Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris

The great thing about reading Edmund Morris is two-fold: he presents extremely thorough research with a enjoyable reading style that makes one feel like they are reading fiction. As a friend put it, it’s like reading a novel, not a biography. It doesn’t hurt that Theodore Roosevelt lived a life that makes easy picking for any biographer.

The first in Edmund Morris’ three part biography of the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt lived a life full to the brim. Born sickly, he had overcome physical ailments and “built courage by ‘sheer dint of practicing fearlessness.'” Indeed, his life reads in a crescendo that leaves other men wanting:

  • Published author at 18, of “The Naval War of 1812,” a classic that would go on to find a place in the textbooks for both US and British naval academies.
  • Married at 22, father and widower at 25, husband again at 28.
  • Acclaimed historian and New York Assemblyman at 25.
  • North Dakota ranchman at 26
  • Candidate for New York City Mayor at 27
  • Civil Service Commissioner of the United States at 30
  • Police Commissioner of New York City at 36
  • Assistant Secretary of the Navy at 38 (and author of the plan that defeated the Spanish in Manila under Admiral Dewey)
  • Colonel of the First U.S. Cavalry, the “Rough Riders”  and a war hero at 39 (yes, he left a near cabinet level position to ride in the cavalry)
  • Governor of New York two weeks short of his 40th birthday
  • Vice President at 42…

And that’s just in the first book. Making his living as a working writer, Roosevelt read over 20,000 books and writing fifteen of his own, not to mention speaking French and German, developing and maintaining relationships with numerous leaders in fields scientific, intellectual, and philosophical. His mind was a steel trap and his life steam engine, gaining speed and momentum.

He was a man who was a lifelong learner, knew no bounds to his interests or abilities, and never stopped trying to reach further. Although born to priviledge, Theodore took nothing for granted, and he took every advantage he could to work, read, exercise, challenge himself, and expand his reach. It’s an example that inspires me, and it’s one we could all use.

In a day where people talk a lot and actually do less, Roosevelt reminds us of the power of action, of doing, and that it is those who do that make a difference.

If you’re looking for a readable biography of one of our most colorful presidents, before he was president, pick up Edmund Morris’ “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.”

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Thoughts on “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward

Cover of "Obama's Wars"

Cover of Obama's Wars

I just finished “Obama’s Wars” by Bob Woodward. I don’t know that I feel ready to review a book by Woodward, but I do have some thoughts after reading it. Continue reading

Book Review of “Prophets,” a space opera in the 26th century

And now, for something completely different…

I occasionally (ok, frequently) read books purely for the fun of it. Often, they are science-fiction. Just because I like it.

Recently, I was sent a copy of S. Andrew Swann‘s new book “Messiah,” a space opera set in the 26th century. Since it is the third book in the series, I had to go back and start with the first book, “Prophets.”

I wrote a review for the science-fiction/fantasy book review site Walker of Worlds.

Swann spins a tale that is cinematic in vision and has echoes of Dan SimmonsHyperion series. He fills the story—equally mystery, cloak and dagger, political intrigue, and science-fiction—with characters that are mercenaries, scientists, priests, A.I.s, aliens, spies, saboteurs, and mutants. And there are also, of course, lots of space ships with faster-than-light travel drives (what would space opera be without that?). Almost none of the characters are clearly hero or villain, and each is a well drawn composite of traits that are likeable and flawed. Their interactions are unpredictable and gripping, each pulled by the plot in ways neither they, nor the reader, expects. By writing his characters credibly, and not balking at their pain or suffering, Swann creates a story that is both enjoyable and that the reader cares about.

Check out the whole review there.

Book Review: “Rubicon” by Tom Holland

I recently finished “Rubicon” by Tom Holland. What follows is first the Publisher’s Weekly review, because it gives a good summary of the book, and then my thoughts on this excellent book.

After a palace coup demolished the reign of King Tarquin of Rome in 509 B.C., a republican government flourished, providing every person an opportunity to participate in political life in the name of liberty. As Holland, a novelist and adapter of Herodotus’ Histories for British radio, points out in this lively re-creation of the republic’s rise and fall, the seeds of destruction were planted in the very soil in which the early republic flourished. It was more often members of the patrician classes who had the resources to achieve political success. Such implicit class distinctions in an ostensibly classless society also gave rise to a new group of rulers who acted like monarchs. Holland chronicles the rise to power of such leaders as Sulla Felix, Pompey, Cicero and Julius Caesar. Some of these leaders, such as Pompey, appealed to the masses by expanding the republic through military conquest; others, like Cicero, worked to reinforce class distinctions. Holland points to the suppression of the Gracchian revolution-a series of reforms in favor of the poor pushed by the Gracchus brothers in the second century B.C.-as the beginning of the end of the republic, providing the context into which Julius Caesar would step with his own attempts to save the republic. As Holland points out, Caesar actually precipitated civil wars and helped to reestablish an imperial form of government in Rome. With the skill of a good novelist, Holland weaves a rip-roaring tale of political and historical intrigue as he chronicles the lively personalities and problems that led to the end of the Roman republic.

