Apollo 8: The Trilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger

Very well written pop history. Kluger also co-write Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 with Astronaut Jim Lovell that the movie Apollo 13 is based on. He is a clear fan of the space program and that shows through in this book. There is very little here NASA’s public relations office would disapprove of.

It is a straight ahead history of the December 1968 mission of Apollo 8, focusing primarily on Frank Borman, commander of the mission, with a somewhat lesser focus on the other crew members – Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. He also spotlights some of the managers, technicians, and engineers at NASA who made the mission possible, particularly Cris Kraft, Gene Kranz, and Jim Webb.

Kluger does a nice job with the narrative that does keep you interested throughout. If your sole interest is the mission itself and not the messy crap that happens behind the scenes when human beings are involved, this is the book for you. It was engrossing in that sense.
If you are looking for more behind the scenes stuff, the political and turf wars at NASA, how the Astronauts interacted with each other and with NASA, the finger pointing after the Apollo 1 fire, and more than a superficial look at the private lives of those involved, there isn’t too much here.
If you are looking for an deeper analysis of Apollo 8’s impact on America and the world, you won’t get much of that here either; Kluger begins with the assumption that the mission had a positive, even transcendent impact.

An example of this is his treatment of the Astronauts’ famous Christmas message from the moon in which they read passages from the Book of Genesis. Kluger treats this as a defining moment in the flight, and doesn’t even attempt to question whether it was appropriate. In fact Madalyn Murray O’Hair, America’s most hated atheist, sued the U.S. Government claiming it violated the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment. And while the suit was dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction, NASA never allowed it to happen again. As an atheist myself I have to say I wince a bit when I hear those transmissions, and in my view O’Hair had a case. But in truth I was not all that bothered by it. It was a different time, a dangerous time, and though the passages have no effect on me (other than eye rolls), I can see they were welcomed by a weary world at the end of a very bad year!

In any case, the point is Kluger is not attempting to provoke a debate, or to look at the space program in a wider context. He is telling the story of the Apollo 8 flight to the moon, and that’s it.
In this he succeeds admirably. If that is all you are looking for, it is well worth a read.

Note: I listened to the audio version of this book. Besides the book, Kluger’s recorded interview with Frank Borman is included as well as an edited version of mission transmissions. A nice bonus!

Shot All To Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape by Mark Lee Gardner

An excellent addition to the literature surrounding the life of Jesse James and the history of the James-Younger Gang. Very well written, its primary focus is on events leading up to their raid on the First National Bank of Northfield, MN, and the factors that influenced their decision to conduct a raid so far from their Missouri base. It does not claim to be a full biography of James or the James-Younger gang, but it does include enough back story to put their actions into proper context. The book is not perfect for reasons I will mention below, but is well researched, and exceedingly readable.

Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang are one of those historical Rorschach tests that usefully expose the biases of different segments of society. Whether one views the gang as heroes, anti-heroes, or villains often is a function of life experience, education and economic circumstance. For many the gang represents a rejection of political correctness, and of those viewed as elites trying to dictate how people should lead their lives. For others, they are an embodiment of the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War; a committed band of unreconstructed rebels, refusing to concede the end of their dream of an independent confederacy based on states’ rights and slavery. For still others, they represent an American version of the Robin Hood myth (for which there is no evidence). And lastly, for some, particularly descendants of their victims, or those who intellectually reject the notion that robbery and murder are in any way romantic, the James-Younger gang were simply killers, unable to get past Confederate defeat, compelled to continue the terrorism they practiced as bushwhackers under William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War.

For me, they are closer to the latter description. The more I read about them, the less I am inclined to view them as anything other than criminals. I recognize they are products of their experiences, but that does not make them admirable. That isn’t to say however, that I don’t find them fascinating. I think they do embody an aspect of the Civil War South that I think is important to understand. In states like Missouri and Kansas, the Civil War was a guerilla fight, one which pitted neighbor against neighbor in the most brutal way imaginable. In this it was much like the Revolutionary war as experienced in the southern back country – brutal and personal. The legacy of that fight is with us today.

Other than my general interest in virtually anything historical, I also have a personal interest in the James-Younger gang. One of the employees shot by them in the failed raid on the First National Bank in Northfield, MN – Alonzo Bunker – is a branch on my family tree. He was the son of my Great-Great-Great Grandfather. Growing up, we always heard stories about the relative who was shot by Jesse James, and my Great Grandfather who I knew as a child, had met him. Bunker wasn’t actually shot by James, but by gang member Charlie Pitts; still it was close enough to the truth to pique my interest growing up.

Most books on Jesse James and the James-Younger gang tend to take an admiring view of them. Authors invested in “Lost Cause” mythology are more likely to take a charitable view of their criminality, often excusing it as a justifiable response to some wrong they suffered, such as the botched Pinkerton raid on their home that killed their brother Archie, and severely wounded their mother. Other authors, who have a romantic view of the West and Western lore, seem unable to resist the lure of the “brave and daring” Jesse James. This has combined to make the outlaws pop culture heroes. Rarely are movies made about them, for example, that do not depict them as heroes or anti-heroes. A great example of this is the well-made but severely flawed “Long Riders,” produced in 1980. All of this makes it difficult to get to the truth about them and their activities.

