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 February 2009 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

 

A. Lincoln:
A Biography


by Ronald C. White

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

 

For those who feel that they will never have the time to read Michael Burlingame’s two-volume, 2,000-page, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, but who want more than the brief (though still excellent) Times Books’ “American Presidents” volume by George McGovern, there is White’s A. Lincoln. Drawing on previously unavailable material, White is able to flesh out more of Lincoln’s early years and legal career. Appropriately enough, half of the book is devoted to his presidency and the Civil War, but for those familiar only with the bearded figure of “Father Abraham,” his younger days will make for refreshing reading. “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky,” is a typical Lincolnian mixture of practicality, moral certitude, and wit. That is the Lincoln White presents. This biography has no particular agenda, preferring to let Lincoln stand for himself. And, in consequence, we see that Lincoln really was all that we were taught he was in grade school. White’s Lincoln is a man of genius who, through sheer determination and mental agility, took himself from the literal log cabin to the White House, where he saved the Union. Lincoln remains a hero, but a very human one, constantly mediating and reaching out to people. The book’s images are also worth note. Every few pages there is a period photograph (not just of Lincoln, but his political friends and rivals, as well as a growing Washington, D.C.), newspaper cartoon, manuscript letter, or engraved print to bring Lincoln’s places and times to life. Read White now, and save Burlingame for when you have retired.

 

 

         
 

The Error World:  An Affair with Stamps


b
y Simon Garfield

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

You don’t have to be a philatelist to enjoy Garfield’s memoir of his obsession with stamps. Those who know their Inverted Jennies from their Penny Blacks will be captivated and find in the author a kindred soul, while laymen will not only learn something, but are in danger of becoming hooked themselves. People started collecting stamps as soon as they were first issued in 1840. One young lady in London advertised for donations of cancelled postage. She wanted to wallpaper her dressing room with it, and the 16,000 she had so far weren’t enough. But Garfield is more specialized. His fascination is with error stamps:  those missing a particular color, text, or image. They are usually caught and destroyed by postal checkers, but every now and then some slip through and become expensive objects of desire due to their rarity. Garfield takes us behind the scenes of the world of millionaire collectors and the missed opportunities that might have made him rich. He discusses collecting with artist David Hockney and the Keeper of the Royal Philatelic Collection, the world’s finest collection and the personal property of Queen Elizabeth II. But all is not well. Garfield’s expensive hobby eventually costs him his marriage. He ponders the desires behind any kind of collecting and wonders if they aren’t the same things that can lead to a romantic affair. Like its topic, this book has one thing missing:  photographs of the stamps being discussed.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

The Templars: The Secret History Revealed


by Barbara Frale

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

The Templars is a serious primer on the history of the Knights, placing their rise and fall within an overview of Europe and the Middle East during the crusades. The subtitle doesn’t refer to the murky secret societies and hidden meanings of paranoid fiction and fringe history, but to the rediscovery of the transcripts of the Templars’ trial during the Inquisition. The author, a historian in the Vatican Secret Archives, stumbled across the obscurely classified documents and recognized them for what they were: the true story of the end of the Templars. That does not mean that the reality of the Templars lacks conspiracies and secrets, however. The machinations of various popes and kings which took place as  royalty and religion vied for primacy is as sordid and scheming as any fiction. What emerges from the new documents is a reappraisal of the Templars and their role in the power struggle between King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V. The book covers this in a straightforward style but is occasionally a little hard to follow, although this may be as much a result of the intricate plots being hatched between crown and church as a reflection on the structure of the narrative itself. As the crusades also rise and fall for reasons more political than spiritual, the complexity of the problems still faced in the region is also illuminated. It’s a fascinating story concisely told, and its twists and turns are at least as compelling as the myths surrounding the Templars.

 

 

 
         
 

Citizen-In-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents


by Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

 

With another presidential election behind us, and the previous occupant of the White House now home in Texas, it’s a good time to ask the question, “What happened to other presidents after they left office?”  Benardo and Weiss uncover some surprising revelations.  Andrew Jackson spent a lot of his money renovating the White House and then after leaving, came close to poverty due to his reluctance to sell his slaves.  Franklin Pierce’s attitude was, “After the White House, what is there to do but drink?”   

I have always been curious about presidential libraries and how they began.  Franklin Roosevelt came up with the concept and then it was passed into law during Eisenhower’s administration.  My favorite post-presidential story is William Howard Taft.  He always complained about being president and said his dream was to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  He campaigned for Warren Harding, and when Chief Justice Edward Douglass White died shortly after Harding took office, he was more than happy to nominate Taft to the prestigious position.  

The authors do a terrific job of showing that Presidents are human beings. This history of post-presidential lives deserves your vote.

