Book Review – American Emperor

Mention Aaron Burr’s name and the first thing that comes to a person’s mind will most likely be his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton.  What might not be so well known is the path Burr took after he fled New York or the fact that, even during his tenure as vice-president under Jefferson, he was plotting to build his own empire in the western half of the United States.  In American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America, David O. Stewart masterfully sheds light on this lesser-known portion of Burr’s career.  While the Burr/Hamilton duel is touched on, it is only briefly and as a backdrop to the animosity many Americans felt towards him at the time.  The majority of the book is spent covering Burr’s machinations with General James Wilkinson and Harman Blennerhassett along his subsequent trial for treason.  Stewart also discusses the dislike Jefferson had for Burr and Jefferson’s dead-level best attempts at ensuring Burr was found guilty of treason.

While the book doesn’t portray Burr in the most favorable light, I was left with the impression that Stewart gave a fair account of Burr’s character as well as his attempts at empire building without necessarily labeling him an outright traitor.  Burr isn’t painted as a monstrous traitor but neither are the charges of treason completely whitewashed.  In the end, Stewart agrees with the “not guilty” verdict based on John Marshall’s interpretation of the Constitution and not on whether or not Burr actually schemed against the U.S., which Stewart notes as being completely plausible.  The book also includes a copy of the “cipher letter” and the indictment against Burr.

American Emperor is a well-researched, readable account of Aaron Burr’s controversial plans.  I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about what happened after the duel.  (5/5 stars)

(Thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing an electronic copy of this book.)

Book Review – The Band That Played On

Any discussion of the sinking of the Titanic will usually include a mention of the heroic band of men who, even though facing certain death, played their instruments to the last, providing some measure of comfort and serenity to their fellow passengers.  As a band, their last act lives on in fame, but as individuals very little is known about them.  Steve Turner, in his book The Band That Played On, attempts to delve into the little that is known about each of the eight musicians, chronicling the history of each man, including family backgrounds and how each came to be a part of the Titanic’s fateful voyage.  Turner also weighs in on the “last song” debate, answering the question of which song the band is purported to have played in their last moments.  Was it really “Nearer My God to Thee” or some other song?  Read the book to find out!

Although the amount of details available about each man varies, Turner weaves them together to present a stirring narrative.  He does not go into the details of the sinking of the Titanic, choosing instead to focus on the musicians themselves.  He gleans snippets of information about the band from accounts written by other passengers, both during and after the voyage/sinking.  The end result is a book that brings the musicians out of the murky waters of obscurity and gives them back their humanity.  (4/5 stars)

(Thanks to Thomas Nelson for providing a review copy of this book.)

Book Review – The Greater Journey

Ever since I picked up John Adams, I have been an avid fan of David McCullough.  His biography of Harry Truman is perhaps the best one I’ve ever read.  McCullough has a knack for taking people or things that perhaps have escaped the popular limelight (such as the Panama Canal or the Brooklyn Bridge) and writes a completely captivating history of them.  You do not simply read a McCullough book, you experience it.

When I first heard that McCullough was penning a new work focusing on the impact that Parisian life had on Americans of the 19th century, I was quite excited to say the least.  And when I was offered the chance to do a pre-release review of The Greater Journey, I was thrilled and jumped at the opportunity.  McCullough did not disappoint.

The Greater Journey varies in focus from his other works.  While the majority of his previous books have focused on political and engineering aspects of American history, The Greater Journey instead highlights many of the artistic influences of American history (Adams, Jefferson and Franklin get barely a mention).  Although working with a large cast of characters such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Cassatt, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Harriet Beecher Stowe, McCullough spotlights a few in more detail.  Although Samuel F. B. Morse is more widely known for inventing the telegraph, McCullough spends more time discussing Morse’s artistic work in the Louvre.  Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor of such memorials as the Farragut, Sherman and Robert Gould Shaw Memorials, was greatly influenced by his time in Paris.  Of particular interest to me was the account of Elihu Washburne’s efforts during the Franco-Prussian War to protect French, American and German citizens.  With each of these and others, McCullough writes of how their time in Paris influenced their artistic abilities or, as was the case with Charles Sumner, their political/humanitarian views.