There are a few even-handed treatments of them that try to get to the truth about their actions, and that attempt to put them in a political, cultural, economic, and psychological context. One of the best of these is Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles, who does a nice job of digging into the political climate in post war Missouri that allowed the James-Younger gang to operate with virtual impunity.

The subject of this review, falls somewhere in between these types. As the title of the book suggests, with its focus on the escape of Jesse and Frank James, rather than the capture or killing of the other six gang members, the author sometimes betrays a sneaking admiration for the outlaws. On the other hand, he doesn’t shy away from highlighting their brutality, detailing some of the murders committed by them during and after the Civil War. And, it is clear he admires the townspeople of Northfield who did what no one else had done, fought back against the gang. He movingly highlights the heroics of some of the townspeople, particularly Joseph Lee Heywood who was killed by Frank James after he repeatedly refused to open the bank’s safe.

Northfield celebrates this event to this day, with its annual “Defeat of Jesse James Days,” one of the largest town festivals in Minnesota.

Gardner is an excellent writer. The book, written in a narrative style, was at times a real page turner. His research is detailed, and seems spot on, illuminating many aspects of the Northfield raid that I had never read about before. For example, I had always known bystander Nicholas Gustafson was killed in the street outside the bank; shot in the head. What I did not know was that he did not die right away. In fact, he was able to get up, walk away, speak with others, and clean his wound. He actually died several days later as his brain began to swell. Most depictions of the event have him lying dead in the street. It was these kinds of details which really elevated the book. His chapters detailing the raid itself and the subsequent manhunt are among the best I have read. And he does an excellent job of teasing out interesting portraits of some of the lesser known actors in this drama, including 16-year-old Oscar Sorbel, the “Paul Revere of the Northfield Raid,” whose persistence eventually led to the killing of gang member Charlie Pitts, and capture of Bob, Jim, and Cole Younger.

On the other hand, the portions of the book detailing the early days of the James’s and Youngers as Confederate bushwhackers during the Civil War, and their early criminal career, weren’t as detailed. It is adequate to set up the events leading up to the Northfield Raid, but not much more. This doesn’t detract much from the power of the book however. Gardner is not attempting an exhaustive biography of the outlaws and so only provides what is needed to put the Raid itself into some context. He is also not explicitly attempting to put them into a larger political or social context. He does provide some of this though as an organic part of the narrative. What he chooses to highlight and incidents he describes do help one form a rudimentary political and psychological profile of the gang. A good example of this is the gang’s alleged reaction when they found out Adelbert Ames, a Union General, Reconstruction Governor of Mississippi, and son-in-law of the hated Benjamin Butler was living in Northfield, and had considerable holdings with the bank. The desire for sweet revenge against one who they believed had forced Yankee rule on the South and negro equality on the country may have become one reason for choosing Northfield as the target.

There were problems with the book. Occasionally the narrative dragged a bit, particularly when recounting the gang’s robbery of the train at Rocky Cut near Otterville, MO. He occasionally apes conventional wisdom, such as his dismissal of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency as a scandal ridden failure; an assertion that has been cast into significant doubt by Grant scholars.  And, as I noted earlier, he occasionally betrays a sneaking admiration for the outlaws that I find unnecessary. Not enough to cast doubt on the objectivity of his narrative, but worth mentioning. Overall though this is fine reading, a book any history nerd would enjoy.

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White

Another in a series of books attempting to restore the life and career of Ulysses S. Grant into proper historical perspective. Undoubtedly the most popular man in America at the time of his death in 1885, his reputation has taken a beating in the years since the end of Reconstruction. Due to a combination of Northern exhaustion after 15 years of Civil War and Reconstruction, and a purposeful campaign by Southern historians and heritage groups looking to recast the war as anything other than a fight to retain the institution of slavery, many myths about Grant have taken hold in popular imagination.

Ronald C. White, in American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, has given us a very accessible, and personal, biography of Grant that puts to rest many of the myths about him that have gained a foothold in popular memory since his death. He also provides what I consider to be one of the best reviews of Grant’s Presidency that has so far been published; one that puts it into proper historical context given the many challenges he faced after the disastrous Johnson years.

At the moment of his death on July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most revered man in America. He had shepherded the Union war effort to ultimate victory, had completed two terms as President, which, if not spectacularly successful in hindsight, had done little to diminish his popularity, and he had riveted the nation with his heroic struggle against time, as he raced to complete his memoirs before the ravages of throat cancer took his life. Those memoirs, completed only five days before his death, are the widely acknowledged gold standard among military autobiographies, and their popularity restored the Grant family fortune. The country went into deep and prolonged mourning after his death, with 1.5 million people attending his New York funeral. Despite this though, By the end of the 19th century, Grant’s reputation had undergone a large, and largely negative, change.

Ask the average person today what they know about Ulysses S. Grant and you are as likely to hear that he was a “butcher” and a “drunk,” as you are to hear he was the preeminent military figure of the Civil war whose skill and strategic genius saved the union. As with most myths however, the truth is far more complicated. And in the case of Grant, they are almost universally incorrect. White does a very good job of separating fact from fiction with regards to these myths.

