Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review: Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally

It's hard to believe that there was a time, not too terribly long ago, that Oskar Schindler was not a widely known figure. Sure, he was recognized his his deeds numerous times after World War II, but it took a absolutely chance meeting between an author who needed a new briefcase and a store owner who was touched by the fairness of Schindler years earlier to bring him to the general public's attention. Of course, Steven Spielberg making a movie about him helped, too.

I, like most people out there, had seen the movie. I had never read the book, though, and actually didn't even know that it existed. I was definitely looking forward to reading it when the RNG chose it for me. I was hoping for a change in pace from Treasure Island, and I received it. Schindler's List (also known as Schindler's Ark) won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1982. To simply categorize it fiction, however, does a disservice not only to the extensive research on Schindler and his actions during WWII by Keneally, but an even greater disservice to those who lived and died in the context of this period. It may be considered fiction in that it describes true events in a narrative format, but the author states clearly in the introduction that he takes as few creative liberties as possible in telling this story.

I am not going to delve extensively into the plot of this story. Schindler's List has become so ingrained in popular culture that most people (even those who haven't seen the movie or read the book) know the overall theme. During WWII, Polish Jews are being rounded up into ghettos and, subsequently, into work and extermination camps. Oskar Schindler is a businessman in Krakow who, after he realizes what the "final solution" will be takes it upon himself to save as many Jews as he can, putting his personal safety at risk and financially ruining himself.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the whole story is how unlikely of a candidate Oskar Schindler would seem to be as one responsible for the saving of over 1,000 human lives. Schindler was always motivated as a youngster and seemed to succeed in anything he undertook. Much of this motivation was born from a hatred of his father and a need to be a bigger and greater than him. Not exactly driven by a humanitarian philosophy. He got into the war industry business as a way to make money hand over fist with cheap Jewish labor. He was, in all honesty, a profiteer, an adulterer, and a drinker. Despite the inherent unfairness of his early business using Jewish labor, he treated his workers well and kindly. To say that Schindler was a complex man would be an understatement.

It wasn't later into the war, when the Eastern Front was pushed back by Soviet forces and the "final solution" was defined, that Schindler had a "come to Jesus" moment. Once he realized that the Nazis, against all rational thought, would begin to exterminate all Jews rather than use them to prop up the war effort, he knew that he couldn't sit idly. It is then when the famous "Schindler's List" begins to be drafted. Those lucky enough to be on this list will be brought to a new factory compound that would be owned and operated by Schindler. This factory would be outside the concentration camp system and isolation in a rural area. In other words, it was a relative safe haven.

This is a great novel. The amount of time interviewing those familiar with Schindler during this period is obvious in the extreme detail of the individual anecdotes that fill the pages. This book isn't merely a biography of Oskar Schindler. The stories told, while including Schindler, reveal just as much about the more1,300 men, women, and children he kept safe during this horrific period. It tells deeply personal stories while avoiding much of the melodrama that the film version and many other Holocaust books and films rely on. It tells you what happened in all of its gruesome and saddening details, but it leaves the emotion to the content itself. With a topic like the Holocaust, there is really no need to amplify the pain and suffering of those who lived through it.

The novel kept me enthralled throughout its entirely, even though I had seen the movie. It was hard to read, not because of the writing, but because the content. One can only take so much of this devastating of a topic in one sitting.

When reading, it is difficult to remember that the amazing heroics displayed by Schindler and others saved just over 1,000 people. While this was occurring, thousands upon thousands of other people in positions of authority did not have the courage or moral integrity to do what he was doing. While it may be easy to scoff at the tiny percentage that 1,300 or so individuals makes up of the total number of people who were brutally murdered by the Nazi regime, one quote comes to mind. This was a quote which was engraved on a ring given to Oskar Schindler before he fled the coming Russian troops after the war ended. In Hebrew, it stated "He who saves a single life saves the world entire". What Schindler did was bigger than saving 1,300 individual lives, though this is nothing short of amazing. He showed that even when the world is going crazy and morality is being turned upside down, anyone, even the least likely individual, can step up and do what is right.

