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History of the Conquest of Mexico (Modern Library Classics)
History of the Conquest of Mexico (Modern Library Classics)
by William Hickling Prescott
Edition: Paperback
Price: $22.22
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45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of Our Greatest Works of Historical Art, October 15, 2003
This book is one of the greatest works of world literature, but it can be a deeply disturbing read. By turns, the heart races in outrage and sinks in sorrow at the retelling of the events surrounding Cortes's conquest of the Aztec Empire from 1519 to 1521. There has seldom been an event in history with greater drama, greater conflict, greater peril, and greater moral consequence. Though the conquest is not a turning point in world history, its events can help us fathom many of the most pressing and profound moral and political issues we face down to this day. Prescott tells the story of the conquest superbly, with depth, precision, elegance, sympathy, drama, and emotional power. There are few prose stylists as fine as William Hickling Prescott in the history of English literature, and this is not known widely enough. Many a swollen six-volume history from centuries past has become the province of scholars; few are the classic histories that still can command the attention of lay readers. This is one of them. Many lay readers and scholars testify that this book has lost none of its savor or substance. Prescott emulated Gibbon, that marvel of magnificence in English prose, but thankfully Prescott's style isn't quite as magnificently glorious as the historian's who laid out the momentous decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Prescott's prose stands a bit lower on the register than Gibbon's heroic grandeur; yet Prescott achieves a depth of perception, elegance, and insight that is matched by few writers in all of English literature. As with Gibbon, Prescott's sentences and paragraphs stand as works of art; they not are to be hurried through for the story only, but pondered with an expectation of almost unbounded discovery. Also like Gibbon, Prescott was a master of the subtle, sly aside and the telling tangent.
At the center of Prescott's story is the enthralling conquistador Hernan Cortes, that extraordinarily daring captain of the expedition to conquer the Aztecs; in two years, Cortes led a preposterously small band of Spanish soldiers across the Empire and succeeded, highly improbably, in toppling it. Is this one of the key moments of history? For Central America, certainly, but for world history probably not. Nonetheless, it is one of the most riveting stories of early modern times, and you should know it well. Moreover, our evaluations of the actions and ideas of Cortes and his men can help us understand what it means to be good, to toil as servants of the good, and to create a good society. It is easy to get furious with Cortes's band as we read of them fulfilling their audacious mission of conquest. It is easier still to morally condemn them. It could be that they deserve condemnation. But perhaps the matter deserves a very close look, and Prescott can help us examine and judge their actions better than any historian ever. In my view, there are three crucial events that demand our account: (1) the massacre at Cholula, (2) the Noche Triste, an escape of the Spaniards from Tenochtitlan at mid-conquest, and (3) the brutal siege of Tenochtitlan in the final act. Through these and the other events of the conquest, Prescott can guide us in evaluating our principles of morality, government, war, liberty, and religion, as well as the meaning of life and society. This book is a classic now, having been written some 150 years ago. Many histories and studies of the conquest have been written up to the present, but none matches Prescott's in the power and depth of its insights into human nature and society, and none matches it in the beauty and power of its prose. Prescott has much to say about why people behave as they do, about the power of religion, the thirst for gold and glory, the temptations of ambition, the rationalization of crimes and sin, and much, much more. Surely by now you realize that I cannot recommend this great history highly enough. It remains in print in several editions, which is a testament to its enduring appeal both to scholars and readers, and it is most deserving of all the attention it still receives.


Rubicon: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Novels of Ancient Rome)
Rubicon: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Novels of Ancient Rome)
by Steven Saylor
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Historical Fiction, October 2, 2003
"Rubicon" is a brisk, absorbing read, one of the better popular historical novels set in ancient Rome during the lifetime of Julius Caesar. Saylor knows how to tell a story well, and he keeps his murder-mystery plots moving efficiently along. He creates interesting characters and credible conflicts and difficulties for them. This particular novel in Saylor's excellent Rome series is not the strongest, but it was certainly enjoyable. The main problem for this one is that Saylor leaves the mystery behind far too long in one stretch of the book, almost forgetting the murder with which his story began. In fact, Saylor's retelling of the story of Pompey's strategic retreat from Rome after Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon has greater drama than solving the murder of Pompey's nephew. Saylor can't quite make these parts of the story adhere in a completely satisfying way. But I am certainly not complaining. Saylor has given us another fine story of Rome during the fascinating Civil War. His presentation of daily life in Rome is always aptly detailed and engrossing. He also has given this story a bit of philosophical depth by focusing closely at times on the psychology of the series' "detective", Gordianus the Finder. Moreover, the chapters on the battle at Brundisium, in which Pompey barely succeeded in escaping Caesar's fearsome army by fleeing across the Adriatic, are a compelling addition to the massive historical literature on the Roman Civil War. Overall, well done, Mr. Saylor. "Rubicon" does not rise to literature, but it certainly is good historical fiction.


