Posts filed under 'Book Reviews'

August 2007 Read

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During the Second World War, in one of his many letters to English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt quipped, “It is fun to be in the same decade with you.” When Neville Chamberlain offered his resignation to King George VI in 1939, the king asked Chamberlain to name his successor, as was customary. Chamberlain immediately recommended Churchill for the job. As John Keegan puts forth in his 2002 biography, Winston Churchill, it was perhaps the best decision by any member of the Allied governments during the war. Churchill was the only head of state who recognized Hitler and what he represented immediately. He warned against Hitler’s repeated promises of “last territorial demand” as he crossed into one sovereign country’s border after another. It was Churchill who offered hope and steely resolve to the British people when they quite literally stood alone against what had rapidly become the strongest military the world had ever known.

Churchill, a poor academic student, wanted to live a military life from an early age. It took him three tries before gaining admittance to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He saw action in what is now Pakistan, as well as the Sudan and South Africa. To augment his military pay he became a war correspondent, offering his accounts to various British newspapers. Captured during the Second Boer War in Pretoria, he managed to escape from his prison camp, and found his way back to England. The trek made him a national celebrity, and also served to open the door to politics.

Keegan describes Churchill’s incredible strength prior to and during World War II, and his unwavering belief that democracy would England and her allies would prevail. Keegan puts particular emphasis on Churchill’s speeches, which are heralded as some of the greatest of all time, and provides a comprehensive picture of Churchill as politician, writer, soldier, husband, war leader, and ultimately as a man.

You can find more information about Churchill at The Churchill Centre.

Add comment August 1st, 2007

April 2007 Read

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Love. Sex. Betrayal. Scandal. Taboo. All the ingredients for a great story. This month’s read is no exception. What makes it so interesting is that it is all true. At the end of the 18th century, England and France were engaged in a global conflict that spanned three continents and every ocean. India was a colonial province of both superpowers, with both governments vying for the right to call India there own. For the British officers who served in India during this time, the allure of the people, customs, and women in particular was endearing for most, and particularly enticing for many. In William Dalrymple’s White Mughals, this mutual attraction is told through the story of a British officer and young Indian princess. From the fields of Yorkshire to the gardens of Hyderabad, here is this month’s read.

India is a vast country of different cultures and sub-cultures, multiple languages and dialects, varying geography, and competing religions in Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The Mughals, a Muslim dynasty which ruled India from 1526 to 1858, lived in and fostered a society rich in architecture, arts, literature, and cultural diversity. Western Europeans had very limited exposure to and contact with this country up until the Portuguese began navigating the waters off southeastern India in the early 1500′s. Over the next 250 years the British and French made various attempts to ingratiate themselves into India culture and politics, with varying degrees of success. By the end of the 18th century, the two superpowers had broad designs on global domination, and the British, through the East India Company, made a concerted effort to thwart the French’s similar efforts within India’s complicated political landscape.

William Dalrymple’s “White Mughals” tells the true story James Kirkpatrick, an officer for the East India Company stationed in the Indian city of Hyderabad. As the title suggests, Kirkpatrick was a “White Mughal,” one of the many British soldiers and Company men who completely ingratiated themselves in Indian culture. Through extensive research of handwritten journals, letters, Company accounts, and books – many of which were written only in sanskrit – Dalrymple provides a detailed picture of what day-to-day life was like. This description extends to things like how the typical Indian household was managed, the design of and use of gardens, food preparation and cooking, sexual attitudes and mores, architectural styles, and much more. It also does a good job of illustrating the political landscape in which both the French and the British had to operate and attempt to advance their own interests. For a White Mughal, the fact that he immersed himself so deeply into the culture while at the same time serving as an officer in the Empire presented unique challenges.

But the most interesting pieces of the book center on the love affair and subsequent marriage between Kirkpatrick and a young Muslim princess, Khair un-Nissa. Through the spyglass of history, most people would see such a union as taboo, if not altogether scandalous from the 19th century viewpoint of both the British and the Indian Muslim perspectives (Kirkpatrick not only took Khair un-Nissa, a relative of the region’s prime minister, as his lover, but even converted to Islam to marry her). However, Dalrymple goes through great pains to provide many examples of how this type of “crossing over” and cultural mixing was not unheard of and, in many cases, encouraged before the British expansionist movement in India.

