Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Revolutionary Summer by Joseph J. Ellis (audio)

Like Levin's George Washington: The Crossing, which I read earlier this month, Revolutionary Summer is another new Revolutionary War era book that caught my eye at the library. We received both the hardcover book and the audiobook. I went with the audio.
FROM THE PUBLISHER: A distinctive portrait of the crescendo moment in American history from the Pulitzer-winning American historian, Joseph Ellis. The summer months of 1776 witnessed the most consequential events in the story of our country’s founding. While the thirteen colonies came together and agreed to secede from the British Empire, the British were dispatching the largest armada ever to cross the Atlantic to crush the rebellion in the cradle. The Continental Congress and the Continental Army were forced to make decisions on the run, improvising as history congealed around them. In a brilliant and seamless narrative, Ellis meticulously examines the most influential figures in this propitious moment, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Britain’s Admiral Lord Richard and General William Howe. He weaves together the political and military experiences as two sides of a single story, and shows how events on one front influenced outcomes on the other. Revolutionary Summer tells an old story in a new way, with a freshness at once colorful and compelling.
Ellis focuses on both the military and the political action of the period from roughly May through October 1776. Most historians, he explains, tend to focus on one or the other, but the people of the time experienced both together. Throughout the book he reminds us that the people of the time were experiencing both together and did not, of course, have the benefit of hindsight. What the "summer" of 1776 did and why it should be studied is that it created the framework that lasted throughout the war, even if other elements (like French support) entered the fray at later dates.

Balanced throughout this book are the tensions between the military and political issues and groups of this time period. Specifically:
  • The Continental Congress:  a group of men who knew what they were against, but not what they were for. They were full of ideals and wishful thinking. They knew an army was needed to fight the British, but a standing army was at odds with republican ideas. However, this was a period when virtue was waning and the rise of interests was gaining ground. Everything would have to be negotiated.
  • The Continental Army: was in the process of formation, had very little armament or basic supplies, had to deal with ineffectual militia and beg congress for more man power from each state as well as longer enlistment requirements.
  • The British Empire: wasn't willing to look at how its own policies were the instigator of the problem. It also underestimated the widespread colonial support for the revolution and thought they could easily squash the rebellion with their military power. 
In other words, there was lots of wishful thinking and denial going on among all parties involved. It is the nature of revolutions to be chaotic and unpredictable.

Some issues that stuck out for me:
  • One major myth of the Revolutionary War that Ellis is intent on dismantling is that the militia or Minute Men were the ones who did the fighting and won the war. However, in reality, the militias were a mess. They lacked experience, discipline, and standards. In many situations the men and officers ran away at the start of a battle. In at least one instance they ran past Washington who was moving toward the action. Washington's attempts at motivating the men fell on deaf ears and they disobeyed his orders to stand and fight. The Commander in Chief was left wondering what sort of men he commanded. The morale in the military was low for much of this summer to the point that  Washington wondered about implementing the Roman tradition of executing every tenth man in a unit by way of example to pull themselves together.
  • Newspapers lied about lost battles to make things look better for their readers. Journalistic integrity became almost treasonable.
  • Benjamin Franklin was a late comer to the revolution. He'd been in England and was trying to work a compromise. But his patience was stripped away by the willful blindness of the British leaders. After a public dressing down, he instantly joined the revolution and never looked back. 
  • Late in the summer of 1776 one signer of the Declaration of Independence reneged and signed an oath of fidelity to the King of England. The audio version doesn't name this person, but I imagine the book had a footnote.
  • Like Thebes in the Pelopenisan War, the Americans didn't have to win the war agasint the Spartans, they just needed not to lose the war. The British had to win it and due to logistics and colonial support for the revolution, that was not possible.
On the audio version:
The narrator's reading often sounded a bit snooty and his voices for various persons came off sounding like cartoonish caricatures. Also, each CD ended without announcement and simply started replaying again from track 1.

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence
Joseph J. Ellis
Random House Audio, June 4, 2013
Read by: Stefan Rudnicki
4/5 stars
Read for War Through The Generations American Revolution reading challenge.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Update & Boyne Book Bonanza

Last week's stats:
  Blog posts: 0
  Books read: 1
  Book gift recieved: 1
  Stories written: 1
  Rooms painted: 3
Book bag from Dubray Books

No blog posts last week because I was busy tearing apart our happy little home, painting it, and putting it back together. We painted the living room (from Raspberry to Avocado), the kitchen (Ancient White to Vanilla Custard), and the bedroom (Midnight Blue to Quiet Rain). These are all lighter, more neutral colors than the darker, richer tones we like (excepting the white), but we're getting ready to put our house up for sale and sprucing things up a bit. It was a tiring, but rewarding week.