The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion
The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion
by Peter Kreeft
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.58
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9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but could have been better and fuller, September 16, 2003
The indictment is clear, but the argument for it is still rather sketchy and limited. Those who perpetrate abortions are murderers (though a woman who allows her fetus to be killed is merely an unwitting murderer, tricked by modern philosophy). This is a somewhat brief, breezy, and entertaining look at the question of abortion, and it is surely no surprise that Peter Kreeft, a Catholic apologist of some fame and doggedness, has his rational Socrates come down squarely against the practice. Still, you've got to give Kreeft some high marks for not once refering to the Bible or religion to make his case against abortion. The three quick dialogues wander a bit, seemingly to make the characters appear real and their conversations off-the-cuff, but when the participants finally get around to making their best points, they all make fairly good ones. In my view, Kreeft is correct to center the entire moral argument for and against abortion on the personhood of the human embryo and fetus. Nevertheless, his case for considering the human fetus as a person -- made through Socrates' question-answer dialectic -- is sound but weak. Much more could be said in objection to Socrates' rapid, blithe conclusion that the human zygote should be considered a person than Kreeft allows his pro-choice opponents to say. Also, Kreeft does not even enter the world of law and democratic politics, which are, of course, as firmly in the center of the abortion debate as the definition of the fetus. Still, let me be clear, I am pro-life and agree with Socrates' conclusions. I just don't think his opponents in this debate are given the best or fullest challenges to the pro-life position. All in all, this is a worthwhile read. Sad to say, though: it has probably had little to no affect on the abortion debate. But all those who are pro-life must keep on talking, trying to persuade people to see the evils of this practice, in the dim hope that some day we shall overcome. We have no other choice.


Beyond the Boundaries: Life and Landscape at the Lake Superior Copper Mines, 1840-1875 (Michigan)
Beyond the Boundaries: Life and Landscape at the Lake Superior Copper Mines, 1840-1875 (Michigan)
by Larry D. Lankton
Edition: Paperback
Price: $51.00
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Life on an Early Frontier, September 12, 2003
Larry Lankton has achieved a great deal in bringing us closer to the early history of Michigan's Copper Country, to help us experience this rugged region in a rugged time as though we had lived there and in those days ourselves. This book, his latest, concerns private life during the first decades of the great Copper Rush on the shores of Lake Superior, which began some five years before the California Gold Rush and which was one of the most productive mining eras in human history (did you realize that?). Like many similar books on old times, Lankton's chapters are topical. Some are more interesting than others, and my favorites are the chapter concerning the early frontiersmen, young and scraggly bucks, who first came to the wilds of the Keweenaw Peninsula; another about labor at the early Copper Mines; and finally the one on crime in the early mining communities out in a region that was once at the edge of civilization. Lankton writes in an easy, congenial manner and bounces from topic to topic within the chapters without any organizational principle other than what he thinks we readers might find interesting about life in the woods and at the copper mines. Though this is not a book to start with when studying the Copper Country and its deep history, it is nonetheless a first-rate addition to the literature of the Keweenaw. (By the way, I live summers in Copper Harbor and my great-grandparents were all Finnish immigrants to the Keweenaw.) Thanks for a job well done, Larry.


Selected Letters Of Yvor Winters
Selected Letters Of Yvor Winters
by Yvor Winters
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $49.95
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Enlightening, April 19, 2001
I suppose you have to know something about Yvor Winters to get something out of this book. Actually, you have to know a lot about Yvor Winters. But if you do, you're sure to enjoy it. The selection is excellent, and the presentation is very fine. The Introduction, sadly, won't help anyone new to Winters very much, even though it is well written. But I don't suppose anyone who is new to Winters is going to shell out [money] for this book anyway. Yvor was a controversial poet and critic in the first half of the 20th century. He was a formalist poet and a stern, rationalist critic. He was a brilliant, if irascible, man, an erudite writer, and lofty poet. He made plenty of literary enemies and a few friends. He has a few followers left, and they will enjoy this book immensely. I learned a great deal about Winters along the way, and I cherished the opportunity to learn it about so great a thinker and writer. And I read him in an epistolary tone of voice I knew he had but never had the joy of reading. Every page was another one to savor. Particularly fun were the early letters, up till about 1940, in which Yvor was much more voluble than I ever thought he could have been. He became an embittered old coot by the end of his days, and it was sad to see, though I enjoyed every letter nonetheless. Thanks to Bob Barth for the effort put in bringing this to print. It is an especially handsome book about one of our greatest thinkers, who has been lost in obscurity for far too long.


Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English
Quest for Reality: An Anthology of Short Poems in English
by Yvor Winters
Edition: Paperback
22 used & new from $12.60

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Poems of All Time, November 28, 2000
Yvor Winters (1900-1968) decided to illustrate by example what he thought are the greatest poems ever written in English. So here they reside, 185 of them. A few, very few, will be well known to readers of poetry; most are puzzingly obscure. All but a handful (in my view) are so great that it takes one's breath away to read them. Reading them almost makes for mystical experiences. Among the poems that the common critics have missed but Winters found and championed to his dying day are Jonson's "To Heaven", Herbert's "Church Monuments", Very's "Thy Brother's Blood", Winters's own "To the Holy Spirit", and Bowers's "The Astronomers of Mont Blanc". There are many, many more, but these five are probably the greatest of the greats. This is, simply put, the greatest book of poetry ever published in English. If you love poetry, you must find or own a copy. Don't be surprised though. All but a few of the poems are in metrical verse, and they have almost nothing to do with modern "expressivism", the solipsitic "emoting" that passes for good poetry in the tiresome modern age. Here, not a word is wasted, not a phrase is trivial. Every syllable, every beat of every line, counts toward the rational understanding of the human mind and spirit and the proper adjusting of our emotions to that rational understanding. The book contains an excellent introductory essay by a Winters student, Kenneth Fields, who lays out the principles of selection briefly and incisively. In itself, that essay is one of the best introductions to poetry ever written and alone will be worth all the effort you make in finding this out-of-print book. Winters has done something here that every critic should: show us the results of his theories. What a great work of poetic literature.


The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1
by Edward Gibbon
Edition: Hardcover
49 used & new from $0.10

720 of 757 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stands with the Greatest Literature of All-Time, September 27, 2000
Obviously, if you're already here at this page considering Gibbon's great history, the greatest work of its kind in world literature, then you probably know quite a bit about it. What you're wondering is: Is it really worth reading? Will I enjoy reading it? Will it be worth the time I spend reading it? Will I learn anything vital for living my life? Damn good questions! The classics are tough to review, since there are thousands of reviews in all sorts of books and venues, and Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" has received its share of coverage. So here's what you need to know, in my opinion. First, Gibbon is a chore to read. The heavily stylized writing, each sentence constructed like a lovely portico in a magnificent Roman temple, is daunting, even for people who read classics all the time. But give yourself about two weeks of steady reading, and it will begin to click for you, and then you'll really start to love the style if you have any taste or discernment at all. Those elegantly multifarious sentences and paragraphs will begin to read like graceful passages of poetry in an expansive Homeric epic. Second, Gibbon has a mountain of interesting things to say, once you get accustomed to his periodic style. The best way to read this stuff is to read it like a collection of short stories or essays. Don't plunk yourself down one lonely night brave intending to read this overwhelmingly massive tome from start to finish in 6 months or a year. Your ship of Good Hope will soon founder on the rocks of the "Decline's" sheer volume and the unrelenting, exhausting high seriousness of Gibbon. Pick one emperor's story, a section, a few paragraphs even, and just enjoy that one passage, as though you were gazing on a little stained-glass window in some dim corner of a giant cathedral. Later, to get a first taste of the full depth and breadth of Gibbon's approach, take up the deservedly famous chapters on the origins of Christianity, Chapters 15 and 16 in Volume I. That will give you the feel for the mighty swell of his thought and the powerful turn of his ideas. Third, the break-up of the empire is just one of those topics it pays, in many ways and throughout your life of thought and inquiry, to know well. And Gibbon is the best guide, by far, because he has a knack for plot. As scholarly as his work is, Gibbon tells a mean story. It helps a great deal to have a neat summary of Roman imperial history at hand, perhaps one of those excellent books on Rome by Michael Grant, or the Encyclopedia Britannica articles on the Roman Empire, to get the overview you need to keep the narrative straight, so you can concentrate on Gibbon's lofty evaluation of the action and the social and political movements that sway it first one way and then another. So, you see, once you get the style down and you start to enjoy Gibbon's voice and his approach to concepts and argument, then you will really start to profit from knowing this history and Gibbon's presentation of it. It will greatly increase the depth of your understanding of politics, power, social movements, law, religion, ambition, evil, cruelty, human folly, and more. It is one of our greatest treatises, in my view, on human "sin" and misery, leavened with just a pinch, a sadly slight pinch, of sweet human loving-kindness. After all, the Roman Empire was the greatest experiment in the history of humankind in putting an end to our collective misery, with the creation and enforcement of the Pax Romana, the worldwide peace Rome sought to impose on its world for the supposed good of all who fell under her sway. O, the arrogance! Seeing how this great mission half succeeded for a time and then failed is highly instructive. Gibbon really makes you appreciate what the founders of the American Republic achieved, and the great thinkers and doers of American history knew all this stuff backwards. For them and their world, this history was one colossal cautionary tale comprising dozens of lesser cautionary tales. Surely, you can tell by now that I am urging you to read as much of the "Decline and Fall" as you can. It is great history, great writing, great story. It is one of our greatest pieces of literature, in that lofty league with Shakespeare and Dante and Milton and Goethe. It might be a smidgen greater even than their masterpieces, in my eyes. Gibbon's work is at the summit of what you must know to be a civilized and well-educated human being, to know deeply what it means to strive for a good world. But don't be hard on yourself if it takes a long time to get going and to start enjoying Gibbon. You're not alone in that. But the pay-off will almost surely be very satisfying. Please see my interpretation of the star ratings and my other current recommendations at my amazon site.
Comment Comments (16) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 22, 2015 5:36 PM PDT


