1776 (book review)

Happy Leap Day from The Movie Snob!

1776, by David McCullough (2005).  I think this the first book that I’ve read by the prolific McCullough.  I must have found it on sale somewhere, because I’m not a big Revolutionary War buff.  (Quick, in what year did the British surrender at Yorktown?  1781.  Thanks, Wikipedia!)  Anyway, this is a brisk and engaging tale of George Washington’s Continental Army in 1776.  (I got the impression that some significant events were happening down in the Carolinas, but we don’t hear about them.)  It was pretty much all news to me.  First, Washington’s army drove the British out of Boston.  Then he moved his army to New York, where the British soundly defeated him.  They chased Washington’s ragtag army into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania.  All might have been lost, but for Washington’s inspired sneak attack on Trenton, followed by another successfully sally at Princeton.  I was surprised to see how inept a commander Washington was in the early going of the war, but apparently he always learned from his mistakes.  The book is good, but it could have been MUCH improved by a few battlefield maps to show us exactly what was going on at each of the critical points.

Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline (book review)

New book review from The Movie Snob.

Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, by Montesquieu (translated by David Lowenthal).  I learned about this book the same way I learned about Memoirs of Hadrian—from Joseph Epstein’s book The Ideal of Culture.  This one didn’t impress me like Memoirs did.  The book is only about 200 pages long and purports to sweep from Rome’s humble beginnings to the fall of the Byzantine Empire some 2000 years later.  As a result, it moves quickly and lightly over events, and it made little impression on me.  Epstein calls it a work of genius, but if it is it went over my head.

Memoirs of Hadrian (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951).  I learned of the existence of this novel from Joseph Epstein’s The Ideal of Culture, and it did not disappoint.  It is a fictional memoir of the Roman emperor Hadrian (reigned 117 to 138) in the form of a long letter to his adopted grandson and heir, Marcus Aurelius.  Hadrian’s death is near, and he sums up his life and tries to offer some advice to his successor.  I get the impression a ton of historical research went into this work, so I assume it sticks pretty closely to the facts as we know them.  I really liked it, but then I’m a sucker for the swords-and-sandals genre.  So your mileage may vary.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones (2018).  I saw a glowing review of this new book and promptly ordered it.  It didn’t live up to the hype, but it’s fine.  It’s a slightly oversized book that is full of reproductions of maps, both real maps from long-ago days and modern maps of fantastic places like Oz and Middle Earth.  The illustrations are pretty cool.  The book also contains lots of short essays by “a team of distinguished writers and illustrators” about how wonderful and inspirational maps are.  I found the essays pretty forgettable, although I did like the one about Dungeons & Dragons by Lev Grossman.

The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty (book review)

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The Rise and Decline of American Religious Liberty, by Steven D. Smith (2014).  In this slim volume (171 pages, excluding endnotes), Smith sets out to correct what he views as the misleading conventional wisdom about the meaning of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment.  (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .”)  He argues that the Framers did not intend the Clause to usher in a strictly secular state but rather to establish that the national government had no jurisdiction to mess with state establishments of religion or to infringe on people’s rights to worship as they chose.  And he argues that the Supreme Court’s current incoherent religion jurisprudence is a result of straying from those original (limited) purposes.  I thought it was an interesting, if dense, book, but it seems to underplay the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment and especially the Equal Protection Clause.  Before the Civil War, yes, the states could have an established church or show favoritism to a religion (or religion in general).  But once states had to give everyone the “equal protection of laws,” what did that mean for religious favoritism?

Down the Great Unknown (book review)

A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon, by Edward Dolnick (2001).  I think my sister gave me this book as a reminder of a vacation we took in Utah some years ago.  If memory serves, she and her friend Jane and I were blowing through the tiny town of Green River when we decided to stop at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum.  I, at least, knew nothing about Powell or his crazy expeditions to float down the Green and Colorado Rivers back in 1869 and 1871.  And I think we were a little punch-drunk from long days of driving, because we pretty much laughed our way through the museum without learning much.  Anyway, this book tells you everything you’d want to know about the 1869 expedition (the 1871 expedition gets only a brief mention).  Powell was an interesting character—a one-armed veteran of the Civil War and an amateur geologist.  Dolnick’s prose is generally fine, but he loves metaphors and sprinkles them liberally on almost every page.  A favorite:  “The river holds the boat in place [against a rock] with overwhelming force, like a sumo wrestler smothering a kitten. . . .  A kitten might claw or bite a wrestler and sneak away in the ensuing confusion, but a river never ‘shifts its weight.’”  And at only 292 pages, it’s just the right length.

