Book gems of 2016: Part 1

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As you plan your reading for 2016, consider these eight recently published or forthcoming titles. Watch for more recommendations and book reviews in the coming weeks.

ANTIQUITY
Mary Beard, classicist and author of the blog A Don’s Life, offers SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright, 608 pp., $35), a perceptive tour of the birth of Rome, the political entity, from the shadows of obscurity and its circuitous evolution into the Roman Republic. Step by step, she interrogates the traditional academic assumptions of its leaders, origin myths, and governing structures and analyzes them, often through the prisms of recent archaeological and historical discoveries, and presents a fresh and comprehensive history of Rome before its imperial era.

Richard Alston’s Rome’s Revolution: Death of the Republic and Birth of the Empire (Oxford University Press, 408 pp., $29.95) examines the chaotic and blood-soaked transition of the Roman Republic to Roman Empire. Another civil war erupted in 44 BC following the senatorial assassination of Julius Caesar, and in the end three men were left standing — Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus. They agreed to share power and administer separate parts of the Roman world. Octavian governed Rome and the west. Antony took the eastern territories (basing himself in Alexandria, where he met Cleopatra), and Lepidus took the rest of Africa west of Egypt. Ultimately, however, Roman rule could not be shared, and Octavian eventually eliminated his partners, terminated the 500-year-old republic, and assumed supreme power as emperor of a new Roman Empire. Alston’s story effortlessly swings back and forth between experiences of Romans on the street and Romans in the halls (and bedrooms) of power as they all experienced, whether they realized it or not, one of the most significant political revolutions in human history.

CIVIL WAR
Simon Cameron, Abraham Lincoln’s first secretary of war, is remembered for little more than his departure under the shadow of corruption, incompetence, or intransigence. Paul Kahan’s Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War (University of Nebraska Press, 408 pp. $36.95) confronts the fog of historical negativity swirling around Cameron and argues that not only was Cameron a product of his time, his time was partly a product of him. Before joining Lincoln’s Cabinet — an intelligent political move on Lincoln’s part — Cameron was a political powerhouse in Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, present at the birth of the Republican Party, a key voice in formulating Northern military strategy, and an early supporter for inclusion of black Americans in the ranks of the Union forces. He witnessed, was a part of, or a target of the most important political and military debates before and during the early months of the Civil War. Kahan’s portrait of Cameron and his times reminds us to not overlook Cameron’s crucial influence and historical importance and to remember the larger political forces Lincoln needed to succeed.

As powerful men influenced historical events, even more powerful women influenced the men. Candice Shy Hooper focuses on four of these women in Lincoln’s Generals’ Wives: Four Women Who Influenced the Civil War — for Better and for Worse (Kent State University Press, 440 pp., $39.95). Jessie Fremont (wife of John C. Fremont), Nelly McClellan (wife of George B. McClellan), Ellen Sherman (wife of William T. Sherman), and Julia Grant (wife of Ulysses S. Grant) watched their husbands rise up the ranks of Union command, worried for their safety as they fought the biggest and bloodiest battles in the history of the Western Hemisphere, traveled around the war-torn country, and offered their opinions and guidance as politics and war coalesced into the same battlefield over supreme power. Hooper deftly (and amusingly) explores how the wives’ personalities and outlooks resembled those of their spouses. They viewed Lincoln either with contempt or respect. They encouraged their husbands to either undermine or support him, ultimately intensifying either their husbands’ intransigence, and thereby dooming them to removal from command, or challenging them to do better, thereby securing their husbands’ places in the pantheon of U.S. military history.

Kelly D. Mezurek’s For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops (Kent State University Press, 344 pp., $37.95) promises to go beyond the traditional unit history to illustrate why black Americans volunteered to fight in the Union Army, how they endured racism and unfair treatment and assignments, and what they expected from the democratic republic they had bled for and died to save. The free Ohio men that comprised the 27th USCT fought in North Carolina and Virginia, serving from April 1864 to September 1865, months after the Confederacy collapsed. They returned to Ohio determined to build better and stronger communities for their children, linked to the promises of the the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Their story further brightens the scholarly illumination of black veterans’ excruciating struggle to secure equal rights for all Americans and ultimately realize the promise of American democracy.

Richard M. Reid’s African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War (Kent State University Press, 308 pp., $28.95) offers an exciting and fresh perspective on black Union soldiers who joined their American counterparts in the fight for freedom in North America. The transnational perspective sparks new considerations of the nature of black Northern societies that stretched far beyond international borders and cultures. It also contributes to the larger conversation about why men and women fought on either side in the Civil War. Reid’s Canadian soldiers join the array of other foreign soldiers — including Latinos from Mexico, Cuba, and the Caribbean — who fought their own larger world war for freedom and democracy.

