Monday, May 28, 2018

Chernow reconstructs the life of U.S. Grant

The stories of people who lived before the age of sound recording often carry with them a mystic, spectral quality in the sense that a subject’s disposition must be inferred, even imagined. Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of American revolutionaries George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, published his latest historical excavation last year, this time reconstructing the life of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, a comprehensive, single-volume biography of the Hero of Appomattox and the 18th President of the United States, unearths details covering the entirety of Grant’s life, from the tensions of his personal relationships to the tumult of his professional endeavors.

Chernow’s work demystifies Grant, distinguishing his veracious, sentient nature from the complex, often adverse, and politically virulent environment in which he lived. What emerges from the narrative is an appreciable portrait of a man engaged in a life with purpose and perseverance. But it’s Chernow’s ability to extract and profile Grant’s emotional intelligence that leaves the reader with a sharper sense of Grant’s character and how he pursued his life, including the work of war, with the energy and intensity for which he is remembered.

The surprisingly sensitive nature of Grant’s character emerges slowly as the narrative unfolds, fully exposed by the time the story ends. Far from innate, Grant’s disposition during the Civil War was derived from life experiences that were often painful, marked by failure and frustration but balanced by family and friendship. Extensively researched, yet not constrained by trivia, Chernow’s work reveals how empathy and intuition, in addition to experience and strategy, guided Grant’s thinking and behavior in times of success and failure.

Extensive yet fluent and forthright, Grant is a tremendous volume of scholarship and an indispensable contribution to the story of the American character.

In his own words: Annotated Grant memoir compliments Chernow biography

A great companion piece to Ron Chernow’s, Grant, is the 2017 republication of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a complete annotated edition of the highly acclaimed memoir edited by John F. Marszalek. Written in the final months of his life, the story is dry, dense in specifics, yet brief… into the weeds and out again, moving on to the next battle or movement of troops, much like Grant’s approach to leading his armies.

There are moments in the book where Grant shares some personal insight or perspective, usually incidental as would occur in conversation, like the time President Lincoln made a private, yet laugh-out-loud joke to him about a Confederate officer’s oversized overcoat or his haunting reflection 20 years after that the historically horrific nature of the Civil War “should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future.” It’s those moments that keep the pages turning and make Grant’s memoir well worth the time.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Divert your attention with an engaging read

The American Psychological Association's 2017 Stress in America survey revealed that stress levels are on the rise. The usual suspects, money and work, made the list of reasons, as did politics. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the future of the nation is a very or somewhat significant source of stress. Also, this year's survey added to our understanding of the impact of technology, specifically smartphones, on stress levels. Stress is higher, by as much as 20 percent, for those who engage with their devices constantly. 

So with all this stress, what is one to do? Read, of course!

Research reveals all sorts of benefits from reading, including help with stress. Reading can help you relax by engaging the mind and refocusing attention. Even a few minutes can be enough to reduce stress levels by more than two-thirds. And it doesn't matter what you read so long as you enjoy it. So take some time to read a book... or two... or fifty!

Below are the most engaging books I read in 2017:

Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game
by JOHN THORN | 2011 | 365 pages
Baseball in the Garden of Eden is the work of official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn. Thorn explores the origins of America's pastime, both real and imagined. From the minutes of a town meeting in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1791 to the creation of the Mills Commission in 1905 and its mandate to document the provenance of the grande 'ole game, Thorn analyzes the views of those who believed, or had a vested interest in promoting, baseball to be uniquely American with those who asserted its evolution from other bat-and-ball games around the world. Thorn's assiduous synthesis of baseball scholarship contributes to a grander historical narrative than those on both sides of the argument might have imagined.

Washington: A Life 
by RON CHERNOW | 2010 | 927 pages
If the purpose of biography is to deepen understanding of one's character and disposition in historical context, Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life is most worthy of its Pulitzer status. Chernow's exploration of America's most renowned citizen takes the reader to Washington's personal and political world. Perhaps the only American president who can truly claim non-partisanship, Washington's life remains illustrative of the issues facing the early republic as it grew from an idea into an actuality. For readers of Chernow's earlier biography of Alexander Hamilton who thought that book was slow at times, Chernow strikes a balance between detail and delivery in Washington that keeps the pages turning.

