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Friday, May 26, 2017

“The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800”, by Jay Winik

690 pages, HarperCollins, ISBN-13: 978-0060083137

Author Jay Winik certainly loves his adjectives and gives them a real workout in The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800, an informative and entertaining – but ultimately disappointing and hyperbolic – account of the events that roiled the end of the 18th Century. Want an example? Okay, how’s this: “…how to comprehend the greatest generation of talent in American history: the visionary Hamilton, the sublime Jefferson, the iconoclastic Adams and the sober Madison, than to see them in relation to the great revolutionary spirits of France, like the aristocratic Mirabeau, the fulminating Marat, the audacious Danton, and the intense Robespierre – or, for that matter, the dashing Polish hero Kosciuszko, or the inimitable Russian, Prince Grigory Potemkin?” The whole book is like this, and believe you me it doesn’t take long for these superfluous utterances to become exhausting. The main problem, however, is that, despite the title, The Great Upheaval is focused mostly on the French Revolution, with the American Revolution and the empire-building ways of the Russians thrown in…and therein is the problem, for while Winik has purported to have written a work in which the American Revolution was supposed to have been shown in the context of the larger world, over the almost 700 pages of his book he doesn’t manage to make much of a connection among the three, except to say repeatedly that these were exciting times all over and that the parties concerned were all paying some attention to what was going on elsewhere.

In long strings of clauses laden with the afore-mentioned excess verbiage, Winik describes the history of the times by recounting the “unmitigated horror”, the “momentous decisions”, the “dreaded specter”, the “clarion call” – well, you get the idea. His clauses sometimes sound like personals ads: “incorrigibly flawed yet ironically suited”, “inspired yet quixotic”, “uncommonly brave yet psychologically frail”. Triteness is not a barrier to Winik, as he has no qualms about describing “golden shores”, “quickening pulses”, or “words dripping with emotion”; nor about exclaiming that “behind this legend was a man” who was “of fabled status”, or “it was a fateful day” but “it was not to be”. Alliteration also has great appeal in his tour of the adjectives: “audaciously assumed”, “terrible toll”, “defiantly demanded”, “frenzied fighting”. But where he waxes most florid in his verbal outpourings is in the tales of war: “ghastly massacre”, “blood flowed like rivers”, “bestial fighting”, “crushing defeat”, “murderous enemy”, “brutally decapitated” (is there such a thing as a non-brutal decapitation?). But then this is a book where nothing happens quietly. Food is not just consumed; it is demolished. The sun does not shine; it blazes. Cannons not only fire; they boom.

So much for style. What about the substance? Winik’s thesis is that the years 1788 – 1800 saw the birth of the modern world and he looks at this period through the prism of events occurring in France, Russia and the United States. In two of these cases there were certainly events with far-reaching consequences – namely, the French Revolution and the founding of the United States – but in the case of Russia, it is harder to see the significance of these years in comparison with some other periods. While there is no intrinsic problem in using, as Winik does almost exclusively, secondary sources in his book, it still contains little that is new or insightful concerning this era. There are several vivid descriptions of the Terror in Paris and other parts of France in the early 1790s. That Winik is most interested in the events in France and Russia is obvious as the histories of both countries dominates the book, while events in America during this time place third fiddle – indeed, from halfway through the book until the end the U.S. is hardly mentioned at all. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes at the overwrought writing, for the most part I was enjoying the retelling of familiar history: a blow-by-blow account of the lead-up to the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette may not be among the most important aspects of the French Revolution, but it sure makes for good drama; likewise, the story of Catherine the Great’s suppression of a peasant revolt amid the complications of her love affair with Grigory Potemkin is quite interesting. But for all of that what I was expecting – because that is what I was sold – was a history of the American Revolution as it related to the rest of the (read: Western) World; what I got instead was a dual-history of France and Russia in which the United States was nothing more than a sideshow.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

“Fighting Techniques of the Napoleonic Age, 1789 – 1815: Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics”, by Robert B. Bruce, Iain Dickie, Kevin Kiley, Michael F. Pavkovic, Frederick C. Schneid

256 pages, Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN-13: 978-0312375874

For anyone looking for an introduction to the fighting techniques of the Napoleonic era, then Fighting Techniques of the Napoleonic Age, 1789 – 1815: Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics should leave you reasonably satisfied; serious students, however, will find it severely lacking, and after reading this book I was left with quite a few more questions than answers. It certainly delivers in several respects by exploring the tactics and strategy required to win battles with the technology available during the Napoleonic period (1789 – 1815), and points out how the development of such weapons technology changed the face of the battlefield. To do so, it is divided into five sections: Individual components of the armies (the foot soldier, the cavalryman and the artilleryman, the equipment they wore and used, and how they fought together); Technology change, the emergence of military professionalism, and the impact these changes had on the battlefield; How units were used together on the battlefield and strategic positioning of battle units; Specialist techniques and equipment developed for artillery; and Naval warfare, from the ships in which the men fought to the weapons they carried. There are also several excellent anecdotes concerning the historic personages of the era, but unfortunately the real meat of the subject is missing. The battle descriptions are average, while the maps are downright confusing (they mix colors from battle to battle, for example). The battles are meant to be illustrations of the techniques described in the chapters, but they come off as loosely related and do not adequately convey the intended lesson. An average book at best, but in many ways mostly disappointing.