Caesar’s Druids (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Caesar’s Druids, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (2010).  This densely written and highly academic book surprised me right off the bat in a couple of ways.  First, I had no idea that Caesar’s Gallic Wars were “our richest textual source for ancient Druids.”  I read the Gallic Wars not too long ago, and I barely remember a reference to the Druids.  Second, I didn’t know that “there exists not one vestige of archaeological evidence that can be linked unequivocally to the Druids.”  Thus, aside from Caesar and few scattered references in other ancient writers, we apparently know almost nothing about the Druids.  As a result, this book is full of discussions of ancient tombs and treasures and places and human sacrifices that we do know some things about, plus a bunch of speculation that maybe these things had something to do with Druids.  Or if not, maybe Druids did similar things anyway.  So, it was kind of interesting to learn about some of these ancient stories and archaeological finds, but I don’t guess I learned a lot about the Druids.  And no, contrary to Spinal Tap’s memorable song, the Druids didn’t have anything to do with Stonehenge.

Life in a Medieval Castle (book review)

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Life in a Medieval Castle, by Joseph and Frances Gies (1974).  I was an avid Dungeons & Dragons player back in the day, and at some point since then I heard this book described as a great description of, well, what life was like in medieval castles.  So I when I saw a yellowed old copy at an estate sale recently, I snatched it up.  It was decently interesting, but I wasn’t blown away.  The early going was not so great, as the book seemed to bog down in little stories about all these different English castle owners, and who married whose daughter and who rebelled against whom.  And although there are some photographs, they are generally very dark and of poor quality.  Still, as the book shifted its focus to how people actually lived in and around medieval castles, their customs and traditions, it got pretty good.  And at only 224 pages, it’s not a huge time investment.

The Landmark Julius Caesar (book review)

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works, translated and edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub (2017).  The complete works and then some – this volume contains not only the ten “books” Caesar wrote about the Gallic Wars and the civil war he fought with Pompey, but also four other books about Caesar’s campaigns that were written by other authors.  The translation is very readable (I’m in no position to judge its accuracy), and the stories are generally quite interesting.  Sure, I occasionally got lost among the many proper names for places, tribes, and people I’d never heard of before, but I didn’t sweat that.  One thing was a hoot – Caesar mentions the two soldiers at the center of the HBO miniseries Rome, by name, for their courage during a particular battle in the Gallic Wars!  They were real people!  Anyway, this edition is a massive chunk of a book because it contains lots of introductions, footnotes, maps, pictures, and appendices.  I read the introductions and lots of the footnotes, and they added a lot to the stories.  If you’re into the swords-and-sandals genre of history, this is a must-have.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, by Andrew Roberts (2011).  Is it possible to do more than skim the surface of World War II in a single reasonably sized volume?  Probably not.  But this one has a very readable style and seems to hit the highlights.  My enjoyment was diminished, however, when I looked at some reviews on Goodreads and saw some people calling Roberts out on some factual errors.  And then I saw some reviews criticizing the book for focusing much more heavily on the European theater than on the Asian/Pacific theater.  And I got kind of frustrated that the maps were all gathered at the front of the book and then weren’t even referenced in the text wherever they would have been useful.  So I can’t go more than three out of five stars for this one.

