Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of PowerThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The complex life and the politics of the third President of the United States in a dramatic period in history are brought to the fore in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. After nearly twenty years in which Jefferson’s reputation has taken a hit through both scientific revelations and new biographies of his fellow Founders, the pragmatic philosopher who still yearned to daydream comes into better light 200 years after his time in office.

Meacham approached his book as a pure biography of Jefferson not a history of the times, which meant that only events that directly affected Jefferson or his immediately family were focused upon. Thus while Jefferson’s own story began in 1743, Meacham sets the stage with a family history that was also a history of colonial Virginia both politically and culturally. Throughout the next 500 pages, Meacham follows Jefferson in and out of Virginia with stops in Philadelphia, Paris, New York, and finally Washington D.C., but through everything a special focus was on how he developed his political acumen to achieve the vision he had for the United States in the world.

Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is discussed throughout the book when important moments in both their lives cross. While Hemings is not the focus of the book, the ‘relationship’ is interwoven by Meacham into Jefferson’s complicated thoughts on slavery that is more thoroughly detailed towards the end of the book and is some of the best analysis in the book. Yet, the focus on Jefferson’s political skill in comparison to his contemporaries and his time resulted in a fairly quick book to read (505 pages) that had extensive notes that could have added more to the body of the book and given the book more depth is the basic drawback of the book.

Over the last decade, a new round of biographies of the Founding Fathers has brought praise and more attention to the actual human beings we think of when we hear their names. Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is a fascinating read of a man whose words and actions are both celebrated and controversial.

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The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Hinges of History #2)

The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and FeelsThe Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The moment, or hinge, in history that a changed occurred to allow Western civilization possible is the primary focus of Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews. Over the course of less than 304 pages and the scope of two millennia of Jewish history from its birth with Abraham to their return from exile, Cahill examines the evolving birth of a new worldview that was entirely different from what had been thought before.

The focus of Cahill’s book is the beginning of Western civilization, which to him is a change in mindset on how to view the world and the reason was the Jews. Before getting to Abraham however, Cahill looked to what had come before, the “cyclical” worldview and culture of Sumer in which he went out of. With this in mind, Cahill emphasizes how big a step Abraham’s journey at God’s direction was. Then throughout the course of the book, Cahill examines step-by-step the development of the “processive” worldview that the Jews were exhibiting for the first time from successive revelations of God and the development of individuality in language and philosophy, but most importantly the role of justice in society.

Cahill’s argument is very compelling, as was his discussions on the Epic of Gilgamesh and the various Biblical individuals and their actions. Yet the problem I have with this book is with some of Cahill’s interpretation and subsequent logical construction of his evidence whether through scripture or an analysis of non-Biblical sources to weave his thesis. For example some of the evidence Cahill uses to date the Exodus is erroneous by misinterpretation of both Biblical and non-Biblical sources, yet that is only of several examples I could have given.

Yet while Cahill’s interpretations aren’t the best part of this book, his argument that the Jews brought forth a new worldview that would lead to Western civilization is compelling. Because of that, The Gifts of the Jews is worth a close read as it describes the first and most significant hinge of historical change.

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Mockingjay (THG #3)

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The nation of Panem collapses into a state of civil war and both sides are looking towards for the appearance of the Mockingjay. The final installment of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy finds Katniss Everdeen contemplating her role in the fight against the Capitol along with coming to terms with everything that has been going on her life the last two years.

The book begins with Katniss in the ashen rubble of her home District 12 before returning to the underground stronghold of the once thought to be destroyed District 13 where she’s amongst a political struggle for her face on the rebellion. But it is only after seeing a Capitol controlled Peeta that Katniss begins promoting the rebel cause. Over the course of the book, Katniss is mentally and physically tested by not only the conditions but also propaganda moves by President Snow via Peeta until the rebellion rescues him, only for everyone to find out he is not himself. Through the rest of the book, Katniss’ battles both military and political forces in her personal mission to end the war and Snow so those she loves can live in peace. Yet victory comes at such a high cost that it truly breaks Katniss more than the Hunger Games or anything else.

