THE TRIALS OF HARRY S. TRUMAN

Jeffrey Frank takes a critical and objective look at the presidency of Harry Truman. By no means a love affair, the title, The Trials of Harry S. Truman, and subtitle, The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953, establish the tenor of the book.

Frank is quick to objectively microscope Truman proclamations and interpretations but always willing to credit the president with the most difficult decisions of his place and time. The Atomic Bomb, Potsdam, Stalin, the Marshall Plan, The Berlin Airlift, the desegregation of the U.S. Military and the Federal workforce , MacArthur, Korea, NATO, Strom Thurmond, the election of 1948. Frank condenses this broad landscape into a concisely focused 380 pages.

The author chose a direct quote from Truman’s last press conference which I think goes a long way to putting Harry S. Truman and his place in history into perspective:

It ended with the traditional ” Mr. President-thank you!” But this time it was followed by affectionate applause for this child of rural Missouri- this self educated striver, a man determined to overcome the prejudices, ethnic and religious, of that time and place-letting him know that he was, as Lippman put it, in his sentimental moment, someone who ” has the good nature of a good man.” In mid century America, it was hard to imagine a future when those qualities could be extinguished.

If you are a fan of presidential history, add THE TRIALS OF HARRY S. TRUMAN to your reading list.

OLMSTED AND YOSEMITE/THE NATIONAL PARKS/A NEW LOOK

I have read extensively regarding the development of the National Parks of America. I was captivated by the fireside Yosemite camping stories of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. A new book, OLMSTED AND YOSEMITE, authored by Rolf Diamant and Ethan Carr, casts a new light upon the incubation of what would become America’s National Parks. Step aside Muir and TR.

Enter Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-creator of New York City’s Central Park. Olmsted’s career began not as a landscape architect but as an educated engineer followed by an impressive resume as a journalist for the newspaper that became the New York Times. He traveled the antebellum south just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and reported on the deplorable condition of slavery and the devastation of much of the agricultural land there by over planting. It was a social education for Olmsted that greatly impacted his future contributions to the American landscape.

Olmsted came away from his southern sojourn with a strong belief that his work on New York’s Central Park should become a mirror of inclusiveness and a demonstration of how a democracy could act to benefit all of its citizens. Olmsted believed that parks and open spaces available to everyone could become a uniting factor following the war. It was that philosophy that drew him to California and Yosemite and the creation in 1865 of the Preliminary Report upon the Yosemite and the Big Tree Grove . The complete report is appended in the book. Many believe that this work is the basis of what became America’s National Parks, and more importantly the future philosophy behind their design.

You will meet many important contributors to our national parks in this book. Enjoy.

OLMSTED AND YOSEMITE is an important look at why America’s National Parks are such a cherished part of the nation’s landscape.

BRAIDING SWEETGRASS

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.

Robin Kimmerer takes the reader on a journey into an America of what might have been in the present had not the culture of America’s Indigenous People been destroyed by “Manifest Destiny.” Immerse yourself in this beautifully crafted manuscript and learn of a lost culture of which the earth of the 21st Century screams for a return. It is a beautiful and even hopeful story of a generation of scientists, ecologists and sociologists that have not given up on the lost culture of those first inhabitants of our land. Native American history and culture are perfectly blended with an ecological lesson within these pages. Braiding Sweetgrass is worthy of its long standing among the New York Times Best Sellers.

THE 1619 PROJECT

Ten years before the Constitution was written John Adams had worried that the colonies were so different, especially the ones with agricultural based economies dependent on slave labor that it would, ” be a Miracle, if such heterogenous ingredients did not produce violent Fermentations.”

The 1619 Project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times is the most remarkable work of modern journalism that this author has read. The fact that this book and its previous publication in the New York Times has raised the ire of the detractors of truth is proof, the report card of its value to America’s discourse on slavery.

I urge you to read this book because the knowledge imparted in these pages can lay the groundwork for a truthful understanding of the impact of human bondage in an evolving America. It speaks not just to the brutal history of slavery but equally important relates directly to the caste system which exists in America today.

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY/AMOR TOWLES

I loved Towle’s A Gentleman In Moscow and Rules of Civility, ( Search Gordon’s Good Reads) but his new novel THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY dropped me by the side of the road. Based on its ranking on the NYT’s best seller list, I may be in the minority. The character development and the structure of the book left me wanting for that clear story-telling that I have come to like from Towles. Your take may be the opposite but of the three books, this is surely a departure.