Monday, May 22, 2017

“Michelangelo Life Drawings”, by Michelangelo Buonarroti

48 pages, Dover Art Library, ISBN-13: 978-0486238760

Throughout his long life, Michelangelo Buonarroti never ceased to practice drawing with pen, pencil, or chalk, and in Michelangelo Life Drawings over sixty years of creative activity have been reproduced, with the artist producing scores of sketches, drawings, and studies: nudes, heads, figure studies, Madonnas, anatomical drawings, studies of children and animals, mythical representations, and religious works. This book reproduces 46 of his finest drawings, embodying most of his artistic themes and techniques and executed in his characteristic media of pen and ink, and red and black chalk. The extraordinary strength, grace, and clarity of his renderings are beautifully illustrated on every page. The compositions range from youthful studies modeled after ancient sculpture and early Renaissance frescoes to the otherworldly religious creations of his old age. Many are preliminary drawings executed in connection with some of his most important commissions: the marble David; the famous cartoon for the projected fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio, The Battle of Cascina; the paintings on the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; the imposing fresco of The Last Judgment in the same chapel; as well as several of the more highly finished allegorical presentation drawings of the early Sixteenth Century.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

“From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World”, by Michael Grant

352 pages, Charles Scribner’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0020327875

Michael Grant was the prolific author of almost a hundred of brief and accessible books on ancient history. Thus, From Alexander to Cleopatra: The Hellenistic World is just one of the many times he has trod over this, to him, familiar ground. The book is only 275 pages, but each page is filled with detail and serves as an introduction of the period for those who are not well versed in it. After briefly discussing the events after Alexander’s death in the introduction, Grant goes on to analyze each of the Hellenistic Kingdoms which followed in some detail, from their foundations to their eventual decline during the rise of Rome. The history, achievements, and cultures of the major kingdoms (Macedonia, Ptolemaic Egypt, the Seleucid Kingdoms, and Pergamum) are all discussed, but Grant goes far beyond this; in his title he labels his book a history of the Hellenistic WORLD, and he meant it. Grant discusses Epirus under Pyrrhus, the Spartans under their revolutionary Kings of the era, the Greek state of Syracuse in Sicily, the fascinating Eastern Greek Kingdoms in Bactria and India, and finally the non-Greek states in the East including Pontus, the Parthians, and even the Hasmonean Jewish state. After this description of the Kingdoms, Grant discusses the continuance of city-states (in Greece, Italy, and beyond) and their occasional banding together in Leagues such as the Achaean League. He contrasts the general poverty and decline of the city-states with a higher level of prosperity in the Kingdoms where the monarchs invested to a great degree in trade and cultural pursuits.

The latter half of the book examines Hellenistic culture and achievements in fields such as art, science, mathematics, philosophy, poetry, literature, etc. There is an important discussion of the growing role of women in Greek society during the Hellenistic period, as well as insight into Greek religion. Grant notes that the violence of the Hellenistic period and decline of the city-states led to a lessening of the influence of the traditional Olympian gods and that people responded by following a plethora of “mystery cults”, or turning to astrology or magic (Hmmmmm…sounds sadly familiar…) as most people began to believe that their lives were dictated by chance and fortune (again, sadly familiar). Those who sought something more rational and comforting turned to the philosophers who promised Ataraxia, or tranquility. Here, Grant ably discusses the different philosophical schools of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics. Overall, this is a fascinating discussion of Hellenistic culture, and although there are a few slow places where if you are not deeply interested in the field being discussed (literature, sculpture, etc.) the level of detail might bog you down. For me, however, this was rare and a minor complaint. There are also some helpful maps and black and white plates distributed throughout the work. This is certainly a detailed and academic read, but for those who want to understand the Hellenistic World, I highly recommend this book. You will come away with a detailed knowledge of this often neglected period.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

“Ancient Egypt”, edited by David P. Silverman

256 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0195219524

Ancient Egypt edited by David P. Silverman is a very thorough book that delves deep into the entire history of Egypt, starting with their earliest history as a nation and going through all of the aspects of their unique culture – all 4000+ years of it – with special sections on religious belief and the importance of said belief in the afterlife, their language, (especially their written language, both hieroglyphs and demotic which is more like short hand and almost looks like our cursive writing...much easier and simpler than hieroglyphs!), mathematics, astronomy, medicine, the building of the pyramids, the dynasties…every aspect is thoroughly discussed by a different expert in the field of Egyptology. Each of the fifteen chapters has been written by a different specialist in the field of Egyptology (helpfully, their credentials are listed in the dust jacket cover) and consist of a variety of professors, university and museum curators. Aside from the obvious wealth of knowledge, every single page has beautiful photographs and illustrations of the best Egyptian artwork, tomb painting, statuary, jewelry, etc. to illustrate what is being discussed. This may be the one book on ancient Egypt to have if you have to have just one. However, Ancient Egypt is NOT just a pretty coffee table book of the typical type, with more photographs than writing and little or no explanation of what you're seeing; it is a work of scholarship that uses the selected illustrations to supplement and explain the pictures, rather than the other way ‘round. Highly accessible and readable – there’s even a glossary at the end and an honest-to-God useful index – this work is useful for the interested amateur (like myself) or someone already involved in the study of ancient Egypt.