Trieste (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Trieste, by Daša Drndić (2012).  Drndić is a Croatian novelist and playwright, and this is a powerful and unusual novel about the Holocaust.  The central character is Haya Tedeschi, an assimilated Jew who lives most of her life in a town on the fluid border between Italy and what eventually becomes Yugoslavia.  She turns 20 during World War II, and she has an affair with a handsome German officer who is stationed nearby for part of the war.  But the novel’s focus doesn’t really stay on her all that much; Drndić stuffs the novel with facts and digressions about World War II and the Holocaust, biographical sketches of various Nazis, and testimony from Holocaust survivors.  She indicts the many bystanders who knew what was happening to the Jews passing through their cities and towns in railroad cars and did nothing.  She indicts the Catholic Church for baptizing Jewish babies to save them from the Nazis but then refusing to return them to their parents after the war.  There’s a lot of information about a secret Nazi project to increase the “Aryan race” by kidnaping promising-looking babies and then adopting them out to good German families.  And near the end, Drndić instructs us about how 5,000 Norwegian women who had liaisons with Nazis during the war were sent to work camps after the war, and many of their babies were adopted out and subjected to all sorts of abuse.  Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA was the daughter of such a liaison (although her mother moved to Sweden in 1946 and they avoided the abuse)!  It is a powerful and disturbing book.

From Shame to Sin (book review)

Well, The Movie Snob set out to see Black Panther today, but the movie theater had some technical difficulties and it just wasn’t to be.  So here’s a book review instead…

From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, by Kyle Harper (2013).  How’s that for a grabby title–subtitle combination?  Harper is associate professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, and he puts his knowledge of ancient Roman literature to good use as he explores—well, the Christian transformation of sexual morality in late antiquity.  He starts with the state of affairs in the pagan Roman Empire in the first centuries A.D., and it is a pretty squalid state (by Christian standards).  As he repeatedly emphasizes, it was a world built on slavery and the exploitation of slaves.  Christianity had a revolutionary effect on many aspects of life, in sexual morality of course, but also in recognizing that every person, regardless of social status, has the ability and the duty to choose between good and evil.  I thought it was a very interesting book.

Art: A New History (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Art: A New History, by Paul Johnson (2003).  This 750-page tome is about the size and shape of your old college art-history textbook.  But, because it is by Paul Johnson (Churchill), it is probably much more enjoyable to read.  Johnson sets out to survey the whole history of art, starting with the surviving fragments of prehistoric art, spending lots of time with the Greeks and Romans, and then gradually working his way up to the present day.  Well, maybe not the WHOLE history.  The focus is overwhelmingly on Western art; there is very little on Asia, Africa, Australia, or any part of the Americas other than the good old US of A.  Subject to that limitation, he covers an amazing number of artists—although “cover” is probably too strong a word since only the really big names like Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Picasso get more than a paragraph or two.  But rest assured that you will meet, however briefly, a vast array of interesting artists.  There are plenty of color pictures in the book, but Johnson mentions so many more artworks that you’ll probably want to have a tablet handy as you read so you can look up some of the paintings he describes that aren’t reproduced in the book.  He also covers architecture in fair detail, which I found interesting.  An enjoyable read if you have an interest but no real background in art.

Stealing the Mystic Lamb (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, by Noah Charney (2010).  I had the pleasure of visiting Belgium a while back, and one of our tour guides strongly recommended this nonfiction book about the work of art known as the Ghent Altarpiece.  Painted by Jan van Eyck and finished in 1432, the altarpiece is an immense, multi-part work, and this book describes the artwork, its creation, and several of the times it has been stolen in whole or in part.  Alas, I found the book disappointing.  The reproductions of the paintings in the middle of the book are too small, and the reproduction of the interior of the altarpiece goes across two pages so that the central features of the work disappear down into the spine of the book.  The writing is not particularly good, in my humble opinion; it is repetitious in some places and obscure in others.  A good chunk of the book, at the end, is given over to the tale of the altarpiece’s recovery from the Nazis, some of whom intended to blow up this and many other priceless artworks in the waning days of WWII.  There’s some interesting stuff in this book, but on the whole I really can’t recommend it.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard (2015).  I guess I will never tire of reading books about ancient Rome.  This is a good one.  It starts at the very beginning, examining the mythical founding stories of Romulus and Remus and the early dynasty of kings of Rome, and then marches up to the year 212 A.D. when emperor Caracalla made every free male inhabitant of the empire a Roman citizen.  Beard doesn’t focus much on the big names of Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus, but Cicero gets quite of bit of ink.  Very readable, but I did get slightly irritated when Beard would interject little comments about how barbaric or how sexist some particular ancient practice seems by today’s standards.  I didn’t really need her to prove her up-to-date sensibilities to me.

