Ten Big Questions of the American Civil War by Caroline Janney
I have read a lot of books on the American Civil War that trace the development of the war, often in excruciating detail, from beginning to end. Caroline Janney brought a refreshingly new perspective to discussing the war and in doing so made the subject matter extremely relevant to modern times. She does this by asking pressing questions that modern audiences raise about the war and then tracing their answers in enough detail to show their complexity while also being convincing. For example, Did Lincoln Free the Slaves? The answer, of course, is yes he did, but he didn’t do it in a vacuum totally by himself and Janney shows how he came to do so. The parts I found most interesting were those that involved why the war was fought and how we remember it. Humans being human, we have changed our thinking about these things as time went on. When the Civil War began, the South very much thought that it was about slavery, but after losing the war they edited their story in an attempt to make their cause seem more high minded and just. Similarly, at the start of the war Northerners did not the war to be about slavery and insisted it was about preserving the union, but after the war it was the emancipation of the slaves that they most focused upon, recognizing it to have been a noble outcome of the struggle. Overall, this is one of the best books I’ve read on the Civil War because of its focus on issues and Janney’s willingness to tie those issues to modern debates in our society.
In Alpha Order by Author
The History of Bourbon by Ken Albala
When I think of bourbon, I think of the Whiskey Rebellion—a major crisis in the administration of George Washington in which the federal government attempted to raise tax revenue by taxing whiskey. Washington raised an army and led it into western Pennsylvania only to find that the rebels had departed and gone to Kentucky to make start making bourbon.
Albala shows that bourbon has a much richer history than that, tracing it from its possible medieval roots through the colonial period, through its growing importance in the nineteenth century, Prohibition, World War and finally to its early 21st century boom. It’s a very quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Ancient Civilizations of North America by Edwin Barnhart
Before reading this book, I had a pretty good idea of what life was like in North America before the coming of the Europeans, but Edwin Barnhart’s Great Courses book showed me that my image was a rough pencil sketch by comparison to the truth. In fact, Barnhart’s book often shocked me by making very vivid comparisons to the development of human life in other parts of the world at the same time. The country was more heavily populated than I had realized with many cultures demonstrating amazing architectural skills and astronomical learning. The trade networks were also far more expansive than I had realized.
The two things that stood out most strongly to me were Barnhart’s descriptions of complex hunter-gatherer societies on the west coast—a term I had not heard before that showed how truly bountiful territory can produce a very different and sustainable lifestyle. And DeSoto’s trek through the southern portion of North America, raping, pillaging, and murdering those who had greeted him with friendship so that he so destabilized that part of the continent so severely that the civilization he had plundered collapsed.
This is a fascinating set of lectures.
Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Edwin Barnhart
This is one of the best Great Courses books I have yet read. Edwin Barnhart offers forty-eight extremely lucid lectures on the history of Mesoamerica (roughly modern day Central America and Mexico). Part of what makes these lectures stand out is the effortless interweaving of the historiography that has revealed this history with the history of the region. You get the impression that unlike in Egypt where most of the great finds have probably been discovered, that we have barely scratched the surface of uncovering the remains of the great cities of the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs. Barnhart makes both the history and the uncovering of that history come to life.
If you are like me, and listen to audiobooks in the car or while taking
walks for exercise, you are probably going to want to listen to this series
more than once. The basic problem—no fault of the author’s—is that the place
names and the names of the majority of the rulers—were not familiar to me before
I started the course. That means that I was constantly checking maps a couple
of lectures behind where I was in the course. Next time through, I’ll be better
Edgar Allan Poe by Mark Canada
When I was in seventh grade, I recited Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart in a speech contest and I’ve had a soft place in my own heart for the author ever since. In high school and college I read a couple more of his stories and I’ve dabbled in his work in the decades since then. Yet, I didn’t know very much about the man himself until I stumbled on this excellent Great Courses book. Put simply, Poe was a mess, yet somehow out of the often-self-created disaster of his life, he transformed world literature creating the detective story and opening up the genre of horror fiction. It’s an amazing story, filled with tragedy and self abuse, but somehow out of all of this crushing difficulty came works of literature that continue to influence the literary and popular fiction worlds today. This one is well worth your time.
The 1759 Battle of Quebec by Charles River Editor
The Battle of Quebec marks a sea change in the politics of colonial North America. Before the battle, France had a major foothold north of the English colonies—a foothold which frightened English Protestants, who imagined their Catholic neighbors to the north coming down to force their religion upon them. After the Battle of Quebec, the French were gone from the north and with it a major perceived threat to the safety of those northern British colonies. In essence this meant that one of the major reasons those colonies “needed” Britain was gone.