Given where the end of the previous book ended, Mockingjay has to start slowly before getting into a flow similar to the first book of the trilogy. In fact, Mockingjay is truly the better follow up to The Hunger Games than Catching Fire as Katniss truly comes to terms with everything she has previously and currently going through, so much so that it seems that she is having a slow motion mental breakdown before hitting rock bottom.

In the final chapter of The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins gives a satisfying and well-written conclusion to Katniss’ story. If not for the slow start, Mockingjay would be on the same level as the first book. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Hunger Games then make it through Catching Fire to see why >Mockingjay is so fantastic.

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Patriarchs and Prophets (Conflict of the Ages #1)

pandpPatriarchs And Prophets by Ellen G. White

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How does a Christian explain the actions of the God of the Old Testament to an unbeliever or answer questions of their own when comparing God in the Old and New Testaments? In Patriarchs and Prophets, Ellen G. White gives an insightful commentary of events from the fall of Lucifer in Heaven through to the end of David’s reign over Israel. Over the course of 800 pages, she shows how throughout the ages that a conflict between right and wrong, truth and error has been played out through the lives of those individuals in the Old Testament.

From the start, White answers why God permitted evil to exist in the first place and then proceeded to show how sin separated man from God with the resulting evils that followed. Throughout the book, White shows that every major Biblical individual has sinned and the terrible consequences that have resulted not only immediately but over the course of years, if not centuries and millennia. Also the actions of the nation of Israel as a whole are painfully shown throughout as falling short of their covenant with God made at Sinai.

However, not every Biblical story is written on over the course of time covered in this book was touched upon. The stories of many of the judges and of Job were either not touched up or just mentioned, not because they were not important but because of White’s framework of giving a clear picture to the conflict between God and Satan from its beginnings in Heaven to its finish before the Creation of the New Earth.

Patriarchs and Prophets is the first in the five-book Conflict of the Ages series, written by Ellen White. After reading it you’ll have a clearer understanding of why God allowed evil to exit and of His actions throughout the early Old Testament. Yet, after finishing this book the whole story isn’t complete and I hope you’ll feel the need to read what happens next.

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Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War

Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain's Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of WarRogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Ben Macintyre

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

During World War II many military strategies and tactics that are today standard around the world were first pioneer, including behind-the-lines special operation as done by the British Special Air Service (SAS). Ben Macintyre in Rogue Heroes relates the birth and evolution of the SAS from an ‘independent’ army in the North African theater to an integral part the Allied campaigns in Europe against Nazi Germany.

Macintyre’s history of the SAS begins with the man whose idea it was and who shaped it during its first years in existence, David Stirling who used his connections and his desire to actively participate in battling the Germans. Early on Stirling and his brigade went through several phases of evolution of tactics before fully becoming what Stirling had conceived in mid-1941. However, after Stirling’s capture in January 1943 and the change in theater, the SAS temporarily became a regular commando unit in the invasion of Italy before returning to their behind-the-line Special Forces status original purpose later in the Italian campaign and on the Western Front during and after D-Day.

The decision by Macintyre to not focus on all of the missions of the SAS, but only those that influenced and impacted the development of the Special Forces unit as well as to reduce repetitiveness in the book was a good one. The decision help keep the book at a readable length for the general reader, however other choices by the author didn’t make for a smooth read. While Macintyre did his best to cover the efforts of the various SAS squadrons across several theaters and locations within each once as well over the course of the war, at times the division and abrupt changing from one situation to the next made for stilted reading. Another important decision by Macintyre was who within the SAS to highlight and follow over the course of the brigade’s service in World War II. And for the most part, Macintyre did a good job on putting the focus on who needed it but some of the soldiers highlighted seemed to just add flavor for no real purpose than to seemingly check off a list of possible people this book could appeal to.

