Review of “American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant” by Ronald C. White

This detailed biography of Grant has excellent coverage of Grant’s role in the Civil War, but also a great deal of exposition about Grant’s character. The author presents Grant as someone who consistently surprised both friends and opponents by his humility, modesty, and magnanimity.

The author is trying to rectify the reputation of a man now known primarily for military genius (or at the least, military perseverance). For many years before recent times, however, Grant was regarded as one of the “Trinity of Great American Leaders” along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1900, “Mightiest among the mighty dead loom the three great figures of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.” In the second rank Roosevelt placed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Moreover, Frederick Douglass himself, who knew both Lincoln and Grant, thought more of Grant in some ways, saying of Grant after his presidential term:

“To him more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.”

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at headquarters in Cold Harbor, Va., June 1864, Library of Congress

And in fact, White spends a great deal of time recounting the problems after the Civil War, with the South trying to suppress blacks in every way they could, and about the measures Grant tried to take (ultimately without success) to prevent that from happening. Both Congress and those in power in the South (many of whom had been Confederates during the Civil War) resisted efforts by Grant to ensure civil equality and to rein in the violence of a new organization, The Ku Klux Klan.

Grant was elected to the presidency in 1868 with a total popular vote of 3,013,421, just slightly over 300,000 more than that received by incumbent President Andrew Johnson. In the run-up to the election, the Democrats boasted of their intent to suppress rights of blacks, highlighting the difference between their stance and that of Grant’s, who was known for his determination to enforce the now constitutionally-protected rights of blacks. Grant was branded a “black Republican” and a “nigger lover.” One of the slogans of the opposition was “Let All Good Men Vote No Nigger.” As the author observes, “it was not lost on the opposition that without the support of approximately 400,000 black freedman, [Grant] would have lost the popular vote.” Whites intended to see that didn’t happen again through a campaign of violence and voter intimidation.

“Of course he wants to vote the Democratic ticket.” Thomas Nast Cartoon, Oct. 21, 1876,

During Grant’s presidency, he was equally ineffective not only in protecting blacks but in helping Native Americans, though not for lack of trying. But the greed for their land by whites, and racism against them, were strong forces Grant was unable to counter. Even William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, his close friends both during and after the war, disagreed with Grant on the disposition of the Indians. (Grant, to his discredit, did not try to rein in the extermination policies of Sherman and Sheridan.)

And then there was Grant’s cabinet. For most positions he selected old friends and family members rather than people who were necessarily qualified. Many of them came from relatively poor backgrounds, and were enticed by the opportunities that political power offered them for graft. Grant was slow to recognize the corrupt behavior of men he thought were his loyal friends, and had difficulty accepting that they would betray him in that way. Eventually, the chair of his Indian Commission, his personal secretary, his secretary of war, and his secretary of the interior were all forced to resign in financial corruption scandals. In addition there were others around him who participated in a variety of schemes to enrich themselves by the exploitation of others, but managed to escape punishment. Although Grant was guilty of nothing but poor character judgment, the wrongdoings of those in his cabinet contributed to the diminution of his reputation.

President Grant

Indeed, ultimately, as White shows, while Grant was in some senses adored for his fundamental decency, it was also the trait that led to most of his failures. Too often he gave the benefit of the doubt, and too often expected that others would act as he would. Alas, he had quite a few more better angels riding on his shoulders than other people. He also was loathe to engage in the unsavory and extremely contentious political wrangling that Lincoln had relished, and at which Lincoln so excelled. The political process was odious to Grant, an aversion that unfortunately affected his efficacy in the role as president.

Grant never understood, or even wanted to understand, politics the way he did the military. He certainly would never have appointed friends and/or relatives to lead battles; he knew better. And yet it did not register to him that bad leadership in political offices as well as on the field of battle could also inflict severe damage to people’s lives.

After Grant’s two-terms in office, also highlighted by some positive achievements, such as an important peace treaty with Great Britain resolving issues left over from the Civil War, the Grants took off for an overseas tour of many countries. Upon returning, Grant once again was the victim of financial graft by someone he thought he could trust, this time by a Ponzi scheme, that left him and Julia impoverished. Moreover, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer and knew he needed to find a way to provide support for Julia and their family after he died. Thus he embarked on writing his memoirs, which are still considered to be a literary classic.

Ulysses S. Grant, at a cottage in Mt. McGregor, New York, 1885, working on his memoirs

Grant died on July 23, 1885 only a few days after finishing his manuscript. His funeral procession in New York was attended by some million and a half admirers.