When I first heard of the subject matter of the book, I wasn’t sure it would be as interesting as McCullough’s other works that dealt with more sweeping changes such as 1776.  But while watching an interview of McCullough about the book, he made a statement that convinced me otherwise.  He said “History is much more than just politics and generals.  History is about life.  History is human.  And music, art, literature, poetry, theatre, science, the whole realm of the human spirit is all part of history.”

As captivating and readable as his other books, The Greater Journey offers a unique glimpse of the more cultural side of American history and the huge role Paris life played in shaping this culture. (5/5 stars)

The Wealth of Nations – FINISHED!

Events in the year 1776 were to be ones that changed the political face of the world for the rest of history. The fledgling United States of America was embroiled in its fight for independence from the British Empire, what was perhaps at that time the greatest power in the world. In July, the Declaration of Independence, authored principally by Thomas Jefferson was adopted by the United States, officially announcing its independence from the British Empire.

There was another document published that year, albeit one that was not quite as important and monumental as the Declaration of Independence. On March 9, 1776 Adam Smith published what was to become one of the greatest works in the field of economics and would help to change both the political and economic understanding of nations from that time on. The Wealth of Nations is “widely considered to be the first modern work in the field of economics…and the first comprehensive defense of free market policies.” (Wikipedia)

I am very pleased to announce that I have finally finished recording an unabridged audio version of Adam Smith’s seminal work.  This is perhaps one of the longest personal projects I’ve ever undertaken and I’m very glad to have it finally completed.  As far as I can tell, this is the only unabridged, human-read FREE version of this book you’ll find anywhere.

I started the project over 3 years ago, in January 2008.  To put that into perspective, Sarah was 7 months pregnant with Ben when I began this recording.  I used three different microphones (in increasing levels of quality) to record more than 370,000 words.  Total finished recording time is just over 36 hours.  Taking an average time on recording, proofing and editing at about 3 minutes for every 1 minute of finished recording comes out to about 108 hours total of time spent recording the book.

In between recording the five books that make up The Wealth of Nations, I made some other recordings, including John Bunyan’s autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and John Owen’s excellent book, The Mortification of Sin, both of which can also be downloaded for free.  What’s next?  Well, definitely something smaller, that’s for sure.  I’m considering working on C.H. Spurgeon’s Lectures To My Students, but haven’t quite decided yet.

If you enjoy audio books and would like to listen to what is continually listed in the top 100 books of all time, follow this link to download the free, unabridged audiobook of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed reading.

Outrage, context and jumping to conclusions

Imagine you are going shopping.  On a hot, muggy late August day you pull into the parking lot and stroll into the mall breathing a sigh of relief as you feel the rush of cool air hit you.  But that sigh gets caught in your throat as you glance over to the first store window and see the following notice:

“We will be closed on Friday, September 11, 2009 to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Ali.”

Did you read that right?  The store will be closing to commemorate a Muslim who died on September 11?  The immediate conclusion you might reach is that here was a store whose owners are CELEBRATING the tragic events of 9/11/01 and COMMEMORATING as a martyr one of the terrorists responsible.  What an outrage, right?!!  Why, you ought to march right into that store and give that Muslim a piece of your mind!!  Or better yet, tell everyone you know to boycott the store.  This is America!!  Capitalism at work!!  Drive these guys out of the country!!

Stop.  Breathe.

Go back and read the title of this post.  Got it?  Okay, let’s proceed.

First, yes, this really happened in Houston, Texas.  Imagine the surprise and shock Imran Chunawala, manager of The Perfume Planet, received when he and his store were the targets of such outrage.  Why would he be outraged? you might ask.  Did he really think people would be fine with him commemorating one of the most tragic events on American soil?

Stop.  Breathe.

So why would the store manager be surprised?  Perhaps it’s because Imam Ali was not one of the 9/11/01 terrorists.  Imam (a religious title) Ali was a Muslim who was attacked and killed while praying in a mosque on the 19th day of Ramadan – in the 7th century.  He died two days later, the 21st day of Ramadan.  According to Wikipedia, he was the guy responsible for splitting the Muslim community into the Sunni and Shi’a branches.  He also happened to be the cousin and son-in-law to the prophet Muhammed.

