The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown
Dad literature in extremis. Which usually isn’t something that turns me off, but this time, it was all just a bit too much bootstrapping, a bit too much greatest generation propaganda, a bit too much they beat the nazi’s twice kind of thing.
It isn’t that the lives of these young men, almost uniformly from hardscrabble depression era childhoods aren’t inspiring. They are, but that isn’t enough to make a good book.
Joe Rantz, the central character here had a childhood that’s hard to imagine today in most of America today. Living in work camps, and unheated shacks, he started working at an extremely early age, and was abandoned by his father and step mother when he was still in high school. Even with all that, he managed to attend the University fo Washington, and win a gold medal in Berlin. That’s inspiring. But in the hand of Brown, it all comes off as a little too Horacio Alger. The prose is too purple, and descriptions, too overwrought. When dealing with material as compelling as the lives of these young men, its better to be subtle, reserved, but Brown doesn’t write that way and that’s a pity. There’s great story here, but not a great book.
I’m sure this has been optioned for a movie. I hope whoever directs it does a better job.
Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire
Jason Goodwin is perhaps best known as the author of a detective novel series set in Ottoman Istanbul and featuring eunuch detective named Yasim. I’ve read a couple of those books and enjoyed them enough to pick up his much more serious history of the Ottoman Empire. I read this when E and I were on vacation in Turkey and Greece, traveling from Istanbul, to Ephesus, to the beaches of southern turkey. I visited many an Ottoman palace and historic marker, and this was an excellent companion.
I didn’t have much interest in this period of history before traveling to Turkey. That was an oversight. Though largely relegated to cliches about harems and turbans today, the Ottomans were, for a very long time, one of the world’s super powers. How they got from semi-nomadic warriors, to a global super power, to irrelevant vestige of a antiquated world view is a fascinating story covering hundreds of years. Goodwin does it all in under 500 pages. Lords of the Horizon gave me a good overview of the tumultuous history of Ottoman rule, but still easy going enough to be read on the beach. History by a guy who knows how to tell the tale is my kind of history. If you’ve any interest in this time period (and you should as it helped shape the modern world) this is a great place to start.
Side note: I quickly checked Goodwin’s Wikipedia page while drafting this review and discovered his birth father is John Mitchell. Mitchell is a first rate British eccentric, into UFO’s “earth mysteries” and traditionalism. A lot of roads around here are pointing towards traditionalism lately, it’s kind of weird.
Part biography of the genius John Von Neumann, part story of the development of game theory, and part history of the relationship between the academy and the defense department in the cold war era, this book (and everything else Poundstone has written) is wonderful.
The man at the center of the story, Von Neuman, is a fascinating character. A child prodigy, a refugee from Nazi Germany, a boozer, a member of the Manhattan Project team, the developer of game theory, a pioneer in computing, a lover of ancient history, a major influence on U.S. cold war strategy, and a secular Jew, who, on his death bed at the tragically young age of 53 apparently converted to Catholicism.
Von Neuman’s life alone is reason enough to read this book, but Poundstone does more. He expertly explains the profound developments in logic and mathematics happening in the 19040s and 50s and the ways in which the Department of Defense used these developments to advance its agenda in the cold war, and prepare for nuclear war. There’s a lot of math here, but even someone like me (i.e. a lawyer who never made it past calculus) can understand it. Poundstone is excellent on focusing on the important concepts rather than the technical details.
Its been almost ten years since I read this book, but one vignette where Poundstone decribes Von Neuman packing a volume of the Cambridge History of the Classical World with him for a car ride has always stuck with me. I love the idea of a man so curious, so insatiable in his need for knowledge that he packs academic texts for a ride to the store.
Von Neumann’s Los Alamos badge photo
Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America
J. Anthony Lukas
Big Bill Haywood
I’m always surprised more people haven’t read this book about the assassination of Idaho’s former governor and the class war in the courtroom battle that grew out of it. It’s a well written, fast paced, but deeply researched, look into the labor wars of the early twentieth century. You’ll probably like it.
