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Ship of Magic (The Liveship Traders Book 1)
Ship of Magic (The Liveship Traders Book 1)
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $7.69

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic first book in the series, November 1, 2014
Wow, this was far better than I had been expecting. My introduction to Hobb came from reading the Fareer Trilogy about a year ago. While I definitely enjoyed that series, I also thought that it contained some flaws in plotting and characterization. Nonetheless, I liked it enough to want to read more from the author. I considered skipping this series and diving into the Tawny Man Trilogy, which deals with the main characters from the Farseer Trilogy. And, despite the stellar reviews I’d seen given to the Liveship Traders books, somehow the cover art created the impression of a cheap romance novel. But I decided to give it a go, and I’m ecstatic that I did.

Judging from this first book, the Liveship Traders promises to be a much more ambitious, mature, and epic series than Hobb’s first trilogy. While the Farseer Trilogy featured one primary character, a fairly small cast of secondary characters, and a relatively limited geographic scope, the Liveship Traders features about half-dozen central characters, numerous convergent plotlines, and multiple locales. It may not be quite as epic in scope as George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” but it shares many similarities with those books, namely the alternating point-of-view chapters, the political intrigue, and the suffering that the most likable characters have to endure.

The characterization is really top-notch. Almost all of the characters with point-of-view chapters are intricately drawn and sympathetic. Even the villainous characters are drawn in such a way that the reader can at least understand what motivates them. Despite the overall serious tone of the book, there are ample doses of humor, particular in the storyline featuring Kennit the pirate. As far as the fantasy elements are concerned: while I initially found the idea of living ships to be somewhat corny, by the end of the book I had totally bought into it.

These books are long: all I can say that if you find the characters and plot as compelling as I did, you won’t want the book to end. I’m looking forward to diving into the next book in the series.

The Circle
The Circle
by Dave Eggers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.74
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting ideas, weak characterization, February 12, 2014
This review is from: The Circle (Hardcover)
I see that the average rating at the time of this review is 3.5, which is about what I would give it. The novel deals with some interesting aspects of our social media-saturated world: its omnipresence, its possibly deleterious impact on privacy, and its effects on personal relationships. I found many of the innovations and technologies created by the titular company in the novel fairly compelling in their believability. For instance, I could see this idea of politicians recording themselves to demonstrate their "transparency" as something that might possibly catch on given the right combination of factors. Also, Eggers effectively conveys the implications of having some entity like The Circle, which in the novel combines a person's multiple online identities into one persona, achieve nearly complete penetration of our daily lives. The scene in which viewers around the world are able to quickly track down a fugitive from justice who had been on the run for years, based solely on an old photo, was a fascinating look at the possibilities contained in such a world.

Eggers also gives some clever and often humorous insight into how the possibility of instantaneous communication has made us increasingly impatient; in a few passages, the main character's inability to reply immediately to a text or message escalates quickly to the point of hostility and paranoia about why she hasn't responded. He also makes some valid points about the shallowness of Facebook "Likes" as a form of social protest, and the smugness of many people who don't seem to get that point.

My main problems with the novel pertain to characterization, starting with the main character, Mae, a twenty-something who has just started working at The Circle. I found her not only unsympathetic, but rather uninteresting. Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, Mae is a zealot, wholly committed The Circle's mission and philosophy. But she's an extremely boring zealot. She doesn't seem to have any internal conflicts regarding The Circle's mission and its effect on our lives. For example, her ex-boyfriend, who makes several appearances in the book, is clearly meant to be a sympathetic character, one of the few characters who expresses outright skepticism of and hostility to the world that The Circle is helping to create. When he voices his objections to Mae, she doesn't offer any compelling "Yes, but..." rebuttals to his arguments, and these discussions certainly don't create any sort of internal dialogue in her mind. Rather, she responds with childish arguments about how old-fashioned he is and tells herself how fortunate she is that she is no longer with this loser. Such people as Mae certainly exist, but they don't make particularly interesting main characters.

Another thing that I felt was missing was a broader examination of the larger world in which the novel takes place. The novel clearly alludes to trends and entities that exist in the contemporary world, yet it likely takes place sometime in the future, since these developments have progressed so far beyond today's context. There seems to be almost no social opposition to the very far-reaching power of The Circle. If such opposition exists, it is almost entirely outside the scope of the plot; as mentioned, Mae's ex is one of the few characters who actively voice opposition to the company. I can certainly imagine that many of the ideas promoted by The Circle would provoke substantial opposition today; something, then, must have happened between now and the time in which the novel takes place to mostly nullify such sources of opposition. But since the vast majority of the plot takes place within the company, we don't really get much of a look at this fictional America of the near future in which the overwhelming majority of people seem so willing to submit to the changes that The Circle is making to their lives.