I give Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally, #41 on the Radcliffe Rival 100 list, four and a half out of five stars.


Next up is Orlando by Virginia Woolf. This will be the first novel I've read by Woolf, which is intimidating, but supposedly this is one of her more accessible works. I hope so.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Looks as if Joseph-Beth bookstore will stay open

 As a follow up to an earlier post I stole from Cincinnati Blog, Cincinnati-area readers have some good news.

Via the Enquirer:

"The Joseph-Beth stores in Norwood, Lexington and Cleveland soon will have a new owner.
The three stores were purchased at a bankruptcy auction Wednesday by an entity associated with Lexington-based Langley Properties Co. Langley owns the shopping center in which Joseph Beth’s Lexington store operates.
The company plans to maintain the current Joseph Beth management team except for former owner and CEO Neil van Uum, said Mark Wilson, the chain’s chief operating officer. Van Uum was one of the five bidders in Wednesday’s auction.
“Our customers will not see any real change,” Wilson said. “We are excited to expand our customer programs. It will be interesting and a lot of fun to see what can be done without the burden of debt.”
I'm glad to see that they will be able to keep the Norwood store open. It has been a great stop in the past for notable author signings and other events.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A call for recommendations: Cincinnati History books

In the little under a year that I've lived in Cincinnati, I've been enthralled by the history of the city. Huge pieces of the Queen City's history, such as the canals, riverboats, and the riots as well as the minutia have been 100% new to me. To say that I was ignorant of the amazing history of Cincinnati would be quite an understatement. I had never even visited the city before taking a job here; I certainly knew nothing about it.

I've been learning details of the history of my current home piece by piece, almost randomly. I'd like to make a more concerted effort to learn more. With that in mind, I am on the look out for the best books which concern Cincinnati. It can be general history or more focused on a piece of the city's history. Both will satisfy me. The only thing I ask is that your recommendations are either still in print or are available for check out at one of the area's libraries. I already own Over-the-Rhine: When Beer Was King so I don't need that one.

I thank you in advance and look forward to your recommendations!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Joseph -Beth Bookstores to be auctioned

Good book-related post over at Cincinnati Blog today. Looks like the future of a really good (yet apparently unprofitable) bookstore remains up in the air. This ties in to yesterday's post regarding ebooks overtaking their print counterparts in sales. The question to be asked: what is the future of brick and mortar bookstores not named Barnes and Noble? Are even they immune from the shift to ebooks or will they go the way of Borders or are they nimble enough to shift their business plan away from physical inventory?

Hat Tip - Cincinnati Blog: "The Remaining Joseph-Beth Bookstores to be Auctioned"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Report: Ebooks sales overtake that of all print versions

Back to the world of ebooks (or EBooks, E-books; whatever the preferred nomenclature is):

This February, US publishers sold more e-books than they did books in any other format, including paperbacks and hardcovers, according to a report from the Association of American Publishers. This marks the first time ever that e-book sales have surpassed those of all other formats.
 The growth of ebooks over the past couple years has been absolutely amazing. According to the same report, ebook sale revenues have risen by more than 200% from just a year earlier. This is a game changer in the publishing industry and frankly it seems that many firms are struggling with the change. The way that "print" media is published, sold, and delivered has changed fundamentally over this brief time period.

It seems from other news that publishing companies are still trying to figure out how the transition from real print to electronic print will be a profitable venture. At the present, skyrocketing sales of ebooks are not making up the difference for decreased sales of print copies. I'm sure it's happening already, but publishers are going to have to take a real serious look at their business models to determine how they are going to remain viable and profitable. Unless the movement of sales towards ebooks is a fad (which seems unlikely to me), the status quo is neither of those over the long run.