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Add comment March 28th, 2007

March 2007 Read

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As the 19th century drew to a close, the word “Panama” was synonymous with failure. The French, amid scandals and financial ruin for throngs of public investors, had ceased operations to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Thousands of workers had already died on “the Isthmus”, great fortunes had been made and lost, and the entire nation of France looked upon the whole affair as a stain of dishonor on the entire French people. Yet the promise of a canal beckoned. With Theodore Roosevelt now in the White House, the United States began its own effort, picking up where the French left off. In David McCullough’s Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, the story of how one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of man is told. From the White House to the jungles of Central America, here is this month’s read.

In the late 19th century, the desire for a means of traversing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via an aquatic “bridge” was not a new idea.  From the earliest New World expeditions, the benefits of not having to circumnavigate what would become known as Cape Horn were well understood.  However, it was the California gold rush of 1848 that put the issue in immediate economic terms.  One of the greatest “enabling technologies” of modern history was the Panama Railroad, built to serve traffic across what was then a remote territory of Colombia.  In fact, before the railroad was built, numerous stagecoach companies sprang up to carry people and cargo back and forth from ships sailing to and from San Francisco and those serving the eastern United States and Europe.The first serious effort to understand what it would take to build a water canal to replace the railroad was undertaken by the French, specifically, Ferdinand de Lesseps. De Lesseps was part of the team that built the Suez Canal, and a hero of France for the engineering and commercial success of that project.  According to David McCullough in his magnificent Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, it was the perception of de Lesseps and many of his colleagues that they already had a firm grasp of the scope of the Panama project, even before making a survey of the land itself.  The reasons for this vary from intellectual pride to greed, but nonetheless the French team was able to raise enormous funds from numerous public offerings for the project.  After years of toil and financial intrigue, de Lesseps and the company he built for the undertaking eventually went bankrupt, leaving the way clear for other superpowers to consider involvement.  McCullough makes very plain that the individual will and vision of newly elected president Teddy Roosevelt, more than any other American, drove the United States to pick up the existing infrastructure, machinery, railroad, and vast quantities of material already on the ground in Panama for a bargain.  Years later, it is clear that he even indirectly pushed for the revolution that removed Panama from Colombian rule and brought the new country within America’s influence.

The story of how the canal project was actually executed is a very complex one.  More than 20,000 men died during the four decades of surveying, excavation and construction.  Fortunes were made and lost.  McCullough does his usual magic of telling this extraordinary story in terms that are not only thorough, but exciting and interesting to read.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

February 2007 Reads

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Most people believe that World War II was largely the result of the “bad peace” negotiated at the end of World War I. Much unwarranted blame has been laid at the feet of Woodrow Wilson and his peers for the series of events which followed the truce signed by all parties in 1918. It is important to remember that most of the world turned a blind eye to Germany’s rise to war between 1933-1938. But a true appreciation of what happened cannot be gained without a thorough review of the first great conflict, the “War to end all Wars”, and the events leading up to August 1914. In this month’s read, we look at The First World War by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson.

The dawn of the 20th century found Europe under the influence of a variety of changes. Germany’s military and industrial juggernaut had firmly established itself as the dominant force on the continent. France still held bitter resentment towards Germany as a result of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which signaled the gradual rise of German power. However, given that relative peace had reigned over Europe for more than two decades, the various monarchs expected more of the same: little to no aggression towards one another, industrialization and modernization, and so on. However, changes which occurred during this period had laid the foundation for a much different century.Many scholars point to the web of alliances that spanned the continent as the primary cause of what became known as World War I. However, as masterfully laid out in the Introduction of The First World War by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, alliances have rarely ever been honored by countries when it conflicts with their true national goals and priorities. A strong case can be made that the true origin of the conflict can be found in Germany’s imperialistic ambitions. When viewed in this context, the “war to end all wars” perhaps was only a matter of time given that an entire generation of Germany’s entire military institution was trained for implementation of the “Schlieffen Plan”- the invasion plan for France first conceived by Germany’s hero of the Franco-Prussian War, Alfred von Schlieffen. Schlieffen’s overall strategy was to support the countering of a joint attack. His premise was that when (it was not really an “if” in the mind of the German general military staff) war broke out again with France, it was absolutely vital to kill off the French war machine in a lightning manner, before her allies Russia and England could rally to her defense. As France had a series of massive forts on their mutual border, his plan called for the bulk of Germany’s forces to simply move through Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg around the defensive wall. The French forces would be caught in a pinch as other forces would press the French from the east. The remainder of Germany’s army would stop any proposed advance from Russia. When Helmut von Moltke replaced Schlieffen as chief of staff in 1906, Moltke modified the plan slightly to press directly across Flanders (modern day Belgium) and Luxembourg only.

