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Cod by Mark Kurlansky November 3, 2008

Posted by a Wristfister in Books, Fish, History, Nonfiction.
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Published by Penguin Books [1997], paperback, 294 pages. Reviewed by Bowie.

Synopsis (by Publisher): The codfish. Wars have been fought over it, revolutions have been spurred by it, national diets have been based on it, economies and livelihoods have depended on it, and the settlement of North America was driven by it. To the millions it has sustained, it has been a treasure more precious than gold. Indeed, the codfish has played a fascinating and crucial role in world history. Cod spans a thousand years and four continents. From the Vikings, who pursued the codfish across the Atlantic, and the enigmatic Basques, who first commercialized it in medieval times, to Bartholomew Gosnold, who named Cape Cod in 1602, and Clarence Birdseye, who founded an industry on frozen cod in the 1930s, Mark Kurlansky introduces the explorers, merchants, writers, chefs, and of course the fishermen, whose lives have interwoven with this prolific fish. He chronicles the fifteenth-century politics of the Hanseatic League and the cod wars of the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. He embellishes his story with gastronomic detail, blending in recipes and lore from the Middle Ages to the present. And he brings to life the cod itself: its personality, habits, extended family, and ultimately the tragedy of how the most profitable fish in history is today faced with extinction.
Review: There have been very few books that I have read that have kept me riveted and hungry at the same time. This is one of those books. I love history. I think it’s all in the telling of a good story that either makes or breaks a good history lesson. Kurlansky succeeds on all accounts in this case. He tells a good story that doesn’t bore you by examining the history of codfish and showing how it played a key role in shaping the New World and thus, America. Well, if THAT sounds boring to you, then maybe you’ll be interested in all the classic cod recipes that the author splashes in between every chapter. If that doesn’t make you hungry or at least make you want to grab a fish stick, then this book can’t help it.

One might say that it [cod] is the only food, apart from bread, which, once one has got used to it, one never gets bored of, without which one could not live and which one could never exchange for any delicacy. –Elana Ivanovna Molokhovets, St. Petersburg, 1862.


The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell October 31, 2008

Posted by a Wristfister in Books, History, Nonfiction, Political, Religion.

Published by Riverhead Books [2008], Kindle edition, Print length: 272 p. Reviewed by Bowie.

Synopsis: An exploration of the Puritans and their journey to America to become the people of John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill”-a shining example, a “city that cannot be hid.”

To this day, America views itself as a Puritan nation, but Vowell investigates what that means-and what it should mean. What was this great political enterprise all about? Who were these people who are considered the philosophical, spiritual, and moral ancestors of our nation? What Vowell discovers is something far different from what their uptight shoe-buckles-and-corn reputation might suggest. The people she finds are highly literate, deeply principled, and surprisingly feisty. Their story is filled with pamphlet feuds, witty courtroom dramas, and bloody vengeance. Along the way she asks:

  • Was Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop a communitarian, a Christlike Christian, or conformity’s tyrannical enforcer? Answer: Yes!
  • Was Rhode Island’s architect, Roger Williams, America’s founding freak or the father of the First Amendment? Same difference.
  • What does it take to get that jezebel Anne Hutchinson to shut up? A hatchet.
  • What was the Puritans’ pet name for the Pope? The Great Whore of Babylon.

Review: First, let me start off by saying it’s good to contribute to this blog again. I know it’s been a while, and hopefully, we’ll get this thing back on a more regular schedule. Now, on to Sarah Vowell’s latest book. I liked it. But it has to be her weakest book to date. She set the bar so high with “Partly Cloudy Patriot” and “Assassination Vacation” that this book seems like a bit of a let-down. That’s not to say that Vowell’s signature voice and wit is not on display here. She presents history that is easy to digest while still making it funny and interesting. I just got a feeling that a weaker and more muddled theme was presented. I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if it was longer. The ending seems a bit abrupt and rushed and I didn’t quite get a clear sense of an overriding arch of narrative. It’s still a great story, but sudden tangents that jumped to the present day diluted the intensely engaging history of the early Puritan settlers of New England. If nothing else, Vowell succeeds in bringing the early seventeenth century to life and proves that our modern caricature of what Puritans were like couldn’t be more distant from the reality that they were complex and intelligent men (AND women) caught up in the turmoil of their times.

Below is an excerpt:

Roger Williams might the the most ambitious of all the New England Puritans, but his ambitions are strictly spiritual. He fears no man, only God. He desires heavenly riches, not earthly influence. He seeks absolute communion with his Creator and he does not in 1631, nor will he ever, care about anything more. His fellow New Englanders find his zeal kind of inspirational but awfully off-putting…Williams believes that adhering to the first four commandments is a religious matter and not the business of civil magistrates. Williams makes a distinction between a sin and a crime. Getting wind of this, the civil magistrates must have screamed a collective “Goddamnit!” Or would have but for Commandment Three [not taking the Lord’s name in vain].

1776 by David McCullough February 14, 2008

Posted by a Wristfister in Books, History, Nonfiction, war.
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Published by Simon & Schuster [2006], paperback, 386 pages. Reviewed by Bowie.