One of the most pernicious of these myths surrounds Grant’s alleged drinking problem. It is supposedly the cause of his forced resignation from the Army, and was at the root of any setback he experienced throughout the war. Grant didn’t discipline his troops after the initial victory at Belmont, so he must have been drinking. Grant wasn’t prepared for Albert Sidney Johnston’s attach at Shiloh, so he must have been drinking. Grant unwisely ordered a last assault at Cold Harbor, so he must have been drinking. And on and on and on…

Politics too played a part. Rumors that Grant had resigned from the Army in 1854 because of his drinking allowed rival Generals, usually those annoyed that Grant’s success was getting in the way of their glory, to raise the specter that he had fallen off the wagon and should be replaced, with the usual recommendation being that the replacement should be the one making the charge.

White deals with these rumors in a very effective way. Rather than devoting a whole chapter on the topic, which to me has the effect of elevating their credibility, he simply deals with them within the timeline of the narrative. He does not assert Grant did not drink – he clearly did – he simply notes there is no convincing evidence that Grant routinely drank to excess, or that his drinking had any effect on his military performance. Contemporary evidence, other than repeated rumors, are almost non-existent. Every person sent to Grant’s command to investigate these rumors, reported back they had no basis in fact. So the reality then, as White shows, is that while Grant was not a teetotaler, he did not have a serious drinking problem. And there is not a scrap of evidence drinking ever had an effect on his performance during the war.

Another persistent myth about Grant relates to his military skill. Southerners, eager to elevate their participation in the war as a heroic struggle against a marauding north intent on trampling rights guaranteed them in the Constitution, had to come up with ways to explain their defeat that didn’t involve admitting any fault with their (lost) cause. From this sprang first, the assertion that Southern soldiers were superior to the northern counterparts. Whereas they portrayed themselves as selfless warriors merely looking to defend hearth and home, Northern troops were depicted as the lackeys of money grubbers looking to strip the South of its wealth, or, as so eloquently put by Shelby Foote, Confederates believed “one Southern soldier was worth ten Yankee hirelings.” Ironically, an argument could persuasively be made that the reality was exactly the opposite. Confederate soldiers were fighting so the landed gentry could maintain their way of life, one that depended on slavery. It was the North that was fighting for a concept – “Union.”

The second, and possibly the most important part of this effort to recast the war, was the importance of demonstrating the superiority of Confederate Generals. The post war south wanted heroes to latch on to. They had to be portrayed as honorable men, fighting for a righteous cause. They also had to find an explanation for their defeat other than the superiority of their northern counterparts. This was particularly true with their most idolized figure – Robert E. Lee.
Southerners dealt with these needs in two ways. First, they asserted the only way the North could have defeated the South was through brute force and overwhelming numbers. At no point, they asserted, were southern generals outmatched, or southern troops outfought. They simply lacked the resources needed to win. Secondly, in order to elevate the character of their hero Lee, they had to deflate that of the man who defeated him – Ulysses S. Grant.

White doesn’t deal extensively in what ifs related to the manpower argument. The South certainly had the resources it needed to win the war had it employed an effective strategy. It didn’t. He does debunk the notion that Grant was victorious solely through the application of overwhelming force. After all, the North had that same advantage from the beginning of the war, and were not able to defeat Lee. Only when an able General, one who understood the strategies needed to overwhelm Lee, took command, were they able to win. The fact is, as White shows, northern troops were equally as brave and skilled as their southern counterparts; and Grant was superior to Lee, particularly as a strategic thinker. Lee was myopically focused on the eastern theater, while Grant viewed the conflict as a nationwide one. Where Lee cared little for what happened in the west, Grant realized that success there made victory in the east more attainable.

White does a very effective job debunking most of the negative assertions about Grants military ability. He does not do this by ignoring Grant’s failures (e.g. Cold Harbor), or by denigrating the ability of Robert E. Lee. He presents an effective, though not ground breaking review of Grant’s efforts up to his elevation as General in Chief, and provides a very fair analysis of events after that point.

The only conclusion that can plausibly be drawn from available evidence is that Grant, far from being a butcher of men, was in fact a skilled tactician and strategist, who made effective use of his resources. He put in place an effective strategy for winning the war, and executed it with considerable skill. Robert E. Lee did present the toughest resistance Grant had come up against during the war, but Grant was more than equal to the task. His casualty rates during the Overland Campaign were appalling of course, but that was the expected result of the type of fighting needed to bludgeon the South into submission. Always on the attack Grant was guaranteed to suffer more casualties. But as a percentage of his Army they were no worse than Lee’s. And if one looks at the entire war, Grant lost considerably fewer men while in command than Lee did.

Following Lee’s surrender, Grant’s role changed. He entered the political realm, first as General in Chief under the volatile Andrew Johnson, then as interim Secretary of War, and finally as President. White provides an excellent review of this time, far better than most biographies of Grant which tend to rush through this period.

For many years, Grant has ranked near the bottom of the list of effective Presidents. But in recent years, as historians have begun to take a more dispassionate look at his two terms, that ranking has improved. White does what many biographers have not, examined his Presidency in the context of the challenges he faced.