On August 2nd, 1914, the plan was put into effect. The Belgian army, in a heroic effort that most likely salvaged the entire war for the Allies, stalled the German advance long enough for the French army to re-organize its defenses, and for the British to deploy an initial force across the channel. In a theme to be played out many times for both sides, things were made worse by the Germans overextending their forward troops- essentially they did such a good job of driving forward that they exhausted their ability to maintain momentum as supply lines lagged far behind. Together with an unexpectedly strong push by the Russians along the eastern Prussian front, the modified Schlieffen Plan was thwarted. A mad dash for the sea ensued over the next few weeks as both sides began to entrench their lines from the Swiss border all the way to the English channel.

Still, all across the military and political spectrum of both sides with little exception, everyone expected a short war that would be “over by Christmas”. Instead, the world was introduced to the brutality of trench warfare and stalemate all along the western front, with death counts in the millions. Russia was absolutely devastated which contributed, in some measure, to the Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the tsar in favor of the socialists. By late 1917 the United States, a British and French ally, was bringing hundreds of thousands of troops (the infamous “doughboys) to the field each day. An armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. Many believe that the treaty signed at Versailles illustrated the French and British desire to punish the Germans still further. However, Prior and Wilson make a good case that Germany was in fact not punished enough, that the German industrial machine was left virtually untouched.

The First World War is an excellent introduction to the conflict, its roots, and its aftermath. With liberal use of illustrations, maps and vintage photographs, the book offers a concise history of the subject, and feeds a desire to discover more about individual topics.

Further Reading

Two other great books on the subject include The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and The First World War by John Keegan. Jeff Shaara’s recent historical novel, To the Last Man, offers an interesting perspective from both sides. The Web also offers three very good sources for articles, maps, timelines, photos, and even some vintage video. They include PBS’s site (, the BBC’s site (, and Michael Duffy’s personal site (

Add comment March 28th, 2007

January 2005 Read

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Howard Zinn is perhaps best known for his landmark 1980 book A People’s History of the United States which offers a chronicle of American history from Columbus through Clinton’s presidency through the eyes of “the street, the home, and the workplace.” This popular book pokes holes in traditional history’s treatment of events and people and is, if nothing else, a unique perspective on our nation’s formation and rise to power. Here is this month’s read.

Originally published in 1980, Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States tells the story of America from a grass-roots level. Zinn, a historian and social activist whose other books include You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, and The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, maintains that traditional American history is very one-sided because it is presented from the perspective of the powerful- from the first Spanish conquerors to modern-day capitalist aristocrats. As an alternative, Zinn provides a storyline from the “common man” perspective- labourers, immigrants, women & children, slaves, Native Americans, the poor, etc. who made and continue to make up the vast majority of the population.

Although the balance of perspective tips way too far the other way at times, this is truly a scholarly piece of research. Spanning Christopher Columbus’s arrival through President Bill Clinton’s first term, A People’s History combines a very diverse collection of letters, diary entries, newspaper accounts, and official records with commentary and analysis. This book caused some stir in academic circles because of its attacks on traditional views of American history. Nevertheless, this book offers an important ballast to any serious student of the subject.

If you enjoy this theme, you might also find Ray Raphael’s book A People’s History of the American Revolution of interest. With a forward by Howard Zinn, this book continues the theme of the common man’s history, but focuses exclusively on the events surrounding the American Revolution.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

April 2004 Read

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In late June 1863, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were both on the move. Robert E. Lee had successfully convinced Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, that the best chance for their hopes for victory (or at least intervention by a foreign power such as Great Britain) was to take the battle to “those people.” On July 1st, his scouts unexpectedly encountered some Union cavalry on the outskirts of a small Pennsylvania village. What followed over the course of the next three days changed, or perhaps sealed, the course of American history. This event is expertly portrayed in Shelby Foote’s classic, Stars in their Courses. From the fields of rural Pennsylvania, here is this month’s read.