WORLD WAR II
The process of intellectual preparation for the wars of the future is a complicated landscape for any historian to analyze and illustrate. But John M. Lillard’s Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II (University of Nebraska Press, 224 pp., $39.95) offers the ideal vantage point for both scholars, students, and enthusiasts of military history. While other studies might underestimate the Naval War College’s interwar contribution to the U.S. Navy’s eventual strategies and tactics, Lillard argues that the College’s multi-level war games, experiments with new technologies, and perceptive simulations of the future wars all lay at the heart of U.S. victory in 1945.

SPACE
Astronauts inspire us like none others. Their scientific, technological, and intellectual achievements are unrivaled, their bravery in the face of certain death is unforgettable, and their patriotism is unassailable. They are the first to admit that what they achieved was the result of their participation in efforts that involved thousands of men and women around the world. They are also the first to remind their admirers that not everyone survived the journeys into history. Colin Burgess, Kate Doolan and Bert Vis collected the stories of sixteen Americans and Russians who died during their nations’ efforts to reach the moon in a new edition of Fallen Astronauts: Heroes Who Died Reaching for the Moon (University of Nebraska Press, 448 pp., $36.95). Some died in training accidents, others on the launch pad, and one died in an automobile accident. Fallen Astronauts promises to deepen the reverence for those who lost their lives, for those who dared to move forward, and for those who made it to the summit, never forgetting those they lost. Heroism transcended nationality, ideology, or culture.

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Book gems of 2016
An occasional series
Jan. 3: Antiquity, Civil War, World War II, and space
June 22: Presidents and the political world
June 29: Texas and Texas history
July 6: Latin America
July 13: Slavery and the Civil War era
July 20: World War I and II, science, culture, and literature

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: The French Revolution and the Terror / Cuba after Castro / The older genius / A new planet’s secrets / How Cheney remade the world

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This week: The French Revolution and the Terror / Cuba after Castro / The older genius / A new planet’s secrets / How Cheney remade the world

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. The French Revolution’s reign of terror
By Melvyn Bragg | In Our Time :: BBC Radio 4 | May 2005
“How did the French Revolution descend into such extremes of violence? Who or what drove The Terror? And was it really an aberration of the revolutionary cause or the moment when it truly expressed itself?”

2. Why should female characters have to ‘behave’?
By Barbara Ellen | SheSaid :: The Guardian | March 27
“Did people demand that Travis Bickle shut up and get back in his cab in ‘Taxi Driver’? Did anyone tell Jack Nicholson that Jack Torrance made all men look bad in ‘The Shining’?”

3. The Dangers of a Cuban Collapse
By Daniel Serwer | Politico Magazine | March 26
“It could happen sooner than we think. Is Obama ready?”

4. Late Bloomers
By Malcolm Gladwell | The New Yorker | 2008
“Why do we equate genius with precocity?”

5. Mammy Revealed, and Not Just Her Red Petticoat
By Julie Bosman | The New York Times | March 26
“‘Gone With the Wind’ Prequel Coming in October”

6. Dwarf planet discovery hints at a hidden Super Earth in solar system
By Ian Sample | The Guardian | March 26
“Though exciting in its own right, the discovery raises a more tantalising prospect for many astronomers: that a ‘Super Earth’ up to 10 times the mass of our planet orbits the sun at such a great distance that it has never been seen.”

7. He Remade Our World
By Mark Danner | The New York Review of Books | April 3
“Cheney believed in a ‘unitary executive,’ believed quite literally that ‘the executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.’ ”

8. Could a tsunami such as the one that affected the Indian Ocean [in 2004] happen in the United States?
Can It Happen Here? :: U.S. Geological Survey | 2014
“We outline the sources of data that can help answer the question, and then indicate when and how large tsunamis have been for specific regions of the U.S.”

9. Unraveling the mystery of Vivian Maier, one of America’s great street photographers
By Kristin Hohenadel | The Eye :: Slate | March 24
“Maier was intensely private, socially awkward, estranged from family, a loner; even those who shared the same roof with her seemed merely to observe the eccentric woman who insisted on locking her bedroom door and fiercely guarding her boxes of worldly possessions, without ever knowing exactly who she was.”

10. Ankara: ‘Israel to compensate Turkey’ over flotilla raid
Al-Arabiya | March 25
“The May 2010 Israeli assault on the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara while it was in international waters on its way to Gaza triggered a severe diplomatic crisis between the two countries.”

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TUNES

Tonight I’m spending some time with the blues, specifically with the Texas Blues Café. Check out the line-up and then listen here.

1. Band Of Heathens — Jenny Was A Keeper
2. Dr.Wu — Nothing Like Texas
3. The Arc Angles — Good Time
4. Albert Collins — Iceman
5. Rory Gallagher — Loanshark Blues
6. Red Hot Blues Sisters — Ocean Beach
7. The Fabulous Thunderbirds — Got To Get Out
8. Mick Hayes Band — Maria
9. Robin Trower — 21st Century Blues
10. Cross Canadian Ragweed — Boys From Oklahoma
11. Jimmy Thackery — Empty Arms Motel
12. The Blue Dogs — Make My Way
13. Devon Allman — Midnight Rider

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Profiles of first ladies / Childfree and loving it / A boring mission to Mars / A Texas-made space telescope / Nixon’s love for Jews

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This week: Profiles of first ladies / Childfree and loving it / A boring mission to Mars / A Texas-made space telescope / Nixon’s love for Jews

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. The First Ladies
C-SPAN | 2013 and 2014
Watch the stunning and fascinating series about the women as intelligent, complex, canny, and noble (if not more so) than the presidents their husbands became.