The Christian Science Monitor: "E-book sales overtake paperbacks in February"

Association of American Publishers report

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Review: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Oh boy did I not want to read this book. Frankly, I have absolutely no idea how it got on my list. I remember reading it long, long ago (maybe middle school) and not being particularly impressed. Regardless of my whining and foot dragging, the book was picked so I had to read it and write a review for it. I got through the former and now I am forcing myself to do the latter.

I'm not going to go into the plot in any real detail. I'm sure you've all heard/read/watched it in some form and if you haven't, read the title of the book. That's essentially what it's about. For those of you not in the know, I'll sum it up in about a minute.

An old pirate staying at Jim's (main character) family's inn dies and leaves a chart for treasure on an island. Other pirates come for the chart and and are chased off. Jim and a few other courageous folks decide to go find the treasure, procure a ship, and head out. All but a few of the crew are found to be pirates looking for the treasure before the ship comes ashore the island land and plans are made to escape from aforementioned pirates. Drama and action unfolds as the two sides duke it out and try to beat each other to the treasure. The end.

One thing about this novel confused me. I do not understand at all how it is supposed to be a children's/young adult novel. Leaving aside the great deal of violence which occurs throughout it (in the form of shootings, stabbings, strangulation, clubbings, and getting run down by a horse), the only middle schoolers who would understand a lot of the language used in Treasure Island would be those who are currently being home schooled on a pirate ship. Outside of Somalia, I'm not sure how often this occurs. I'd guess not much.

Between the outdated language (published in 1883) and the technical sailing language used, I had to look a good number of words up in the dictionary. Boy did that make me feel not particularly smart.

Anyways, I'm not particularly sure what niche this novel fills anymore. I can't see it interesting a large number of Harry Potter-Twilight-reading young adults and find it equally as unlikely that adults will pick it up very often. I suppose it will be relegated to the despised status of middle school English literature required reading. It could be worse; at least it will still get readership (minus all those Sparknotes users out there).

Treasure Island isn't a bad book. It is one of the seminal young adult adventure books that exist and has provided almost all of popular culture's references to pirates (cheap fried seafood at Long John Silver's, for instance). I'll never read it again, but I wouldn't sway any young readers away from it. Looking up words in the dictionary builds character.

I give Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson three out of five swashbuckling stars.


Next up is Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally. I had no idea this was a novel before it was a movie until just recently. Love the movie so I'm hoping the book is enjoyable.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Sometimes, one's best weapon of criticism is a concise, unemotional attack on one's opposition. For one: you don't lose anyone in the screed; also, if you're mundane, no one will think you're making things up.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's (going forward referred to as "the author") One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (going forward referred to "One Day") brutalizes the treatment of prisoners in Soviet work camps during the Stalin era. Sometimes even so bitter as to cut cold and sharp, the novel fulfills both of the criteria above. It weighs in at just over 150 pages; not quite what you expect when you think of Russian literature. Also, there is no manufactured drama in this book. One Day is exactly that: a single day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet work camp. There are no prisoner revolts, rescue missions, or other exhibits of high adventure. Just one man's attempts to maintain even the slightest shred of humanity and dignity in a a setting that does not allow for either.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, referred to as Shukhov through the novel, is in his eighth year of a ten year work camp term for "spying". In this case, "spying" refers to his crime of being captured by the German military during WWII, escaping, and returning to Soviet lines. By this time, Shukhov has become a respected member of the 104th work squad and has learned what it takes to stay alive and well (all is relative when it comes to "well" in a Soviet work camp), yet maintain a bare minimum of humanity. This means bundling up in multiple layers for the sub-zero cold, working hard for one's squad leader, doing small favors in return for small favors, and not debasing one's self by doing things like licking other prisoners' bowls after supper.

The one day chronicled goes like this: Shukhov wakes up to reveille, leaves the barracks for breakfast, eats breakfast, reports for work where he and his squad begin to build a stone building (without the use of a lift or any mechanical tools), break for lunch, continue working, turns in for dinner, and then turns in for bed until the next day.