There are many books on the subject of Gettysburg. James McPherson and other experts have written masterful accounts of those three days in July, 1863. For me, however, Shelby Foote’s Stars in their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1963 is the most enjoyable. I say that because Foote’s account does not read like a history book. It is not a dry, minute-by-minute account of the battle, nor does it go overboard on the chest-beating. Foote is a good writer, having written fiction as well as being one of the foremost Civil War historians in the world. In my opinion, Stars in their Courses is a masterpiece.The book itself is actually taken from Foote’s 3 volume “The Civil War: A Narrative”, combining one complete chapter (titled “Stars in their Courses”) and pieces from other parts of the trilogy. Fresh off his decided yet costly victory at Chancellorsville (“Stonewall” Jackson was wounded during that battle and died shortly thereafter), Robert E. Lee moved his Confederate army into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. Lee had convinced Jefferson Davis that the best chance of success lay in taking the war to the Union in order to “force the issue”. Lee reasoned that ordinary citizens in the North would not stand for substantial losses in their home states, and would grow increasingly fearful if Lee could offer a few smashing blows to the federal troops on northern ground. In his mind (as well as other Southerners), Lee believed that outside intervention and aid, by way of England and/or France, would end the war more quickly. This was desirable as the North had virtually strangled the Confederacy by way of a massive naval blockade of the Southern states, thereby cutting off badly needed commerce.

On June 30, Confederate troops left their camps at Cashtown, Pennsylvania and marched toward Gettysburg in search of supplies. Nearing the edge of Gettysburg, Confederate scouts spied a column of Union cavalry south of town. This came as somewhat a surprise to Lee. He eventually sent two divisions toward Gettysburg the next day to investigate the arrival of the mystery cavalrymen. A very strong and decisive battle ensued as the Union troops tried to secure the high ground over the area. In the process they lost one of their most promising officers, John Reynolds, who was well known to and respected by many of the Confederate high command.

The opening battle occurred on July 1st, 1863. Located 50 miles northwest of Baltimore, Gettysburg was an unlikely spot for the largest battle of the war. Foote masterfully recounts and provides context for the dozens of battlefield decisions which were made during the course of the battle, providing background on most of the decision-makers. One truly comes away from this account with a sense of not only the strategic and tactical influences and judgments (right and wrong), but also the fears, ambitions, prejudices, and bravery of the men who made them.

Gettysburg ended two days later with the historic and fatal “Pickett’s Charge” which decimated General George Pickett’s entire division of confederate troops. It resulted in a Union victory for the Army of the Potomac and successfully turned back the second and final invasion of the North by Lee. Over 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, making it the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Although most historians agree that the Union lost a major opportunity by failing to immediately follow Pickett’s Charge with a counter-attack of their own, it was a major turning point in the war. Historians have referred to the Battle of Gettysburg as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” Lee’s army never crossed into Northern territory again.

There is plenty of drama and characters within the historical basis, and Foote does a masterful job of storytelling that is gripping and respectful at the same time. All of the battle’s many nuances and subplots are woven together in a wonderful narrative. These include Union officer Joshua Chamberlain, his men under heavy fire and running very short on ammunition, leading a textbook battlefield maneuver to save the Union’s left flank. George Pickett’s famous and tragic charge across a mile of open ground, directly under fire from Union riflemen and heavy artillery. The attempts by Pete Longstreet, Lee’s most trusted General, to call off the attack by Pickett, and Lee’s subsequent answer- “I will fight the enemy here.” And Lee himself, meeting the retreating soldiers atop his white charger, announcing softly to his men “It’s my fault”. This is a great piece of history, and a wonderful read. If you have ever had an interest in the Civil War, or Gettysburg in particular, this is a perfect introduction to this subject.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

March 2004 Read

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Robert Kaplan is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic magazine, and the author of several books on war-ravaged regions of the world including the Baltics (Balkan Ghosts), the eastern Mediterranean (Eastward to Tartary), and Afghanistan (Soldiers of God). However, my favorite piece is An Empire Wilderness, in which Kaplan turns his attention to North America in which he produces a travel narrative filled with observations on our past, present, and potential future. The result is a commentary on our society from an American who has spent a great deal of time witnessing and thinking about political, social, and religious struggle and change in other parts of the world. From a border crossing near you, here is this month’s read.

