What Happened by President Hillary Rodham Clinton
(Simon & Schuster, 2017, 512 pages)
I laughed, I cried, I cursed, but mostly I just shook my head. What Happened has been marketed as the story of the 2016 presidential election, but it’s more than that. The first half of the book is an autobiographical account of Mrs. Clinton’s life and how the events and people close to her helped her get to this point. She also gives insight into her everyday personal habits—her diet, her fashion sense (or lack thereof), and what she watches on tv. In the second half of the book, Mrs. Clinton talks about the policies, spending a lot of time on coal, an issue on which she felt misunderstood. Everything else you would expect to be here is—“those damn emails,” Russian interference, Trump creeping up behind her during debates, etc. She even reads a portion of what would have been her victory speech. Those who should read this won’t, but supporters of Mrs. Clinton will find it bittersweet and lament what could have been.
(aka 5/5 stars)
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen
(Crown, 2013, 352 pages)
I was honestly shocked at how much I loved this book. I thought I was picking up a well-reviewed food memoir and what I got was still an amazing food memoir, but it was also an accessible crash course in the history of the USSR. I’m not the best with history and that is doubly true when you ask me anything about the history of the Soviet Union. I could tell you random names and a few words in Russian, but there would be no cohesion to anything that came out of my mouth. Anya Von Bremzen not only made the history of the USSR straight-forward and accessible to the layperson, she also made me want to learn more which might be the last thing I would have expected.
Von Bremzen’s memoir traces her family history from her great-grandparents to the present day. She explains what life was like under Lenin and Stalin and Brezhnev and Gorbachev and Yeltsin and Putin… Whew. Things have changed considerably and it can be seen through the lens of food and the mentality of those who were raised in the different periods covered. Each chapter focuses on a decade and we get a glimpse into what life was like in this vast empire whose people and landscapes and foods varied so considerably. Von Bremzen and her mother left the USSR for the United States when the author was a teenager and the two women have very different feelings about this decision once they arrive and get settled. The book ends with the women in present-day Russia as the author comes to terms with the fact that the Russia she is in now is worlds apart from the land she left (though there are still some remnants that linger…).
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking was very well-written. There were parts where I laughed to myself and there were pages where I was constantly looking up people and places on my computer. While this wasn’t a quick-read for me I got a lot out of it and looked forward to each time I could pick it up. If you like memoirs, food, history and/or perhaps have a specific interest in the history of the USSR I think you’ll really enjoy this book.
What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy
by Malcolm D. Magee
(Baylor University Press, 2008, 200 pages)
Regardless of how often we are confronted with the inevitable entanglement of religious faith and politics, most of us still operate under the assumption that a politician’s faith and public policy can be neatly distinguished and compartmentalized. The folly of this assumption is no more evident than when it comes to dealing with foreign policy. In What the World Should Be Malcolm Magee makes the claim that it is precisely in this arena that Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian heritage is most evident.
Wilson was not only brought up in a devoutly Presbyterian family, but his academic career included the roles of both professor and president of Princeton University at a time when the school’s Presbyterian heritage was still an explicit part of its identity and scholarly output. These facts have been noted of course, but Magee shows that their significance has been vastly underrated in scholarship related to Wilson. He points out the observation of the English economist John Maynard Keyes who observed “that Woodrow Wilson thought like a Presbyterian minister, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that manner of thinking” (1). Wilson’s understanding of the nature of law and of covenants between nations was forged with the tools of the Reformed tradition’s interpretation of the Bible. As a result, his vision for the League of Nations and his efforts to stabilize Europe following the First World War were born of a religious impulse. Magee argues that Wilson saw his role as restoring divine order to a fallen world – a role that he was providentially selected to fulfill.
This is a critical study of Wilson’s foreign policy. Magee in no way faults Wilson for having a foreign policy shaped by religious impulses, but he is very critical of the specific attitudes and policies that resulted from them. He sees Wilson as having developed a prideful sense of providential purpose which ultimately led him to take an inflexible position on the development of the League of Nations, resulting in Congress’ refusal to pass the treaty that would have made the United States a member of the League. On this reading, Wilson’s “idealism” with regard to foreign policy and international cooperation has more to do with misplaced religious optimism than with secular progress.
Given the convincing portrait that Magee paints of Wilson as a theologically literate and devote Christian, it is hard to see how other scholars have been able to not only overlook the religious framework of Wilson’s foreign policy, but to deny any serious religious influence on his policy at all. It would certainly appear that Magee’s in depth knowledge of Wilson’s religious context, as well as his exposition of his theologically oriented essays and speeches, makes this kind of stance entirely untenable. In addition to being well argued, this book was very well written. This made it not only informative but also enjoyable to read.