One development of which I was unaware was the unexpected friendship, after the deaths of both Grant and Jefferson Davis, of their widows. Julia Grant and Varina Davis met in 1893 in New York, where both had come to live. The two not only became close friends, but their two daughters also became close friends. After Julia died in 1902, Varina publicly defended both Grants for the rest of her life (she herself died in 1906). Julia’s son General Frederick Grant sent an artillery company to escort Varina’s cortege as it made its way out of New York City.

Julia Grant, left, and Varina Davis, right. Library of Congress

Evaluation: White does an excellent job of providing a deeply researched, balanced portrayal of a man whom he clearly admires, while not withholding aspects of Grant’s story that show him in less-than-perfect light. So many books are devoted to Grant’s prowess in military strategy. This book also introduces us to Grant as a boy, a man, and a devoted husband and father. White’s strong emphasis on Grant’s commitment to equal rights, to justice for freed blacks, and compassion about the plight of Native Americans, so unusual for a man of his times, does a great service to his memory. This book will help set the record straight for readers.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover in 864 pages by Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Jim and I went to hear the author do a reading for this book, and his obvious passionate dedication to the restoration of Grant’s reputation in the top pantheon of American heroes had most of the crowd rushing to buy the book afterwards. The narrator, Arthur Morey, sounds a great deal like the author. I also liked that when he read something in the voice of Grant, I found myself thinking, “that sounds just like him!” Ironic, of course, since we don’t know what Grant sounded like, but the narrator totally sold me on the idea that Grant would have sounded just like he rendered him! My only complaint is my usual one of narrators: the mispronunciation of “forte”: “For-tay” is a musical term; the word meaning “strong point” is correctly said as “fort”. On the other hand, one must give him kudos for knowing the correct pronunciation of Cairo, Illinois – that is, not like the city in Egypt, but like the syrup.

With respect to the question of whether this book is better in print or audio, aside from my very small quibbles on pronunciation, I had no problem with taking in the details of the book despite not having access to pictures or maps, of which the hardcover book has a great deal. On the other hand, I familiar enough with the subject that I was able to picture it all in my head in any event.

Published unabridged on 22 CDs (approximately 27 and 1/2 listening hours) by Brilliance Audio, 2016

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Review of “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” by Matthew J. Sullivan

This unusual and disturbing story is part mystery, and part examination of a small, very dysfunctional group of people.

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Lydia was psychologically scarred when she was 10 by being the only survivor of a gruesome murder at the house where she was at a sleepover. She managed to hide, but her girlfriend Carol and Carol’s parents were killed horrifically by someone who was never found, but was known thereafter as “The Hammerman.” The story was sensationalized at the time and retained a certain cult status, so Lydia uses a different last name, seeking to remain anonymous. She has never even told her boyfriend of five years about her past.

Now 30, Lydia has been working for the past six years at Bright Ideas Bookstore in Denver. As the story opens, one of the regulars in the store, Joey, just hung himself from the rafters of the top floor. It is Lydia who discovers him, and to her shock, she finds a childhood picture of herself in one of his pockets. She sets out to discover how he got this, and what message Joey intended for her. Her quest is aided by the fact that Joey bequeathed her his meager possessions, among them a set of mutilated books offering her clues, if a bit hard to decipher.

Lydia’s investigations eventually yield a number of shocking secrets, upending everything she thought she knew, and allowing her finally to solve the mystery of what really happened that traumatic night of her childhood she can never forget.

Evaluation: The mysteries in this book weren’t all that well hidden, but the process of their unfolding was interesting. But this isn’t a pleasant or diverting book; nor did it, in my opinion, offer any justification for including such nightmarish and violent images. It’s almost – but not quite – a horror story. I can’t say I enjoyed it enough to have been glad I read it.

Rating: 2.75/5

Published by Scribner, and imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2017

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Review of “The Best of Adam Sharp” by Graeme Simsion

I thought this book was “meh” at best. The two main characters, Adam Sharp and Angelina Brown, are incredibly self-centered. Twenty-two years ago, they fell in love in Melbourne, Australia, where Angelina was in an unhappy marriage and Adam, working on contract, was in the area. They mutually agreed that when it was time for him to return to Manchester, England, they would break it off.

