Monday, July 26, 2010

They Rode for the Lone Star: The Saga of the Texas Rangers, Vol. 1: The Birth of Texas--The Civil War

The usual criteria on most sites that sponsor book giveaways, is that you have posted reviews of similar books in the past. This is good for the giveaway sponsors. They are assured that you have actually read the books and that you post reviews. But it’s frustrating for reviewers who wish to widen the type of book that they read and review. I find myself reading and writing reviews for the same type of book, over and over again.

Not so with the giveaways on GoodReads. They continually surprise me with their choices for me, starting with the very first book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I had no science fiction works in my "library". They Rode for the Lone Star is another surprise. I have no "westerns" in my library.

I signed up for this book on a whim. I know very little about Texas and thought that the whole Texas Ranger "mystique" was one of those "everything is bigger and better in Texas". I am happy to report that I was wrong. The Texas Rangers are, and were, much more than a state police force.

They have a long, proud history that dates back to the first settlement of Texas by colonists from the fledgling United States. Texas Rangers were initially a militia force, defending "Texians" from hostile Native Americans and Mexicans who also claimed Texas. Rangers fought in the battles for independence from Mexico, in the Mexican War after Texas achieved statehood and then in the Civil War, on both sides of the conflict. The author ends this, the first volume of his history, at the end of the Civil War.

The history of Texas and the Rangers is covered in detail, sometimes too much detail, and includes discussions of uniforms, weapons, tactics and seemingly every move in every battle fought by every ranger. And yet, despite all of that detail, a lot of knowledge is assumed on the part of the reader. I found myself wanting more information on important events like the fall of the Alamo, which admittedly fall outside of the scope of this book.

I was a little confused by the use of numerous watercolors by the artist Bruce Marshall. Since he is a contemporary artist and not someone living during the time period covered in this book, I was unsure why his imagined scenes of battles and equally imaginative depictions of Texas Rangers, their dress, weapons and horses were used in a serious historical work. Much better are the paintings, photos, daguerreotypes and woodcuts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries portraying the actual persons and scenes as they appeared at the time.

This is an excellent book for any student of Texas and Texas Ranger history. The narrative, which can be daunting, is broken up by sidebars with details on people, places, battles and weapons, mentioned in the text and by illustrations of same.

Happily for me, the book I was sent was autographed by the author. I collect books signed by their authors and am pleased to add this one to my collection.

Review copy courtesy of Lone Star Publishing

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ruminations From the Garden

This book was not at all what I expected. Somehow, when I read the blurb about it on the Early Reviwers’ page on LibraryThing, all I took away from it was that the author had planted a garden and tended it by hand while ruminating on our dependence on oil. Even the book jacket quoted the author "What will happen if the oil runs out or becomes so expensive we can’t afford to buy it?" I was looking forward to some homespun wisdom and suggestions for energy independence.

What I got was a blog in book form. A blog like the hundreds, maybe thousands, of blogs that I stopped reading long ago because all they offer is the regurgitated arguments and solutions of pundits and talking heads. There are no new or original ideas here.

When the author does offer a few original, non-energy related ideas, they are breathtakingly ignorant: homosexuality is caused by over-population, mentally ill people are not sick – they are in touch with the spirit world, the death penalty frees evil spirits to infect other people.

Mr. Ford should stick to writing about what he knows best: ranching, animal husbandry, cowboys, and immigrants, both legal and illegal. I found those parts of the book fascinating. If you excised all of the faux philosophy, this would be a wonderful book on life in south Texas.

Review copy courtesy of Speir Publishing

Monday, July 12, 2010

Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

Back in the early 1980’s while the Cold War was still raging, I used to joke that I must be on some FBI and/or CIA watchlist because of my growing collection of books on the Soviet Union, including books (in translation) authored by Soviet writers who were not dissidents. My curiosity about all things Russian stemmed from my idea that you can’t "hate" an enemy that you know nothing about.

Fast forward to 9/11 when we realized that we were facing a new enemy, radical Islam. Again, my curiosity was sparked, but finding books about Islam that didn’t demonize it have been difficult to come by. Author Fred M. Donner, a professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, presents us with an objective look at the beginnings of Islam in his book Muhammad and The Believers, which he has been working on since 2000. It is a badly needed perspective on the hotly debated subject of the origins of some of the more radical beliefs espoused by today’s terrorists.