“The world in the foreseeable future will depend more on the preferences of Americans than on any single factor. Whether in preserving the balance of power in Europe, in Asia, or in the Middle East, or in restructuring the United Nations, the wishes of the United States will be impossible to ignore. America’s enormous technological advantages will sustain it as the military superpower for decades hence. But America’s foreign policy, like that of any other country, is an extension of its domestic inclinations and conditions. Thus it is of the utmost importance to understand the direction American society is going in.”Thus begins An Empire Wilderness, a North American travel narrative written by Robert Kaplan. For anyone that has read Kaplan (The Atlantic, Balkan Ghosts, etc.), this book represented somewhat of a departure in focus. Before this book, the vast majority of Kaplan’s journalistic and authoring research had been spent in some of the poorest and war-stricken regions of the planet- the Baltics, Afghanistan, and the eastern Mediterranean to name a few. One of the reasons why his writing is so well-respected is because he seems to take nothing for granted. Kaplan’s objectivism forces him to get a first-hand account of what is actually happening on the ground, move among a given population, to get his context. And this is one of the primary reasons why this book is so interesting. In order to get what he felt was as objective a viewpoint on America as possible, Kaplan embarked on a 2-year journey across his home country. He traveled almost exclusively west of the Mississippi, which he deemed necessary because he felt that 1) he had spent most of his life east of the river and therefore felt his inspection should exclude that part of the continent, and 2) he felt that to truly understand the future of the United States, one must understand the social, religious and conservatory changes taking place across the various parts of the nation. These changes, Kaplan argues, are more acutely evident in the western half of the country. And so, Kaplan’s book begins at the historic “gateway” to the West- Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

This book is compelling and disturbing at the same time. Kaplan’s natural style draws you in; it is laced with interesting and fascinating characters (a somewhat shady American entrepreneur trying to start massive telecom projects in Mexico is one, personalities on a Greyhound trip across the Heartland, a driven conservation advocate in Montana). His observations on the changing physical landscapes, intertwined with commentary on the corresponding economic, social and demographic shifts is cool. So is his insight into the future of urban development and eco-sensitivity (or lack thereof) in places like Vancouver and Los Angeles.

But it is the disturbing, almost fatalistic nature of his views on the future of the United States as a nation that hooks you. The inexorable pull of economic liberation that draws immigrants through our massively porous southern border is given great attention, with lots of heart-breaking context around what this pull is also doing to the Mexican economy, the drug trade, and the break-up of the traditional rural Mexican family. The rise (or reprise) of Christian fundamentalism is described as prominent across the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, fading to obscurity once one reaches the secular pods of southern California and the eclectic culture of acceptance in places like San Francisco and Seattle. Kaplan’s perspicacious conversations with various public officials and private environmental advocates concerning the ravage of our national parks and waterways leaves one with a sense of gloom, bordering on panic. And the portrayal of the complete desolation of most central U.S. metropolitan areas (such as St. Louis), juxtaposed against the efforts of various community and religious organizations to save inner-city youth, is at once deperssing and prophetic.

Nonetheless, this is an important book. It’s important because once in a while, it’s good to read honest journalism about what’s happening within the social fabric of our own country. I get the strong sense, living in Texas at least, that most Americans are blind to most of the problems that we face, and choose to ignore or flat-out deny that we have some obvious challenges that need addressing. This book is a touchstone for taking an honest look at some of the forces shaping the future of our country.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