The day itself is not the main focus of this story. It is implied that it is completely ordinary and reflects most of those before it and will reflect most of those after it. The focus here is on the little things: the teamwork of his work squad, the joke told by one of his squad member, the extra bread ration he receives, the cigarette he smokes (savoring every inhalation).

Also of particular interest are the interactions between the prisoners themselves. Some of them, by currying favors or weaseling to the guards and officials, are able to avoid hard labor, instead working in the mess or the guard house. These prisoners are generally despised by those more common prisoners, for obvious reasons. Even within the labor squads, there is a clear hierarchy. The squad leaders, who are deeply respected and obeyed, are responsible for the well-being of their workers. A good squad leader will save your life and keep you out of the guardhouse. Then there is the squad leader's deputy, who is responsible for all of the little things that are below the leader himself. Finally, there comes the squad, who maintains an informal power structure based on the length of time served, how hard he works, and what he does for others.

The most striking aspect of this book, though, are the prisoners' attempts to remain human. While some have abandoned any attempts at this and will lie, cheat, and steal to get by, most retain some semblance of dignity through the smallest practices or gestures. A Soviet work camp, as one would imagine, is not a setting conducive to dignity. All prisoners are numbered and are never referred to as anything else by guards or other camp officials. In these camps, survival is the first concern. All else is secondary. Despite this, our protagonist and other prisoners finds ways to elevate themselves above the animal level. Shukhov wakes before reveille to enjoy the few minutes he has to himself before the day begins. Two of his squad mates share cups of "real" tea, which was received in a parcel sent to one of them. The prisoners even escape in the work itself, working so hard and so fast that they think about nothing other than the work itself. It is in ways like these that the prisoners find solace. Not freedom, but solace. Most of these men will never see freedom, but each can find at least brief moments of solace every day.

This is a hugely important piece of literature. It details a mythical concept (the gulags) using actual personal experience. It does so in a readable manner, without the hysterics which usually accompany such terrible personal tragedies. I found myself bored at times because of the lack of action and the understated method the author uses to describe the conditions the prisoners exist in. It is a monumentally important book and it is a good book, but is it a great book? I don't think so. I'd put it somewhere between good and great. It isn't one of the best one-hundred books ever written (or that I've read), but it merits every bit of praise it receives. It is the antithesis of a Schindler's List; the heroics are not in any specific act. They are found in the process of surviving, which does not happen in just one day.

It should be added that the veracity of the details in this novel is unquestionable. Alexander Solzhenitsyn himself spent eight years in a Soviet work camp for writing letters to friends which insulted Stalin's handling of WWII. After being released, he began work on One Day, which was submitted for publication and was ultimately approved personally by Nikita Khrushchev.

I give One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn three and a half out of five stars.


Next up is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson. I read this long, long ago and remember next to nothing about it. I'm not really looking forward to it, but we'll see.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Modern Library Challenge: #75 - Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Looks like I finally return to the Modern Library 100 list!

When the RNG chose another Evelyn Waugh book, I have to admit that I was a teensy bit less than ecstatic. I wasn't particularly impressed with Brideshead Revisited, the last book of Waugh's that I read. While reading and after finishing Scoop, though, I was happily surprised. The two books share almost nothing in common, which is just fine with me.

Scoop, as the title implies, is about journalism. To be precise, it is about the wacky shenanigans involved with reporting foreign news. In the obviously fictional African nation of Ishmaelia civil war looks like a certain thing. Despite knowing nothing about this insignificant country and the actors involved, the British media is scurrying all over itself to send foreign correspondents. One of these outlets, the Daily Beast, decides to send John Boot, an up-and-coming author, to Ishmaelia as a favor curried through John's benefactor. In the midst of the craziness of hammering out the plans, the orders to ship abroad are accidentally sent to William, not John, Boot.