Most books and opinion pieces today take one of two positions. Either Islam is a religion of peace or it is a religion of jihad. Professor Donner shows us that it is both. Islam started out as a radical movement of monotheists in an area of the world dominated by polytheists. Members of the movement, who called themselves The Believers, stood out from other cults and religions because of their piety and righteous behavior. Initially, they embraced Christians and Jews who were also pious. It was only after the death of Muhammad and the question of succession had been settled after two civil wars that Islam was rigidly defined and codified, restricted to only those who followed the teachings of the Koran who were now called Moslems.

Towards the end of Muhammad’s life, The Believers embarked on what we today call jihad, battling the adjacent Persian and Byzantine Empires that they considered ungodly. Within just a few generations, Islam had spread across North Africa and into Spain. Admittedly, the initial impetus to the expansion was the overthrow of neighboring infidel empires, but after some time, the Islamic leadership began to depend on the revenue generated by taxes imposed on subject states.

I think that this is what should concern us in the 21st century. Those who claim that modern day jihadists are twisting Muhammad’s teachings or that jihad is a modern concept are wrong. Jihad and the forced conversion or overthrow of non-Islamic states is nothing new. It has been going on since the founding of Islam. But, just as Christianity was able to evolve from the militancy of the Crusades and the Inquisition, to more peaceful means of recruiting new members, so should Moslem leaders begin to turn their followers from the concept of violent jihad to non-violent jihad, converting new members with missionaries rather than soldiers.

Although written for a popular audience, Professor Donner is unable to break out of his scholarly writing mode. He has taken a subject that is incredibly fascinating and made it dry, dry, dry. Dull, dull, dull. I literally fell asleep several times while reading it. In the future, I would suggest that he employ a ghost writer geared toward popular readership. The topic that he writes about is much too important not to be accessible to as many people as possible.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Betsy Ross and the Making of America

Normally when I review a book, I first read the book and write my review, then I read reviews written by other people. In the case of Betsy Ross and the Making of America, my introduction to the book was via a review in the New York Times Book Review dated May 9, 2010. It was not a flattering review. The reviewer, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor at Harvard, accuses the author, Marla R. Miller, a professor of American History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, of "sentimental fiction" which "weakens her own historical prose, which is strong enough to stand on its own" and "defeats the ultimate purpose of her book, which is to rediscover the woman behind the legend." Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the fact that, other than books for children, this is the first biography of Betsy Ross ever written. Intrigued enough to buy and read the book despite the poor review.

By the end of the first chapter, I had forgotten about the scathing review and was completely hooked. I literally couldn't put the book down. This was American history as I had never read it before. These were real people and real experiences, not the usual dry recitations of politics and battles and tactics. I never liked American history. I felt it was boring compared to the thousands of years of history of Europe and the Mediterranean. Having been forced in high school to memorize every battle and every general of the Revolutionary War, I subsequently tuned out the following 200 years, learning just enough to pass exams while devoting my spare time to Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors and English kings who chopped their wives' heads off. Now that’s history.

It is precisely the "sentimental fiction" that makes this book interesting to the general reader. Rather than a dry overview of the development of the city of Philadelphia, we see it from the point of view of Betsy's great-grandfather, a master carpenter. It's one thing to read about the tactics, such as boycotts, the colonists used to protest what they perceived to be unfair taxation. It's quite another to read about the effects those boycotts had on the local artisans and merchants. The yellow fever epidemics that killed so many residents of Philadelphia are more meaningful when we learn of the various family members lost. Rather than just numbers, they are people that we have come to know. Small details like the families who were split between loyalty to the king and loyalty to the rebellion, illustrates the upheaval caused by this colonial rebellion much better than the usual political analysis commonly found in books on the American Revolution.

The final criticism in the review with which I disagreed was that the author devoted "only" 50 pages out of a total of 362 pages to the last 40 years of Betsy's life, despite the fact that these are the best documented years of her life. I have to admit that after 300 pages, I was pretty much Betsy Ross'ed out. Not only was her life prior to and during the Revolution tumultuous (three husbands and seven daughters), but just trying to keep all the people, many of whom had the same names, straight made my head spin. The author's decision to gloss over the details of the latter part of Betsy Ross' life was a sound one. And, in the best Hollywood tradition, leaves room for a "sequel", a more in depth analysis of her life after the Revolution, to be written by the author or another historian.

After I finished the book, I went back and read the review again. My second reading of the review led me to the conclusion that the problem lay in the intention of the author. The reviewer was critiquing the book from a scholarly point of view whereas it seemed to me that the author intended her book to be read by both scholars and general readers. Scholars are more interested in facts and conclusions supported by facts. Hence the harsh review. General readers like myself do tend to speculate as we read. What was she thinking? How would I have reacted in this situation? We enjoy seeing events through the eyes and emotions of ordinary people like ourselves rather than from the lofty perspective of presidents, kings and generals.