Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Founding Folks

I picked up the latest from David Liss in paperback (he has one newer one out in hardback) called Whiskey Rebels. Liss remains my favorite AgeOfReason Noir writer. Or Econ Noir, except that doesn't convey the historical nature. This novel takes place a decade past the revolutionary war, and one of the main character is a scoundrel, a former spy and accused traitor, who gets a chance to redeem his lost honor. The other character, a woman, makes her way into the wilds of Pennsylvania to make a living with her new husband only to find that there are scoundrels everywhere.

Revolutionary characters come into the story -- Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Washington, as well as forgotten characters, all set in a complex world of finance and a very familiar, fierce and bitter partisan squabble. Liss deflty places his fictional characters in the murky areas of history.

The story captivated me enough, that when I came across a copy of Founding Brothers, I gave it a read. The book is an examination of the relationships of some of our Founding Fathers: Hamilton, Burr, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. With ease it took apart my myths of the founding fathers, if only by knowing (as one might expect, if one thought of it) that they were just men, flawed in different ways, who by luck and good timing pulled off this amazing feat, and managed to keep it going often through their common rather than individual effort. Despite intense and often hard feelings, our revolution did not "eat itself" as have others in the peace that followed victory.

The book mostly focuses on what happened after the revolution, the divisions that grew over the Federalists and Republicans, those who wanted more federal power, those who wanted states power, the way that most parties came to terms (aka silence) over the issue of slavery, issues of finance, foreign policy, and issues of populism over elites. Intense hatreds developed, friendships floundered and were restored.

It's a marvelous retelling of our history worth reading for the complexity and ideas that we will still see reflected in the politics of today.

Labels: ,

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Holiday Reading

One upside of the nasty illness I had over this vacation is that I got a lot of reading done:

I marched on through Bernard Cornwall's Sharpe's series, and they continue to be thoroughly engaging. Sharpe's Enemy was particularly timely as it took place during the winter time. It has a description of a Christmas dinner that was almost as good as eating -- but that may have just been because I had no appetite.

I also finished Cornwall's grail quest trilogy (the Archer's Tale, Vagabond, and Heretic). The story takes places in the reign of Edward the Third after he invaded France. I hadn't really known much about the English long bow outside of Henry V and the battle of Agincourt. Apparently, the long bow already had been ruling the battle field for some time, and was particular to England because of the peculiarities of culture (wielding the bow being the national sport before soccer came along I guess). History aside, it was a good read all told, the main character Thomas the archer is much like his other main characters (Sharpe and Starbuck) rash, passionate, and soldier's soldiers -- not knowing much outside of how to fight never mind why -- their enemies are often on the same side as not.

I also found a new author, Louis Bayard, with the book The Black Tower, a historical mystery of sorts taking place during France's restoration of the monarchy after the demise of Napolean. The main character becoming involved in the investigation of a murder. What makes the book is the investigator, a man named Vidocq. He's a great character (read the wikipedia article on him), somewhat Holmesian, but more passionate, a former criminal, a lover of women, a master of disguise, and the terror of criminals all through Paris.

Good stuff. I just started another book by Bayard, called Timothy, which is the life and times of Tiny Tim now all grown up.

I did plow through a couple non fiction books as well: Saxon, Viking and Celts by Bryan Sykes. This is an investigation into the DNA of the people of the British Isles, trying to match genetics to what we know or believed we knew of the actual history. The annoying thing about the book (for me) is that it as written as an unveiling of a mystery, rather than "these are my conclusions and this is how we arrived at them". For me, that makes it a little less trustworthy somehow -- since I don't know where it is going to end up, I guess I can't see where and if the author is making leaps.

In any case, the upshot of their findings is that the genetics maps pretty well to history from the 800s on (in terms of where say viking and saxon genes -- which are hard to distinguish -- are likely to be), but there is little evidence for the migrations that we thought made up earlier prehistory. The Celts have been there for thousands of years. What we know of as Celtic culture, was likely a cultural migration.

And speaking of migration, this brings me to my last book, The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic by Stan Ulanski. I had high hopes for this book but was ultimately left disappointed. I can be quite fond of books that are leap from connection to connection, but reading details on for example sport fishing, the story of edward teach, and the story of the Mayflower seemed either self-indulgent, or filler. I was surprised there was not a more thorough treatment how the biology of the stream -- there was lots of details on the tuna, sports fish, and jelly fish, but there was little in between. Whales weren't talked about at all until the author began talking about whaling. Cod was mentioned only in passing.

The other big missing element is much about the environment, how much the biology might have changed over the years (there's hint when he dissects a fish at one point and finds a bottle cap), and there is not a mention of the controversy over the conveyor and Global warming except in the epilogue.

By the end of it, I felt I would have been better served if the title had been, The Atlantic Gyre: how the Atlantic ocean spins biology and history. Or something like that. It does have great details on ocean dynamics, climate, and the history of humans crossing the Atlantic, but I feel like the gulf stream itself is still merely a river in the ocean, but that I know that it is more.

Labels: , ,