September 2003 Reads

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In 1508 Michelangelo Buonarroti received a commission from Pope Julius II to re-paint the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Given Michelangelo’s inexperience with the art of fresco, his selection was a curious choice by Julius. However, it turned out to be an inspired one, though not by any conscious vision by either man. In Ross King’s The Pope and the Ceiling, the story of one of the world’s foremost masterpieces is brought to life.Early in his career, Michelangelo Buonarroti won a commission to paint one of two very large frescos on the walls of a church. The other commission went to none other than the greatest Italian painter of his time, Leonardo da Vinci. These two frescos were to be painted at the same time, with the two artists working more or less side-by-side. This “battle of the frescos” between these two renowned artists was never fought- both artists backed out of the engagement immediately before painting was to start. But it is interesting to note that da Vinci thought little of Michelangelo at the time; he even reverted to ridicule of the young artist, singling out Michelangelo’s original craft, sculpture, as the “lowest form of art” suited to “labors of the hands” which was intended as an insult from someone whose hands were tasked with brushes which kept his hands from directly touching the respective medium.

Indeed, Michelangelo would exclaim time and time again during his long career, albeit occasionally to garner nothing more than sympathy from his benefactors, that he was a sculptor first and foremost. He had precious little experience as a painter, and almost none working in the difficult medium of fresco. Yet after seeing Michelangelo’s sculptural depiction of the Virgin with Child Pieta (1498-1500), Julius II chose Michelangelo for a project which would become synonymous with his genius- the re-painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In 1508 Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius to repaint the ceiling of the chapel; the work was completed between 1508 and 1512 (he later painted a final scene, “The Last Judgment”, over the altar between 1535 and 1541, being commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese). The relationship between Julius and Michelangelo was a difficult one, often times antagonistic in nature, and always tenuous from either man’s perspective. This relationship forms the backdrop for Ross King’s book, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. Any discussion of this masterpiece of fresco must be considered in the context of the relationship between these two very strong-willed and complex personalities. Julius, “el Papa Terible” to his subjects and foes alike, was a warrior pope who, like so many popes of that age, elevated to the papacy through his political connections and singular thirst for power, with little interest in advancing the spiritual and theological needs of the Church. Julius was more or less obsessed with the complete subjugation of all the major Italian city-states to the Vatican’s control, including Michelangelo’s home town of Florence. During his reign he conducted three major military campaigns, his last against the French as part of a coalition he built between the Vatican, Henry VIII, and the Emperor. Michelangelo was mindful of the Pope’s nature, yet he often pressed the Pope on various issues, such as payments he felt were due him.

The chapel itself is rectangular in shape and measures 41 meters long by 13 meters wide by 21 meters high, which are precisely the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as described in the Old Testament. Its ceiling is shaped like a flattened barrel, with a collection of small side vaults over the center windows. The original architectural plans were made by Baccio Pontelli and the construction work was supervised by Giovannino de’ Dolci. The first Mass in the Sistine Chapel was celebrated on August 9, 1483.

The challenge of the work itself was formidable, to say the least. One of the largest preparatory tasks was the design and construction of a scaffolding apparatus to support not only the artist, but the team of assistants as well as the flow of necessary supplies of brushes, paints, and other materials needed on a daily basis. This scaffold was most likely designed by Michelangelo himself, but the work itself was hired out to a separate team which completed the task in a matter of months. Once the scaffold was constructed, it spanned across the chapel itself, thereby leaving the floor of the chapel available to the priests and cardinals who conducted services with the elaborate wooden network of bridges and platforms suspended over their heads. Then there was the preparation of the surface itself, which displayed the work of a previous artist. This existing fresco work had to be stripped (broken off, essentially), and the surface cleansed and prepared. Then, a special paste was applied upon which the fresco itself would be painted. This was tricky- the fresco work needed to be applied to the plaster while it was still wet; if the plaster hardened, the pigments would not seal and harden properly. So only enough paste was applied for that day’s work. It is interesting to note that, according to King, the term “all in a day’s work” comes from this practice.