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World
by ERIC METAXAS | 2017 | 416 pages 
The best biographies stand readers next to their subjects as they navigate the trials and tribulations that inspire studying and writing about them. Popular in tone and highly referenced, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World explores the period of The Reformation and Luther's role in it with style and substance. Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Phrophet, Spy, deftly takes readers through the tumultuous times of 16th century Europe with sanguine, 21st century expression.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
by REBECCA SOLNIT | 2009 | 353 pages
In A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit synthesizes the scholarship in disaster studies, revealing antithetical beliefs about human nature when calamity strikes; one empathetic, supportive, and heroic, and the other selfish, opportunistic, and savage... each competing to fill the void left when normal life disappears in an instant. Solnit’s work is a vivid disquisition on disaster response, elucidating the memories, stories, conversations, and experiences of those who were there… in San Francisco in 1906… in Nova Scotia in 1950… in New York City in 2001… in New Orleans in 2005. At once history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, Solnit weaves together a narrative of human behavior that is part revealing, part reassuring, and wholly thought provoking.

The Whiskey Rebels: A Novel
by DAVID LISS | 2008 | 519 pages
The Whiskey Rebels was one of those shot-in-the-dark, pleasant-surprise reads that happens every so often. The novel begins as two stories, riding stridently parallel while ever so slightly merging as the story progresses. Written in first-person, or first-persons, The Whiskey Rebels has a memoir-ish feel, leaving the reader looking out from inside the characters' minds... seeing what they see, hearing what they hear, and feeling what they feel. One also gets the sense of the arduous, heavy nature of life in early America including the hardships of the frontier and the bitter political conflicts that arose in a young nation trying to forge its identity.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Weir serves up another helping of sci-fi filet

As a launching conceit, a heist on the Moon is a meat hook. And for lovers of The Martian, Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis, serves up another helping of sci-fi filet that pushes readers beyond the horizon but not so far that they can’t find their way home.

People have not yet been to Mars, let alone survived under the circumstances in which Mark Watney found himself, but it sure seems a likely story after reading The Martian. Likewise, there are no cities on the Moon, but Weir provides a percipient account of how Moon life might emerge as a matter of routine... along with a few exceptional haps.

The emerging consensus about Artemis seems to be “it’s good, but not The Martian.” I don’t disagree. Weir will undoubtedly have to deal with comparisons, and rightfully so, since Artemis was created in the same near-future, kind-of-plausible-not-yet-possible vein. But while Artemis comes across as sort of a Martian Lite, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Weir knows how to put characters into acutely stressful situations and let us watch them try to work free, all-the-while integrating complex science with comedic, high-drama. Weir proves again that writers can direct-teach while spinning a good yarn; the learning doesn’t necessarily have to be inferred. But it’s the story, not the education, that makes Artemis worth the time. It’s conflict, tension, suspense, and consequence that keep the pages turning. Weir’s newest protagonist, Jazz Bashara, is eminently relatable. Mark Watney was an extraordinary figure in extraordinary circumstances. I wouldn’t be able to get near him in his time or mine. But Jazz Bashara is an ordinary person with ordinary problems (relationships, debt, petty crime... you know). And it’s those problems that help Weir extract a sophisticated yet accessible story from an environment as inhospitable as the Moon. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Little Soldiers widens the discourse on public education

It seems at times that Americans don’t quite know what to make of China. And it occurred to me after reading Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve by Lenora Chu that this is perhaps because China doesn’t quite know what to make of itself as it changes and continues to open up to the world. In Little Soldiers, a cultural inquiry that feels like a memoir, Chu, with wry, self-deprecation, recounts her experiences as the mother of a young American child beginning his formal education in the Chinese public school system and as a journalist trying to understand the context in which this system operates. Chu’s cultural dissonance and the Chinese education system’s traditional resolve emerge early in this heart-felt, reflective story in which Chu never quite seems to reconcile her own educational experiences growing up in Texas with those she wants for her children. She does, however, come to respect the discipline that characterizes the Chinese system and even embraces it as an important component of her son’s early education. This realization seems to unsettle her as much as anything, and drives her to learn more.

Chu’s past and present circumstances position her uniquely to tell the story of the Chinese and American educational systems. Chu takes a humanities based approach, compiling observations, perspectives, experiences, and research to produce a thick, context-based synthesis that reveals both the irreconcilable differences and common features of these two systems.