The Invasion
The Invasion
by Janet Lewis
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.05
23 used & new from $8.05

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lovely Portrayal of North Country Indian and Frontier Life, September 22, 2000
This review is from: The Invasion (Paperback)
This book is more a chronicle than a novel, and wonderful it is to see it back in print. Janet Lewis wrote this account, imaginatively elaborated, of one of the most important families in the history of Michigan using the journals of John Johnston, the family patriarch, other family journals and memoirs, and personal interviews with members of the fourth generation Johnstons, whom Lewis knew as a girl. It is a superb read, nonetheless: rapt, poetic at times, historically accurate, elegant, and absorbing. It contains one of the finest depictions of Indian life ever written and certainly offers one of our finest portrayals of the "invasion" of Indian country by the fast encroaching Europeans in the late colonial period. Lewis's style is not for everyone, however. Her writing, as polished as it is elsewhere in her oeuvre, is a tad uneven in this, her first prose work (first published in 1932 by the excellent and now defunct Swallow Press). That's hard for me to say, since I love her novels and have long been one of their leading advocates. The narrative loses momentum and wobbles at times, and some characters are rather poorly sketched. Some scenes appear to be unfinished, dashed off, or ill-conceived. Her descriptive passages are, moreover, very intensely beautiful, almost imagistic. Lewis was a fine poet -- a very fine poet, I should say -- and her bent toward Imagism, as found in the poetry of Ezra Pound and many another leading poet in the first half of the 20th century, deeply influenced her narrative style. I love her passages of description, but I realize that not everyone takes to this sort of lyrical style. To sum things up, the novel is an account of the family of John Johnston, an Irishman who came to the wilderness around incredibly remote and rugged Lake Superior as a trader at the end of the 18th century. He married the daughter of an Ojibway "chief" (her nickname became Neengay), and established himself as one of the community elders in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, which was British at the time of his arrival in 1791, but became American in the War of 1812, an affair which plays a role in the story. Midway through the book, the narrative turns to the next generation of the Johnstons, John and Neengay's children, and later moves on the 20th-century Johnstons. It is astounding how quickly the world of the Indians changed, in less than 100 years, and the invasion that brought this change about is the main theme of Lewis's chronicle. In the opening, we read about John Johnston struggling to survive the winter in a small drafty cabin on the uninhabited western shores of Superior and in the end see the Soo Locks open and the Indians witnessing the once unimaginable event of long steamers coming up the once impassable rapids on the Saint Mary's River and entering Lake Superior. A number of important historical figures come into the account, such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Johnston's son-in-law, who used Neengay's stories to form the tales that Longfellow later used to write "Hiawatha" (a somewhat sad fate for the fascinating myths of the Ojibway), and Lewis Cass, who led an expedition across Superior in 1820 after visiting Johnston's outpost and eventually became the first governor of Michigan. There's plenty more to keep your interest, and the history is mostly accurate, so far as I am able to judge. In "Invasion", you will discover some of the most perceptive writings on the life of the northern Indians and the frontier, as well as explore the meaning of the invasion that forms its theme. I hope you will give Janet Lewis a try. Check out what the star ratings mean for me at my amazon site.