Over the next several years, through family conflicts and quarrels, payment delays, ill health, team changes, and threats of the project being canceled altogether, Michelangelo and his team worked. As opposed to the depiction in the 1965 movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” with Charleston Heston and Rex Harrison, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling of the chapel on his back, working alone with his brushes and paints. Rather, the artisans worked standing up, arching their backs to bring their torsos to bring them as even with their target surface as possible. At times Michelangelo would only design portions of the work, subsequently directing other artists on his team to physically paint the surface while he would move on the design of another portion of the ceiling. Although fresco was not Michelangelo’s first love, he grew quickly adept at the techniques involved, and essentially learned the craft as he moved from one end of the ceiling to the other. One calculation of his incredible genius is the fact that his first piece of the ceiling took more than 2 months to paint, and made use of initial sketches and templates; his last took a single day and was painted free-hand on the surface itself. Later, Michelangelo wrote about the work’s effect on him with these words: “After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends didnot recognize the old man I had become.”

Michelangelo devised an intricate system of connected, thematic illustrations that included nine scenes from the Book of Genesis beginning with God Separating Light from Darkness. Other scenes include the Creation of Adam and Eve, the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. These scenic narratives are located on the central portion of the ceiling, and they are in turn surrounded by alternating images of prophets and sibyls on marble thrones, other Old Testament characters, and by Christ’s traditional ancestors. Michelangelo drew hundreds of preparatory sketches and cartoons. It is interesting to note that Julius had other ideas for what would be painted; in fact, the two went back and forth on this issue with some contention. But in the end, Michelangelo was given more or less free reign over his dominion. His earlier study of sculpture from various teachers in his hometown of Florence served the work before him rather well. It was common practice for sculptors to master the intricacies of the human anatomy for their pieces. And as Michelangelo’s artistic interests resided almost exclusively in the depiction and glorification of the human body in various states of motion, his skills as a master sculptor carried over to the work at hand. For the time, the various collections of nude figures depicted on the ceiling, in various states of contortion, motion and repose was a bold leap in imagination. The realism of the figures, combined with the radical use of colors, brought more than one observer at the official unveiling to tears; others, including Michelangelo’s principal rival for the chapel’s work, Raphael, to stand awe-struck in amazement at the feat of skill that stretched before his upturned eyes.

One of the coolest things about this book is the realization that this masterpiece was truly an incredibly challenging undertaking. And given his frustrating relationship with Julius, constant internal family conflicts, his lack of fresco experience, unmerciful self-imposed deadlines, and the physical demands of the work itself, it makes the masterpiece that much more amazing in its accomplishments.

Add comment March 28th, 2007

July 2003 Reads


Ever wonder what it would have been like to sail aboard an explorer’s ship? With the help of one man’s incredible photography (and resolve), we have the ability to see the pictorial history of one expedition, that undertaken by Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1914. From the ice floes of Antarctica, to the skies over Europe, here are July’s reads.In my interview with Jones Quincy Adams, I was able to collect a first-hand account of what it was like to fly aboard a B-24 bomber in World War II. Wanting to learn more about the experiences described by Mr. Adams, I picked up a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s The Wild Blue: The Men and the Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45. In this book, Ambrose primarily focuses on the story of one crew, the captain of which happened to be George McGovern, the former senator from South Carolina and 1972 presidential candidate. McGovern flew 35 combat missions, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross along the way. McGovern was just 22 when he became a B-24 pilot in the 741st Bomb Squadron, which was based in Cerignola, Italy (Adams was also based at Cerignola, by the way). The book does a good job of providing a realistic picture of what life was like as a bomber crewman: the B-24, nicknamed the “Liberator”, had no heat, and was only lightly armored, suffering 50 percent crew casualties by the war’s end. Ambrose interviewed McGovern, his close friend, extensively for this book, and the book contains many quotes from McGovern and other airmen who flew the missions.

One of the things I liked about this book was the profile Ambrose provides of each of the crewmen before the war; their childhood, how they got into the Army Air Corps, etc. It personalizes the account, and illustrates how very eager and unselfish many young men were to get involved in the war effort. What was also interesting was the absolute and unquestioned respect that each man in that crew had for McGovern. To a man, they all looked up to him for his natural leadership qualities, and respected him as a pilot and as a man. After reading this book, you will have a much deeper appreciation for anyone who has ever flown combat aircraft.