As President, after two year of conflict under Andrew Johnson who aided the South as it tried to reassert white dominance, Grant faced a daunting task. Not only was he trying to repair the country, he was trying to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Ambivalent about slavery before the war, Grant became a staunch supporter of full citizenship for former slaves after it.

He made significant progress pushing back the Ku Klux Klan, and successfully navigated the rough political waters that went along with military reconstruction in the South. Many assert, including I think the author, that Grant should be considered the first Civil Rights President. Strong evidence for this includes the views of Frederick Douglass, who had a tepid opinion of Lincoln’s efforts on behalf of blacks, but strongly support Grant’s. The support of Jewish leaders as well, who were insulted by Grant’s infamous General Order #11 in 1862 that singled out Jewish traders for condemnation, but who came around to view him as an ally, is another piece of evidence in favor of that view. And not only was he a proponent of full rights for African Americans, but he tried to install a liberal policy regarding Native Americans, believing the government had trampled on their rights.

As events eventually overtook the country, and weariness after 15 years of war and the conflict of Reconstruction set in, much of what Grant did and tried to do, was rolled back by subsequent administrations. It would be nearly a century before blacks were able to get restored to them anything close to their full rights again. But, Grant’s efforts here were noble, and were for a time successful. He deserves credit for that.

Grant also had to deal with several economic issues during his administration. Early in his first term, wealthy speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the gold market. Grant intervened to stop them just in time, the result of which was Black Friday, a panic that led to months of financial devastation. White argues Grant’s quick action should be credited. While that is true, I think he goes too far in absolving Grant here. He either didn’t realize or didn’t want to realize, that he was being used by Gould and Fisk. Had he been more diligent, he might have been able to terminate their machinations without the subsequent panic.

White also gives Grant too much credit for the way he dealt with the depression of 1873. The crisis, which was the result of over speculation in railroad stock, led Grant to further contract the money supply in order to prevent over inflation. White implies this was the correct move in that it kept inflation from getting out of hand. However, at the same time it caused interest rates to rise, which hurt those in debt (as Grant acknowledged and agonized over), and severely limited the amount of money available to companies with growth plans. Those actions probably prolonged the downturn.

White compares Grant’s steady, no nonsense reaction to the crisis to Franklin Roosevelt’s reaction to the Great Depression of the 1930s, as he tried to cheer lead the economy into action, which White implies was a less effective strategy. This is not a good comparison. Grant’s reaction was to the immediate crisis as it occurred, while FDR’s was to an economy that had been in depression for three years, and which had sapped the countries will. A more apt comparison would have been to Hoover, whose reaction was much the same as Grant’s, a refusal to apply stimulus, thus prolonging the crisis.

White also deals effectively with the numerous scandals that occurred during Grant’s two terms. Seemingly unable to believe anyone he had known and trusted could act duplicitously, he was slow to remove corrupt officials, and remained loyal to those taking advantage of their relationship with him for far too long. Grant was personally incorruptible, but was seemingly blind to corruption around him until it instigated a crisis. This is the reason Grant is ranked as a middling President rather than an above average one.

Overall I think anyone with an interest in Ulysses S. Grant would enjoy this book immensely. It is generally fair (with the exceptions I noted), and effectively deals with the many myths surrounding Grant and his career. He does a nice job of tying Grant’s life as a boy and student at West Point to his later action as General and President. He does a nice job of recounting Grant’s career, and his service in both Mexico and in the Civil War. He provides a very lucid account of Grant’s Presidency that puts it into the context of the challenges he faced. He also gives a great account of Grant’s world tour after his White House years, and a very moving one of his final death struggle.

Most importantly, it is very well written

There are flaws, some of which I noted. He was at times quick to give Grant the benefit of the doubt in cases where there was an equally plausible counter argument. He also seemed to take great pains to portray Grant as a devout Christian. He was a believer of course, but I don’t think religion played a particularly important role in his life. And finally I think he gave Grant too much credit for his reactions to the gold crisis in 1869 and the depression of 1873.

Still, highly recommended!

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

Americans like to praise themselves for their ability to recognize, and to rise above their prejudices; to eventually do the right thing by those that have been oppressed and marginalized in our society. We praise Abraham Lincoln for emancipating the slaves; we praise Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for eventually achieving women’s suffrage; we praise Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and most especially Martin Luther King Jr. for Civil Rights advances in the 1960s; and we revere the genius of the founders for producing governing documents that lend themselves to an interpretation that asserts more freedom, more compassion, more equality, and more liberty for our citizens. We use this praise to assert a progressive vision of America and its institutions.

Each of those mentioned above, along with many, many others, are deserving of the praise accorded them. But, instead of using their example as proof of the worthiness of our system, what we should perhaps be doing a lot more of, is asking why we always seem to get into situations where change requires the extraordinary efforts of extraordinary people to accomplish it. Why can we not EVER learn from past experience to keep us from making the same mistakes over and over and over again?

I do think a system that produces men like Thurgood Marshall, Harry T. Moore, and Charles Hamilton Houston certainly must have its admirable qualities, and I think that is in part attributable to the foresight of the founders. But we are also a country that cannot seem to learn from its mistakes. We tolerated discrimination and violence against African Americans for far too long, and still tolerate it. We are the same country that allowed travesties like the subject of this great book, the “Groveland Boys” case, to occur (only a decade before I was born), and we seem to be sliding back into an ethic that again condones prejudice and discrimination.