According to Snopes, “Since the Islamic calendar is based on lunar months with years of 354 or 355 days, the months of the Islamic calendar move around from year to year with respect to the Gregorian calendar [the one used by most of the Western world].”  Every year during Ramadan, the Islamic community honors Imam Ali on the 21st day of Ramadan, the day of his death.  In 2009, Ramadan began on August 22 which put the 21st day of Ramadan on, you guessed it — September 11.

Even though the store owner has put up a new sign in an attempt to explain who it was they were honoring, the employees and owner of the store still remain the targets of hostility.

Hopefully, the point of all this is obvious.  For some odd reason, it’s easy to believe every little negative tale about our public enemy of the moment – whether it’s Muslims (who seem to bear the brunt of many such tales), Democrats, Obama, illegal immigrants, big shot corporate CEOs, or a myriad other choices that can change with the wind.  However, more often than not a little knowledge is, in many cases, a safe thing.  Let’s not be so quick to accept the latest tale of dastardly deeds or malicious motives.

Remember, look before you leap.

WW II: A review

(Just came across this incredibly funny and well written “review.”)

There are some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning. I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called “World War II”.

Let’s start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn’t look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn’t get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn’t even mind the lack of originality if they weren’t so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren’t that evil. And that’s not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not only Prime Minister, he’s not only a brilliant military commander, he’s not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he’s also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he’s supposed to be the hero, but it’s not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.

So it’s pretty standard “shining amazing good guys who can do no wrong” versus “evil legions of darkness bent on torture and genocide” stuff, totally ignoring the nuances and realities of politics. The actual strategy of the war is barely any better. Just to give one example, in the Battle of the Bulge, a vastly larger force of Germans surround a small Allied battalion and demand they surrender or be killed. The Allied general sends back a single-word reply: “Nuts!”. The Germans attack, and, miraculously, the tiny Allied force holds them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of battle. Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military.

Probably the worst part was the ending. The British/German story arc gets boring, so they tie it up quickly, have the villain kill himself (on Walpurgisnacht of all days, not exactly subtle) and then totally switch gears to a battle between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific. Pretty much the same dichotomy – the Japanese kill, torture, perform medical experiments on prisoners, and frickin’ play football with the heads of murdered children, and the Americans are led by a kindly old man in a wheelchair.

Anyway, they spend the whole season building up how the Japanese home islands are a fortress, and the Japanese will never surrender, and there’s no way to take the Japanese home islands because they’re invincible…and then they realize they totally can’t have the Americans take the Japanese home islands so they have no way to wrap up the season.

So they invent a completely implausible superweapon that they’ve never mentioned until now. Apparently the Americans got some scientists together to invent it, only we never heard anything about it because it was “classified”. In two years, the scientists manage to invent a weapon a thousand times more powerful than anything anyone’s ever seen before – drawing from, of course, ancient mystical texts. Then they use the superweapon, blow up several Japanese cities easily, and the Japanese surrender. Convenient, isn’t it?

…and then, in the entire rest of the show, over five or six different big wars, they never use the superweapon again. Seriously. They have this whole thing about a war in Vietnam that lasts decades and kills tens of thousands of people, and they never wonder if maybe they should consider using the frickin’ unstoppable mystical superweapon that they won the last war with. At this point, you’re starting to wonder if any of the show’s writers have even watched the episodes the other writers made.

I’m not even going to get into the whole subplot about breaking a secret code (cleverly named “Enigma”, because the writers couldn’t spend more than two seconds thinking up a name for an enigmatic code), the giant superintelligent computer called Colossus (despite this being years before the transistor was even invented), the Soviet strongman whose name means “Man of Steel” in Russian (seriously, between calling the strongman “Man of Steel” and the Frenchman “de Gaulle”, whoever came up with the names for this thing ought to be shot).

So yeah. Stay away from the History Channel. Unlike most of the other networks, they don’t even try to make their stuff believable.

HT: James

Music Monday – Too Late to Apologize: A Declaration

In honor of Independence Day, here is a great video parody that is, in my opinion, much better than the original.  Those founding fathers sure knew how to rock! 🙂

Cast of Characters (in order of appearance, more or less):
King George
Thomas Jefferson
John Hancock
John Adams
Samuel Adams
Benjamin Franklin