 

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

The Canterbury Tales:  A New Unabridged Translation


by Geoffrey Chaucer, translated by Burton Raffel

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

 

Now approximately 700 years old, Chaucer’s collection of 24 tales told by pilgrims riding to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral continues to work its charms. We see a wide spectrum of Fourteenth-century life framed in tales recounting everything from a much-married wife, chivalric knights, a speaking crow, and multiple variations on greed and lust. Important because Chaucer wrote in the vernacular and presented a variety of character types, each with their own distinct voice, there is a reason why we continue to read them:  so little has changed. Chaucer’s careful rendering of the pilgrims and what they reveal in their tales mean that we’re bound to recognize people we know. The specific becomes the universal, and modern translations keep the work accessible. Raffel’s modern English translation does a much better job than most of the centuries-old versions available. Here, the funny parts are still funny, and the dirty (in the best sense of the word) parts are still dirty . . . mostly. Raffel hasn’t bowdlerized anything, but Chaucer remains saucier in the original (A description of a rutting young man: “He priketh harde and depe as he were mad” becomes merely “John worked hard and stopped for nothing.” A little of the gusto is missing.). Operating on the idea that nobody knows what a Canon’s Yeoman or a Franklin is, Raffel has re-named them the “Cleric-Magician” and “Landowner,” respectively. A couple of other titles were also altered. That’s really only going to cause problems if you try to discuss them with an English major who studied Chaucer in college (“Whose Prologue?”), but wouldn’t a couple of explanatory footnotes sufficed? Actually the end notes, which concentrate on the ancient historical and literary references, are quite good, describing the Roman emperor Nero, for example as “extravagant, vain, fearful, and above all murderous” and occasionally directing readers to modern books for more information.  And remember, if you don’t like one tale, just “Turne over the leef and chese another.”

         
 

Sima’s Undergarments for Women


by Ilana Stanger-Ross

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

 

You really shouldn’t review a book for what it isn’t, but the number of times this otherwise engaging novel missed opportunities bothered me. There are apparently numerous hidden stores strewn throughout New York’s boroughs. Deep in the basements of homes, men and women sell shoes, suits, and, as in the case of this book, bras and lingerie. (But the author never goes into the details or history of these operations). This store, run for decades by Sima Goldner, sits in the middle of a thriving Jewish community. (But, aside from the mention of an eruv—the string or wire that, by surrounding a whole neighborhood, technically renders several blocks a “home,” thus allowing some sorts of outside activity on the Sabbath—we see almost none of it.  Perhaps Jewish New York has already been “done.” Me, I’m still interested.) With the action taking place almost exclusively in Sima’s shop and her apartment upstairs, the author generates an almost hot-house atmosphere. Every woman dreams of a finding a store with bras that really fit her, and when Sima interacts with her customers and displays her knack for helping them, the novel fulfills the promise of its title. Sima takes on a young seamstress, an Israeli girl fresh from her compulsory military service (another unexplored avenue), who’s in New York waiting for her boyfriend to finish his so that they can go traveling. As the novel progresses, Sima takes the girl on as the daughter she never had, and flashbacks slowly reveal the cause. Those looking for pathos and a well-drawn character study will be satisfied.

 

 

 
         
Young Adult

 

 

 

The Other Side of the Island


by Allegra Goodman

 

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

 

"All this happened many years ago, before the streets were air-conditioned."   

When she is ten years old, Honor and her parents are forcibly removed from their nomadic existence in the Northern Islands and placed in one of the government-controlled Colonies.  There, the Earth Mother (who bears many similarities to Orwell’s Big Brother, under a façade of environmentalism and maternal love) rules the citizens with the twin weapons of fear and paranoia.   Honor struggles to fit in with her peers at school in the hopes of avoiding punishment and ostracism, and she desperately wants her parents to assimilate, too.  But Honor’s family never quite seems to tow the line, and their refusal to conform may have dire consequences. 

Goodman’s dystopic future world contains many tropes familiar to the genre:  the earth is flooded except for a few scattered islands, a mysterious slave class does most of the menial work, and the government feeds its citizens misinformation and outright lies.  But Goodman, author of Kaaterskill Falls and several other books for adults, breathes fresh life into these themes with her elegant, spare writing and excellent sense of atmosphere.  The Other Side of the Island is a riveting read, in the same class as Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.  Highly recommended.

 
         
 

The Alchemy of Animation: Making an Animated Film in the Modern Age


by Don Hahn

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

 

From the hand drawn movements of Snow White to the computer generated graphics of Pixar movies like Wall-E, the concept of creating and telling a tale through images has been successful for over seventy years.  Disney was the innovator and still the king of the art.  Hahn examines the form as it looks now, demonstrating that even with new technology to create the image, it’s still all about the characters and the story.  

This book is lavishly filled with colorful examples, and Hahn takes the reader on a journey that shows how the process works today, from the initial concept art to the finished product.  Since he works for Disney, he draws from the archives to reinforce the genius of the men and women who make these films.  A look at the addition of music and the introduction of digital to the theater experience only enhances an essential book for the filmmaker/animator student or fan.

 

 
         
 
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

 

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