Overall, I would still recommend the novel. It is a fairly quick read, so it doesn't require a huge time commitment. And as I mention, Eggers does raise some profound issues of great relevance today. I just felt that it could have been a much better novel if the characters had been more convincing.

The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria
The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria
by Brigitte Hamann
Edition: Paperback
Price: $25.51
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly readable portrait of a fascinating woman, October 9, 2013
I learned about this book a few weeks ago when reading Paul Lendvai's book "The Hungarians," which contains a chapter on Elisabeth, due to her support of Hungary's cause within the Hapsburg empire. I wouldn't normally be too interested in a subject like this; even though I love history, I've always been rather put off by our obsession with monarchs. But she sounded like a fascinating character, so I checked out the book, and am happy that I did so.

Not really knowing much about Elisabeth herself, I didn't have any expectations regarding the book's tone or the author's stance toward her subject. After the first few chapters, it seemed as if this was going to be a sympathetic portrait; Elisabeth was married into royalty at a very young age, forced to deal with an overly controlling mother-in-law, and found herself in a highly insular, arrogant royalist society in Vienna that was critical of her insufficient aristocratic credentials. Thus, it seemed as though this would be a fairly familiar, sympathetic tale of an idealistic young women struggling against the repressive social strictures of her time.

But the author takes an increasingly critical stance towards Elisabeth as the book progresses, revealing her neglect of her two older children, her extravagant travels and hobbies, her single-minded support of Hungary at the expense of other nationalities in the empire, and her chilly relations with her husband. The book contains so many fascinating, often horrifying nuggets of information: the one that sticks in my mind is Elisabeth's "adoption" of a young black boy (the author uses the term "blackamoor," which I had to look up) as a playmate for her youngest daughter. She does it not out of any progressive ideal of racial equality, but merely to provoke the stuffy, conservative members of the Vienna court. I chuckled out loud when the author relates the lengths Elisabeth would go to avoid paying calls on Queen Victoria during her equestrian visits to England. During her lengthy travels in Greece and Italy in her later years, she would often apparently invite herself into random peasants' houses.

But this book doesn't merely contain interesting anecdotes; Hamann astutely analyzes the key political and social developments that affected Austria-Hungary during Elisabeth's life. A good biography should not only explore the psychology and motivations of its subject, but say something interesting about the broader social environment in which the subject lived, and Hamann does this superbly. As a biographer, she is critical of her subject when criticism is warranted, but sympathetic to the constraints and pressures that Elisabeth was subject to.

Finally, I've had problems before with translated books, but the translation here is excellent, and the prose flows very smoothly.

The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat
The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat
by Paul Lendvai
Edition: Paperback
Price: $32.57
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and informative national history, September 24, 2013
This is a highly entertaining and informative history of the Hungarian nation. Lendvai traces the history of the Hungarians from their arrival in the Danube basic up to the present day. The format is essentially chronological: each chapter deals with a major episode of Hungarian history, and introduces a couple of important, colorful characters who played important roles in the events of that period. As I'm more of a modern history fan, the book became progressively more interesting to me as it entered the 20th century. I thought that Lendvai's chapters on the fascist and communist regimes were superb. It's no surprise that he dedicates much of the communist chapter to the 1956 uprising; even though this story has been told before, Lendvai provides an interesting perspective on the factors that led to the uprising and the main political figures involved in it. Fans of ancient medieval history and the Hapsburg era will undoubtedly enjoy those chapters.

A couple of themes run like threads throughout the course of the book. One is the perception of outsiders towards the Hungarians, specifically the various stereotypes of Hungarians that have predominated over the years, and how Hungarians themselves have reacted to those stereotypes. Another is the tension throughout Hungarian history between ethnic nationalism and the contributions of other nationalities to Hungarian history. Lendvai provides an interesting anecdote how under the Horthy regime many people rushed to determine their ancestry, mainly to avoid being subject to anti-Jewish measures. A startlingly large number of Hungarians found that they often had Jewish, German, Slavic, or other ancestors. Lendvai argues that ethnic chauvinism cannot be the basis for a robust Hungarian patriotism, and that ethnic "others" have always played a central role in the development of the Hungarian nation (an argument that could undoubtedly be applied to many other modern nation-states).