2. The Choice To Be Childfree
On Point with Tom Ashbrook :: NPR | Aug. 23
“Childless by choice. We look at the trend of couples saying ‘no thanks’ to having kids.”

3. Dating Superman
By Seth Stevenson | Slate | May 2013
“The ultimate superpower would let you find, woo, and mate with the perfect person”

4. Olivia Wilde Takes Center Stage
By Emma Brown | Interview | Aug. 22
Drinking Buddies is Olivia Wilde’s first time carrying a film, but it is certainly not her last. With upcoming roles in everything from Rush to Spike Jonze’s Her and Paul Haggis’ Third Person, Wilde is the girl of the moment.”

5. Danger! This Mission to Mars Could Bore You to Death!
By Maggie Koerth-Baker | The New York Times Magazine | July 2013
“It would be catastrophic if humanity’s greatest voyage were brought low by the mind’s tendency to wander when left to its own devices. ”

6. Some Newly Uncovered Nixon Comments on the Subjects of Jews and Black People
By Elspeth Reeve | Atlantic Wire :: Atlantic Monthly | Aug. 21
“Richard Nixon was like many a Millennial (or middle-aged politician) who’s gotten busted for sending racy emails or sexts — even though he knew everything he was saying would be archived forever, he still said really inappropriate things.”

7. UT, A&M telescope to be 10 times sharper than Hubble
By Robert Stanton | Houston Chronicle | Aug. 21
“This Saturday, the third mirror for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) will be cast inside a rotating furnace lab at the Steward Observatory in Tucson, Ariz. It’s the only facility in the world where mirrors this large are being made.”

8. Turkey’s Women Strike Back
The New York Review of Books | Aug. 19
“Just as some Turks have recognized for the first time that violence against the Kurds in the east is no different than the police violence they are now experiencing in the west, they are also becoming aware that state meddling in women’s lives means meddling in the lives of everyone.”

9. Not-so-empty nests: When adult children live at home
By Adriene Hill | Marketplace Life | May 2013
“There are more than 22 million adult children still living at home with their parents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”

10. The End of Second Acts?
By Shadd Maruna and Charles Barber | The Wilson Quarterly | Spring 2013
“The mass warehousing of convicts is a sign of America’s faltering belief in second chances. Considering how individuals atone for their crimes can help us restore rehabilitation as an ideal.”

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

February’s celestial delights / Civil War telegrams / Girlfriend wants a baby / Romney’s Secret Service protection / U.S. citizenship

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism. Read past recommendations from this series here.

1. 7 amazing sights to see in the February night sky
By Adam Holisky | USA Today | Feb. 3
“There are several planets visible, and the Orion constellation is guarding the evening heavens. Canis Major and the brightest star in our night sky are also perfectly visible this month for all stargazers to enjoy.”

2. How to automatically enlarge thumbnails online
By Rob Lightner | CNET | Feb. 3
“If you’ve ever found yourself giving up while clicking through an online photo gallery or grinding your teeth in frustration at an online vendor’s tiny thumbnails, help is on the way.”

3. Analysis: When is getting better good enough?
By Ben Feller | Associated Press | Feb. 3
“The stronger the economy gets, the more the presidential race comes down to what voters believe: Are things actually getting better? Or is it all still a mess?”

4. Huntington acquires trove of Lincoln, Civil War telegrams, codes
By Mike Boehm | The Los Angeles Times | January 2012
“The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens purchases a collection of telegrams from Abraham Lincoln and Union generals, plus code books.”

5. Please Advise: I think my girlfriend is trying to get pregnant
Nerve | Feb. 2
“She thinks a child will force me to commit.”

6. Where Romney goes, the Secret Service now follow
By Aine Kerr | Storyful | Feb. 3
“GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney is now being trailed by men in black suits with dark glasses on the campaign trail in Nevada.”

7. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ Strikes 40
By Adam Chandler | The Atlantic | Feb. 2
“Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation remains influential — but not for all the reasons we expect”

8. Images of Revolution
Al Jazeera World | October 2011
“The stories behind the iconic images of the Arab uprisings as told by those who filmed them.”

9. Should All Americans Have to Earn Their Citizenship?
By Eric Liu | The Atlantic | Feb. 2
“With an eye toward the children of illegal immigrants, some politicians are trying to end birthright citizenship. Imagine what that might mean for the rest of us.”

10. Lost in Space
By C. Claiborne Ray | Q&A :: The New York Times | October 2011
“Science-fiction films often depict people being killed by going out an airlock into space. What would that be like?”