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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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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

September 30, 2010 1 comment

I’m not sure if I mis-remember what classic books I read up through high school or if I just don’t remember the plots.  I am 100% sure that I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; in fact I can remember buying the book when my parents took us on a summer trip that included Hannibal, Missouri.  (I wonder what ever happened to that edition?)  I thought I had read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I now suspect that I had read selections from the novel, or perhaps an abridged version for children.

I selected this novel from the Essential Man’s Library on the artofmanliness.com, which is part of my 101 goals in 1001 days list.  I found an audiobook and Janet and I started to listen to it when we drove to Minnesota in early September.  We only listened to approximately 2 minutes before we had to shut it off; the narrator attempted to read the book in a similar dialect in which the book was written.  It was almost unbearable.

Several weeks later, I tried it again.  After about 30 minutes or so, the dialects started to disappear into the text.

My favorite parts of the novel:

  • The articles to which each member had to sign in blood to belong to Tom Sawyer’s gang.  I laughed at how Tom used half-remembered stories and histories to create his blood-thirsty gang, how his imagination could fill in details of Arabic caravans and ransoms, and how many of the gang members had trouble getting free to rob and pillage because their parents wouldn’t let them out.
  • The episode with the snakes and rats.  Tom Sawyer wanted to recreate those same adventure stories (like The Count of Monte Cristo) where prisoners had to use, for example, spoons to dig out of castles.  To make Jim’s captivity and eventual escape more real, the two boys decided to capture snakes and rats for the cell.  Unfortunately, the trap of rats was stored safely under his aunt’s bed and Tom’s cousin opened it, just to see if the rats would exit the cage.  The snakes were captured in a bag, but it wasn’t tied tightly enough, while the two went to supper.  Huck couldn’t understand why rats would disturb the aunt so much and why snakes dropping from the rafters down her back would make her scream.  And, then Huck’s wistful comment that even though they captured some more, the original group was better.

The episode of the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons and the antics of the King and the Duke were completely unfamiliar to me.

When I mentioned the book to Janet, she vividly remembered Huck’s attempt to dress as a girl and what tests were used to discover that he was really a boy.

For me, the major theme seemed to be deception:

  • Tom’s self deception via his imagination
  • Huck faking his brutal death
  • Huck attempting to disguise himself (1) as a girl to get local information — he’s caught; (2) as an orphaned boy in the home of the Grangerfords — with tragic results; (3) as a valet — somewhat better results after he tells the truth
  • The King and the Duke

I found it to be an enjoyable read, very witty at times, with a strange mix of naivete and self-reliance.

4 out of 5 stars (Sept 20, 2010)

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Lord of the Flies by William Golding

August 30, 2010 2 comments

Just completed Lord of the Flies by William Golding which I vaguely remember reading when I was in high school.  My recollection was that I had found the book interesting, but not wildly so, and that I was a bit startled by the idea that supposedly civilized human beings would devolve into an anarchist, thrill-for-the moment state.

Now in my early 40s, I’m not quite so naive.

The theme itself was still fascinating.  I thought perhaps the execution was a bit heavy-handed, though.  Golding tries too hard to include symbols and metaphors rather than allowing them to more naturally and more subtly unfold.

I found the reading to be rather a difficult slog, perhaps due to my own reading laziness.  Too much description for me.  I also had a hard time trying to determine who was speaking in much of the dialogue.

While I’ll never forget the last two or three pages, I found it strange that I completely mis-remember most of the events in the last half of the book.  I didn’t recall Simon as a character at all and I seemed to have merged Simon’s and Piggy’s fate in my memory.

One poignant comment was made at the end of the novel where the naval officer mistakes the paint and the hunt for the more idyllic life in The Coral Island, a 19th Century novel by R.M. Ballantyne, which I loved as a kid.  (Ah, the breadfruit tree!)

I know. Jolly good show. Like The Coral Island.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography was an unusual treat; I really didn’t know what to expect when I chose to read it next from the Essential Man’s Library listing.

I found much of the work to be surprisingly folksy and witty in tone.  And, it is certainly different from biographies written today both in its relative informality and its more episodic nature, rather than attempting to fill in periods of Franklin’s entire life.  In fact, some of the most “famous” stories today, such as flying the kite in a thunderstorm are merely glossed over.  Franklin’s work on the formative documents of the American founding and the Revolution aren’t even mentioned (it appears that the autobiographical work was left uncompleted).

Franklin was certainly a charismatic, creative, and energetic man.  In spite of his forethought (lending libraries, firefighter unions, scientific method, etc), he was also a product of his time.  For example, although he argues that women should be educated, he asserts that this would permit a widow to keep her husband’s business running until her son could take over.  Becoming an abolitionist later in life, he repeats a bawdy joke about slavery and “blacking” the Quakers.

Perhaps the most insightful quote I read was:

If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.

I am considering having this quotation printed up and posted near my computer at work to remind me not to be inflexible, but to consider openly and fully what others tell me, and then make an informed decision.

For me, the earlier portions of the book were more interesting than the rather tedious legislative machinations and the building of a militia stockade in the third and fourth sections.

3 1/2 stars out of 5