Enter William Booth. William happens to be a far-removed cousin of John who works for the Daily Beast as a nature reporter. He lives with his extended family in a crumbling manor way, way out in the sticks. He loathes and fears London and submits all of his work through the mail. To say that he is not worldly would be quite an understatement. When he receives his orders to go abroad he at first thinks he is being punished and refuses to go. He finally caves, though, and the adventure begins. Just getting to Ishmaelia with his almost-literally ton of supplies of luggage proves to be an exercise in futility. Once he (and the rest of the gaggle of foreign correspondents) get there, the fun really begins.

Obviously out of his league, Boot has absolutely no idea where to begin. Through a strange bumbling series of mishaps, misdirection, Soviet scheming, and even a brief love affair, he somehow breaks the big story and vaults himself into the pantheon of journalistic brilliance. How he he gets from point A to point B is about 99% of the fun of reading this novel, so I won't spoil it for anyone.

Despite being written over seventy years ago, Scoop is still a brilliant piece of satire and is as relevant to foreign and war journalism as ever. This novel touches on several themes of importance, including war reporters crafting stories and manufacturing facts at a typewriter hundreds of miles away from the front. If you believe this hasn't happened in modern military conflicts, I have some beautiful swampland you may be interested in purchasing. Scoop also focuses on is the story creating the action (aka "life imitating journalism"). In this novel, the correspondents have no idea what they are doing or what is actually going on in Ishmaelia. Despite this, the newspapers needs to stories so the correspondents supply them, regardless of the factual validity of the reports.

As I said, Scoop a great piece of satire. In many ways, it reminds me of Vonnegut before Vonnegut had even written his first novel. The absurdity of the whole thing never ceases to entertain. Since I still have one more novel by Waugh left on the Modern Library list, I will hold out hope that it is of this caliber and not that of Brideshead Revisited.

Just one note of caution: there are some relatively racist pieces of dialogue in this novel. I'm not sure if it's a reflection of English sentiments towards Africans at the time or "Kipling-esque" feelings held by Waugh, but it does get offensive at times. Nothing over the top or anything, just a little surprising.

Despite all over my initial hesitation over this book, I give it four and a half out of five stars and recommend it to anyone interested in a hilarious rollercoaster of a novel, good satire, and those who like Abbot and Costello films.


The RNG chose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn next. Because it is short (and because I've been slacking with reviews), I have already finished it. I'll try to get a review up in the next couple of days. Cheers!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Pulling back from the brink (for now): Congress Edition

I'm going to apologize for this rant ahead of time, but here we go...

This week has been an extremely stressful, confusing week for federal employees. For those who are not aware, Congress still has not passed a budget for the 2011 fiscal year. This would be embarrassing, but perhaps not overly so, if the fiscal year started on January 1 for the government. Unfortunately this isn't the case. The 2011 fiscal year for the federal government started on October 1. This means that more than six months into the fiscal year, Congress still has not determined how things should be paid for. Add in the fact that the President just presented his 2012 fiscal year budget and workers deep in the catacombs of Executive agencies are already toiling away at the 2013 budget, what we have here is a whole lot of stupid.

In no other respectable organization could what we have seen these last six months happen. Could you imagine being in the finance or budget department of your workplace and the CFO deciding that, "Hell, budgets are overrated. Let's wing it this year." This obviously would be unacceptable. The absolute black hole of leadership from the officials WE elected to represent us in Washington D.C. would make Nero blush. While the Hill was busy bickering about policy riders, Planned Parenthood, and whether $37B or $39B would be cut from the budget, real people were worrying about real things.

The biggest concern on almost 800,000 people's minds is whether they would report to work on Monday morning. This whole week, almost a million federal employees were waiting until the clock struck midnight and Friday turned to Saturday. If there was no deal struck for either a budget for the rest of the fiscal year or a short term extension of the temporary funding, almost all of them would be furloughed come Monday. This list actually includes me. I didn't didn't work for the federal government and don't remember the shutdown in 1995, but I work with many people who do. Then, just as now, there were an alarming lack of grown ups running our government. The government actually shut down twice that year (briefly in November than then for more than two weeks from mid-December to January).

