Book Reviews

Reading List for July 2020: A Little of This, A Little of That…

I was able to do more reading this month than last, thankfully. Then again, that was a low bar.

Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story by Wilfred M. McClay

I started reading “Land of Hope” before all the current iconoclastic craziness started. As my reading progressed, I found it to be a refreshing journey through American history. McClay looks squarely at the predominating winds in American history – the good, the bad and of course the ugly – and comes away hopeful. 2020 might be an exceptionally good year to read his book.

The Sand Sea by Michael McClellan

After reading some rather heavy books, I needed some good fiction…like dessert after a full meal. I wanted something a little lighter than Brandon Sanderson, but sufficiently action-packed and creative to keep my attention.

Enter Ted Cruz. Yes…that Ted Cruz. On his Twitter feed he recommended the Sand Sea by Michael McClellan, so I decided to give it a try. It proved to be all the things I mentioned above. McClellan has two strong suites – character development and action scenes. His “world building” is not as deep as Sanderson’s, but the action and personalities more than made up for it.

I feel the need to mention that there are sections that deal with some intense themes, but never, in my opinion, in a prurient manner.

The Age of Faith
by Will Durant

Imagine trying to do justice to roughly one thousand years of history – from the fall of Rome to the dawn of the Renaissance – by packing it all into one volume. This is what historian Will Durant attempts in Age of Faith, and he largely succeeds. Better still, he manages to treat the Middle Ages with the respect they deserve, as opposed to the condescending, self-awareness-deficient trope that has been popular since the Enlightenment.

Finishing Durant’s Age of Faith (all 1086 pages) has been a major undertaking for me – part of a larger goal of reading Durant’s complete Western Civilization series. But the author’s accessible prose, meticulous research, and ironic, occasionally self-depreciating humor make traveling through time with him a very gratifying experience.

The Glory and the Dream by William Manchester

This majestic work is especially interesting to me as it covers the events between 1932 and 1972, the forty years before I was born. They were years of seismic societal shifts, and Manchester examines them with a penetrating eye.

His description of the ’60s is especially interesting in the light of the turmoil of the past year. There truly is nothing new under the Sun. Interestingly enough, I read the section on the Freedom Riders a few short days before the passing of John Lewis.

Of special interest to me was the second half of the book, where we begin to meet characters who would play a larger role beyond the scope of the book: Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bob Dole, and an unscrupulous assistant to Joe McCarthy named Roy Cohn, who, at about the time Manchester was finishing up his work, was becoming a friend and mentor to a young, up-and-coming New York real estate investor named Donald Trump.

Dreams of El Dorado by H.W. Brands

This book offers a sweeping history of the American West, from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park under Theodore Roosevelt.

Though the time-period covered is extensive, the reading is never dull. The author accomplishes this by focusing on key personalities, and building the narrative around them. Well-known people like Custer and Chief Joseph are interspersed with lesser-known but equally influential characters like mountain man Joe Meek.

Of special interest to me was the emphasis given to frontier missionary Marcus Whitman. Not only do we share the same profession, but Whitman and his wife both hailed from Steuben County, NY – my old stomping grounds.

If you enjoy reading about the West, or if you are just interested in a captivating read, this book is for you.

Westward the Tide by Louis L’Amour

Westward the Tide is the second Louis L’Amour book I have read to my boys at the lunch table. This one had a little more shoot-em-up than the first, and was much heavier on the romance. For me, this is a feature rather than a bug, as L’Amour’s heroes tend to be the strong men I want my sons to become, and his heroines the spirited women I hope they marry.

As is the case with most L’Amour books, there was plenty of opportunity to teach history as we went along. This particular tale takes place in and around the Big Horn mountains, a few years after Custer’s fateful “last stand”. Not only that, the Wild West’s greatest real-life lusophone hero, one Portagee Phillips, plays an important role in the story.

You can keep up with my yearly reading here.

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