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Whatcha Reading List, 2007-08

28 Sept., 2007: JoAnne lists The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan.T (Paperback - Aug 28, 2007)After having read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan last summer, I find myself thinking of so many different passages as I shop, prepare meals, or even think about food. Beautifully written non-fiction, it is an important, eye-opening, fascinating book.

"The Worst Hard Time" is a different approach to the story of the Dust Bowl, concentrating on the people who stayed and suffered rather than on those who fled--searing stories of perseverance and courage. Elaine writes: A study of the experiences of families who lived through the Dust Bowl and stayed put.

From last summer's discussion:

JoAnne writes: After having read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan last summer, I find myself thinking of so many different passages as I shop, prepare meals, or even think about food. Beautifully written non-fiction, it is an important, eye-opening, fascinating book."The Worst Hard Time" is a different approach to the story of the Dust Bowl, concentrating on the people who stayed and suffered rather than on those who fled--searing stories of perseverance and courage.Both books were recommended for this past summer's discussions and didn't make the cut. They are well worth your time and attention. Lecture over! Joanne

28 Sept., 2007: JoAnne lists The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan . Click for her comments.

30 Sept., 2007: Clint lists King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (1998). Clint writes: A readable and well researched story of the thousands of natives of the African Congo who were enslaved and horribly abused at a time when most nations were congratulating themselves that the institution of slavery had been eliminated from the world scene. While Leopold, King of the Belgians, is portrayed as the main culprit, acting without authority or even awareness by his own government, he had lots of help from several nationals of other countries including the U. S. One of these was Henry Morton Stanley of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame. Fortunately, there were a few self-sacrificing individuals who, in today's vernacular, we might term 'whistle blowers.'

31 Oct., 2007: Elaine Wildman reports on Red Azalea by Anchee Min.Elaine writes: Red Azalea by Anchee Min is a gripping autobiography by a woman who grew up in China under Mao's Cultural Revolution. The responsibilities she carried as a small child, her school experiences, the oppressive conditions in the farm labor camp'' 'all these make me wonder how the human spirit survives with cheerfulness and optimism.

23 Nov., 2007: Mack recommends Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides. I recommend Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides - 501 pages of adventure plus many notes to back up the story of Kit Carson and the opening up of the southwest. I attach two reviews of this book.
Mack Kelly

From The Washington Post's Book World/

With Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides has taken an implausibly broad canvas of time, people and events and created a brilliantly realized portrait on an epic scale. The United States conquest of the Southwest involved territory ranging from St. Louis to Mexico City and California, as well as a large array of principal figures. Sides has wisely chosen Christopher "Kit" Carson and Santa Fe as the human and geographical touchstones.

Carson was the consummate frontiersman, who had traveled widely across the West as a trapper, scout and adventurer long before the events of the Mexican War brought his abilities to the attention of the U.S. military. Illiterate but fluent in five Indian languages as well as Spanish, he'd had two Native American wives before marrying into an old Spanish family from Taos. Carson, who seems often to have been at the right place at the right (or wrong) time, had a deep understanding of the complex clash of cultures taking place. And yet his ultimate devotion to duty and patriotism earned him an enmity among the Navajo that extends to the present day. In Sides's depiction, Carson was a humble loner who became an unflinching killer when circumstances or superiors demanded it.

The center of events, in many ways, was Santa Fe, the old Spanish territorial capital almost forgotten by the authorities in Mexico City, more or less functioning under self-government often at the expense of the settlers and natives. It was also the long-sought terminus of the famous trading trail bearing its name, believed by the United States to offer the best possible route to California and the Pacific coast. In truth, it was more symbolic than anything else: a dusty backwater of an empire under collapse, whose occupants were subject to routine raids from a number of tribes.