The Superior North Shore
The Superior North Shore
by Thomas F. Waters
Edition: Hardcover
36 used & new from $0.01

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Book on the Natural History of Superior, September 20, 2000
Of necessity, Tom Waters has had to tell the tale of Lake Superior as a whole to prepare for the main work of considering its wondrous north shore. Waters's direct, clear, and servicable writing is just about perfect for the job of covering both the natural and human history of the Lake and its diverse peoples. This, in my opinion, is the best book I've ever read about the Lake, and I've read a slew of them. I am one of the captains of a ferry boat that crosses the heart of the world's greatest lake every day during the summer, and, naturally, I've had many occasions to read about this wild inland sea. I learned a great deal in Waters's fine overview of the Lake and its past, especially about a topic I thought I would have little interest in -- the Lake Superior fishery, which crashed in the middle of last century. That Waters could make this subject (among the dozens of others he covers) entralling for a non-fisherman is a real testament to his skill as a writer. Tom is a fisheries specialist, so you'd think he's blow it when he came to his discipline, as often happens to writers of this sort, but the writing is at nearly perfect pitch throughout. Believe it or not for a book of natural history, I found Waters's book hard to put down, and not only because I'm a Lake Superior boy (having been working on the Greatest Lake since I was 15 years old). It's just flat-out well done, and the story has many an intersting twist and turn, from the slow pushing out of the Indians living around the Lake at the time of European settlement to the development of lumbering on the north shore. If you want to learn more about this incomparable international resource and its fascinating, if somewhat obscure, history, then start with this excellent book by Tom Waters. There are lovely pencil sketches by his wife in the book, too. And come visit us on Superior some day. It's just as spectacular as it was 100 years ago. (See my amazon site for information on what the rating stars mean for me and about lots of other books.)


The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (Poets on Poetry)
The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (Poets on Poetry)
by Thom Gunn
Edition: Paperback
9 used & new from $5.34

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Collection on Formalist and Modernist Poets, September 19, 2000
Thom Gunn is a wonderful poet and an incisive, elegant prose stylist. This collection of essays from the past 30 years or so is a fine overview of Gunn's chief interests and ideas. Three essays stand out. First, the essay on the poetry of Thomas Hardy is a brilliant discussion of that poet and novelist's melancholy, aching verse. I learned about several important poems that I had read before but that hadn't drawn my deep attention. Gunn's exegesis of those poems is stunningly erudite and useful. Second, Gunn's presentation on the poetry of Fulke Greville is insightful and deeply inspiring. The work of this fine 16th-century poet deserves to be better known. Yvor Winters tried his best to get Greville regarded as one of the greats, but Gunn has taken that work to the next level by lending his unquestionable credibility to an effort to get people to read the religious, philosophical poetry of Greville, who was chums with Sir Philip Sydney. Third, and best, is the deeply stirring memorial essay on Yvor Winters, the controversial critic who stormed around the American literary scene, mostly and sadly without much effect, in the first half of the last century. Gunn studied with Yvor at Stanford in the late 50s, and his depiction of the great and somewhat eccentric (perhaps "exceedingly intense" is a better phrase) poet and critic is first-rate, even if you don't a thing about Winters. There are a number of other distinguished essays in this book, and every piece offers at least some excellment commentary on a variety of writers, many of them modern favorites. Gunn has been a formalist poet most of his career, and one of the best in my judgment, though he has worked well in free verse, too. His understanding of poetry, from the viewpoint of one of the finest formalists of our time, is badly needed in this chaotic literary age. You will learn a great deal about poetry and formal poetry reading Gunn. Some people have been scared off from Gunn because he is an open (and almost nonchalantly open) homosexual who has written about the gay experience in his poetry, but don't permit the idea that Gunn is only a "gay" poet keep you from some of the best criticism written during the last 30 years. I am not gay, and I have learned a great deal about poetry and even religious poetry from Thom Gunn. We need a lot more critics like him, gay and straight. Give him a try, and don't pass up his poetry either.


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