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Review: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

January 30, 2011 1 comment

My immediate impression of Theodore Roosevelt after reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris is “frenetic whirlwind”.

I selected to read this book for two reasons:  (1) I graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, IA, but really knew nothing about him and (2) it was listed on the 100 Must-Read Books for the Essential Man’s Library as determined by www.artofmanliness.com from which I am reading 50 books for my 101 goals in 1001 days project.

I won’t go into detail about Roosevelt’s life — there are plenty of sources for that, including this book which won the Pulitzer Prize– but will give a few impressions of the man and of the narrative itself.

This volume, which is later followed by Theodore Rex (2001) and Colonel Roosevelt (2010), covers Roosevelt’s early life up to taking office as President of the United States after the assassination of William McKinley.  At the time, he was the youngest ever to hold that office, but he had packed in a lifetime of living and public service already.

A few thoughts:

  • Roosevelt’s energy and industry was inspiring.  Morris describes a man always moving, working hard and playing hard.
  • His ongoing reaction to the death of his first wife is completely puzzling to me.  Other than a brief tribute to her memory, Roosevelt never mentioned her name or spoke of her again, not even including her name in his autobiography.  Granted his loss was tragic (his mother also died the same day in the same house), but it would seem a healthier reaction to speak of her fondly in the years following, perhaps with a still melancholic sorrow.
  • Although I was obliquely aware of the more extreme crony-ism earlier in America’s history, I didn’t really understand how pervasive and “normal” it was.    During Benjamin Harrison’s administration, Roosevelt was appointed to the Civil Service Commission where he joined other anti-spoilsman in demanding that laws requiring many offices and government positions to be filled by merit.  Although somewhat unsuccessful due to the power of the machine, he never flinched from a fight.
  • Along with his energy, I was also inspired by Roosevelt’s capacity to enter a completely new position or activity head on, without much background knowledge and quickly become a tireless, effective member.  Whether it be entering Harvard as a home-schooled student, running for state office in the NY legislature, learning the ranching trade in North Dakota, enforcing Civil Service laws, writing biographies of prominent political figures and a study of the US Navy in the War of 1812, becoming a New York City police commissioner, canvassing to become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and then volunteering for a lieutenant colonel-ship during the Spanish American War.
  • Roosevelt appears to have been a quick judge of character and was no stranger to a spontaneous (sometimes over-forceful) reaction, which made him loyal friends and staunch opponents.  His spontaneity also seems to have made things more difficult years later as he had to work with some of the same people.
  • Although lauded at the time, the charge up San Juan Hill seems to have been a bit over-drawn.  Frankly, it felt a little anti-climactic.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a fascinating read which is filled with a variety of source material, much of it in Roosevelt’s own words.  Morris does a good job outlining many of the issues of the day and the intricacies of intra-departmental squabbles so that Roosevelt’s character is fully on display.  I highly recommend reading this book.

5 out of 5 stars (finished January 29, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom, Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, & Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

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Truth finally said through the mouths of political babes

January 29, 2011 Leave a comment

An amusing anecdote is recounted in Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt during Roosevelt’s campaign for election to the governorship of New York.  Some of the electorate’s excitement was due to his heroics during the Spanish-American War (notably San Juan Hill in Cuba) and the mystique of the Rough Riders.  In this specific campaign stop, two of his Rough Rider men were with him.  One, Sergeant Buck Taylor, introduced Roosevelt as follows:

I want to talk to you about mah Colonel.  He kept ev’y promise he made to us and he will to you….  He told us we might meet wounds and death and we done it, but he was thar in the midst of us, and when it came to the great day he led us up San Juan Hill like sheep to the slaughter and so will he lead you.  (p. 720)

Surprisingly, the audience was more amused by this than shocked.  Certainly a faux pas like this would be 24-hour news fodder for weeks and a sound bite routinely produced at his opponents’ own speeches.

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Conjunction of Tudor media

January 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Reading C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mysteries (Dissolution and now Dark Fire) has led me to rewatch the miniseries The Tudors on Netflix streaming, which in turn has caused me to reread one of my favorite Tudor histories by Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  It has become a little confusing since I’m at a slightly different date for each work and thus a different wife.  Couple that with a very liberal dose of fiction on the part of The Tudors (altered timelines, fictionalized deaths for some characters who actually lived much longer, dramatic license on motives, characters who actually represent multiple real persons)….