Even our dog is tired.
I did manage to get my monthly short story submitted to my writing buddy, Cayt, on Friday hours before our deadline. I also spent a few minutes each night reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne before passing out. Enjoyed it very much and will write about it in a future post. I'm a big fan of Boyne's novel The Absolutist and was thrilled to meet him earlier this year at a book signing.

And then my friend Kate returned from Ireland last week and brought me a treat that's not yet available here in the States: This House is Haunted. She picked it up at Dubray Books in Galway.

This House is Haunted is a take off on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. It also reminds me a bit of The Haunting of Hill House and The Woman In Black. Charles Dickens makes an appearance and his writings have been woven into the storyline several times more.

I'm just 100 pages into it and have yet to be royally creeped out, but the tension is mounting....

The U.S. release date for This House Is Haunted is October 8, 2013. Just in time for Halloween and All Hallow's Read!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Royal Baby and Pride & Prejudice Celebration

Tea & shortbread.
At the library yesterday my department (technical services) had our very own royal baby celebration. Since I started working in technical services last December its rare for a week to pass without a party or at least someone bringing in food for something-or-other.

The ring leader of yesterday's party was Bonnie, a woman who is a bit of an Anglophile due to her English mother. I'm not a regular follower of the royals, but my family did make an event of watching the wedding of Diana and Charles. I always liked Diana. Its amazing how time flies and that her son is now on the verge of becoming a parent himself.

We also have a baby name contest going. The names I drew are Elizabeth, Amelia, Victor, and William. Not sure what the winner will receive, but I have a feeling it'll be something British.

Since the royal baby has yet to make an appearance, and since Bonnie is also a huge Jane Austen fan, she decided we'd also celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice which is this year.

I have not yet really read Pride & Prejudice, but have enjoyed the recent movie adaptations. In fact, I haven't completed any Jane Austen novel although I started and abandoned several in the past. After gorging myself on the British themed food and tea all afternoon I decided it was high time that I gave P&P another try. 

Roof Beam Reader is hosting Austen in August and I'm seriously considering jumping in. We'll see. August is going to be a busy month. In the meantime below are some pictures of our celebration.

A proper teatime with lovely cups & saucers provided by Bonnie.

The cup I chose is from the 1930s. It certainly brightened up my desk!

William and Kate Royal Addition Cheddar by Westminster.
This cheddar was delicious!

Tunnock's milk chocolate coated caramel wafer biscuits from Scotland.
Clotted cream.
My favorite creative dish: FISH & CHIPS! Tricia brought in these Swedish fish and potato chips.
The end. But not really as we have leftovers!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Burger Joint Flips For Books

Meatheads is an Illinois burger chain with a dozen or so locations. They also serve hot dogs and chicken, but burgers are the priority. I ate there for the first time earlier this week. 

We ordered, got our drinks, and then noticed this big bookish display on the wall. Much to my delight it's a summer reading challenge! 

Read five books and get a free lil' meathead burger, which is a burger with one patty. That's what I had with blue cheese, sauteed red onions, and mushrooms for toppings. It was yummy. My guilt over eating cow was assuaged by the burger's tastiness and by this bookish turn of events.

Participants get a log to record their books and can fill out a little book cling to add to the display. The manager said that during the school year they'll do something similar related to sports scores.

I didn't ask if all Meatheads locations are doing this promotion, but this one is at 3304 North Western Ave (between Belmont and Roscoe) in Chicago.

Are any business in your neck- of-the-woods hosting a summer reading challenge?

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

I'm not a grade school teacher nor do I have kids, but this book has crossed my path so many times over the years, most recently when I was browsing in the library for a new audiobook, that I decided I should probably check it out.

Donalyn Miller is a 6th grade reading teacher who advocates that the best way to get kids reading and keeping them reading is to give them in-class reading time, give them more control over what they read, and for teachers to use their own love of reading as a model.

Teachers, she says, should be "reading masters" who guide their students into reading and who challenge them, not test and worksheet givers who make kids slog through the same book at the same pace over way too long a time period. Most teachers go home and read what they love at night, so why not introduce students to the joys of that kind of reading, right? Makes sense to me.

I imagine her program might be a bit frustrating for teachers who are working within an inflexible school system (and I've heard about those), but Miller's enthusiasm and ideas will inspire teachers by rekindling their own love of reading and teaching. Homeschooling parents might find this book helpful as well. And yes, she does also teach the required test prep that kids need to learn, but this is also a type of reading skill and she explains that to her students.

The main secret to getting and keeping a kid reading is to find out what interests the child and then recommending books along those interests. Miller also teaches kids how to preview books to see if it might be up their alley. Learning how to seek out their own books helps kids become proactive and enthusiastic readers and all around learners. Of course a big element of success is giving the kids time to read and so they have solo reading time in class everyday.