Martin Luther King Jr famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would love to believe that, and I hope it is true, but my faith in that notion is being sorely tested. Books like this one, shine a very bright light on our history, and force us to face the notion that we should not only be praised for overcoming our own evil, but rather should be criticized for allowing it to fester for so long.

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King is an absolutely superb book. A beautifully and tightly written narrative, it recounts the events surrounding the Groveland, FL rape case in 1949. Four African American men – Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas – were falsely accused of raping 17 year old Norma Lee Padgett. Railroaded by a racist Sheriff, the odious and evil Willis V. McCall, a racist judge Truman Futch, and a go along to get along prosecutor Jesse Hunter ,the four men were convicted of the crime despite there being no evidence other than planted shoe impressions, and the word of Padgett herself.

Parallel to this narrative is a history of Thurgood Marshall and his time as lead council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Eventually the two stories intersect as the NAACP takes on the case of the “Groveland Boys, ” taking it to the Supreme Court twice, and eventually the office of the Florida Governor.

While this is a historic event whose outcome is well known, it is not a story many have heard before. The narrative style of the book demands some level of uncertainty as to its outcome for it to have the full effect. So I won’t be providing any spoilers here. This is ironic because knowing the level of racism in the south, the sway the KKK still had over whole swaths of the region, including Lake County, FL where this takes place, the ending seems foreshadowed. Still, there are enough twists and turns in the story to more than keep your attention and turn this into a genuine page turner.

I think part the author’s intention with this book was to inspire us with the stories of men like Marshall who were able to use their intellect, morality and persistence to overcome injustice from inside the system, and with the courage of the Groveland Boys themselves who, despite having to endure what can only be described as torture – both physical and mental – asserted their innocence knowing to do so would almost certainly result in their deaths.

I was inspired by them. But contrary, I believe, to the authors further intention, this did not lead me to believe in the efficacy of our system, or that it inevitably bends us toward justice. From my perspective, it is just the opposite. Justice is achieved despite our system. Only through the courage of people like the heroes in this story, who had to overcome a system stacked against them at almost every level, do we ever make progress toward a more just state.

This book is must reading!

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Every battle is the “bloodiest”, or most “sanguinary”. Every storm is a historic deluge that always seems to occur just as some momentous turning point is about to occur. Every secondary, or little known event, is in reality the pivot on which [fill in the blank’s] fortunes depend, and of course George Washington is the “greatest horseman of his generation.”

These and many other cliches are standard for works of popular American history. They engage the reader, build suspense, and imply new or unusual interpretations of allegedly well-understood events. In reality however, they seem cherry picked as a way to propel a chosen narrative, rather than providing evidence for a well crafted hypothesis.

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick makes excellent use of these, and other techniques to produce an admittedly well-crafted narrative review of its subject, that nevertheless, left me disappointed.

Philbrick, in my opinion, is one of only a handful of preeminent authors of popular American History. He has a gift for narrative only rivaled by David McCullough. I have enjoyed several of his previous works, including In the Heart of the Sea, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, and Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. With the exception of the last of these, they involved subjects with which I had little or no familiarity. I enjoyed them because of this fact, because of their narrative style, and despite their heavy use of the same type of hooks he uses in Valiant Ambition. I appreciated his book on Bunker Hill despite having more than passing familiarity with the topic, because he placed the event in its proper context, not elevating its importance beyond where it should be. In that work, he didn’t artificially elevate the importance of certain events to create tension. Unfortunately, with Valiant Ambition, he seems to have gone out of the way to do just the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a well-crafted book, which effectively weaves a dual biography of George Washington and Benedict Arnold’s Revolutionary wartime experience into a pretty seamless story. But there just isn’t much new here that has not been covered in numerous other books on these two men. His heavy use of the artificial build up of events, along with his liberal use of the cliches mentioned earlier, left me with a “been there, read that” feeling.

Philbrick uncritically uses quotes and passages attributable to Washington, Arnold, and many of the people they interacted with or who were affected by their actions, to convey the intended narrative effect. In some cases they are used to assert something without really having to research whether it was true or not. So when he notes that George Washington was generally understood to be the “greatest horseman of his generation,” he was in fact using a passage written by Thomas Jefferson as evidence. Obviously there is no way Jefferson, or anyone at the time, could prove such an assertion. Yet Philbrick makes it without any context behind it to help convey a sense of gravitas around Washington.

Prominent men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries wrote not only for an immediate need, but to make sure posterity interpreted their actions as they wished them to be. Whether it was a letter, a diary entry, or public conversation, they knew, and indeed hoped, their words would be shared. Using them without context, and without a close examination of the motivations behind them, leaves the interpretation susceptible to later contradiction. I understand why Philbrick does this, I just wish he had not done so so widely and uncritically.

I don’t want to overdraw the point however. There are place in the narrative where Philbrick does provide critical context, such as when analyzing the assertions by Benjamin Talmadge that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s plans to turn over West Point to the British was the fault of Arnold himself. Philbrick makes a persuasive case that the fault lay with John Andre, and that Talmadge’s assertions were designed to deflect blame from the failure of his spy network. In addition to this, in a few places, Philbrick hints at a deeper analysis of events than a simple narrative of them provides. I wanted more of this.

