Power Forward: My Presidential Education by Reggie Love

Power Forward: My Presidential EducationReggie Love’s memoir, Power Forward: My Presidential Education, served as our book club’s May pick. A summer slacker, I opted for lazing in the backyard with another book rather than go to the discussion of this one, and apparently didn’t miss much by doing so.

Formerly a well-known Duke basketball and football player, Love became President Obama’s bodyman/personal assistant when he was still a Senator and acted in that capacity until his second term in the presidency. Love’s memoir fluctuates between sporting analogies, humorous (and not-so-humorous) campaign trail-to-Oval Office anecdotes, and character development affirmations. Unfortunately, this makes for a disjointed story, with each chapter ending on a “moral of the story” note that fails to coalesce to a larger point.

This book is not a deep analysis, but Love does offer some insightful commentary on politics. More so than Love himself, Obama is the star of this book. Unless you’re an avid Duke fan, most readers are probably picking this up for a its new, more personal perspective on the President. It’s an easy read, if not particularly entertaining or poignant.

3 Stars

William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyWilliam L. Shirer was serving as as one of the only CBS news correspondents in Western Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, located at the perfect place and time to witness firsthand the growth and eventual domination of the Nazis. Reporting from Vienna during the Austrian Anschluss and from Berlin during the early years of World War II, he eventually learned that the Gestapo was gathering evidence of his disobedience over censorship and fled the country, not to return until the Nuremberg trials. Afterwards, back in America and barely a decade after the war’s conclusion, he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. 

Shirer begins at the beginning, the seeds that were sown following Germany’s defeat in World War I. Then, he traces the birth of Adolf Hitler, the creation of his philosophy as memorialized in Mein Kampf, and the establishment of the Nazi Party. Thus, its more than halfway in before we even get to war, but that development is essential to understand the individuals and events that led to its inevitability. By now, plenty of books have been written about the war itself, but Shirer’s has a unique level of detail and blend of contemporary citations with personal observances.

It wasn’t the easiest read with copious footnotes taking sometimes up to half the page. While I flew through the first 700 pages, the last few hundred took weeks. Partially because it finally touched on the Holocaust, a topic that isn’t covered extensively as much as foreshadowed for much of the book, but one that is deeply disturbing to read about so matter-of-factly. Nor does Shirer linger much on the aftermath of the war, probably because his book followed freshly on the heels of it and hasn’t been updated since published in 1960. In this case, that limit on scope is likely for the best.

I hope to read Shirer’s biography next. It’ll be interesting to get a different perspective on his work and biases as well as read further excerpts from his Berlin Diary, published during the war in 1941. For instance, from Rise and Fall, I already know that he’s at least slightly homophobic. Perhaps a product of his time, but I’d caution sensitive readers to be aware that he repeatedly remarks that homosexuality is a perversion, though obviously not to the extent of supporting Nazi persecution.

Regardless of Shirer’s own views, he did write the definitive work on Nazi Germany. Even to this day, I couldn’t find a more thorough source. For those readers interested in WWII history, this is a must read, but one that should be expected to take awhile.

4 Stars

 

War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

War of the Whales: A True StoryIt seems this blog was successful in influencing me to branch out to new genres. I ordinarily would never read something so sciencey but I saw this one on a friend’s shelf and thought, why not? And I’m very glad I did.

Joshua Horwitz’s War of the Whales chronicles the mass strandings of various whale subspecies due to the Navy’s use of deep-water sonar and the fight to enact new legislation protecting the oceans against violent intrusion from military activities. In the summer of 2000, Marine photographer and ex-Navy officer Ken Balcomb thought it was just another day of whale-spotting with his Earthwatch volunteers in the Bahamas until he finds a beached Curvier’s beaked whale outside his house. Within 24 hours, numerous other whales are spotted grounded ashore, with many of them unable to survive the experience. Calling on fellow biologists, like Bob Gisner of the Office of Naval Research and Darlene Ketten, a renowned whale hearing expert, as well as the Internet community, he attempts to find the reason behind this strange occurrence.

