Archive for December, 2017

Reading List 2017

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

I read 36 books in 2017.  I generally write up a capsule of each as I finish so I don’t have much new to say. Here are the ones I strongly recommended:

And here’s everything I reviewed in 2017.


Review: Race and the Early Republic

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Race and the Early Republic is an excellent introduction to how US society reacted to citizens and slaves who were outside the early ideas of what constituted people.  Of course, the term in use was “white men” – a more honest phrasing than many in common use today. Michael Morrison builds Race from a collection of scholarly essays on relevant topics and enlists the authors to cross-pollinate (and cross reference) one another.  It forms an interesting and cohesive collection. It is academic enough that it is a little dry for my tastes.

Though I find the presentation sterile, the ideas are compelling.  Essays address different aspects of how European immigrants, indigenous people, and slaves found their way in the new country.  Importantly the authors look out from the groups as well as in from the majority and historical point of view.  The collection acknowledges what the dominant population encoded into the historical narrative as well as the actions and reactions of  the people themselves.  The resulting book brings more texture and understanding of the period and how it meshes with what comes before and after.

Present and Accounted For

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

O Holy Night
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Adeste Fidelis
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
Christmas in Hollis
The First Noel
Merry Christmas, Baby.

And The Little Drummer Boy, if and only if you’re Bowie and Crosby.

Review: The Second Coming of the KKK

Friday, December 29th, 2017

The three incarnations of the KKK each have a distinct character wrapped around manifestation of the parts of American society that resist change and exploit fear. My description may sound a little timid for an institution that is universally reviled – and I revile it – but the strongest elements of Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK explain how Klan leaders presented it to the nation as a normal institution.  The second (major) incarnation was the most visible and politically influential one.  At a time when our leaders openly demean citizens based on their race, or their origin, or similar sources of otherness, Gordon’s study of the history is essential.

The current xenophobic forces in the country and world are not the KKK, but the tools and motivations that its leaders used to expand the institution’s influence are all clearly visible in today’s news.

Gordon’s history is extensively researched and clearly articulated.  She breaks out her analysis topically rather than chronologically. That helps separate the concerns but does somewhat obscure the narrative arc.  That said, exploring the mechanisms and driving forces of the expansion are telling.  The 1920’s KKK (the second coming) was equal parts fraternal organization, terror group, and multi-layered marketing scheme.  She picks each of these elements (and a couple more) apart deftly and cleanly. Watching and understanding those wheels is enlightening.

Of course the most mortifying thing about both the 20’s KKK and the current fear-mongering is that citizens embrace it.  To me, the elements that the Klan leaders present are combinations of rationalizations, appeals to avarice, raising false fears, and appeals to the herd mentality.  On the other hand, people – and I’m a person – always respond to them.  I would be delighted if Coming presented some kind of remedy, but the 20’s Klan pretty much burned itself out.  There’s some solace in that, but I’d rather have a clearer path.

In any case, there is much to learn from Second Coming.


Review: Victorian Los Angeles

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

Until I sat down to write this review, I hadn’t noticed that Chris Epting is also the author of Teddy Roosevelt in California, which I also enjoyed reading.

Victorian LA is a combination of tour book and historical retrospective mostly set in downtown.  LA has a reputation of being a Mid-century Modern, Art Deco, Jet Age kind of city, but this work highlights Victorian buildings and their origins.  Epting’s enthusiasm and knowledge shines through.  His prose is clear and compelling.  Overall a great book to plan a trip downtown (and other older neighborhoods) to scope cool architecture.


Review: Prisoners of Geography

Sunday, December 10th, 2017

Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography, is an old had covering foreign policy for the BBC et al. He’s been around the block physically and philosophically and Prisoners does an excellent job showing readers how those link.

The theme of Prisoners is relating the physical shape of nations to their goals and actions as collective entities.  Marshall is not the first to make those kind of connections. His experience with both the reporting and reality of foreign policy sparks Prisoners into something special.

His discussions of how geography shapes the goals and actions of China, America, and Europe are clear and enlightening.  The first place his expertise deepens the analysis is in the discussion of  Russia’s long term motivations. His explanation of  how those motivations shaped Russia’s/Putin’s choices in the recent annexation of the Crimea sparkle. There is nothing like hearing the motivations of the nations, their leaders, and their people from someone who has done the hard work to understand them beyond a surface level.  The Crimean situation and Russia’s perspective are much clearer to me.

As good as the description of Russia is, the chapters on the Indian subcontinent and on Japan and Korea really shine. In particular, my understanding of the players and moves in Pakistan and Afghanistan is much, much clearer.  I’m interested in foreign policy and my eyes glaze over when experts try to explain the relationships in Pak-/Afhgan- istan.  Marshall sifts the facts to identify the key players – who only partially conform to the borders on the map and completely to the shape of the land – to illuminate their motivations, and to lay out their actions.  Actions that seemed random then seem direct now.  The descriptions of the history and motivations on the Korean peninsula is in the same league.


Review: The Unexpected President

Sunday, December 10th, 2017

I admit an unhealthy affinity for Chester A. Arthur and his presidency.  To me, he is the epitome of a man who rose from corrupt beginnings to grow into decency when thrust into the office.   The Unexpected President is Scott Greenberger’s biography of Arthur.

Greenberger tells the story in a solid, scholarly, readable way.  He describes the man and the times clearly and gives the reader the space to draw their own conclusions.  Or paint one’s own picture, I assume.


Fake Radio: a plug

Monday, December 4th, 2017

Fake Radio is putting on It’s A Wonderful Life this Friday night (7 Dec 2017) at the Acme . If you’ve never seen a performance, they’re a loose troup of comedians rooted in improv and voice acting who perform Golden Age radio dramas live. In my experience they bring the right amount of respect for the source material and gleeful snark to their renditions to make the evenings fun while keeping true to the material. They’re good fun. Come out and see them if you get a chance.

Portland folks also get a treat. Or two.