Here it is in a nut shell: Former governor of Idaho is assassinated with a bomb, local miner gets caught with evidence and is coerced by Pinkerton agents into implicating labor leader (and anarchist hero) Big Bill Haywood. Haywood stands trial for the murders and is defended by Clarence Darrow, who wins his acquittal.
Ok, there you have the plot. But this book is much more than the plot, it’s an insight into one of the most tumultuous times in American history when organized labor was radical, and on rise, and the capitalist were legit nervous. Scores of other important people from the time make cameos, and numerous other important labor disputes are discussed. It’s a sort of history of the early American labor movement told through the story of a murder and trial and it is excellent.
I read this as a young anarchist and it was influential in my personal development away from so-called “lifestyle” anarchism to more of a focus on the importance of organized labor.
My personal politics of the time when I read this seem far away now, but the book doesn’t. Even now, fifteen years later, there’s scenes I can clearly recall and minor characters I can remember. It’s well written and capture an important, and often forgotten, part of U.S. history. Anyone interested in American history would get something out of this book.
Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II
The story of how a group of amateur divers discovered the wreck of a German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey in 1991. Yes, that’s right, 1991. It’s a pretty incredible story. A alcoholic boat captain and some amateur divers take a chance on a rumor of a sunken ship and discover not just a ship, but a sub, and not just a sub, but a U-boat, and not just a U-boat, but one never before recorded. From there, the story follows two divers who become increasingly obsessed with figuring out the story of the sub. Along the way there’s death, deep sea diving history, obsession, broken marriages, WWII history and more.
It’s a compelling read albeit written in the sort of workman like prose of the career journalist. No gorgeous turns of phrase here — just facts and dialogue, with the occasional slightly purple internal monologue.
On a personal note, I read this while riding the train back and forth to visit E in the hospital. It took my mind off the stresses of the time, and that’s about all you can ask of a book like this.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
Eric H. Cline
The title says it all. This introduction is focused on the history of the war itself, and the changing nature of our knowledge of it, and doesn’t spend much time on the literary aspects of the works (Iliad, et al) which have arisen around the conflict. What we really know about the war is scarce and contradictory. We’re not even sure there was a single war. We are sure, today, that Troy existed, and we are sure wars were fought around it, but beyond that, its mere conjecture.
Incredibly, even that level of understanding of the war is of a very recent vintage. Before Schliemann’s discovery in the 1860s, most viewed the stories of the war, and of ancient troy, as legend. Turns out, as with most things about the classics, the story of Troy is much more complicated.
This book gives us a nice, brief overview of those complications looking at the archeological record of troy and ancient Greece in general as well as the stories and histories of the Greeks (i.e. the Iliad and other Homeric epics) as well as the stories and myths of the Hittite and other cultures.
A great starting point for someone (like me) looking to get into the Trojan War and the Iliad. Worth it for the bibliography alone.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
The walls of troy
Ed note: this and the many other reviews I’ll be posting over the coming weeks come from a now long defunct livejournal and are posted here for my records and (hopefully) your enjoyment.
The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders
I know many smart people (people much smarter than me) who have read Oakes and loved him, but I found this book to be more than a little disconcerting. It is almost entirely the story of slaveholders and the way they lived and thought. Which is fine, this is an important area of inquiry. We need books on slaveholders. But I find Oakes’s attempts to humanize a class of people few in the modern age want to reckon with, he ends up downplaying the horrific nature of slavery.
There talk here about the striving of slave owners, and their view of slaves as another commodity for advancement. And the book goes a long way in showing that most slave owners weren’t of the Thomas Jefferson plantation type, but were hard working people with less than a handful of slaves who were just trying to get ahead. There is talk of the violence and casual cruelty suffered by the slaves, to be sure, but I think it is lost in the examination of the lives of the slaveowners.
Humanizing slaveowners is all well and good. Its important to remember that these were not monsters, but regular people, but lets not pretend they weren’t horrible regular people. Lets not gloss over the routine horrific violence slaves suffered at the hands of their masters, rich or no. Maybe I am just not sophisticated enough in my reading of the book, but I think in portraying the way slave owners thought about themselves, Oakes may have begun to loose sight of what they actually were – motherfuckers to a person.
Recommended for the enthusiast