The Diary of a Young Girl (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank.  I had never read this famous book before, but when I signed up for a vacation trip to Amsterdam I figured I should read it first.  I got about halfway through before my trip rolled around, but that was enough to help give me some context when I visited the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam.  I finished the book over the course of the trip.  Anyway, it is an interesting book, and Anne comes across as a lively, spirited, and strong-willed teenager.  It does get a little repetitive, perhaps, but how could it not, given that Anne lived in hiding in a tiny space with the same group of people for two years?

The Clockwork Universe (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick (2011).  Aw.  I just pulled this book off the shelf and discovered it still bore a price tag from my beloved Borders Bookstore, may it rest in peace.  Anyway, this is an enjoyable read about the scientific revolution in and around the time of Sir Isaac Newton.  Dolnick keeps it pretty simple and even interesting, which is saying something considering that I generally find science pretty boring.  But Dolnick knows how to tell a story, leavening the science stuff with juicy tidbits about the plague, methods of execution, and the wicked personal rivalries between some of the scientific figures of the day.  I plan to send this volume on to my scientist sister and see what she thinks of it.

Dying Every Day (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, by James Romm (2014).  Seneca was an ambitious philosopher–poet–politician in ancient Rome.  He became a tutor of Nero, who was heir-apparent to Roman emperor Claudius, and attempted to instill Stoic philosophy and virtue in the young man.  Unfortunately, Nero turned out to be a homicidal maniac who, among other things, arranged for the murder of his own mother.  Things ended badly for Nero, Seneca, and lots of other people in Nero’s orbit, but only after a reign of terror that lasted about 13 years.  It’s definitely an interesting story, and well told by Romm, a classics professor at Bard College.

Kearny’s March (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Kearny’s March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847, by Winston Groom (Alfred A. Knopf 2011).  This book of popular history is not really my usual fare, but I saw a good review of it somewhere and then saw it on sale somewhere else.  It is an interesting read, mainly about the Mexican-American War and the conquest of New Mexico and California by the United States.  There are, as the title suggests, heroic marches across unforgiving wilderness, and also a few pitched battles that Groom describes in some detail.  I was mainly struck by how few combatants seemed to be involved in the battles—the clashing armies seldom seemed to contain more than a couple thousand men, and sometime only a few hundred.  Groom also gives a thumbnail sketch of what happened to the infamous Donner party (the band of settlers that got stuck in the mountains trying to get to California and wound up turning cannibal).  I thought it was a good book.

A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe, by Christian Meier (Oxford 2012). Seems like I just can’t get enough of those ancient Greeks and Romans. This is a dense book by a leading historian and scholar of our toga-clad forebears. Meier sets out to discover why a “culture of freedom” arose in ancient Greece and seemingly nowhere else. Interestingly, he focuses on the centuries before the part of Greek history that is usually written about—that is, he writes about the centuries before the rise of Athens, before the Greeks’ successful defenses against Persian invasion, and before the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Because the historical record is so thin, there’s necessarily a lot of speculation about what went on roughly 1200-500 B.C., but Meier seems to be the right man for the job. It’s not a fast read, but it’s an interesting and thought-provoking one.

A Little History of the World (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

A Little History of the World, by E. H. Gombrich (Yale 1985).  This is apparently quite a famous book, but I learned of it only recently.  Its background is quite interesting.  In 1935, a twenty-six-year-old Austrian named Ernst Gombrich had his doctorate in art history but no immediate job prospects.  An acquaintance asked him to review an English-language history book for children, and Gombrich opined that he could do a better job.  The acquaintance invited him to try, and in six weeks he banged one out.  It was published in 1936 and became a success.  Thirty years later he put out a second edition, and it too was a success.  Finally, he and his granddaughter translated it into English, and here it is.  Although the book is pitched to the level of a reasonably intelligent child, I would say it is a pleasure to read for all ages.  Gombrich’s authorial voice is gentle and humane, and he does not treat our ancestors and their beliefs with condescension.  The title is a touch misleading because Gombrich’s focus is strongly European, with only a few scattered glances at China, India, Japan, Africa, and the Americas.  But if you’re going to write all of human history in 284 pages, I imagine some things are going to have to get short-changed.  I quite enjoyed it, and I may have to keep my eyes peeled for Gombrich’s even more famous work, The Story of Art.