Miller requires her students to read 40 books during the school year. But not just any 40 books, she has quotas for various genres so kids get exposure to a wide variety of books, yet they also get to read their preferred genre(s). That made me think about my own reading and how I don't often stretch myself as a reader. I might make some genre requirements for myself!

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader In Every Child
by Donalyn Miller
Read by Hillary Huber
Originally published by Jossey-Bass, 2009
Audio version: Tantor Audio, 2012
Source: Library
Content rating: 4/5
Narrator rating: 2/5 (inconsistent tone & mood, occasionally robotic)

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison

"Better than Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl," proclaims the blurb from Sophie Hannah on the back of the book. I didn't particularly like Gone Girl, but I was intrigued by the author's bio and said yes to a review copy. The novel is also set in Chicago and I enjoying seeing how people use the city for a setting.
From the publisher: Jodi and Todd are at a bad place in their marriage. Much is at stake, including the affluent life they lead in their beautiful waterfront condo in Chicago, as she, the killer, and he, the victim, rush haplessly toward the main event. He is a committed cheater. She lives and breathes denial. He exists in dual worlds. She likes to settle scores. He decides to play for keeps. She has nothing left to lose. Told in alternating voices, The Silent Wife is about a marriage in the throes of dissolution, a couple headed for catastrophe, concessions that can’t be made, and promises that won’t be kept. Expertly plotted and reminiscent of Gone Girl and These Things Hidden, The Silent Wife ensnares the reader from page one and does not let go.

The story is told through the perspective's of Jodi and Todd in alternating chapters. Chapters by Jodi open and close the novel.

Both characters are emotionally stunted. Neither takes responsibility for their emotional health and their best and worst issues fit together in a tight little dysfunctional package that was bound to implode sooner or later.

This is one of those books that is hard for me to rate because while I enjoyed the writing, I did not appreciate the story. Harrison, who died earlier this year, was obviously a talented writer, but I have little patience for people in real life or characters in books who don't take responsibility for their emotional states or get help for their neurosis. Go to therapy! I groaned at the characters a few times. Jodi is a therapist, which prompted me to add, "and be sure find a good therapist."

Much unfolds about Jodi's back-story and that helps to make sense of things and turns this tale into a tragedy more than a thriller. There are multiple silent wives in this novel.

The Silent Wife is an excellent peek into what happens to peoples' lives when they don't take responsibility for themselves and how delusion (and other psychological conditions) can destroy what it is desperately trying to protect.

I finished the book over a month ago and the further away I get from the reading of it the more I "like" the book. I'm curious to see what fans of Gone Girl think of The Silent Wife. Have you read both? Either?

The Silent Wife
A.S.A. Harrison
Penguin, June 25, 2013
Source: review copy
Rating: 2.5/5

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Stoker's Manuscript by Royce Prouty

I spotted this book at the library and started reading it as soon as I got home. It grabbed me from the get-go and while it never completely lost me, it didn't have the atmosphere or tension to keep me riveted. Yet I read it quickly and hope that Prouty keeps writing. I'd check out his second book.
From the publisher: When rare-manuscript expert Joseph Barkeley is hired to authenticate and purchase the original draft and notes for Bram Stoker's Dracula, little does he know that the reclusive buyer is a member of the oldest family in Transylvania.
      After delivering the manuscript to the legendary Bran Castle in Romania, Barkeley—a Romanian orphan himself—realizes to his horror that he's become a prisoner to the son of Vlad Dracul. To earn his freedom, Barkeley must decipher cryptic messages hidden in the text of the original Dracula that reveal the burial sites of certain Dracul family members. Barkeley's only hope is to ensure that he does not exhaust his usefulness to his captor until he’s able to escape. Soon he discovers secrets about his own lineage that suggest his selection for the task was more than coincidence. In this knowledge may lie Barkeley's salvation—or his doom. For now he must choose between a coward's flight and a mortal conflict against an ancient foe.
      Building on actual international events surrounding the publication of Bram Stoker's original novel, Royce Prouty has written a spellbinding debut novel that ranges from 1890s Chicago, London, and Transylvania to the perilous present

What I Liked:
  • The plot was intriguing.
  • I like my vampires to be mean and nasty and they are in this book.
  • I'm a sucker for stories about book-loving recluses with scenes in archives, cemeteries, and castles. And, of course, Wallachia.
  • I appreciate and admire writers who attempt to write in the tradition of Stoker.
What I Didn't Like:
  • The atmosphere is definitely lacking. With the locales, characters, and plot line there could have been such richness. Prouty touches on it, but never dives in.
  • The female "lead" in this book is take-charge, intelligent, tough, old, and a native of the region, yet she weeps over an earthquake and then the self-proclaimed coward/hero comforts her? I didn't buy it, it came off as wishful male fantasy.
  • In the end the brother seemed too much like a plot device.
Should You Read It?
  • Probably not if you don't like vampires or only like hot, sexy vampires. 
  • Yes if you're a fan of Bram Stoker's Dracula. I think this is a much better take-off on Dracula than the family-sanctioned "sequel," Dracula The Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt, which pandered way too much to Hollywood.
Stoker's Manuscript
Royce Prouty
Putnam, June 13, 2013
Source: library
Rating: 3/5 stars

Monday, July 1, 2013

George Washington: The Crossing by Jack E. Levin

Why I Read It:
The Crossing caught my eye at the library where it was faced out in the new history book display case. It is a slim volume and I thought it would be a good start to kick off my reading for The American Revolution reading challenge hosted by War Through The Generations.