Overall, Ben Macintyre did a very good job in relating the history of the SAS. Unlike writing a biography or a specific event, a history of a military unit with its change of personnel and changing theaters of battle make it harder to write as the author has to decide who to follow in the unit’s development. Rogue Heroes if anything gives the reader at least a general history and career of the World War II-era SAS, for some it will be enough and for others it’ll be a wetting of the appetite. I would recommend this book to those interested in military history or in World War II over than just the general reader as a whole.

I received this book for free though LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program in exchange for an honest review.

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The Fifth Elephant (Discworld #24, Watch #5)

The Fifth Elephant (Discworld, #24)The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

With Ankh-Morpork’s trade with Uberwald in possible danger Lord Ventari sends his most reliable diplomat and expert in political intrigue, Sam Vimes. The Commander of Ankh-Morpork’s Watch finds himself in a potential international incident with interspecies disputes and conspiracies mixed in with the fabulous riches of The Fifth Elephant mines in this installment of Terry Pratchett’s fantastic Discworld series.

Uberwald is a mineral rich principality governed over by dwarfs, werewolves, and vampires in an uneasy peace with one another and amongst their own species then add to this mix Sam Vimes as ambassador from Ankh-Morpork to coronation of the new dwarf king. Vimes’ diplomatic style and his natural detective instincts strain international, as well as interspecies, relations as the copper investigates a robbery and murder in Ankh-Morpork connected to events in Uberwald. But as Vimes works out a conspiracy in Uberwald he’s faces Angua’s own family, the reigning werewolf barony and they aren’t particularly a close family. And as events unfold, Colon and Nobby are left in charge of the Watch in Ankh-Morpork resulting in crime disappearing from the city as every criminal fears what will happen once Vimes returns to the mess.

Unlike the majority of his previous installments, Pratchett built this book around a plot and threw in some gags that never got tired out because they weren’t the focus. For the first time, a Discworld book seemed more in the fantasy genre—leaning a lot towards adventure—than the humor genre. This change of approach was both a surprise and a welcome to a series now on its 24th book, especially as it was a part of the Watch subseries which benefited with a more structured approach to the book. The Fifth Elephant was fun to read and a book I’m looking forward to rereading in the future.

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and HopeThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How does a 14-year old high school dropout in a small famine-stricken country in south eastern Africa build a windmill? William Kamkwamba tells how he did in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a memoir of a young man who wanted to ensure a better life for his family by using ideas inspired by science books and his own innovation to build them.

Kamkwamba’s memoir starts at the beginning, giving a brief history of his parents and grandparents as well as the cultural background of not only his local village but of his native Malawi itself. He then relates the adventures, and misadventures, of his earlier childhood in the relatively stable time before the 2001-02 famine that struck his country. Next comes the hard times of the famine and the struggle his family endured to survive it, but what also forced him to drop out of school. Yet all of this is important in understanding how Kamkwamba was able to construct the windmill that would change his life forever because he explains how not only he, but his family and friends would reuse material to create toys, or hunting traps, or repair other machines.

A little over halfway through the book Kamkwamba begins recounting how he got the idea to build the windmill and his motivation behind it. The ingenuity of his reuse of materials found from junkyards to random materials he could all over his village to engineer his first windmill is fascinating, but given the earlier examples from his childhood the reader understands how Kamkwamba was able to use everything he found for the purpose he wanted. But Kamkwamba does not neglect the contributions of his friends and members of his family that helped and supported him throughout his building, even while some in his village though him a madman.

Only in the last 30 pages of the book describes Kamkwamba experience from local curiosity to giving a presentation at a TED conference to eventually writing this book along with Bryan Mealer. Both Kamkwamba and Mealer knew that the why and how of building the windmill was the central point of this entire book and that while all the fame that Kamkwamba has gained is interesting, it only happened because of the windmill. The book is Kamkwamba’s, but he would be the first to acknowledge that English is his second language and Mealer’s contribution was to ensure that this book was very readable without losing Kamkwamba’s voice.

If I was forced to write a review of this book in ten words or less, I would only needed three: “Just read this”. This book is of a young man who survived trying times that potentially put a limit on his expectations for life and the future, but he found a way to expand not only his own horizons but that of his family and village with an idea and hard work. So just read this book.

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