Adam and Angelina seem to have fallen in love based on a shared love of the same music, about which the author writes at length. The problem with music is that it does not evoke the same reaction in all people; so much is dependent on when you hear it, or whom you are with, or what your life is about at that moment. Thus, for example, Adam going on and on about the Dylan song “Farewell Angelina” clearly would be relevant for him but does absolutely nothing for me. Analogously, eating a madeleine only makes me think of Proust the author, rather than the 4,215 pages of memories it inspired him to write about.

When the story shifts to the later period in their lives, Adam is 48 and Angelina is 45. They haven’t changed much. Adam is still endlessly in the throes of introspection about Angelina and their relationship, and Angelina is (also) still all about Angelina.

Thus, I found much of the book boring and often alienating. The immature characters just didn’t interest me in the slightest. This may be because the author didn’t really choose to tell us much about them besides their musical tastes and their manipulative actions.

There are two side characters, who are (inexplicably, in my view) devoted to Adam and Angelina in spite of their flaws and in some instances abusive behaviors.

In the end, not much has really changed, at least on the interior of each of the characters, or rather, what interior there is.

Evaluation: Fans of Simsion’s “Rosie” books may be in for a letdown; I certainly was.

Rating: 3/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “50 States: Our America” by Editors of Time for Kids Magazine

This is a handy school or travel companion for kids that provides brief details about the fifty states, from their geographic and political origins to short histories and some state trivia, such as “state tree” and “state bird.” Each state has one page that includes some photos, an illustrated map by Aaron Meshon, and a “fact box.” The information on states is followed by entries on U.S. Territories and Commonwealths and on the sections of the country (South, Midwest, etc.). A list of state government websites is appended at the end.

The authors don’t have much space to provide information, but I think they only do a fair job in picking out facts about the states to include. The content seemed a little “blah” to me, and not necessarily something that would hold my attention.

Take Maryland, for instance. The book has the eyes-glazing-over sentence: “Maryland’s industries expanded in the early 20th century, led by electronics, food products, and chemical manufacturing.” That sounds to me like boring textbook stuff that doesn’t give you a flavor of Maryland at all. More interesting about industry might be that 50 percent of the country’s blue crab harvest comes from Maryland waters, and crab feasts are a Maryland staple. Maryland is also the home of the first railroad, the first battle of the Civil War, and the deadliest battle, at Antietam. Each year in December, 23,100 luminaries are lit at Maryland’s Antietam National Battlefield by volunteers to teach people what that number of dead actually looks like. Kids might be fascinated to learn that the state sport of Maryland is jousting, played there for over 300 years! These are facts about which, it seems to me, that potential travelers to Maryland might want to be aware.

Luminaries at Antietam

There are many other “fun” pieces of information that could have been added to make the book more appealing, such as an indication of the different dialects in the states. In Wisconsin, for example, the natives speak “Scansin” (e.g., bubbler for water fountain, melk for milk, etc.). There is an actual national divide on the use of “soda” versus “pop.” How do different states say “pajamas” or “pecan”? Which states use “traffic circles” instead of “roundabouts” or “rotaries”? Kids might find it entertaining to learn a few of the regionalisms in use in different states. (You can see maps charting some of these dialectical differences here.)

Works of art in states get virtually no coverage. And more “unpleasant” information does not seem to me to be withheld justifiably.

On the Louisiana page we learn “…because of its low elevation, the city will face challenges as a result of rising sea levels caused by global climate change.” Wouldn’t it be more engaging and important to report that Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005, was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States? Overall, at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, and total property damage was estimated at $108 billion in 2005 U.S. dollars. That puts a “face” on the “challenges” caused by climate change.

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico on August 29, 2005.

And New York: no mention of the Statue of Liberty? The World’s Fairs? No mention of 9/11? Really?!!!

For Illinois, more boring sentences like: “Today, Northern Illinois is largely urban and industrial. Chicago, its hub, is a center for iron and steel production and other manufacturing.” Wouldn’t it intrigue kids more in terms of manufacturing to tell them about the famous stockyards? Chicago was once, as Carl Sandburg famously wrote, “Hog Butcher for the World.” The stockyards were considered one of the city’s world-famous wonders, visited by princes and maharajahs. They also inspired Upton Sinclair’s famous exposé of appalling conditions in the meat-packing industry, leading to federal food safety laws. Or why not mention the famous Columbian Exposition of 1893 (“The White City”), which introduced chewing gum, Cracker Jack’s, the dishwasher, zippers, and the Ferris Wheel? The Great Chicago fire is mentioned in passing, but wouldn’t kids like hearing the real story about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow? Or Al Capone’s Valentine’s Day Massacre?