Chu senses a slight Western shift in the Chinese educational system as the country embraces the tenets of capitalism. And she offers the thought that American schools, particularly early on, could benefit from a slight Eastern shift. Chu ultimately advocates for widening the lens through which we view educational practice. While schools are a reflection of the societies in which they operate, Chu finds these systems are capable of change. Indeed, change may be the desired permanent state for both systems… all systems, even.

Near the end of Little Solders, Chu recounts an education conference she attended in Beijing in which one participant noted that “the speed of change in the way we educate is staggering. We will reach 2030 and none of the things we are talking about will be relevant at all.” I am not sure I recognize this speed of change from within the American system but perhaps if not solving the riddle of public education, Little Soldiers’ contribution is to expand the view of the education landscape for readers, allowing them to calibrate their assessment of what defines success in education and think more precisely about how to achieve it.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Electric October magnifies the mortals of the '47 Fall Classic

Joe DiMaggio was there. Jackie Robinson was there. Yogi Berra was there. Pee Wee Reese was there. And I felt like I was there after reading Kevin Cook’s Electric October, an account of the 1947 World Series as seen through the eyes of six men whose names haven’t traveled to the present quite as prominently as DiMaggio, Robinson, Berra, and Reese. DiMaggio was returning to the Fall Classic for the first time since serving in World War II, and Robinson was the first African-American to play in a World Series. But while Cook situates the ’47 Series in its appropriate social context, DiMaggio’s celebrity and Robinson’s courage are not featured. Rather it’s a story of triumph and tragedy for more marginal players whose baseball lives did not become immortal but who provided the moments that made the ’47 Series thrilling and dramatic.

A big hit, a near miss, and a great catch charge the current in Cook’s story. For Dodger third baseman Cookie Lavagetto, it was the biggest hit of his career… and the last. For every big hit, someone served it up. And for Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens, Lavagetto’s was the only hit he surrendered in his one Series start… and one of the last of his career. Finally, Dodger outfielder Al Gionfriddo recorded an out that was the bang at the end of his short run as a Major Leaguer. Also featured are Snuffy Stirnweiss (probably the Series MVP if it had been awarded then) and managers Bucky Harris and Burt Shotton (the last manager to wear street clothes in the dugout).

The subtext to the Series’ defining moments, eloquently captured by Cook’s narrative, is the tremendous surge in baseball popularity after World War II. Cook revives the excitement produced by a record 389,763 fans in Brooklyn and The Bronx that week as well as the sustained tension of each game that only baseball naturally affects.

There are some engaging anecdotes too, like how the Grapefruit League got its name, why players left their gloves on the field while they hit, and who started what would become the sabermetric revolution in baseball. Well researched and written, Electric October folds the time between today’s game and its forerunner, revealing that what made the game shine in 1947 still energizes baseball 70 years later. Nearly 19,000 players have worn a Major League Baseball uniform in the league’s 142-year history. Most are mortal, and like stars, they arrive on the scene, sparkle for a little while and then fade away. Electric October is a powerful telescope that lets us see some of the game’s mortals as they once were in their brightest moments.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon reminds, if not resolves

The devil, they say, is in the details. In the case of the Osage Nation, he was in the tribe's midst in the 1920's, unleashing a Reign of Terror in which dozens of tribal members were killed for their rights to the mineral money flowing from the tribe's underground reservation in the wild west prairie of Oklahoma. One man, one plan.

At least that's the official story.

In is new book, Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann delves deeper into the details, revealing perhaps a larger scope to the terror that consumed the tribe after it began reaping the benefits of its oil-rich land.

Grann tells the story of the federal investigation into the murders of Osage head-right holders and the small degrees of separation among conspirators, opportunists, and politicians that set the stage for the insidious schemes devised to separate the Osage from their land and wealth. If not a microcosm of the larger Native American experience, it's certainly an exposé of the potential for human depravity. It also expatiates the cultural disorientation of Native Americans "straddling not only two centuries but two civilizations."

While most of the elements of compelling drama are present in Grann's narrative - ego, mystery, conflict, escalation, discovery - the sad truth is that resolution has eluded the tribe. Time and tombs have locked away the full truth. However, Grann's research relates remnants of the historical record to an abiding Osage consciousness that the Reign of Terror was not just the concerted scheme of one bad actor, and a few lost souls, but a systemic culture of killing that began earlier and ended later than justice avowed.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann is attentive to his subject, emotionally, but also in the intellectual rigor of his research, his engagement with the culture, and his commitment to fully telling a story that can no longer be fully told.