A concluding chapter discusses the disproportionately huge number of Hungarians who have contributed to science and art in the US and Europe. He gives some fascinating profiles here, and I was surprised to learn of the Hungarian background of various people whom I had heard of, although at times it felt like too much name-dropping. Also, this is decidedly a male-dominated history: about the only women who are discussed in detail are members of the Hapsburg family (namely Maria Theresa and Empress Elisabeth). I suppose this is unavoidable to some extent, given the weak position of women in Eastern European society until recent times, but I still felt that there had to be some fascinating Hungarian women who had interesting stories to tell that weren't featured here. The only other concern I had was about the editing, which is quite terrible in places: I'm not one to usually complain about editing, but it genuinely affected my ability to get into the flow of the story at times.

War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration
War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration
by Jozo Tomasevich
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $81.00
23 used & new from $76.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Most comprehensive account of topic, September 24, 2013
The Yugoslav front during WWII (and the same probably applies to the war in southeastern Europe in general) is a relatively understudied subject. The author points out near the end that, after the Polish and Soviet fronts, it was the bloodiest theater of war in Europe. Tomasevich has provided the most comprehensive account of the topic in his multi-volume study; this book focuses on the regimes that collaborated with the German and Italian occupiers, his first work looked at the Chekist movement that arose in Belgrade, while a third book that was planning to analyze the Partisans was unfortunately not completed before the author's death.

This book is nearly 800 dense pages, and examines nearly every aspect of the collaborationist regimes. The bulk of the focus is on the Ustasha regime in Croatia, but there are also chapters on the collaborationist administrations in Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Montenegro. Regarding the Ustasha regime, there are separate chapters on the movement's rise to power, their relations with the occupying powers, the atrocities committed against civilians on Croatian territory, the (sometimes nefarious) role of religious institutions during the war, and economic exploitation by the occupying powers. There is also a separate chapter on the destruction of Yugoslav Jews, as well as a couple of historical background chapters in the beginning. Throughout the entire book he provides copious, detailed footnotes, some of which are as interesting in their own right as the main text.

One interesting thread that runs through the book, and to which Tomasevich devotes a chapter near the end, is the role of nationalist historiography. Partisans on every side have had a tendency to exaggerate the atrocities committed against members of their own national group while downplaying excesses committed by their own forces. Tomasevich does an admirable job parsing through the biased accounts and providing objective estimates of the number of casualties on all sides. In my opinion, despite his own ties to the region Tomasevich does not display any overt bias towards any of the participants in this tragic tale: he is willing to place blame on all actors who deserve it, but not afraid to point out when one side deserves more blame than the other.

This is not a quick read, and not only because of the length. This is not a critique of the author's writing style, which is excellent, but a realization that this is very much a straightforward, by the numbers historical account. One thing that is lacking is any first-hand accounts of the various tragedies that are discussed, via diaries, memoirs, witness testimony, etc. I can certainly understand this omission: this book is nearly 800 pages (not including the bibliography), he wrote another long book about the Chekists, and was in the process of writing a third book about the Partisans. It would have simply been too overwhelming to include such accounts. But it does mean that many atrocities are related in a somewhat clinical fashion, and it is hard to get a feel for the human dimension of life during the period.

Overall, Tomasevich's work is probably the place to start for those seeking a factual account of Yugoslavia during WWII.

Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream
Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dream
by Gregg Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.14
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting albeit partial look at America's war in the Philippines, March 18, 2013
In the prologue, author Gregg Jones points out that despite his love of history as a youngster, he never learned about America's campaign in the Philippines until his twenties. It was a good way to place the story to come in a broader context, because he is right: even more so than most pre-WWII history, this episode of American history is largely forgotten. And that's somewhat surprising, because I was struck by how many of the questions provoked by the Philippines campaign are identical to those raised in debates over America's recent wars: the ethics of harsh interrogation methods, including one method that would later be known as water boarding; the necessity of using harsh tactics against an "uncivilized" enemy; the obligation to spread "American values" around the world and questions over nation-building. These were all central to the heated debate over US intervention in the Philippines, and even though Jones himself doesn't draw attention to the parallels with current wars, except for a brief mention in the Introduction, the parallels are there for anyone to see.