Recently, PBS aired a series about the 1914 Antarctic expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton. I remembered that a few years ago I received a book about that expedition as a present, and decided to pick it up again. There are a few books about that expedition, mine is The Endurance by Caroline Alexander. What is especially cool about this particular account of the expedition is the fact that Alexander intersperses some of the incredible photographs (170 in all) that the expedition’s photographer, Frank Hurley, took during the ordeal of the Endurance’s crew, described by some as the greatest survival tale of all time. Setting sail as World War I commenced, the “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition”, led by Shackleton, tried to become the first ever to physically cross the Antarctic continent. However, their ship, the Endurance, became trapped in a drifting pack of ice, and was slowly crushed by the immense pressure. The expedition was literally stranded on the ice. The good news was that this was a group of veteran explorers and scientists. Led by Shackleton’s “undying optimism”, the group was able to almost entirely keep their composure throughout the 635 days of the struggle, under the most extreme of circumstances.

Talk about bravery- the crew sailed 800 miles of ocean in their remaining lifeboat, and had to trek mountains and glaciers on foot. All 28 men were rescued. Shackleton retuned to Antartica again in 1922 on another expedition, where he died of a heart attack. This is one of those books that you literally cannot put down once you start looking at the photographs, which are all in stunning black & white.

Add comment March 5th, 2007

June 2003 Reads

For those of us who don’t have the longest attention span, a compendium offers a welcome diversion. Collections of essays and book excerpts offer a diversity of subjects, and give you a sense of which books or subjects might be worth more investigation. Two of my favorite authors, John McPhee and David McCullough, both offer such books. From the history of the birch-bark canoe, to profiles of the very first airplane pilots, here are this month’s reads.

The John McPhee Reader, John McPhee

One of the best things about John McPhee’s writing is the diversity of his subjects. Since 1965 he has published 29 books on topics such as the history of the birch-bark canoe, the distinctive seclusion of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens region, and the geologic origins of the western U.S. Along the way, he has picked up several awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World, a very readable history of the geologic origins of the Western United States- all 4.6 billion years’ worth. McPhee is not a historian in the classical sense, yet for anyone wanting a very deep perspective on any of his chosen subjects, you would be hard-pressed to find more well-researched writing. In the John McPhee Reader, you are provided with chapter excerpts from his early books (1965-1976) including Encounters withMcPhee_Reader_cover.jpg the ArchDruid, a narrative of the author’s travels and discussions with three experts offering very different perspectives on the environmental crisis, and Coming into the Country, a rich account of the history and future of the Alaskan wilderness and its people. The selections are well-chosen by virtue of the fact that they can stand up reasonably on their own apart from the context of the corresponding volume. McPhee’s writing is of a journalistic nature; you get as objective and detailed a perspective on any given subject as you could hope for in a single book. But for me, what makes McPhee’s writing truly great is that he is able to convey his experiences and perspective in a style and perspective that virtually anyone can appreciate. This was the first McPhee book I ever read, and I have since read another dozen or so, with plans to collect and read them all.

Brave Companions, David McCullough

David McCullough is probably my favorite living historian, and the first exposure I had to his work was Brave Companions. This book is a collection of 17 short biographies of various historical figures- some well-known, others somewhat obscure to the average person. The common theme here is pioneering, whether it be of a physical, intellectual, technological, artistic, or spiritual nature. Some of the characters profiled include Alexander von Humboldt, whose scientific expeditions to South America at the turn of the 19th century eclipsed Lewis & Clark’s journeys in terms of physical challenge and scientific importance. Louis Agassiz, anotherBrave_Companions_cover.jpg subject, is known as the “Father of Glaciology,” and was the first scientist to realize that glaciers in fact moved, and formulate a theory that once a great Ice Age had once gripped the Earth; later he served as head of the Smithsonain Institute. Others profiled include Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, and Frederic Remington. What I like about this book is that most of the characters are ones that I would probably never know too much about had I not picked up this book. And their stories are more than interesting- they are fascinating. The story of the earliest pilots made my palms sweat just reading about some of the flights they took- remember, their planes were primitive by today’s standards, and they were the first to ever try a “barrel-roll.” As the name of the book implies, this collection also tries to point out that these courageous pioneers did not accomplish theur feats alone. Humboldt was accompanied by a friend who was a botanist. Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Anne, accompanied him on many of his early flights, and Stowe’s husband played a crucial role in her success.

Add comment February 13th, 2007

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