Coming to find himself stymied by the government and with a suspicious naval destroyer doing highly classified testing in the area, Balcomb’s experience leads him to the conclusion that the Navy’s sonar testing frightened and disoriented the whales by causing their eardrums to hemorrhage so that they headed towards shore accidentally. Similar incidents occurred after NATO naval tests off the coast of Greece and after the Spanish navy conducted exercises by the Canary Islands. Although he felt guilty about betraying his fellow soldiers, Balcomb eventually decides to expose the Navy’s role in multiple instances of whale deaths with the aid of attorney Joel Reynolds from the Natural Resources Defense Council, spurring a halfhearted government investigation and eventual Supreme Court case. (Spoiler: They lose in the court of law but win in the court of public opinion.)

Horwitz excels at making his cast come alive as distinctly human individuals. Although the government and military are meant to be the bad guys, with the Navy being the chief villain and fisheries being their minions, he provides compelling reasons for their actions, primarily in the interests of self-protection and national security that do have to be balanced against environmental protection. Neither Reynolds nor Balcomb are perfect either, see their numerous failed relationships as evidence, but their passion and dogged persistence for their beliefs outweighs other character flaws in this context. I’m sure none of these individuals appreciated seeing their actions (or inactions) dragged into the public eye, but at least Horwitz makes them all understandable to the reader.

He is also incredibly good at clarifying the often murky and complicated scientific and legal facts that are crucial to this story. From the anatomy of a whale’s head to the process of training dolphins to detect bombs to the complexity of filing a Supreme Court case, he manages to explain things clearly and in a way that doesn’t feel like a dry footnote. This book could’ve easily been textbook boring, but instead it is an approachable and engaging read.

Unfortunately the sad part is that despite the recent attention Save the Whales campaigns have received, it’s still hard to enforce what little legislation exists both in the US and worldwide. As Horwitz explained, the premier marine biologists are all dependent on the government and military for funding, so are often reluctant to stand up for the environment. While the awareness of noise pollution in the oceans in greater, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how human activity affects marine life, and how to balance between the two.

However, this book is a perfect launching point for learning and discussing these issues. It was definitely one of the best-written non-fiction books I’ve read, especially on such a timely topic with connections from the documentary “Blackfish” to military power/responsibility in a post-9/11 era.

5 Stars

Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices

Hard ChoicesI admit to being a bit biased since I’m among the pro-Hillary 2016 contingent, but I don’t really understand all the hate for this book. Yes, it’s blatantly positioning on the off-chance that she actually does run for president. Yes, it’s basically an extended campaign platform and yes, it can drag a bit as it ticks countries off the map.

However, for a former IR major, I thought the book did a fantastic job in bringing me up-to-date on current events as a whole. Clinton concisely described the historical and political background of American relations with each country, and how she changed or maintained the relationship during her tenure at Foggy Bottom. Interspersed with her recollections of her achievements and failures are very personal anecdotes about her family, her interactions with President Obama, and her connection with her staffers, other politicians and world leaders, and the American people.

The glimpses into her private life was one of the highlights of the book, because obviously that rarely happens. One of my favorite memories of hers was when she was traveling to Nelson Mandela’s funeral with all the living former Presidents and First Ladies. George W. Bush, who now is a prolific painter and in my opinion better at art than governing, pulls out his iPad to show off his latest works. In this and other situations, Clinton’s pains to remain complimentary make her purpose obvious, but still manage to seem sincere.

The two sections that most readers will focus on are those on the Taliban and on Benghazi. I think Clinton does a good job of explaining and justifying her actions in a way that she couldn’t in news interviews or before the Senate. It helps that she can lay out a coherent story as to why America is trying to work with terrorists or what went wrong that lead to the attack on the State Department compound.

The best way to view this book is to take it at face value as a good overview of global strategy during the Obama administration. For all the voters out there, this book may help them sort through campaign trail bluster and politi-speak come the next election, whether or not Hillary is in the race.