One interesting fact I wanted to research more:

Anne [Boleyn]’s origins were uninspiring, although, like all Henry VIII’s wives, she could trace her descent from Edward I. (p. 145)

In retrospect, however, maybe this really isn’t that amazing, since Edward I lived roughly 200 years earlier.  Probably a majority of English nobility and the royal and noble houses of Europe were in some way descended from him.

A quick internet search uncovered this genealogy chart which shows how Henry (from both his mother’s and father’s side) and all six wives were related through Edward I.  Pretty cool.

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The Infinite Day by Chris Walley

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

The Infinite Day is Chris Walley’s conclusion to his Lamb Among the Stars series and it is a very powerful and action packed volume.

The book continues right where The Dark Foundations left off.  Farholme has seemingly driven off the Dominion’s vanguard, but have taken hostage Merral’s former love and other members of the planet’s delegation.

Simultaneously, two renegade leaders (one political, the other who presents himself as a holy religious figure) speed toward Earth, having stolen a Dominion ship which allows them to travel Below Space without going through the Gate technology.  These leaders have twisted the truth and have committed acts of evil, all in the name of good.  Their mission:  to ready the rest of the Assembly of Worlds and to deliver the plans and delivery method for utterly destroying the Dominion’s worlds (and potentially produce waves of destruction throughout that part of space).  Delastro, who has accepted the religious mantle, wants to control the spiritual beings like the Envoy (essentially an angel sent by the Lamb as Guardian — Michael perhaps?) and if he cannot, he is willing to dabble with fallen creatures instead.  While Delastro shows himself capable of killing anything that interferes with his goals, Clemant merely looks the other way and acts as collaborator.

Merral, Vero, and a quickly assembled crew have their own mission:  to intercept the hostage ship deep in the Dominion territory,  speed to Earth to counteract Delastro and Clemant’s falsehoods, and warn the Assembly of an imminent invasion.

While Earth and the Assembly are tested — will they remain steadfast to the Lamb? — individuals are also tested.  Merral’s loss of faith — how can God allow these evil things to happen when He has the power to prevent them? — and his ultimate acceptance of grace is powerful.  Sacrifices will be required; some will be made and others will not.

The ending of the book is completely satisfying, although the author does give the reader a choice:

Now, you who have followed this tale so far, I offer you a choice.  You may make an ending here.  After all the strands of the plot are all but tied up, and you can imagine the rest….

….

All this you may choose to imagine.

Or, you may continue and read what did happen.  Because the reality was far stranger, more horrific, and ultimately, far more glorious.  (p. 551)

This is one of the most unique series that I have ever read.  Certainly, it is slow in spots (particularly in the first book), but the journey is well worth the effort.

5 out of 5 stars (finished January 2, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom & The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Sheep are “bleating idiots”

January 15, 2011 Leave a comment

An incident in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris caught my fancy.  In 1883, Roosevelt had a minor land use dispute with another rancher, who had stocked the land with 12,000 sheep.

Like most Americans, Roosevelt had a profound contempt for sheep.  Not only did the “bleating idiots” nibble the grass so short that they starved out cattle, they were, intellectually speaking, about the lowest level of brute creation.  “No man can associate with sheep,” he snorted, “and retain his self-respect.” (pp. 276-7)

Although the incident was ultimately resolved sadly — the flock died over the harsh winter — the turn of phrase was witty.

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Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

January 12, 2011 1 comment

I took a break from the science fiction and fantasy genres to read a historical mystery, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom.  My interest was piqued because of the specific time period it covered:  Tudor England during the dismantling of the country’s monasteries after Henry VIII declared himself Head of the Church of England.  I have always been fascinated by the tumultuous events of the Tudor dynasty:  its attempts to be modern yet still concerned with the superstitious, the rise and fall of families during the years Henry VIII  tried to beget an heir, the reversals from Catholic to reformed and back again, and the incredible personalities of each reigning monarch.