I'd say that the subject matter in the book could roughly be divided into two themes: the actions of American soldiers in the Philippines, and the domestic debate between the expansionists and anti-imperialists over US involvement in the Philippines. For me, the latter theme was more interesting and Jones does a better job with it than he does with the actual Philippines stuff. He does a good job explaining the major themes of both sides of the argument, as well as the key figures in both movements. And then later, as Jones describes, the domestic debate turned to allegations of brutality and excessive force on the part of US soldiers. As for the Philippines sections, they were so-so. There were vivid retellings of a particularly infamous massacre of American troops by Filipino guerrillas, and of a foolhardy attempt by a group of American marines to march on foot from one end of a jungle island to the other. And the discussion of the harsh counter-insurgency tactics used by American troops was instructive.

But I feel that the Philippines and Filipinos themselves are not really given voices here. We don't really learn anything about the history of the islands before the ouster of the Spanish by the Americans. We don't hear first-hand accounts of Filipino experiences of the American occupation. All the American characters, on the other hand, even the ones accused of some pretty nasty stuff, are given character arcs: they have nicknames, family histories, personalities, etc. I realize that Jones' book is supposed to be primarily about the domestic debate over imperialism, but I still wish he had provided a bit more historical context on the Philippines and provided some more context to explain the motivations and actions of Filipinos.

And just a couple of minor criticisms: there is a long section at the beginning about the American-Spanish conflict in Cuba. I understand that the Cuban events triggered by the sinking of the Maine are essential to what happened in the Philippines. But Jones spends practically three chapters recounting the battles between Americans and Spaniards on Cuba. These battle sequences, as exciting as they might be, don't really have much to do with the later chapters on the Philippines and could have been shortened. Second, the book basically ends in 1904, when Roosevelt is reelected and the public debate over US actions in the Philippines largely recedes. But stuff continued to happen there. Jones tells us briefly in the Epilogue that there was an enormous massacre of Filipino rebels by US troops in 1906 on the island of Mindanao, in which nearly 1000 people were slaughtered. This seems like a sufficiently significant event that it should have garnered longer treatment than a brief mention in the epilogue.

Despite the criticisms, the book is worth reading as an illuminating account of a largely-forgotten episode in US foreign policy that contains numerous parallels to more recent events.

Pale Fire (Everyman's Library (Cloth))
Pale Fire (Everyman's Library (Cloth))
by Vladimir Nabokov
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.67
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, January 16, 2013
A darkly hilarious yet sad story, Pale Fire has two primary characters: John Shade, an American poet and professor at a generic liberal arts college, and Charles Kinbote, a professor of Zemblan nationality at the same college. Kinbote writes the introduction, informing readers that Shade has recently died, and that Kinbote is in possession of Shade's final poem, written shortly before his death. Readers get a sense in the short introduction of Kinbote's paranoia and the ambiguity surrounding Shade's death and the poet's real relationship to Kinbote.

We then read Shade's poem, which touches on the poet's childhood, his marriage, his daughter's suicide, and his attempts to come to grips with his daughter's death and his own mortality. The remainder of the book, about ¾ of the total text, contains Kinbote's notes on the poem. And it is in this section that Kinbote's paranoia, egoism, and delusions of grandeur that we glimpsed in the introduction are given full expression. Far from a faithful exegesis of the poem's text, the notes are filled with absurd references to Kinbote's native land, and particularly the plight of its exiled king following a revolution.

And oh, what a fantastical creation this Zembla is! Somewhere between Denmark and Russia (interestingly, when Kinbote often provides Zemblan translations of lines from the poem, the translations include both Germanic and Slavic-looking words), it is a land full of brown-bearded, apple-cheeked men, freckled blonde women, lascivious mountain girls, a people with a habit of committing regicide, where pederasty seems to be an accepted national custom, and with a language so rich it contains a word meaning "uncontrollable fear caused by elves." Most of the reviews here acknowledge Nabokov's brilliant parody of pretentious academic writing and literary criticism, but equally brilliant is his satire of arcane national folklore and the overly romanticized nostalgia for homeland expressed by many exiles.

The sharp humor comes not only in these passages about Zembla, but in Kinbote's social awkwardness (he states that "My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease" after relating some cringeworthy social encounter) and his attempts to put an artistic glean on his despicable actions (he spies on his neighbor Shade through binoculars, pointing out that "Windows, as well known, have been the solace of first-person literature throughout the ages.") As the notes progress, we learn more about the circumstances of Shade's death and the real identity of Kinbote, but the text is so layered that many questions remain unanswered after a first reading.