There is some coverage of the fate of Native Americans, but it’s pretty vanilla. Take Connecticut, for instance. In 1637, William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, decided that Connecticut would make a good addition to their colony. But it happened to be occupied by the Pequot Tribe. The Puritans didn’t like the Pequots: they did not exhibit the stringent moral decorum of the Pilgrims, and were “insolent” in that they resisted subjugation and dispossession. No problem: colonial militia burned the Pequot alive in their villages – some 700 men, women, and children. Bradford then led his people in giving “thanks” for the subjugation of the Pequots.” The authentic Thanksgiving Day was born.

William Bradford, who came to the Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower

For South Dakota, there is a mention, sort of as an aside, that “hundreds of Sioux were killed near Wounded Knee,” but no reason what it was or why it happened, and who did the killing, reported in this book in the passive voice. In fact, it was the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army, who killed and then mutilated (for souvenirs) more than 200 women, children, and mostly elderly men (the warriors were out hunting) of the Lakota, and wounded many more. Thus they not only achieved “retribution” for their defeat at Little Bighorn, but could then happily open up the rich Black Hills land for white settlement.

Obviously one could go on and on. These latter facts I brought up are not “happy” aspects of state histories, but I think they are pretty important to understand where we came from and what we are now. The story of the removal and genocide of native peoples, and of the internecine conflicts of greed among the conquerers, is yet woven today into the social and political landscape of the country.

I think if you just give kids bromidic boring recitations of vague information, you are more likely to turn them off of learning than to stimulate their intellects and imaginations. If you are old enough for the prose in this book (ages 8-12), you’re old enough for some actual history. And if you want to stimulate them to seeking out more information on their own, some non-textbook prose and more “fun stuff” would be highly recommended.

Example of “Fun Stuff”

Evaluation: This is a handy guide, but I think it could have benefitted from a more interesting and relevant selection of facts to include. Nevertheless it is a start, and would be useful for kids to have on “road trips.” Kudos to the authors however for including a section on U.S. Territories and Commonwealths, omitted from most state guides.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Time Inc. Books, 2017

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Review of “Carve the Mark” by Veronica Roth

This beginning of a new series has many elements in common with the “Divergent” series, but in a very different universe. And in fact, Roth spends much of the book on world-building rather than on character-building. In this world, there is a “current” circling the planetary system, and everyone comes into a “gift” from the current when they reach puberty.

Two warring nations on one particular planet are the focus of the story: Shotet and Thuvhe. You will be shocked, shocked to learn there are two attractive 16-year-olds, one from each nation – a boy, Akos, and a girl, Cyra, that are destined to get together.

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Cyra Noavek has an unusual “currentgift” – more like a curse, at least at first – she has chronic pain, which she can transfer to other people by touching them. It is so intense that prolonged contact with Cyra can kill the other person. Her evil brother Ryzek, now the leader of the Shotet nation, uses Cyra as his “scourge” to punish his enemies.

Cyra’s people, the Shotet, manage to kidnap two Thuvhens, Akos and Eijeh Kereseth, from across the border and bring them to Shotet. Ryzek wanted Eijeh because Eijeh’s gift is to prophesize. Akos is useful since his gift is to disrupt the current of the gifts of others. By touching Cyra, he can control her pain enough for Ryzek to have her to appear in public with him and do his bidding (which usually involves torture).

Akos is desperate to get Eijeh out of Shotet, because the gift Ryzek has is destroying Eijeh. But Ryzek has eyes everywhere, and a gang of thugs to support him. As Cyra and Akos grow closer, they both try to give each other strength and courage to stand up to injustice.

Evaluation: This book has a predictable attraction between two teens from two enemy groups; very evil people trying to take over the government; a resistance group; lots of training in fighting and weaponry; family loyalty questions; heartbreaking loss; a great deal of angst; and some personal growth, even though it’s only book one.

But I was not impressed with the derivative plot, the superficial characterizations – most of which lacked nuance, or the flimsy motivation for Cyra doing Ryzek’s evil bidding.

While I have seen a number of reviews for this book that condemn a perceived dichotomy between evil dark people and good light people, I didn’t think the comparative characteristics of each group was that straightforward. In my view, each had a mix of good and bad people. But adding color to one side or the other didn’t seem to serve any purpose in any event.

While I didn’t hate this book, I can’t see myself seeking out the next installment.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2017

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