Dissolution is set just after the death of Jane Seymour in 1537.  Thomas Cromwell, the vicar general, is tasked with breaking the large monastic communities in order to receive the lands for the crown (and to be distributed to the king’s favorites).  Cromwell is forced to find a new way to get these lands — his earlier solution to merely seize them met with an armed rebellion.   Now he seeks voluntary surrenders and is willing to encourage capitulation by exposing the corruption of the monks.

Matthew Shardlake, a London lawyer and ardent Reformer, is sent to the monastery at Scarnsea to investigate the brutal murder of Cromwell’s representative there.  Shardlake and his protege, Mark, begin to uncover a tangled web of indiscretions and potentially explosive information which could bring down important men in the government.  And then more bodies begin appearing….

I found the story very well written and Sansom provides a lot of period color on the lives of the common people and the monastic life, without a dense information dump that is common to period novels.  It was also important to me that Shardlake not drive unerringly to the truth, but be misdirected and draw the wrong conclusion along the way.

Sansom certainly draws upon other whodunits like The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  In one conversation, the monastery’s librarian laments the rise of the printing press and the loss of handwritten and illustrated books.  He then clearly references the key text in The Name of the Rose:

He took an old volume from the shelves and opened it, coughing amidst the dust it raised.  Little painted creatures danced impishly among lines of Greek text.

‘Reputedly a copy of Aristotle’s lost work On Comedy,’ he said.  ‘A fake, of course, thirteenth-century Italian, but beautiful nonetheless.’   (page 137)

(Oh, and one other silly thing that drew me to the book:  I’ve always loved the word ‘dissolution’.)

4 1/2 out of 5 stars (finished January 9th, 2011)

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Currently reading:  Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom & The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

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Kindle part 2: dictionary

One of the great features of the Kindle device is the built in dictionary.  How many times as you were reading a book have you found a word you didn’t know or weren’t completely sure of the meaning, but just kept reading because locating a dictionary really wasn’t worth the trouble?

Most recently, I have been reading King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard.  Because it was first published in 1885, written by an Englishman, and set in the southern tip of Africa, unfamiliar words are relatively common:  kloof (steep-sided, wooded ravine), mealie (South African sweet corn), eland (spiral horned antelope), gaiters (leggings to cover the ankle and lower leg), and kraal (traditional African village of huts) to name a few.

The dictionary also has an admittedly rudimentary list of proper names as well, so Natal, Hottentot, and Kafir are also defined.

Using the dictionary while reading a book

On the Kindle 3, you’ll use its 5-way controller to move the cursor to the word in question.  A short pause automatically displays a 2-line definition.  I’ve found these physical buttons to be very quick and accurate, rather than attempting to use other devices’ touch screens, which can be awkward or which may select the wrong word.

One of the things I most like about the Kindle’s dictionary interface is the quick 2-line definition.  This definition will appear either at the bottom of the screen or at the top, depending on where the word in context was located (ie., if the word is at the bottom of the screen, the Kindle displays the definition at the top so that you can review both the definition and the original sentence together).  Most of the time, this short description is enough, so you can immediately go back to reading.  If not, however, merely hit the return carriage arrow key to get a fuller definition, complete with phonetics, special usages, and etymology.  To go back to the text, click the Back button.

While the full definition is displayed, you can also search other databases by hitting the right arrow key.  Search engines include my items, the Kindle store, Google, and Wikipedia (obviously you’ll need a wifi connection or 3G enabled to search the online sources).

Changing which dictionary is used by the Kindle

For the English language on the Kindle 3, two dictionaries are provided by default:  The New Oxford American Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English.

To switch which dictionary that the software uses when looking up a word:

  1. Click on the Home button so that you see the list of books or collections on the Kindle
  2. Next, click on the Menu button and select “Settings” from the dropdown list.  This will open the Settings screen.
  3. Lastly, click on the Menu button again and select “Change Primary Dictionary”.
  4. All of the dictionaries which were loaded with the software or purchased from the Kindle store will be displayed.  Select the one you want and you’re done!

Surprisingly, I’ve found these dictionaries to be complete enough to answer most questions.

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