(From the Publisher’s Weekly review. )

I’ve long had a fascination with the characters and politics of ancient Rome, whether it be the Republican Period or the Imperial Period that followed the fall of the Republic. However, the most fascinating time for me, perhaps because of the vivid and larger-than-life characters in the cast, the gruesome violence of its politics, and the sheer scale of the stage (from the tip of Spain west to the far shores of the Black Sea east, from the shores of Britain north to the deserts of Africa and the Nile south), is the period as the Republic began to falter and fail and the Roman Empire began to ascend.

Perhaps this period has gained even more currency with me recently because so much of our own politics in many ways echoes the arguments and politics of the Roman Republic. As I have listened, and occasionally participated in, debates and discussions about the role of government, I have heard arguments not unlike those that once were made in the Forum by senators of Rome. How much power should government have, what government should, and shouldn’t, do for the people, whether we should engage in wars far across the ocean, whether we should be nation building, what should we do with the many millions of people immigrating across our borders, who should be an American, and so on, and so on. Long before the modern American Republic encountered these issues, the Roman people—under the Republic—debated these issues from in the Forum of Rome.

With these thoughts in mind, as well as a love for gritty and real bare knuckle politics of ancient Rome, I picked up Tom Holland’s book. Told in a narrative style with vibrant language, the story reads with novel like ease and speed. But for footnotes and awareness of the history being accounted from other sources, I might have wondered at the fictional like quality to it.

All the great names of Roman history are present. Julius Caesar and his legions. Marcus Cicero, the oratorical giant. Pompey the Great, hero and megalomaniac. Cleopatra, seducer, queen and Pharaoh-goddess. And, of course, my favorite, Cato, the Spartan like idealist and champion of Republican principles, falling upon his sword rather than surrender to dictatorship as Caesar’s army marches on Utica.

I usually confine my gym reading to “fun stuff,” like novels and other brain candy. However, I found that Holland’s history was sufficiently enjoyable that I had difficulty picking up other books for the duration of the read, including at the gym. For those who complain that history is boring, a list of “one thing after another,” Holland’s Rubicon may be for them. For in it, they may find that ‘yes,’ history does seem to repeat itself, but no, it is not just one thing after another, nor is it boring. Roman history, especially in Holland’s telling, is as vibrant, alive, and violent as the Italian operas that their descendants would write over fifteen hundred years later.

Rubicon is, ultimately, a tragic tale marked by violence, civil war, conquest and the fall of the world’s longest standing republic. As the turmoil begins to end, we see Octavian rise as the second Caesar, but really as the first emperor, of Rome. His long life and mostly peaceful reign were a marked difference from the tumultuous years of the Republics fall, and they gave rise to a different period in Rome’s, and the West’s, history. It would be more than seventeen hundred years before another republic with Rome’s staying power was established.

As the only constant in history is change, as I closed the book, I could not help but wonder how long our republic will last. I don’t mean to speak doom and gloom by saying so, only to point out that human nature is tends to bring about repetition of history, including the failures of democracies and republics alike. How long can ours last? Even if it is only at mid-point or, to be optimistic, a relative beginning, what duration can it have? And will the causes of Rome’s fall also cause ours to fall?

Detail of a Bronze Sculpture Bust of Cato the Younger

Book Review: “The Unincorporated Man” by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin

Science-fiction is a far cry from the world of the law, politics, and the other drivel I muse about on this blog. Recently, however, I ran across a book that takes an interesting and speculative look at all those topics. I read it and enjoyed it, and I found the thought experiment insightful and mind-popping.

After, I wrote a review, which has since been published over at Walker of Worlds, a science-fiction/fantasy blog run by Mark Chitty. The book has also won an award by a libertarian organization for best novel of the year. I recommend you check it out.  Here’s a few snippets from the review:

Justin Cord wakes from a cryogenic sleep to a world where each individual is incorporated at birth, their shares traded on the open market. Using the capital raised through sale of shares, individuals finance their education, business ventures, homes and investments. Corporations—real companies, not just individuals incorporated—are more powerful than governments, produce and regulate their own currency, and control the lives of the individuals in whom they own stock.

And that’s the rub for Cord. For while he is and was an avid defender of capitalism in the 21st century, incorporation of the individual strikes him as a form of slavery. Despite the unprecedented wealth and technological progress it has created, Cord can’t help but see injustice in the system of ownership of others. As he pushes back, fighting against the giant corporations that want to own a piece of him, he begins to reveal cracks and fissures that will lead to systemic change and revolution.

Pick up the book at your local library or book seller for some easy reading and thought provoking fiction.