As a narrative work, Philbrick doesn’t make a real attempt at a more detailed analysis of the reasons for the Revolutionary War, or for Washington and Arnold’s participation in it. Given the number of books that essentially give the same narrative of these events as Philbrick’s (though admittedly with less skill), I wish he had instead applied his considerable talent to a deeper look. An exploration of the economic, cultural and political climate that gave rise to the Revolution or the motivation behind the participation of landed gentlemen such as George Washington, and of those who had acquired wealth through their own exertions such as Arnold, would have been fascinating. I would have liked a more thorough look at Arnold’s motivations for treason, not only based on his writings and actions, but on an analysis of what kind of hold identification as an American had for the average citizen, and how that affected Arnold’s decision and the reaction to it. He does hint at some of this, talking about the role economic class played in motivating those who supported independence. He also, briefly, dives more deeply into criticism of George Washington’s generalship. And he posited an interesting theory that Arnold’s treason actually brought together a country that was rapidly falling apart as the war dragged on. I just wish we had gotten a lot more of this kind of analysis throughout the book.

Overall I did enjoy this, if for no other reason than Philbrick is such a skilled writer. If your knowledge of Washington and Arnold doesn’t extend much beyond what you learned in school, this is a good place to start. If you are more familiar with the subjects though, this doesn’t provide much in the way of new insight, and may leave you wanting something new.


My Rating:
5.0 rating

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

I read this book many years ago during a militant pro-environment, animal rights phase of my life. Much older now I decided to pick it up again and see if I feel the same way about now as I did back then. I can’t say that I do in exactly the same way, but I admit it did stir the desire I think everyone has, to get a hold of some cause and devote to it so totally that almost any action taken on its behalf is seems justified.

The “Money Wrench Gang,” was written by Edward Abbey, a noted militant environmentalist with anarchical leanings, in 1975, and is credited by some as the inspiration for the Earth First movement which gained a foothold in the 1980s. It follows the adventures of four restless, environmentally minded eccentrics; a mildly Libertarian surgeon and his nurse/girlfriend/companion, a Jack Mormon river guide with three wives, and a slovenly, profane former Green Beret and Vietnam veteran with the all time great character name of George Washington Hayduke.

Brought together on a guided river tour, the four bemoan a system that is increasingly destroying the remaining untouched open spaces in the American West. They decide the only way to halt its degradation is by hitting those who profit from it where they hurt – their pocket books.

Dubbing themselves the Monkey Wrench Gang, they embark on a campaign of direct action, destroying the implements used by the system to effect environmental destruction – road construction equipment, power lines, railways etc. All the while they manage to stay a step ahead of some of the cartoonishly funny law enforcement personnel looking to catch them. They eventually escalate their attacks in a way that has profound effects for their future and for their ability to keep up their campaign.

And that is as far as I go so as not to spoil it for folks who have not read it.

Abbey’s writing style is by turns straight forward and insistent, allegorical, and at times, particularly when describing the environment the Monkey Wrench Gang is trying to save, quite lyrical. The book is often humorous and ribald, even as it tries to make a serious point. The characters are colorful, bigger than life ,and boldly drawn by Abbey, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Still, the overall effect is really inspiring. And, it is never boring.

I am older now, and no longer see things as black and white (though the Age of Trump is sorely testing me there), so I don’t think tactics such as these are useful in real life. But damn, sometimes I really wish they were.

My Rating:
3.0 rating

ehbIIILincoln and Grant’s Teamwork: Keys to Their Civil War Success by Edward H. Bonekemper, III

Basically the final chapter of Bonekemper’s largely fawning work Lincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the Civil War, it does a lucid job of looking at the traits Lincoln and Grant each possessed that made them effective working partners. The foremost of these was trust. Lincoln trusted Grant’s military judgment even during trying times. Grant trusted Lincoln’s political judgment, even when it meant not getting everything he felt was needed to prosecute the war.

Though well written some of its assertions are a bit of a stretch. But, it is an area most Lincoln and Grant biographers don’t dive into in detail so is well worth the read.

My Rating:
4.0 rating

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline


Ready Player One is included in the Young Adult section on Amazon.com. In many ways this is an appropriate categorization. Most of the book takes place inside a video game, and the main characters are teenagers with dialog that reflects that fact. However, like the Harry Potter books, there is plenty here for adults to get excited over, especially for those of us who came of age during the 1980s, an era most young people would have little familiarity with. The  themes implied in the story including the dangers that arise in an information culture, globalism, corporate power, and an exploration of the “real,” vs the “virtual.” None of these are exclusively the concerns of the young.

The story centers on Wade Owen Watts, who in the real world of 2044 America, lives with his alcoholic aunt, and her abusive boyfriend. They live in Oklahoma City in  a trailer home, part of the “stacks,” literally stacks of trailers and mobile home welded together into multi story structures. Like most of humanity however, Wade spends the vast majority of his time in the “OASIS,” or “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation”, a massive, immersive virtual space that doubles as both an MMORPG (Massive Multiple Player Online Role Playing Game) and a virtual society in which people live, work and even go to school. Wade attends High School from within the OASIS. Currency traded in the OASIS is the most stable and valuable, and while in the “real” world society still functions, it is sliding into a corporate run dystopia.