4 Stars

James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker

James Buchanan (The American Presidents, #15)The morning of July 4th saw me curled up on my couch, flipping through channels and biding my time so I wasn’t the first one to arrive at my acquaintance’s afternoon holiday party. Failing to find anything patriotic enough on TV, I turned to The American Presidents.

James Buchanan by Jean H. Baker is book #15 in The American Presidents series, so numbered because Buchanan was our 15th President. This is the poor chap utterly forgotten by history because he had the misfortune to come before President #16, the much-beloved Abraham Lincoln. In Buchanan’s case, as Baker shows, it’s probably better to be forgotten than remembered since if one recalls anything about him, it’s likely to be the fact that he let the South secede.

Buchanan was a waffley sort of fellow – he alternated between chasing the Presidency and aspiring to be a reclusive country gentleman. He fell into politics after beginning a law career, becoming an ardent Democrat with a long and distinguished service in an array of roles: a representative from Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives, then a Senator, then an ambassador, then Secretary of State. He even almost made it to the Supreme Court, requesting to be appointed by 2 different presidents before changing his mind and rejecting their offers to do so.

I hadn’t realized the extent of his civil service experience, but unfortunately his case goes to show that experience isn’t everything. Once he finally attained the presidency, after losing several times, he utterly failed at being President. From his days in Congress, he had befriended Southern gentlemen, was possibly even in a romantic relationship with one, and displayed obvious sympathy towards the pro-slavery cause. His fellow Northerners derided him as a “doughface” and he quickly lost their esteem with his policies of appeasement to the South, particularly in the fight over slavery in Kansas.

It’s easy to see why he’s commonly ranked among the worst presidents in retrospect. He struggled to act decisively in many scenarios, even to implement his beloved plan of annexing Cuba. When he did wield his authority, it was through bribery and patronage systems, making his administration one of the most corrupt in American history as he surrounded himself with sycophants. He pressured a friend on the Supreme Court to vote against Dred Scott, thereby disrupting the balance between the executive and judicial branches.  Reluctant to utilize military force, despite historical precedent, he declared attempts to stop the disintegration of the union to be illegal. Because of that, he almost lost Fort Sumter to Southern aggression before the war had even started.

Baker does a good job of laying out these facts and still making Buchanan sympathetic. His character was all wrong for the Presidency, but he wasn’t necessarily a bad person. He wanted to be loved and admired, but chose the wrong side of history to ally with.

Her book is a highly readable look at a largely unknown, but pivotal figure in the lead-up to the American Civil War and how his actions (or inaction) influenced history.

4 Stars

Happy 4th of July! Best Independence Day Books

Happy 4th of July! 

Independence Day is my 2nd favorite holiday (following Halloween!). In spite of all the problems America and Americans face today, there’s something astounding in the fact that we’ve managed to keep it together this long – after all, most countries fall apart much quicker. And a small group of presentient old men made it happen.

In honor of our Founding Fathers, who placed a high value on literacy and education, here are my four favorite books about the Revolutionary War:

Nonfiction

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution

Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Filbrick

Filbrick vividly captures the hope and the terror of 1775 Boston in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party. Overwhelmed by British soldiers, rising tensions between Loyalists and Patriots lead to one of the bloodiest and most famous battles of the revolution, the Battle of Bunker Hill.

 

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American IndependenceRevolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis

Renowned American historian Joseph Ellis reveals the political and military actions that resulted in the Declaration of Independence. He deftly details the decisions of the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, and how they embarked on a path to independence.

 

Fiction

April MorningApril Morning by Howard Fast

I read this novel in high school for my AP US History course and still recall how gripping this tale of the Battle at Lexington was. A pivotal battle in history and a pivotal read for any historical fiction enthusiasts.

 

 

My Brother Sam Is DeadMy Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

There are some great children’s books about the Revolution, notably Felicity in the American Girl series, but I think this is the best. It’s a heart-wrenching tale of familial strain amidst a country in turmoil, and does an excellent job of introducing young readers to the heart and mind of the struggle for freedom.