Ultimately, this book wouldn't be a classic if it was all brains, but no heart. And while the sections written by Kinbote are a brilliant satirical look at a demented mind, Shade's poem provides the emotional heart of the story. And in fact, it is Kinbote's revolting treatment of the poem, his attempts to make the poem about himself while basically ignoring the emotionally wrenching parts about Shade's daughter and his relationship with his wife, that make Kinbote such a repellant character.

Judgment Before Nuremberg: The Holocaust in the Ukraine and the First Nazi War Crimes Trial
Judgment Before Nuremberg: The Holocaust in the Ukraine and the First Nazi War Crimes Trial
by Greg Dawson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.73
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting if somewhat unstructured book about the Holocaust in Ukraine, May 14, 2012
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in the Holocaust in general and more specifically the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union. But I do think the title of the book is somewhat misleading. It implies that this is a book-length treatment of the mostly forgotten Nazi war crimes trial in Kharkov. In fact, looking at the two parts of the book's subtitle - the Holocaust in Ukraine AND the war crimes trial in Kharkov - the book is mostly about the former. The actual trial itself is given fairly short shrift here, mainly recounted in the book's final several chapters. And for me personally, those chapters were the weakest - larded down with extensive quotes from previous works and lacking Dawson's voice, which was so powerful and insightful in the earlier chapters. So, while I think Dawson does a service in bringing this trial to our attention (especially since the Kharkov trial had an impact on the subsequent Nuremberg trial), the actual Kharkov trial is a springboard for Dawson to talk about other Holocaust-related themes that interest him, and this is where the book is at its most powerful.

In the first part of the book, Dawson recounts the process through which he became interested in the Holocaust. As he recounts in his other book, which I haven't read yet but hope to, his mother and aunt survived the extermination of the Jews of Kharkov, hence his interest in Ukraine. Dawson tells how he didn't even learn about his mother's history until he was an adult. This discovery about his mother's past prompted him to visit Ukraine, and learn more about the Holocaust there, which occurred well before the gas chambers were built and in which the vast majority of victims were killed by bullets. Throughout the first part of the book, there are stand-alone chapters on a variety of themes, including an interesting critique of Tarantino's "Inglorious Bastards" and an analysis of Martin Luther's antisemitism. The chapters are untitled and the book is somewhat unstructured, but Dawson is a good writer and he brings a blend of personal connection to the topics he addresses.

One of the recurrent themes throughout the book is the general public's ignorance regarding the Holocaust in this part of the world. One excellent example he gives of this is an NBC News story that came out following the release of Patrick Desbois's book, "The Holocaust by Bullets." The book was remarkable for gathering testimony from witnesses to Nazi shootings throughout Ukraine and for locating mass graves, but the general facts that the Nazis shot hundreds of thousands of Jews in Ukraine was hardly new. But the NBC News story treated the book as if it had unearthed a previously unknown episode of the Holocaust. Dawson also reveals the overall ignorance of the Holocaust in Ukraine that he encounters when giving talks during book tours. If I had one complaint about this part of the book, it is that Dawson seems to focus too specifically on the uniqueness of the Holocaust in Ukraine per se. For example, he recounts how he would often give quizzes to audiences prior to his talks, in which one of the questions he asked was, "In what country did the first mass executions of Jews occur?" The answer he is looking for is "Ukraine" and he finds it remarkable how few people get it right. Now, I agree with him completely about the overall lack of public knowledge regarding the Holocaust, and particularly the Holocaust on the Eastern Front. But there are many reasons why people might not answer "Ukraine" in response to that question, one of which is that I don't think it is unambiguously true that that is where Jews were first killed en masse. Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus were invaded by the Nazis at the same time as Ukraine was invaded, and Jews in those places immediately felt the Nazis' wrath. For that matter, Poland was invaded two years earlier, and although it wouldn't be until later that they were systematically exectued, there WERE certainly some mass killings of Jews there in the early period of the Nazi occupation.

But Dawson is absolutely correct about his larger point of Americans' ignorance regarding Nazi policies in occupied Soviet territory, and he does a service in this book and in his lectures by bringing attention to the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union. So, I would certainly recommend Dawson's book. He is not a historian or academic, so he doesn't uncover new material here. But he does write with a fresh, authentic voice, and his own family's connection to the Holocaust in Ukraine is a remarkable one.

Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson)
Means of Ascent (The Years of Lyndon Johnson)
by Robert A. Caro
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.03
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 87 votes that changed history, May 3, 2012
I read "The Path to Power" a couple of years ago, and though I loved it, I just never got around to the second book. But with all the recent publicity surrounding the release of Caro's fourth installment in the LBJ series, I decided to pick up "Means of Ascent." Just reading the preface, which fast forwards to the Johnson presidency and gives a moving and dramatic narrative of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, I remembered many of Caro's stylistic elements and storytelling ability that I loved so much from the first book. The first part of the book depicts LBJ as a member of the House, simply one of 435 members, with little prospect of advancement within the lower house to positions that carried the power he so craved. Part of the time period covered here includes WWII, and Caro provides a detailed, and at times amusing, account of Johnson's war service, a theme that Johnson himself played up again and again in future election campaigns. As one might expect from a politician, and especially an ambitious and ends-driven politician of the sort Caro made Johnson out to be in "The Path to Power," the claims he made about his endeavors during the war did not always dovetail with what those who served with him recall.

Readers of the first book recognized that Caro's series is most certainly not a hagiography. The impression I get of Caro's feelings towards LBJ is a combination of loathing, fascination, and admiration. Caro writes at length how LBJ verbally abused not only his subordinates, but his wife Lady Bird, and not only in private, but in public, in front of friends, reporters, and anybody within earshot. He also briefly returns to a topic that was covered more extensively in "The Path to Power," Johnson's alleged affair with a Texas society lady, Alice Glass. The fascination and admiration are evident in Caro's depiction of how Johnson was able to "bend men to his will," a phrase that reappears over and over again. It's evident that Caro is somewhat repelled by this trait, but also realizes that such a trait might be essential to accumulating the kind of power that Johnson attained.

The bulk of this book, probably the final 2/3 of it, covers Johnson's 1948 bid for the Senate. And for readers thinking that a 250+ page narrative of a single senatorial election campaign sounds less than thrilling, set aside your doubts, because Caro's account of the 1948 Texas senatorial election is some of the most thrilling political writing I have ever read. And I'll be honest; although I follow politics pretty closely, most of this was new to me, a sign that the story of this election has largely disappeared from public consciousness. Caro builds a strong case that Johnson's razor-thin victory was achieved through outright fraud orchestrated by a local political boss in southern Texas. Caro's depiction of the various political bosses who ruled over their own fiefdoms south of San Antonio near the Rio Grande was probably the most fascinating part of the book for me, because it was largely new to me. Of course I was aware of the existence of political machines in the United States well into the 20th century, but one usually associates the American political machine with cities, and with ethnic neighborhoods within big cities that turned out to the polls and voted in blocs. And true enough, Johnson relied on political machines in the Mexican-American and African-American parts of San Antonio and Corpus Christi to give him comfortable pluralities. But the most blatant manipulation was carried out in largely rural counties by a local boss named George Parr. The most amazing scene in the book for me was when Coke Stevenson, former Texas governor and Johnson's opponent, went down to this small town in southern Texas to demand to see the ballot box which had mysteriously given LBJ an extra 200 votes six days after the election and gave Johnson the victory. Stevenson was accompanied by a former Texas ranger and a couple of lawyers, and walking down the street, the "posse" was watched closely on all sides by Parr's pistol-wielding enforcers. It was a scene out of Tombstone or Deadwood, and yet it occurred in mid-20th century America.

I have seen criticism of Caro's favorable, almost reverential treatment of Stevenson. Caro certainly seems enamored with Stevenson's fascinating life story, of a frontier boy who persevered with sweat and hard work to make himself something out of nothing. And it is a fascinating story. And Stevenson was a genuinely fascinating personality. The critics are possibly correct, though, that Caro skips over some of Stevenson's less appealing traits, such as his support of segregation (I can recall one brief reference to his racism). But overall, if you enjoyed "The Path to Power," you will most likely enjoy the second book in Caro's series. Even if you haven't read the first book, Caro's retelling of the 1948 senate race could almost be read on its own terms. And at a little over 400 pages of text, it is relatively small compared to the other installments in Caro's series, and a fairly quick read.