At the same time, the larger French and Indian War that the Battle of Quebec was one part of put tremendous strains on Britain—especially the cost of the war. British efforts to make the colonists shoulder part of this burden were a major impetus of the American Revolution. So this battle is very important and Charles River Editors did a nice job of laying out the causes of the French and Indian War and walking the reader through the battle.
I received this book from Free Audiobook Codes in exchange for an honest review.
Great American Best Sellers by Peter Conn
Here’s a great look at 24 books that captured widespread attention in the North American British Colonies and the United States over the past few centuries. Odds are high that you haven’t heard of—much less read—all of them, whereas others are books you are quite familiar with even if you haven’t actually read them all. It’s a great collection and I am very pleased I read the book.
Conn roughly divides each lecture into three parts, starting with what is happening in America historically at the time the book was written and published and then describing the action of the novel and finally talking about its influence. I enjoyed it from beginning to end, but for me the best part of the lectures was for Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, which Conn used as an excuse to describe the development of the mystery novel from Edgar Allen Poe to Hammett. The final lecture on the modern best seller market was also very interesting. Mostly I enjoyed this book for the walkthrough of the plots and the discussion of influences and sometimes controversy. In today’s world, there are simply too many books out there to have read everything. This is a great way of familiarizing yourself with some very interesting novels you were always planning to read.
This Cider Still Tastes Funny! by John Ford Sr.
When I was in high school I found a lot of enjoyment in backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and crawling around in caves with my friends. Thirty years later—not so much—but I still enjoy reading clever accounts of backwoods happenings. The sort of stories told by Patrick McManus, Bill Heavey and now John Ford. Unlike McManus and Heavey, Ford wasn’t a professional writer—he was a game warden in Maine, but his stories are just as entertaining. If you think you’d enjoy a good humored look at life trying to enforce the hunting laws, you should give this book a try.
I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.
American Titans by Michael Gray
Looking for a quick overview of some of America’s most famous titans of industry (or Robber Barons if you prefer that point of view)? American Titans opens with chapters on Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P Morgan giving quick but decent bios of each man. Then it moves into what I thought was the best part of the book—an analysis of how industrialism factored into the election of 1896 followed up by a look at the trustbuster, Theodore Roosevelt. Finally he wraps up with a quick look at Nicola Tesla whom I knew the least about and thus enjoyed the most. (Actually Gray finishes with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson, which was interesting even if I didn’t understand why he chose to include Jefferson and put him out of chronological order).
So Jefferson aside, if you’re looking for a quick survey of some of the men who helped to build modern corporate America, Americans Titans is a great place to start.
Dallas: A History of “Big D” by Michael V. Hazel
If all you know about Dallas came from the television series, you might want to take a look at this short history of the city. Starting with settlement of the area by Americans before the territory became part of the United States, Hazel walks the reader quickly through the development of the town/city—the arrival of different ethnic groups, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the domination of the city by elite business men, the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the struggle to more honestly represent the diverse groups that compose modern Dallas. For a quick survey of a famous American city, this book does a fine job.
A History of the Supreme Court by Peter IronsSupreme Court decisions factor heavily into American history, but I had never before read a book that focused on the history of the third branch of the government by itself. In 24 lectures, Irons both explores the major personalities that have shaped the court and analyzes the important decisions the court has made. But he also puts both the personalities and the decisions into their historical context and shows how politics of a given era have influenced the court—both in its composition and in the decisions it has made. A quick and interesting guide to the least known branch of the U.S. government.
Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary
Autism is an increasingly prevalent part of our world. If you don’t have an autistic member of your extended family, you almost certainly know someone who is autistic or has autism in their family. If you’re looking for an opportunity to gain some understanding into their experiences and relate them to your own life, this is a great place to start. After all, who hasn’t felt tremendously uncomfortable on occasion? Sitcoms are built around social awkwardness and feeling out of place. And with that same sort of self-conscious humor, Michael McCreary walks us through his own life from his initial diagnosis of autism, through his difficult school years, and into the start of his career as a standup comic. He has the remarkable gift of making you feel empathy while simultaneously making you laugh. It’s a remarkable talent that will help you through the genuinely tough times he also describes. McCreary is still young. I’ll look forward to him updating his story in a few years.
Bringing Down the Colonel by Patricia Miller
In the 1890s, the role of women was changing radically in American society. The growing use of short hand and typewriters in business led to radical growth in the number of “proper” women who entered the work place and challenged social conventions that said that a “proper” woman couldn’t be in the same room with a man she hadn’t been properly introduced to. To make matters worse, the men thought that because women were their subordinates or were “mingling” with them in an office situation, that meant that they were sexually available to them. Yet many of these “proper” women pushed back against the sexual harassment and ideas about proper behavior began to change. Add to that that the suffragette movement, purity crusaders, and other women’s rights movements were mobilizing and one of their major complaints was that the moral standards that men were held to differed from that that women were held to.
