Category: 2015

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olson

America was a much angrier place in the years before World War II than I realized. It had only been twenty years since the end of the last war. The thought of getting involved in another one, especially in Europe, was very hard to accept. Even after Hitler was on the march, even after the Germans took France, many Americans believed we should stay out of the war. Some were even opposed to providing assistance to Great Britain, arguing that we should remain completely neutral. They hoped the British and Germans could negotiate an end to the war. If that didn’t happen, they were willing to see Germany conquer all of Europe rather than fight another war.    

There was an amazing level of animosity between these “isolationists” and the “interventionists” who wanted us to do whatever we could to stop Hitler. Organizations were formed; mass meetings were held; national radio broadcasts were delivered. Insults were hurled and friendships were destroyed. There were student protests. As the most famous isolationist, Charles Lindbergh was branded a Nazi sympathizer and a traitor. 

But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we all had somebody else to be angry with. When President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war, even the isolationist Republicans in Congress gave him a standing ovation. 

Those Angry Days is an interesting book, even though the author spends too much time on Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh (it really seems as if the author would have liked to write a book about them). Aside from the incredible amount of controversy over our involvement in the war (controversy that began before 1939, despite the book’s subtitle), the most surprising part of the story is President Roosevelt’s unwillingness to force the issue. He was clearly an “interventionist” who wanted to help the British, but, according to the author, he vacillated and procrastinated. He feared public opinion, even when most of the public were in favor of intervention. He made stirring speeches but didn’t follow through. It drove Churchill crazy. If you can believe Those Angry Days, it was only after Pearl Harbor that Roosevelt went back to being the strong leader he’d been in the early years of the Depression.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of Ameria, 1815 -1848 by Daniel Walker Howe

What Hath God Wrought is an 850-page entry in a well-written series of books called “The Oxford History of the United States”. It covers the period between the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, part of our national history that is overshadowed by what came before and what came after.

In roughly thirty years, America became much more recognizably modern. Improved transportation (railroads) and communications (the telegraph) had widespread effects. Modern political parties were created and the population became more diverse as immigration increased. The population soared. The women’s rights movement began.

In fact, Howe points out that President James Polk, an obscure figure today, added more territory to the United States than any other President, even more than Jefferson added with the Louisiana Purchase. By the end of Polk’s four-year term, everything from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, as well as Texas, was American territory.

The principal lesson I took from this long book, however, was that the same political divisions we find today were already in evidence before the Civil War. The Whigs, as exemplified by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, were the progressive political party. They wanted slavery eliminated and federal money spent on infrastructure. Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress as a Whig.

The Democrats, as exemplified by Andrew Jackson and Polk, were basically white supremacists. They preferred a weak federal government that wouldn’t interfere with slavery. Yet they supported territorial expansion by any means, including the extermination of the Indians and armed aggression against Mexico. 

In other words, the early Democrats (especially Jackson) were real bastards. The Whigs weren’t. But now we have the Republicans, the progressive successor to the Whigs, as the war-mongering, white-supremacist party, and the Democrats as the modern-day Whigs. The Republicans are now the real Party of Jackson, while the Democrats are the real Party of Lincoln.

The Stranger by Albert Camus, translated by Matthew Ward

This is the third or fourth time I started reading The Stranger and the first time I finished it. I’m glad I made it through Part 1 because Part 2 is actually interesting.

In his introduction, the translator says Camus adopted an “American” style in Part 1: “the short, precise sentences; the depiction of a character ostensibly without consciousness; and, in places, the ‘tough guy’ tone”. In Part 2, however, “Camus gives freer rein to a lyricism which is his alone”. 

I found most of Part 1 to be oppressive. Meursault, the “stranger”, narrates the story as if he’s an alien or a robot. He hardly reacts to anything except the heat and the sunshine. In Part 2, he expresses some emotions in addition to annoyance and becomes almost sympathetic, even though I was never convinced by his repeated claims that life is absurd and nothing matters.

There are absurdities in life, but death doesn’t make life absurd. It only makes it finite. And some things do matter if only because they matter to us.

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

This excellent novel was the source for a movie of the same name that starred Scarlett Johansson as an alien who kidnaps hitchhikers who won’t be missed. The movie was artistic but obscure, so it was nice to read the book and finally understand what was going on. 

Both the book and the movie were well-received by the critics, although the book is way, way more disturbing. 

How To Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Michel de Montaigne was a 16th century French nobleman who was active in politics but mostly concerned with writing essays. He may have been the first blogger. Bakewell portrays Montaigne as having a modern sensibility, although he followed the Stoics and Epicureans in some ways. Montaigne wrote about all kinds of topics (including his kidney stones) and always tried to see both sides of an issue. He even tried to see life from his cat’s perspective. Much of his writing seems to have been thinking out loud as he mulled over his topics and went off on tangents. In that regard, she compares his essays to Tristram Shandy. I wonder if the actual essays are as good as advertised (all 1,000 pages of them).

Nietzsche on Morality by Brian Leiter (2nd Edition)

Leiter concentrates on Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. He argues that Nietzsche was a naturalist and his primary goal was to convince the best people that they shouldn’t pay so much attention to standard Christian morality. It’s time for the revaluation of all values! But only for the strongest, most able among us. They’re the ones who can understand Nietzsche’s message and achieve great things if they can rise above the morality of the herd. Although it’s fine to be nice to less talented people. Just don’t let it hold you back if you’re especially strong and talented.

Plunder Squad by Richard Stark

Parker needs money and agrees to an art heist, but backs out when he loses confidence in his fellow crooks. Then the chance to pull another art heist comes along. It’s mostly successful until it’s time to exchange the paintings for cash. The middleman is extremely unreliable and things deteriorate from there.

Slayground by Richard Stark

Parker and associates knock over an armored car, but the driver of the getaway car screws up. Parker grabs the loot and runs into an amusement park that’s closed for the season. He stashes the money and then tries to avoid being caught by a gang of local criminals and two crooked cops who know he’s in there with all that cash. Parker escapes but has to leave the money behind (for now).

Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman by William Tecumseh Sherman

General Sherman and General Ulysses S. Grant were the two most successful military leaders on the Union side in the American Civil War. Sherman published the first edition of his memoirs in 1875, ten years after the war ended. He published a second edition in 1885, after he retired from the Army at the age of 64.

I don’t recommend this book, since it’s 800 pages long and Sherman spends an amazing amount of time detailing the minutiae of his military career. But I found it worth reading anyway. He was an interesting man with strong opinions. If you read this book, you’ll better understand how the Union army defeated the Confederates. For example, I never realized how important railroads and support from the navy were to the success of his campaign in the South, and how much effort went into supplying food for an army of 80,000 men.