Travels in Siberia
Travels in Siberia
by Ian Frazier
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting travelogue, January 1, 2011
This review is from: Travels in Siberia (Hardcover)
I was torn between a 3 and 4 star rating for this book. I ultimately chose the latter because I realized that, despite some of the problems I personally had with the book, it is still a worthwhile read and definitely of value to those looking for some background reading on Siberia. This book is based on four separate trips that Frazier made to Siberia. The first of these was a short trip to the Chukotka Peninsula, across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The second and longest of these trips was a 7-week trip by car from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. The third of these was a winter trip to the Baikal region and northwards to Yakutia and some former prison labor camps. Finally, Frazier made a short trip to Novosibirsk that is described in the concluding section of the book.

The trans-Siberian road trip that Frazier took in 2001 is definitely the core and the highlight of the book. It's also the first Russian travelogue book I've personally come across that featured such a cross-country car ride, so it offers a very unique perspective. Frazier travels with two Russian companions, and much of the narrative involves the various car troubles that they experienced along the way. Frazier also does a nice job describing the changing scenery and landscape as they move eastwards across the Eurasian continent. The most fascinating part for me was when, somewhere east of Chita, the road ended, and they had to load their car onto a train for an agonizingly slow journey to the site where the road resumed. Frazier's third trip to the Russian north in winter also contains some interesting scenes, including drives on an ice road on Lake Baikal and along a prisoner-made road in Yakutia. Frazier's initial Siberian trip, to Chukotka, also takes him to some fascinating out-of-the-way places. Frazier is an enjoyable guide, although he does tend to engage in a bit too much of the generalizing that is common to the travelogue genre. I had several deeper problems with the book, however.

First, Frazier candidly admits that his Russian was not particularly good, especially during his first two journeys. On the one hand, I appreciate his honesty. Having traveled in Russia myself with only an intermediate knowledge of the language, I could certainly sympathize with his multiple references to awkward conversations that he was unable to completely follow. On the other hand, however, his impressions and credibility as a guide are obviously imperfect, as he simply wasn't able to engage many ordinary Russians on a deep basis. There was one scene where he and his companions made a stop at a resort type place near Irkutsk and the woman in charge started complaining about all the trash that people had thrown on the ground. Frazier makes a flippant comment about how they tried to get away from her. But he had made about 20 references earlier in the book to all the trash that he saw at campgrounds and along the side of the road. Considering that he had deemed it important enough to keep referring to, I kind of would have liked to know what the woman had to say about it. But he either couldn't understand what she said or didn't consider it worth relating. And I was especially put off by a section late in the book when, despite his admittedly intermediate knowledge of the language, he goes off on a spiel about how the Russian language shapes its speakers' worldview.

Second, as some of the other reviewers here have pointed out, this often feels more like a history book than a travel memoir. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; Frazier tells a lot of fascinating stories about very interesting places. But one gets the sense sometimes that he is more interested in a place's past than in its current residents. This can be seen in his description of places like Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk. Basically the only thing he has to write about Yekaterinburg, a city of 1 million plus people, is a retelling of the last days and murder of Tsar Nicholas and his family. But this story has been told many times already, and Frazier doesn't really add anything new. Similarly, he writes about 10 pages on the Decembrists, but only about a paragraph describing present day Irkutsk. This leads me to a related problem I had, namely that his Russian companions apparently tried to avoid cities at all costs, or at least minimize the amount of time they spent in them. I can certainly understand why they would want to do this, as they were on a fairly strict budget and calendar. But it was annoying when Frazier would occasionally make some passing judgment on a city that he admittedly spent only an hour driving through. For example, describing their trip through Perm, he makes an oblique comment to the effect that he now understood the plot of Chekhov's Three Sisters, which I can only assume was a reference to the city's drabness. But since a majority of present day Siberians live in these types of cities, it seemed like a silly remark.

Also, I saw another reviewer note Frazier's frequent references to the beauty of Russian women. That reviewer had called it sexist. I don't think there is anything sexist about it, but it does get somewhat annoying, and after the fifth or sixth reference you start to wonder if you're reading the travel memoir of some undergrad doing his junior year abroad. Fortunately these references aren't quite so numerous as to detract from Frazier's genuinely excellent historical narratives and geographic descriptions.

I would definitely recommend this book for those who are unfamiliar with Siberia or Russian history in general. You will find this book chock full of interesting information, and Frazier is a good storyteller. Those who already have some decent background knowledge of these subjects probably won't learn much new here, although they still might find value in Frazier's visits to some very remote and interesting locales.

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