That is the background of Bringing Down the Colonel in which a young woman from poor background sued one of the most powerful men in Congress for breach of contract when he married another woman after promising to marry her if his wife ever died. The trial rocked the nation and illustrates how strongly social opinions were changing. A generation earlier and the colonel’s efforts to destroy the woman’s reputation would have won him the case. Now those very same efforts not only cost him the trial, but they cost him his seat in Congress setting up nearly a century in which misdeeds in a man’s “private” life could destroy his public career. This is a truly fascinating story.
I used to think I was a pretty strong Stevie Nicks fan back in my college years. I’m not much of a concert goer, but one of the three I’ve been to was Stevie Nicks. I had all her albums up to that time, knew tons of the lyrics by heart, and knew it was only a matter of time until she got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Then I came across this Audible Original and realized that for me Stevie Nicks was just a passing phase. Rob Sheffield has been breathing Stevie’s air for his entire life and he clearly thinks in her lyrics. The whole book could almost be described as stringing versus from her various songs together to make a narrative whole. And what a narrative it is. If you’ve any interest in Stevie or Fleetwood Mac this book is a must listen. Everyone knows that the band had romantic problems—hookups and breakups—during the making of Rumors, but I had no idea just how long lasting and how crazy the drug-fueled romantic madness really was.
Through it all, Stevie’s strong voice resonates as Sheffield successfully articulates why she is so important to rock and roll and why her music continues to resonate with so many fans. I’m very glad I stumbled across this book.
Into the Raging Sea by Rachel Slade
If you enjoyed The Perfect Storm you’ll find a lot to like in this chronicle of the loss of the El Faro. Instead of a fishing vessel, we look at a cargo ship which sinks in a hurricane due to the cost cutting neglect of the company that owned it, the failure of the U.S. government to apply safety regulations to old ships, and some very bad decisions on the part of the El Faro’s captain. It’s a very sad tale which Slade works hard to keep focused on the humans who lost their lives when the vessel sank. It also teaches quite a bit about the modern cargo business and its recent history.
Break Shot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor
Everyone knows at least a couple of songs by James Taylor. Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, How Sweet It Is—the list gets really long when you stop and think about it. So when Audible offered a free copy of this short autobiography of Taylor’s early life, I was quite happy to take advantage of it. I really didn’t know anything about Taylor other than I like a lot of his music.
James Taylor was born to affluence but didn’t take well to his family’s plans for him. His childhood was clearly rough. He ended up in an asylum when people feared his depression could lead to suicide. Perhaps the best line of the book was when he said that the asylum fixed him not because of anything it did, but because being committed ended all of his family’s plans for him and gave him the freedom to seek out his own path through his music.
Taylor thinks of his music as therapy and I think any fan would benefit from learning what motivated the lyrics they love. For example, I had no idea that Fire and Rain was about a friend of Taylor’s who committed suicide. It makes total sense now that I know it. Maybe I never paid that much attention to the lyrics and just enjoyed the beautiful melody.
If you’re a fan of James Taylor, it’s hard to imagine how you wouldn’t enjoy this chance to better understand him and his music.
The Vietnam War Trivia Book by Bill O’Neil and Dwayne Walker
Looking for a quick overview of the Vietnam War? The Trivia Book series has produced another winner here. It’s a little shorter than I would have liked but still covers the major issues and events of the war as well as providing the context within which the fighting began. The things that makes these books stand out, however, are the short vignettes that add humanity to the larger discussions. If you’re curious about this period of history, this is a good way to get introduced to the topic.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.
American Nations by Colin Woodard
American history is often presented as the friction between two poles—loyalist versus revolutionary, north versus south, Republican versus Democrats. The great strength of Colin Woodard’s American Nation is its development of multiple (eleven) culturally distinct groups of Americans whose values often conflict with each other and who have remained identifiable over the last four centuries. This concept resonates quite convincingly as Woodard walks the reader through American history from colonization until the present day (although most of the book focuses on the 17th to the 19th century).
A lot more work needs to be done on this concept, especially as it relates to the later periods, but I found the basic idea plausible. After all, neither the north or the south is monolithic and this concept helped to explore the more complex nature of both regions. The primary weakness probably comes from the tendency for Woodard to describe his eleven nations in the same monolithic terms. That problem could be resolved with further research and exploration. Overall, the book has given me a lot to think about.