FIRST Principles/THOMAS E. RICKS

As readers of this blog may know I am a fan of John Adams and have within these pages questioned historian Gordon Wood and others regarding objectivity concerning Adams, in particular in comparison’s to Jefferson. Thomas E. Rick’s new book FiRST Principals, WHAT AMERICA’S FOUNDERS LEARNED from the GREEKS and ROMANS AND HOW THAT SHAPED OUR COUNTRY makes a herculean effort to connect the thinking of the Founding Fathers with that of the ancient Greeks and Romans as they organized their governments and laws.

Ricks authors an in depth analysis of the political and ruling organizations of those ancient times and attempts to connect them to the thinking of those who founded the fledging America. You will need to judge whether or not he succeeded.

In addition to the ancient perspective, throughout the book Ricks finds ways to circle back to his passion of comparing the thinking of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson during America’s daybreak. Like historian Gordon Wood his writing becomes clouded with his reverence for Jefferson and I think disdain for Adams. So often, Ricks seems to go out of his way to demean Adams’s thinking while praising, and in this readers view, making excuses for Jefferson’s shortcomings. He brushes past Jefferson’s slaveholding, his virtual disappearance during the Revolutionary War and his relationship with fourteen-year-old Sally Hemings. The book does not recognize the depth of Jefferson’s disdain for Federalism and his advancement of the superiority of states rights over a strong federal government. ( The continuation of the “Plantation” economy and expansion of slavery.)

In fairness, I think Ricks is himself conflicted about John Adams. On the one hand he references Adam’s best known work A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America as, The sole piece of writing he finished that is longer than an essay. However just two paragraphs later Ricks writes, Adams in turn wrote , there can be no government of laws without a balance and there can be no balance without the three orders. Sounds like executive, judicial and legislative to me. No surprise here because John Adams is credited with authoring the Massachusetts Constitution which in 1788 became the blueprint for the U.S. Constitution.

With regard to what the founders learned from the Greeks and Romans I must confess that Ricks gives Adams his due. Quoting from a famous John Adams essay in the Boston Gazette in 1765 titled Let Us Dare , Let us dare to read, think, speak and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil. Let us study the law of nature; search into the spirit of the British Constitution; read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome.

This essay was written just as the Stamp Act was passed by the British Parliament which many consider to be the final spark that ignited the American Revolution. This is Adam’s prescient thought in the opening lines of Let Us Dare. Liberty. . .which has never been enjoyed, in its full perfection, by more than ten or twelve millions of men at any Time, since the Creation, will reign in America, over hundreds and thousands of millions at a Time.

Getting past my defense of Adams, Rick’s book creates a superior condensed history of the Revolutionary War, the rise of George Washington, the telling of the Adams, Jefferson, Burr election of 1800, the impact of James Madison and the evolution of political parties in America. His epilogue ” What We Can Do” is filled with positive responses to what America has learned from history and the founding fathers.

First Principles is a great read for those who are looking for a deep dive into a slice on early American history.

THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT/ HENRY ADAMS

This blogger is a champion of John Adams, our second president.  When I came upon a new title referencing his great grandson, Henry Adams, it piqued my interest. The book is THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT, The BRILLIANT LIFE and IMPROBABLE EDUCATION of

Henry Adams by historian Davis S. Brown.  As it turns out, Henry Adams is a “famous” Adams in his own right, in addition to being the grandson of President John Quincy Adams.

Raised in the elite environment of Boston’s Gilded age, the late 19th century, ADAMS was of course thought of as a third Adams in the White House.  That was not to be but the book is a wonderful study of the transition of Boston’s political power and national influence from Beacon Hill to Washington D.C.

Henry Adams, ordained not to be among the politically chosen becomes the observer, even the muckraker and attains worldwide recognition as an author and columnist. His memoir The Education of Henry ADAMS becomes and remains a literary classic. Henry Adams in his life and writings, “Became a transitional figure, one bridging the chasm between ‘colonial’ and ‘modern’” America.  Brown’s book is also a deep dive into Adam’s personal life, the highs and lows and how it was to be the Adams who had to be satisfied by building a home on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, which was as close as this Adams would come to the White House.

