The author has good intentions, but the book is weak in some areas, some of which aren't his fault. Others are. I hadn't heard of the slave revolt he describes, which he does very well. Unfortunately, unlike the Nat Turner rebellion, it was kind of covered up by the planters, so not much is really known about it. In compensation, the author spends only a small part of the book on the revolt itself, and the rest ranging over the history of slavery and plantation life in the New Orleans area in general of the first half of the 19th century, and its implications for antebellum American expansionism That's interesting too.
But in what I assume is a politically and academically trendy effort to give "agency" to the slaves, he makes all sorts of assertions about the slaves' political beliefs and how carefully they planned the revolt, etc, without much evidence. Perhaps it wasn't planned so well, had no sophisticated political philosophy beyond the desire to not be exploited, was betrayed by "loyal" slaves from the outset, and was scattered to the winds very quickly when the planters, with their superior weaponry and training, counterattacked. Would that be so bad? The author appears to strongly hint that saying so would put you in the same category as the slaveowners and their subsequent apologists.
The conclusion of the book is a bit bizarre. After an interesting discussion of the historiography of the revolt, he goes on to criticize Martin Luther King for unclear reasons, and praise Black Power advocates.
A detail point: the author appears to believe that the Articles of Confederation and the Confederate constitution are the same thing. This dents his credibility more than a little, as it is a mistake that you wouldn't want to see in a high school history class.
In sum, there are good and interesting parts to this book, but the author really could have been better served by dialing back his claims and having a better editor.
Picture a man reading through a dumpster full of 40-year-old newspapers, in a histrionic voice, occasionally intoning something like "two irreconcilable camps -- Nixonland," as if that were meant as penetrating analysis. Overlong, overkill, very shallow analytically. The reader faithfully conveys the author's apparent intent, unfortunately. But he does make some really funny mispronunciations. My favorite was "suede-o" for pseudo. Really.
On the good side, the author's approach may help you get into the mindset of the media consumer of the period. I also learned a few things-- the Yippies were pretty clever and funny, if sometimes in very bad taste, and some of the origin stories of conservative superheroes of today, such as Scalia, and Rove, who was apparently a dirty trickster from the cradle, according to the author.
Donna Tartt does a brilliant job as narrator. For the audiobook to really work, she has to. True Grit has a lot of virtues, but I think by far the best is Portis's creation of Mattie Ross. She is absolutely relentless, yet there are still a few touches of the little girl in her. She bests a horse-dealer with her almost brutal negotiating style, yet later she innocently tries to engage the other members of her posse in telling ghost stories (they're not interested.) Some people may not find Mattie entirely sympathetic; she can be sanctimonious at times. Still, she is a very satisfying creation. And Tartt really captures her very, very well, I think, and demonstrates that an audiobook can be superior to the print version.
The author does an excellent job in focusing on persons who are bit players in most popular Civil War books. He writes about such people as Thomas Starr King, Jessie Fremont, Benjamin Butler, Elmer Elsworth, and James Garfield as a young man, and many others. By doing this, he is able to build up a very interesting snapshort of Northern opinion on the eve of the war and in its early months. He is also great at setting a scene through the use of small descriptive details.
He may not be for everyone, though. First, his is a very pro-Union perspective. He is openly contempuous of Southern views. The only prominent Confederate he profiles is Louis T. Wigfall, who appears to have been filled with equal parts liquor and bile. Second, he has the odd habit of making a sweeping pronunciamento from time to time, the decisiveness of which appears to be inversely related to the amount of evidence he produces for it. These include stating that Lincoln consciously tricked the South into attacking Sumter; (Perhaps a more nuanced assessment would have been better), and that if the North had had generals like Nathaniel Lyon and Frank Blair in the East, the rebellion would have been quashed much earlier (an absurdity.) Finally, if you want lots of Lincoln and details of battle (including First Bull Run), forget it. Lincoln is almost a bit player here, and Bull Run gets no detailed coverage.
In all, I would heartily recommend this book precisely because it is so different from the run-of-the-mill Civl War popular hstory.
Perhaps the best thing about this book is how well it is written. I think that's necessary in this case because not that much is known about Mithradates (and much of what is known comes from his Roman enemies), so the author has to try to fill in the details like a historical novelist. The author focuses quite heavily on Mithradates historical reputation as a poisoner and a concocter of antidotes. This leads to delightful details in the book such as poisonous honey from bees that drink rhododendron nectar.
I think it's useful to compare Mithradates to Cleopatra -- both Hellenistic-style monarchs who threatened Rome and therefore got trashed in (Roman) historical sources as weak, depraved, easterners who tried to conquer Rome through dishonorable, unmanly methods such as intrigue and poison (Cleopatra was reputed to be a poisoner as well). The author tries to right the balance a bit, but even she doesn't deny that Mithradates could be cruel and paranoid. You do have to look at the times -- being a "friend of Rome" was like being friends with a hungry lion -- sooner or later you end up on the menu anyway.
I agree that it helps to be into ancient history to enjoy this book -- there is a lot of recounting of internecine political intrigues and the marching of various armies around the eastern Med, but I think (hope) there is enough in here to appeal to a somewhat more casual reader as well. Think of it as Cleopatra, but with less sex (admittedly the biggest selling point) and more poisoning.
This book would have been more accurately titled, "The Van Buren Faction in the Democratic Party of the 1830s and 1840s, and How it Occassionally Relates to the Annexation of Texas." Texas annexation is completed about halfway through the book, yet the author continues to goes on and on about the "Hunkers" versus the "Barnburners" (don't ask). Perhaps the author got a book contact and decided to economize on his effort by incorporating material from previous works. That being said, the first half of the book is pretty interesting, and may be worth it if you get it on sale, as I did.
I agree that the narrator is a disaster. It's not only French words he butchers. He is impartial-- French, German, Italian, even a few English ones for time to time. Personal names, place names, ordinary words, without fear or favor. Still, if you can kind of guess at what he was supposed to say, the book is interesting. Each chapter is one year, and the author uses an incident during that year to explore a theme or related themes of the period. Mostly it works, occasionally it doesn't. The subjects covered are so varied that there is probably at least something here for anyone who is interested in the history of the period -- everything from Freud to Dreadnought.
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