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)

New from The Movie Snob.

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.