really had few faults as a man. Yet, he never seemed to  measure up in the eyes of the public.

He served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, esteemed by his peers for his eloquence in the cause of liberty.  He risked his life crossing the Atlantic to serve as an ambassador in France. On his second trip to France aboard the Sensible, the ship sprung a leak.  Passengers and crew worked hand pumps night and day to keep the ill-fated vessel afloat as it limped to port in Spain. Undaunted by this detour, Adams and his entourage scaled the Pyrenees in winter by mule train.  After a thousand mile journey, they arrived in Paris late, but unharmed. To say that this goes above and beyond the normal call of duty seriously understates his commitment to service.

In Paris, Benjamin Franklin, the famous and flamboyant American diplomat, ostracized Adams.  At that time, Franklin was a somewhat doddering old man well past his prime. If his fractious relationship with Franklin hurt him, his pain was soothed by his growing friendship and affection for Thomas Jefferson.  The two forged a life-long bond that would eventually be torn asunder over politics, but in their older years rekindled via a series of remarkable letters between the two founders.  Adams went on to secure financial backing for the American cause from the Dutch government and financiers in Holland, bolstering the war effort financially.

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stack of books, Ballard, Seattle, Washington

Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

I like the WordPress challenge to write one blog post a day, or a week.  This is my attempt at getting off to a good start, with a quick post wrapping up 2010 in books.  I had started off the year hoping to read 50 books, or at least surpassing my previous record of 40 books.  I passed the 40 book mark in September, breezed past the 50 book mark in October, and ended the year completing 60 books, well past my goal.  Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

But, astute readers are assuredly wondering, were any of those 60 books good?  Were they mere comic books, just trashy beach novels, or were they actually, to cop a phrase from Alton Brown, “good reads”?   You can see my complete  list here, and I would love to hear your thoughts on any of these books, most of which were definitely worth reading.  One of the books was a graphic novel, which some people might derisively call a comic book, but, as this review points out, The Beats: A Graphic History is a full length graphic treatment on a serious subject.

Out of these sixty books, I find it hard to pick just a few best reads, but a few I would recommend to anyone.   Jon Krakauer‘s Where Men Win Glory: the Odyssey of Pat Tillman is a fantastic book, deflating the glorious story of war promoted by the war-mongers and revealing the truth behind the headlines in Tillman’s story, an atheist in the foxhole, killed by friendly fire while on a truly difficult mission.  Erik Larsen‘s Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America, which I reviewed earlier, is a wonderful look at fin de siècle America, and a true-crime masterpiece.   And Scott Huler’s On the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work is a real treat, looking at the unseen mysteries that lie all around us in the infrastructure that makes modern life so, well, modern.  Also, it is about Raleigh, which earns it bonus points from me, since I live in the Triangle.

Previously on this blog I’ve discussed the pros and cons of e-readers.  Thanks to my lovely wife, or Santa Claus if you prefer, I am now the proud owner of an Amazon Kindle.   I’ll be posting soon my experiences with the Kindle – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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Cover image, High Wire Act by Caroline van Hasselt

Cover image, High Wire Act by Caroline van Hasselt

A year and a half ago, a relative who remains a true believer in the cocktail hour was purchasing a gift for me on Amazon. Without a link to my wish list, he simply searched for my name on Amazon.   Of course, you could do this for anyone’s name and Amazon, being interested in selling you something, will show you a few items you can buy.  If you were looking for something for your cousin Joe Grisham, Amazon would be happy to show you all the books  that have flowed from John Grisham’s prolific pen.  Of course, the search results would have nothing to do with your cousin’s wish list, but after a few gimlets, what’s the difference?

And that is how I received High Wire Act: Ted Rogers and the Empire That Debt Built by Caroline van Hasselt for Christmas.  Note the last name, and you’ll understand how this result came up.  It is a non-fiction , my favorite genre, and it is a vaguely “techie” book about the communications industry, so it wasn’t a totally unreasonable choice for a gift.  But it was never on my wish list, despite said relative’s protestations to the contrary.
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One of my favorite NPR personalities is Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air’s book critic.  She has the perfect librarian voice, and, whether I read her recommended books or not, her reviews are a treat to listen to.

Tonight on Fresh Air, Ms. Corrigan wrapped up the year with a her list of Best Books of 2009, including five fiction and five non-fiction books.  Corrigan seems to have found a number of sleepers, books that haven’t gone unnoticed but haven’t been on the top of the best seller lists.

Two non fiction recommendations that will definitely end up on my to-read list are Fordlandia by Greg Grandin and The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience by Kirsten Downey.

Corrigan’s recommendations are in part based on her sense that the zeitgeist of the times harkens back to the Great Depression, an era brought to mind everyday in the financial headlines.  I like the fact that these true stories focus on the shadows of history, the first a story of a behind-the-scenes confidant and advisor to FDR, the other the story of Henry Ford’s alternative to the Bolshevik revolution, a worker’s paradise in Brazil modeled on his utopian vision.

More books to look forward to!

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Cover Image, The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju

Cover Image, The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju

Long before comic books became source material for movie and television scripts, teenagers across America escaped the confines of 1950’s suburbia through imaginations fueled by boldly colored comic books purchased for a dime at the corner drugstore.  Creeps, ghouls, psychopaths and superheroes leaped from the boldly colored pages of comics, taking young boys and girls on flights of fancy, at least until their parents found them hidden in their closets.  But these riveting tales challenged accepted social norms based on the conservative world view dominant in post war America, ultimately leading to a crackdown on the comic book industry.

David Hadju’s “The Ten-Cent Plague:  the Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America”  (isbn: 0312428235 ) chronicles this mostly forgotten era of generational conflict over comic books, that culminated with the passage of censorship laws that effectively destroyed the comic book industry as it then existed.  Comic writing and artwork changed radically, as self-imposed comic industry censorship tamed all expressions of violence, sexuality, or criminality.  Threatened by the imposition of local or state laws that would have enforced censorship of comic books, and de-facto censorship in certain communities, the neutered and tamed comic book industry lost some of its best talent.

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Sun in a Bottle cover image

Sun in a Bottle cover image

When I was young, I enjoyed reading articles about atomic fusion power and the world of tomorrow in National Geographic, Popular Science, and other gee-whiz magazines popular with middle school geeks.  This was before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, when nuclear power was still sort of cool, the wave of the future.

In these techno-topian visions, nuclear fusion would one day give the world unlimited power for pennies per kilowatt.  Scientists would harness the power of the sun here on Earth, giving us practically free energy.  We’d have flying cars, with mini-nuclear power plants, and space travel for Everyman was just around the corner.

Fusion power always seemed so promising.  The mythical attraction of fusion was closely tied to our American ideals and ambitions.  Capturing the power of the sun surely was within reach of the most powerful, wealthiest, God-loving country on Earth.  The manifest destiny of the nuclear age was fusion, our divinely inspired right to free power, untouched, and untouchable, by foreign  hands.

But  decades later and with billions of public monies spent,  nuclear fusion remains perpetually on the drawing board.  In their optimism, the true believers who convinced  Congress and the public to pour money into the fusion quest underestimated the scope and difficulty of  harnessing fusion for peaceful  means.  Charles Seife’s Sun In a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking. (isbn: 0670020338)  follows the story of the quest for fusion power, from the bombing of Hiroshima, to the 1989 cold fusion debacle.

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