About The Book:
The book is written by Jack E. Levin, self-taught historian and the father of radio personality Mark R. Levin. It is a brief, 64-page overview of the the Battle of Trenton. It's filled with color reproductions of paintings, drawings, and two detailed maps that outline the action.

Do you remember the Battle of Trenton from history class? Do you remember that painting of Washington perched majestically near the bow of a small boat? That was from this battle. See the book's cover for a cropped version or click the following link to see the full glory of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1816-1868.

Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River under cover of darkness and through ice-flows on the night of December 25-26, 1776 to spring a surprise attack on the British and Hessian forces. The crossing itself was a monumental feat and the battle changed the course of the Revolutionary War.

Prior to this Washington and his troops had withstood a string of losses and morale was low. Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan were lost and Washington was in retreat. He guessed that the British would attack Philadelphia next, the capitol of the revolution. To prevent this the Delaware was crossed, followed by a 9 mile march to Trenton. The revolutionary forces crushed the British in this battle and the revolutionary spirit and momentum were revived.

A Good Gift Book:
I imagine the publishers were thinking this book would make a nice father's day gift as it came out on June 4th. It probably would not be an appropriate gift book for someone who is already into this time period or Washington (unless they're collectors who want everything printed). However, do keep it in mind for the next holiday gift-giving season. Independence Day is this week. If Neil Gaiman can start All Hallow's Read, maybe someone out there can get an Independence Day book giving tradition going?

On Mark Levine's Preface to His Dad's Book:
Once upon a time when I worked for Borders we hosted the author's son, Mark Levine, for a book signing. He was fine, but some of his fans were big slobs. They left more trash behind than any other audience I'd dealt with: food ground into the carpet, drinks spilled, etc. (Ted Nugent's fans, on the other hand, were tidy and polite, even if we did have to tell them that they could not bring their guns or bows & arrows into the store). Anyway, I bring up Mark because he wrote the preface to his dad's book. He wraps up his preface saying this,
"As this book, George Washington: The Crossing, attests, my father has a truly unique ability to let history speak for itself through his careful use of prose and painstaking selection of illustrations and photographs. There is fresh simplicity yet bracing depth in every page of this book. And unlike too many authors, my father is not interested in exploiting the human imperfections and frailties of the Founders but, instead, presents a straightforward account of these mostly selfless, heroic American figures, who were willing to die for the cause of freedom and self-government, and among whom Washington was arguably the most significant."
This paragraph worried me about the content I was about to read. For one, history never speaks for itself. It is always constructed by a historian (as Levine unwittingly admits above, noting his father's "careful use of prose and painstaking selection") and then interpreted by readers. And what is his issue with other authors? What is wrong with trying to present a well-rounded understanding of a historic figure? And by this I mean human: the good, the bad, and the ugly. What unnamed foe is he taking a pot shot at with this swipe? Surely not Ron Chernow (brilliant book, read it!) Maybe A.J.Jacobs? Did I miss a Washington bashing book?

Putting the Founding Fathers on pedestals annoys me. Glorifying the Founding Fathers as demigods does a huge disservice not only to history, but to our understanding of and ability to cope with our current political quagmire. Those guys were not perfect and neither are our current politicians. There was political argument back then and let's hope there will be 200 years from now. However, let's have more true debate and compromise and less party posturing and ideological whoring. Has Levine not seen the musical 1776?

Words of Washington in Red
And then I was worried when, on the next page after the conclusion of Levine Jr.'s preface, I was informed that the words of Washington would be printed in RED. Hmmm, where have I seen that before? Oh, yeah, the Bible. The words of Jesus in red edition. From pedestal to deity. Uh-oh. George would not be happy about that.

Interspersed throughout the book is Washington's letter to the Continental Congress about the battle. Lines from this letter are printed in red and it works well, both for the reader and for the design harmony of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but could have done without Mark Levin's rah-rah commentary in the preface. Jack Levin presents an engaging account of the battle and the design of the book is pleasant for both older kids and adults.

George Washington: The Crossing
Jack E. Levin
Threshold Editions, June 4, 2013
Source: library copy
Rating 3/5 stars
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