Within the OASIS people are identified by their avatars, alternate identities which each person creates to reflect how they would like to be seen by others. Wade Watts is known Parzival, and his best friend as Aetch. Along the way we are introduced to Art3mis, Daito and Shaito, and several others. These identities may or may not track closely with their real world personalities.
The story surrounds the death of one of the inventors of OASIS, James Donovan Halliday. In many ways modeled on Howard Hughes, Halliday and his partner Ogden Morrow (avatar Og), invented OASIS and formed the company that operates it, “Gregarious Simulation Systems.” After his death, rather than leave his wealth and company to a specific person, it is revealed he immersed within OASIS a game, a quest to find an Easter Egg, the finder of which would inherit Morrow’s riches, thus becoming one of the most powerful people in the world. Those who took up the challenge became known as Gunters (short for Egg Hunters).  Besides the individual players, and groups known as clans that formed to find the egg, another corporation, IOI (Innoative Online Industries) also joins the hunt. IOI is one of those classically evil corporations, using its vast resources to try and rule the world; in this case, by inheriting the riches of their main rival. Along the way they have no compunction about using bribery, coercion, kidnapping and murder to achieve their ends.

I won’t go further as I do not want to give away any important plot elements. The book is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg.

For folks like me, mid fifties with a nostalgia for the 1980s, Ready Player One is a feast. It is infused with the pop culture of that decade. References to classic video games (Pac Man, Tempest, Joust etc), music, movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War Games etc),and literature, form the clues and the simulated tasks Gunters must follow to find the egg. Like Steam Punk, it is an interesting and unique way to fuse past and future. For those younger folks unfamiliar with the origin of video games it is a fun way to connect that continuum – Pong to OASIS.

Besides being an fun and entertaining story, it also forces one to ponder the possible effects of increased reliance on virtual reality. Are they really the same as some assert, merely being different ways to stimulate the same areas of the brain? Or, does it represent a real threat as people become more isolated from each other? Or, does it bring people closer together as people virtually interact with others they never would have met in the real world. What are its implications as a few large corporations take over the industry, and become in many ways, more powerful than the government we elect to lead us? The author doesn’t really answer these questions, though the ending implies which way he is leaning.

This book was really a lot of fun. It was well written. The author has a gift for teenage dialogue, as I can attest being the father of a recent teenager myself. He does a great job keeping the story going and infusing suspense at just the right times. He has successfully fused a very entertaining and accessible story with larger questions about the future of human interaction within a virtual world. I am anxious to see what Steven Spielberg does with the film version.

Highly recommended!

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My Rating:
3.0 rating

LincolnGrantLincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

Purporting to look at the relationship that developed between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, “Lincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the War” by Edward H. Bonekemper III reads more like a perfunctory dual biography. There is little here to be gained that isn’t covered in better and more comprehensive works, or previous books by Mr. Bonekemper. There are two exceptions however. First, he provides a surprisingly engaging account of the “overland campaign,” which encompassed battles that pitted the Union Army of the Potomac against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia between April and June 1864. The campaign ended with the siege of Petersburg, VA by troops under the command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Bonekemper deftly describes the challenges faced by both Grant and Robert E. Lee, the strategy each employed, and a nice analysis of the result. He might consider writing a separate book on the topic.

A second area in which this book rose above a simple surface level biography of Lincoln and Grant is contained in his excellent summary chapter. Though meant to be both an analysis of the Lincoln-Grant relationship and a dual character study, most of the book was not devoted to that task as I noted above. However, what was provided, condensed into the summary chapter was surprisingly compelling. He identifies a number of characteristics Lincoln and Grant had in common, and noted representative situations that demonstrated how these common traits were manifested in their working relationship. A relationship Bonekemper asserts, that developed into one of complete mutual trust. These included adaptability acquired from a common western upbringing, decisiveness, clarity of communication, moral courage, and perseverance. Few would quibble with the assertion each man possessed these traits. Indeed, one only need review Lincoln’s orations and Grant’s written orders and memoirs to see that clarity of communication was a gift they shared. Bonekemper describes these with clarity as well. It highlights the point that this analysis was too diffuse in the body of the book to make a real impact on the reader. It may have been better as an academic paper.*

As with his other books Bonekemper’s honestly stated goal is to revive the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant. With a so blatant initial bias readers inclined to the opposite view may dismiss the valid points he makes out of hand. Also, he may consider whether he has gone to the well one too many times by making Ulysses S. Grant the subject of his work. Parts of this book appeared to be lifted, almost verbatim, from his previous books.

Well written overall but not much new save the exceptions I noted above.

*  I see Bonekemper has written a Kindle Single on this topic. May be the condensed version that I think would be more impactful. I am going to read it and report back.