President James Polk entered office with one absolute intention: to extend the western boundary of the territorial United States to the Pacific Ocean. While not the author of the concept of Manifest Destiny, he was the first president to initiate military action under that theory. There's no doubt Polk inaugurated the Mexican War with little or no basis beyond his own will. At that point, the native peoples of the region were considered by the authorities to be little more than noisome pests to be easily dispatched with on the way toward an audacious land-grab from Mexico.

How wrong they were.

The Navajo warrior Narbona was in his 80s when the U.S. Army straggled in from the east, and he watched them come. His age and great wealth, measured largely in herds of horses and flocks of sheep, along with his long experience through peace and war with the Spanish settlers, placed him in a position of influence within an intricate, matrilineal, clan-driven tribe. To what degree he understood the role of chieftain that the Americans thrust upon him can't be known. It appears he accepted at least the premise in an effort to educate the Americans about Navajo culture and concepts of land ownership and use. At the same time, he was quietly determined to maintain the Navajo way of life.

Briefly, it appeared there might be hope for both sides, but Narbona was shot to death by a U.S. trooper who believed one of Narbona's warriors had stolen a horse. With the death of this wise man, all possibility of avoiding open warfare vanished. The Navajo faded back into the vast desert mountains and canyons of their homeland, leading to a protracted and fruitless series of expeditions against them that became successful only after the United States, led by Carson under the command of Gen. James Henry Carleton, initiated a scorched-earth policy. This finally culminated in the Navajo surrender and the infamous Long Walk to a barren redoubt in eastern New Mexico, where the defeated tribe began a disastrous period of disease and confinement.
Although the campaign against the Navajo anchors Blood and Thunder, Sides also details a panoply of events surrounding the Mexican War and its aftermath. These include the taking of California from the Spanish and British, as well as the ill-fated and short-lived Bear Flag Rebellion; the last of the famed rendezvous of the mountain men at Green River, Utah; and the bedraggled Confederate army's failed attempt to extend the Confederacy into the Southwest. There was a constant undercurrent of outrage and barbarity on all fronts and among all principal parties, Americans, Spanish, Mexican and Indian. Toss in accounts of a number of explorers, fortune-seekers, scoundrels, politicians, inept military adventurers, madmen and fools, and it all begins to sound like a collaboration between Cormac McCarthy and Federico Fellini.
But this is neither film nor novel. The truth of history is often fickle and difficult to determine, and Sides demonstrates his awareness of this with a riveting narrative focus. Like the authors of many other recent works of popular history, Sides dispenses with footnotes but offers an exhaustive bibliography that underscores the scope of this monumental undertaking. Not only does Blood and Thunder capture a pivotal moment in U.S. history in marvelous detail, it is also authoritative and masterfully told.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Lent
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

26 Jan., 2007: Mack reports on The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams.Here is a winter slog for all those readers who hammer their thumbs because it feels so good when they stop. The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams. This an American Classic which comes with great recommendations. Published 100 years ago in a small issue in which Adams wanted his selected readers to comment in the margins. He got three back. After his death it was published for the general public. I am working through it with the aid of CliffNotes which keeps me posted on what I read. It's a hard read and I hope that in the end I will be rewarded.
Mack Kelly

And then on 10 Feb., Mack says: I have finally finished Henry Adams. It was a struggle and in the end I think it was worth it. To fully appreciate "The Education" one should have good grasp of the stretch of history from 1860 to 1905. Most of the major players came within his circle and the events have a feeling of the times untouched by future judgments. Whether or not it would be a good candidate for the summer, I leave others to decide (as Henry would say). Mack Kelly

5 March, 2008: Bobbie Freshwater reports reading:
God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens,
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins,
American Theocracy by Kevin Philips.

5 March, 2008: Paul Freshwater reports reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (biography of President Lincoln and his cabinet - long but it reads like a good novel with plenty of insights.) And is starting Touch and Go, a memoir by Studs Torkel.

5 March, 2008: Mary Strohl reports: The two books I read and enjoyed recently are hardbacks: Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo and People of the Book by Geraldine Books.