A fascinating figure in American history, Henry Adams influenced the dialogue during the country’s transition through industrialization, becoming a world power and witnessing the explosion of scientific invention.  Without political portfolio with the exception of the Adams name he socialized with and influenced such legendary figures as Secretary of State John Hay, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Teddy Roosevelt.   He was the “outsider” very much on the inside.

RAGE/ Bob Woodward

The theme that clearly dominates Bob Woodward’s latest book RAGE is the enormity of Donald Trump’s ego. In each of Woodward’s seventeen interviews for the book, Trump repeatedly urges Woodward to treat him fairly but always adds, “Even if you don’t, that’s OK too.” Here is Trump, even after Woodward took him to the woodshed in his previous book FEAR, flattering himself by having the famous Woodward, write yet another tome about him. It seems to this reader that Trump cares little about what he is saying or how he is interpreted, but simply relying on the old ego building political adage, “Just spell my name right.” 

I did not purchase RAGE upon its release as I often do with Woodward’s books, therefore the content was pretty much common knowledge by the time my number came up on the wait list at the library.  However, Woodward’s reporting and his contextual clarity leaves no room for any relief from his previous Trump title, FEAR. The title was prescient.

Says Woodward, “When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.”  In my view, this closing observation in RAGE is more than kind. 

Readers of gordonsgoodreads know of the esteem in which I hold Robert Caro.  He had this so say of Woodward and RAGE.  “He is one of the great reporters of our time. Bob Woodward has been reporting like that for 45 years. He never—no matter how famous and legendary he has become; he has never stopped looking for facts.”  

RAGE clearly documents that in every issue surrounding his presidency, Donald Trump has no interest in “facts.”

RUTH BADER GINSBURG, A LIFE

RUTH BADER GINSBURG, A Life, by Jane Sherron De Hart is an in-depth scholarly biography and an academic journey for the reader.  The book, completed a year before the justice’s death, is an intimate look at the life of RBG that quickly transforms into a study of the workings of the Supreme Court, its personalities, and of course the major cases with which RBG was intimately involved.   In many ways the book is a study of cultural change in America during RBG’s tenure on the court. 

My takeaway is that SCOTUS is anything but impartial and that all important decisions are influenced to varying degrees by the personal heritage and deeply held views of individual justices. The term “strict constructionist” is often used to rationalize deep personal beliefs, while “loose interpretation,” can work toward a more liberal view of the law.  “Social movements in dialogue with public opinion forge new understandings of the Constitution’s meaning even as contestation continues.” 

Yes, all the famous cases are here in detail.  Roe v. Wade, Bush v. Gore, Brown v. Board of Education, Lilly Ledbetter, Plessy, VMI, Violence Against Women’s Act, Partial Birth Abortion, Voting Rights Act, Citizens United and more and more and more. A total of 554 pages and hundreds of defining notes, and with De Hart’s brilliant research every single word counts.  I left these pages and cases convinced that SCOTUS is and always has been a political body. It is a human organization and does not reside in a rarified atmosphere set apart from the ever-changing values of society. Of course, you may not agree, but what a delightful discussion for your book club.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG, A life, is a wonderful personal insight into a remarkable woman and a brilliant study of exactly how the Supreme Court deliberates and decides. 

Stamped FromThe Beginning/ Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi’s STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America leaves no stone unturned and no one escapes the continuing story of racism as it moves from the old world to the new.

Every aspect of racism is explored dating to the earliest fabrications regarding the evolution of the black race. The work traces racism from early Europe to the slave ships, the Puritanical Great Migration to America, slavery, the early abolitionist movement, the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the modern day Civil Rights Movement, the NAACP, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kendi misses no one in painting this enormous 500 page canvas. Cotton Mather (Salem Witch Trials), Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison. W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Obama, Eugene Debs, Roger Taney, Dred Scott, John Brown, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Hip Hop, Rap, and the list moves on to infinity. No one, at least by degree, escapes the racist brush.

In this day of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the 1619 Project, Trump, STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING is an essential read to gain a broad perspective of why racism and denial continues to embroil American Society and the body politic. Kendi’s research is absolutely all encompassing.

The book is enlightening and yet frightening, but despite history the author remains hopeful. “There will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with black people is that they think something is wrong with black people.” “There will come a time when we fight for humanity, we are fighting for ourselves.”