My Rating:
3.0 rating

BonekemperUlysses S. Grant: A Victor Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III

Edward H. Bonekemper III is moving rapidly to fill the role of Ulysses S. Grant’s chief academic defender, attempting to reverse what he views as decades of ill-treatment at the hands of “lost cause” revisionists and the apathetic historians that have accepted their version of Grant’s military acumen a priori. There is truth in this. There is no doubt Grant’s reputation has suffered since his death in 1885. Southern historians, needing to explain away the defeat of their hero and exemplar of Southern rectitude, Robert E. Lee in a way that did not signal an acceptance of the notion he was incompetent or out-generaled, began coordinated effort to cast aspersions on his military record. Thus was born the description of Grant as “butcher” and “drunk,” and the assertion his victories were only due to the application of brute force rather than tactical skill. Conversely, the man Grant defeated has been canonized, his victories celebrated as genius, his defeats blamed on subordinates or poor circumstances. An example of this bias until recently, was the way monuments to each were cared for by the National Park Service. Lee’s home at Arlington has been lovingly cared for, including a recently completed 6 year restoration. Ditto the hundreds of statues and historic sites related to Lee throughout the South, especially Virginia. By contrast, Grant’s tomb in New York City and his massive equestrian statue on the grounds of the United States Capital had, until recently, been allowed to deteriorate, with the former becoming a magnet for graffiti artists and the homeless looking for a place to sleep. It took a threat by Grant descendants to have his body moved to Ohio to get the Park Service to undertake a restoration. Other examples abound, including his treatment in popular culture and histories focusing on other topics in which Grant is a minor player. Rather than look at recent scholarship it is easier just to accept long held conventional wisdom.

It is not hard than, to sympathize with Bonekemper’s view that Grant has been given short shrift by historians and the public. And frankly, I share it.

On the other hand, by so specifically aligning himself with a specific version of history, Bonekemper runs the risk of criticism for lack of objectivity, and that those inclined to an opposite view of Grant will use it to dismiss his valid points. It’s why the word “hagiography” is often used disparagingly by historians. This book is hagiography. He also runs the risk of applying his bias to an interpretation of evidence that is not warranted. This is always a danger for historians, but for those more committed to arriving at a fair interpretation of the facts it is something that is more scrupulously guarded against. Having said all of that however, and having studied Grant’s career rather extensively, I didn’t see any glaringly obvious bias in the information presented.

The goal of this book is very simple, to refute the charge, first given voice by “lost cause” apologists and later incorporated into mainstream histories, that Ulysses S. Grant was a “butcher of men,” that his disregard for human life was such that he was willing to sacrifice his men in a series of incompetent attacks knowing he had an almost unlimited ability to replace them. This also implied that Grant’s abilities as a military tactician were limited at best, particularly when compared with those of Robert E. Lee. Here Bonekemper does a good job of marshaling statistics to refute that contention.

He argues, pretty convincingly, that Grant was far from being the butcher portrayed by detractors. Rather, he was actually a skilled tactician and strategist who deployed his troops wisely and judiciously. Grant always had in mind the dual goal of minimizing casualties while maximizing damage to the enemy. He recognized, as his predecessors did not, that winning the war was the fastest way to end the carnage, and that this would require relentless and nearly non-stop attacks against an often entrenched enemy. Previous opponents of Lee viewed defeat in battle as an opportunity to retreat and regroup. Grant viewed them as temporary setbacks and an opportunity to learn from hard experience.

Here the author highlights two data points to make his case. First, throughout the war Grant lost 37,000 fewer men than did Robert E. Lee. During the period when Grant and Lee were in direct competition Grant lost more men, but a smaller percentage of those engaged. He accomplished this while being on the offensive nearly the entire time. Second, during the period encompassing Grant’s appointment as General-in-Chief through to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox about a year later, the Union Army of the Potomac , fighting on the offensive for nearly that entire period, suffered fewer casualties than under all of its previous commanders combined, a statistic that, in Bonekemper’s view, not only vindicates Grant’s tactical and strategic skill, but also absolves him of the “butcher” sobriquet. I tend to agree with this. In fact, he argues by the standard applied to Grant by his detractors Lee deserves the butcher label  far more than Grant does. He does not apply that standard however, believing the well-being of the troops was a priority of both Lee and Grant. He just argues that Grant was the superior General. Another view I am persuaded best fits the evidence.

This in a nutshell is Bonekemper’s argument. The rest of the book is a largely perfunctory  and admiring biography of Grant.

This work is well written, and at times engrossing. The author’s admiration for Grant is clear, which in many ways is refreshing after so many decades of revisionist Grant bashing. His research and citation appears impeccable, although the reliability of casualty figures, particularly of Confederate forces, is often sketchy. Despite this however, he appears to be using up to date analysis on which he bases a very plausible interpretation. Where I had some trouble, as I mentioned earlier, was with the blatant hagiographic impulse he admitted to at the beginning of the book. Refreshing as this interpretation of Grant’s career is, for those whose bias is the opposite it gives a ready made reason to discount the solid analysis contained in it. He also takes great pains to assert the most charitable interpretation of some of Grants’s less admirable actions. This too provides an opening to discount the entire work.

For its direct refutation of misinformation regarding Grant’s military career this is well worth reading. As a biography of Grant it is perfunctory at best. There are numerous better options available.


Current Bucket Status

Currently Reading: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Current Audio Book: The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum

On Deck: Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood

In the Bullpen: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

Last Read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

From Bucket Authors

New Bucket Books

An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield

The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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