Synopsis: In this stirring book, David McCullough tells the intensely human story of those who marched with General George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence — when the whole American cause was riding on their success, without which all hope for independence would have been dashed and the noble ideals of the Declaration would have amounted to little more than words on paper. Based on extensive research in both American and British archives, 1776 is a powerful drama written with extraordinary narrative vitality. It is the story of Americans in the ranks, men of every shape, size, and color, farmers, schoolteachers, shoemakers, no-accounts, and mere boys turned soldiers. And it is the story of the King’s men, the British commander, William Howe, and his highly disciplined redcoats who looked on their rebel foes with contempt and fought with a valor too little known.

Review: As the title clearly states, this book is about the birth-year of the United States of America. But you would be very mistaken to think it is a boring account of events in the colonies at the time. You may have already read several glowing reviews about this bestseller and I can attest that they are not off-base. This is riveting stuff, not just from an historic perspective, but as simply a great story. McCullough succeeds in making the trials of the first year of the First Continental Army engaging and thoroughly enlightening. My main interest in this particular time period was jump-started by Joseph Ellis’ book American Creation. 1776 is even more exciting as it not only brings the story of the Revolution to a more human level (with first-hand accounts) but with McCullough’s decision to keep to the narrative focused on the military expeditions of George Washington and his generals. What particularly captured my attention was that a good portion of the story takes place in New York and New Jersey (places I am very familiar with). Fort Lee, Brooklyn, Kips Bay, the Palisades Heights, Trenton. The list can go on, but suddenly these places in the two states I spend the most time in have become immensely more interesting after reading about the historic battles that were fought here. I couldn’t put this book down and I can not recommend it any more highly.

Below is an excerpt:

Dr. Benjamin Rush, who had arrived with Calwalader’s brigades to help establish a field hospital, wrote later of this his first direct encounter with war. Indeed, Rush was one of the very few signers of the Declaration of Independence yet to see the reality of the war firsthand.

“The American army retired and left the British in possession of Trenton. The scene which accompanied and followed this combat was new to me. The first wounded man that came off the field was a New England soldier. His right hand hung a little above his wrist by nothing but a piece of skin. It had been broken by a cannon ball.”

American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis January 8, 2008

Posted by a Wristfister in Books, History, Nonfiction, Political.
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Published by Alfred A. Knopf [2007], hardcover, 243 pages. Reviewed by Bowie.

Synopsis: Joseph Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, again presents an insightful look at the founding of America. This time he does it with six essays that cover the period from 1776 to 1803. He shines a great big light on answers to questions such as, “How did we go from being just another group of British colonies to adopting the Declaration of Independence in just fifteen months?” and “How did a just Indian policy fail despite the best efforts of America’s most prominent political leaders of the time?”. Ellis not only shows the triumphs of the American republic but also the failures of that revolutionary time.

Review: Those of you familiar with Ellis’ other works will not be surprised by the enormous gift that Ellis has in making seemingly dull American history sing with vibrant resonance. His very poignant vignettes into the lives of the founding fathers is balanced, which is to say he reveres them but presents them as flawed great men making very difficult decisions that have not had the best outcomes. This is probably why his works of non-fiction come off as great storytelling. They are refreshing and have germinated in me a new interest in history. I would almost dare anyone to read this book and not be tempted to learn more about that pivotal period of America’s founding. Ellis is the kind of writer that I wish more history teachers would emulate. If I had to list one negative aspect of this book, it would have to be the overly repetitive use of the word “propitious”. I can’t tell you exactly how many times it pops up, but enough that I began mentally replacing it with the word “lucky” just for variety’s sake. In the end, American Creation is witty and moving, and very highly recommended.

The following are excerpts from the Prologue:

The stories do not claim to offer either an exhaustive or a wholly comprehensive account of the founding ere…The repertory company of players has been according to the Casablanca Principle, which is to say that I have rounded up the usual suspects, who have starring roles in some stories and make only cameo appearances in others. If four of the founders must be listed at the top of the bill, they would be, in alphabetical order, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Although each of the stories has been designed to stand on its own as a narrative of one significant moment of creative achievement or failure, taken together they feature several recurrent themes…

First, Adams was essentially correct in insisting that the major political decisions that shaped the founding were usually improvisational occasions. While there were a few cerebral epiphanies based on intense thinking, most creative choices were pragmatic responses to rapidly moving events beyond human control…Second, Washington was also correct in claiming that space was a priceless American asset. While that asset was an unsolicited geographic gift for which the founders could take no credit, recognizing its advantages provided the occasion for several of the most creative moments in the founding era. The scale of the American theater was unprecedented, especially when compared to tidier European spaces…Third, in terms of creativity, the control of pace was almost as impressive as the control of space. The founders opted for an evolutionary rather than revolutionary version of political and social change, preferring to delay delivery on the full promise of the American Revolution rather than risk implosion in the mode of the French Revolution…But the exception to this rule, removing slavery from the political agenda on the grounds that it would die a natural death, proved a massive miscalculation…

Rather than float above the ground, we need to dive into the messy moments and do our best to listen as a finite number of long-dead men struggle to understand the historical currents of their rather propitious time. It is the spring of 1775, the War for Independence has just begun, but no one is quite sure what to do…”