America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert
(Grand Central Publishing, 2012, 240 pages)
I watched The Colbert Report regularly before we cancelled cable a few years ago. I enjoyed his show. This book is equally provocative and entertaining. America Again has 10 chapters accompanied with pictures, sidebars and silly footnotes. Colbert tackles economic and social issues like jobs, healthcare, justice, Wall Street, presidential elections, and much more. I enjoyed his bizarre explanations, cynical commentaries and ridiculous conclusions at the end of each chapter. I had many laugh-out-loud moments. You’ll love the book if you are a Colbert fan. Here are two UNAMERICAN ACTIVITIES from chapter 6 “Elections”:
England: In this supposed democracy, Queen Elizabeth has managed to win every election since 1952. Plus, at any time, Parliament can pass a resolution of “no confidence” and dissolve the government. May I remind you, this was also the plot of the most boring Star Wars.
Canada: With their laws mandating use of both French and English, candidates are forced to both kiss babies and French kiss babies. No, thanks.
Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It by Phillip Blond
(Faber and Faber, 2010, 309 pages)
British Prime Minister David Cameron is a vocal proponent of what British conservatives are calling the “big society.” This is an approach to political and public life which tries to mitigate the roles of big business and big government in order to promote citizen run civic institutions and organizations. Phillip Blond, who runs the think-tank Respublica, has acted as an advisor to Cameron, helping him with policy recommendations that will help to fill in the gap left by the erosion of British cultural and societal capital. His goal is to restore the lost British “civil society,” defined as “everything that ordinary citizens do that is not reducible to the imposed activities of the central state or the compulsion and determination of the marketplace” (3).
In Red Tory Blond bemoans the dominance of neoliberalism, whether displayed on the left under the auspices of the welfare state or on the right through the promotion of ruthless free-market economics. Instead, he wants to see the state distribute capital and the control of public services to local communities, allowing the poor to become viable participants in local markets and fostering community involvement, responsibility, and efficiency. These elements of Blond’s proposal will generally resonate more with those on the left side of the political spectrum (hence the “Red” in Red Tory). However, he is fundamentally a conservative thinker, rooted in what he sees as traditional British and Western values (hence the “Tory” of the title). His call for the restoration of civil society is in part an effort to support traditional families, churches, and a wide variety of civic organizations that give people social connections that are not tied to state or market.
Though Blond’s analyses and proposals are directly aimed at British governmental and economic systems, he has much to say to American audiences (and, in fact, he is slated to release an American edition of the book at some point this spring). The issues of economic inequality, restoration of traditional values, and the erosion of social connections are all major issues on the American political scene, as evidenced by movements like the Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Parties, and any number of both right and left wing organizations promoting specific cultural values. Blond’s radical proposals for overhauling Britian’s approach to governing should constructively contribute to our national political discussions. With ideas that are traditional in scope but progressive in application, there is much for left and right to both love and hate. This makes for a great election year read.
The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy
by David Kaiser
(Belknap Press, 2008, 509 pages)
The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by David Kaiser is a complex recounting of the events and circumstances that surrounded the murder of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. This book is full of names, places, and interviews from the late 1950’s until 2007 when the book was written. The author, David Kaiser, makes the case that Lee Harvey Oswald did indeed shoot and kill President Kennedy. However, Kaiser also makes the case that Oswald was most likely sponsored by the crime syndicates and, possibly, anti-Castro supporters.
For approximately the first 200 pages, this book is a slow, difficult read. Several times I considered putting the book down and never picking it back up, but decided to persevere. I’m glad that I did. David Kaiser used many sources and information which did not become available to the general public until 1992. David Kaiser gives credit to Oliver Stone and his film, JFK, as a large reason that the files were opened in 1992. Kaiser makes the case that Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theories were so irresponsible that the JFK files had to be released to counteract Stone’s film.
The Road to Dallas discusses many of the theories of the Kennedy assassination that have been put forth over the years. The “shooter on the grassy knoll” theory is covered. Kaiser contends that if there was a shooter on the grassy knoll, the shooter missed. I would recommend this book to readers with a great deal of patience, attention to detail, and a love of JFK assassination theories.
Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves
(American Political Biography Press, 1991, 500 pages)
Gentleman Boss by Thomas C. Reeves is the story of Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st President of the United States. Chester Arthur was an accidental president. Arthur was the reluctant Vice President to President James A. Garfield who was shot and died in office only a few months into his Presidency. Arthur never wanted or intended to be President. When Arthur took over the Presidency, his fellow Republicans and the general public had low expectations for him. Arthur managed to be a more effective leader than his critics predicted.
Gentleman Boss is a comprehensive and well researched book. The author, Thomas C. Reeves, is a U.S. historian who specializes in 19th and 20th century America. His expertise in this area shows in this book. Since I had previously read and blogged about Dark Horse, the story of James Garfield, I was interested in following-up with the Presidency of Chester A. Arthur. Gentleman Boss made a good companion to Dark Horse. Gentleman Boss is recommended for readers interested in the U.S. Presidents.