Jane’s Fame (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman (2009).  I think I picked this little volume up through Daedalus, a dealer in discounted books.  It’s a pretty good little book, if you’re into Jane Austen.  It gives a little biography of the author, focusing on the titular topic of Jane’s fame as an author.  Turns out she did manage to sell some of her novels during her lifetime, and they were apparently reasonably popular, if not runaway bestsellers.  But she died so young, and with such a small output, that she seemed destined for obscurity.  And yet, somehow her novels continued to interest enough readers to keep her in print, and by the end of the 1800s she was popular enough to justify more and more editions of her works.  Critical attention followed, and of course by the end of the 1900s Hollywood had done its part to propel Jane’s popularity into the stratosphere.  So, it’s a reasonably interesting book for Janeites.  Other folks probably would not find it quite so interesting….

In the Garden of Beasts (book review)

Another book review from The Movie Snob.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson (2011).  The cover blurb from the New York Times says, “By far his best and most engrossing work of novelistic history.”  I don’t know any of Larson’s other work, but this really is a history book that reads like a novel.  In 1933, FDR had a hard time finding someone willing to serve as America’s ambassador to Germany, where Hitler had just come to power.  The honor eventually went to an unassuming history professor from Chicago named William E. Dodd, and he took his wife and two grown children to Berlin with him.  This book recounts their experiences during the first year of his ambassadorship, especially Dodd’s and those of his 24-year-old daughter Martha.  It is a fascinating tale, as they hear about and see little incidents indicative of the barbaric turn Germany was beginning to take.  Martha, a gad-about, meets and flirts not only with Nazi officers but also with a fellow from the Soviet embassy (who was, unknown to her, part of the Soviet spy service).  The book is so interesting and well written that I really found it hard to put down.

Six Days of War (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael B. Oren (2002).  I bought this tome a while back after reading a favorable review, but it has taken me a long while to tackle it.  Basically, Oren spends about thirty pages setting the stage with a chapter covering the period from creation of modern Israel in 1948 up to 1966.  Then he spends about 140 pages on the crises that led up to the Six Day War, about an equal number of pages on the war itself (June 5-10, 1967), and twenty pages or so on the aftermath.  It is a good book, but it is not light reading; the central part of the book covers events in very thorough detail.  As I understand it, Egypt and Syria more or less goaded each other into preparing, or at least appearing to prepare, for war with Israel.  Egypt deployed a huge proportion of its army into the Sinai Peninsula and blockaded Israel’s access to the Red Sea, and Israel eventually decided it had to attack Egypt first because a successful Egyptian first strike from Sinai could have destroyed the whole country.  The Israelis basically obliterated the Egyptian military, provoking Jordanian and Syrian attacks, and by the end of the sixth day Israel had conquered Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.  I found it interesting, although more detailed than a non-specialist like me really needs.  It did make me want to learn more about the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which I believe the Arabs unsuccessfully tried to turn the tables on the Israelis.  But don’t quote me on that.

Plain, Honest Men (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob

Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, by Richard Beeman (Random House 2009). I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Beeman speak at a luncheon last year. His topic was constitutional interpretation, and his angle, as I recall, was that people who try to ascertain the “original intent” of the people who wrote the Constitution are doomed because there was no single original intent that was shared by all the authors when they wrote things like the “necessary and proper” clause or the Equal Protection Clause. He was selling autographed copies of his recently published book, so I picked one up. I had never read an account of the great convention that devised the Constitution, so it was pretty much all new to me, and I generally thought it was interesting. And I picked up one fact that was definitely new to me, that the Constitution had already been ratified by nine states (which was the magic number before the thing went into effect) before New York voted on it — I had thought that New York’s vote was critical, and that one reason we venerate The Federalist Papers is that they helped persuade New Yorkers to ratify. Anyway, if you have a particular interest in the subject, I highly recommend this book; for people whose interest is more casual, it is probably a little too detailed.