This, of course, means that those employees were not paid during those periods. Luckily, they were paid afterward, but these games that are being played with real people's lives is sickening. I get it: federal employees are not the most sympathy-gathering group of employees in our country. There is a reason that most of the media and politicians focused on the fact that soldiers would not be paid during the shutdown. Without question this is a more compelling story than Ms. Suzie Bureaucrat in the Department of Redundancy and Inefficiency being furloughed. In the end, though, federal employees are real people and deserve to not just be collateral damage in stupid fights over things the fighting parties don't even believe in.

And luckily it never came to that. After arguing over next to nothing for a week, our best and brightest struck a deal at the 11th hour last night in which the Republicans gave up policy riders concerning Planned Parenthood and the EPA and the Democrats gave up more cuts. And I, as a federal employee, should be grateful, right? Are you grateful when you order a cheeseburger at a restaurant and what you ordered actually is brought to your table? Are you grateful the auto mechanic you paid to put a new tire on your car actually did so (and even installed the right size tire, to boot)? Of course not.When you pay someone money, it comes with an expectation that they will do their job. Unlike members of Congress, most restaurant employees and auto mechanics don't make upwards of $200,000 a year. Yet every day these people do their job. Congress: all I, and 800,000 other federal employees, ask is that you DO YOUR JOB. You were elected to do it and you were paid to do it. Get it done.

P.S. Don't look now, but the temporary funding only lasts until this coming up Friday. So, federal employees out there, get ready for a repeat of this week!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review: Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier

The state of civic disengagement in the United States today is not exactly news. It seems that almost every week a new poll is released that shows U.S. citizens don't know something that they should have learned in 4th grade social studies. I would argue that the one thing most people, even the most history-ignorant individuals, know is that our federal government was established by and is controlled by a Constitution. What many don't know is how the U.S. Constitution came to be. In Ratification, this is exactly what Pauline Maier attempts to chronicle in extreme detail.

Cut to 1787. The current system of government, the Articles of Confederation, is failing miserably. Hamstrung by a power structure which heavily leans towards state sovereignty, the federal government is struggling to pay its debts incurred during the Revolutionary War and fulfill its other duties set forth in the Articles. In addition, potential adversaries surround the states and are beginning to look hungrily at their territory. There is no doubt that if England or Spain attacked one of the states, the federal government would be almost entirely incapable of raising an army powerful enough to defend itself.

With all of this in mind, a convention is called to amend the Articles of Confederation to grant the federal government more adequate powers. Some of the greatest minds of this time, if not in the history of our country, gather to determine how to go about this. In the end, they determine that the Articles in their current form can not be amended sufficiently, and just decide to scrap it and start over. During this convention, what we know as the Constitution is first drafted and will be sent out to the individual states to be ratified.

This is where the story really begins. The states will all approach ratification differently; some will be overwhelming for ratification from the get-go, other overwhelmingly against. In most, however, the ratifiers just don't know what to think. Many are torn between giving the new federal government the powers it needs to operate and not giving it so much that it turns into an institution drunk with power which has no qualms about subjugating its citizens. Both the failures of the Articles of Confederation and the memories of British rule weigh heavily on the ratifiers' minds. It is with all of this in mind that the battle lines are drawn and the ratifiers, some names we all know and some who will be relegated to the dust bin of history, will determine whether the states will remain in union. This book follows the ratification conventions in each state to this final decision.


While extremely thorough, Ratification never seems to get bogged down in the details. The ability of Maier to clearly explain not only the nominating process itself, but the positions and beliefs of those individuals who took part in it, is absolutely amazing. While it was slow reading, the pace was dictated by the amount of information delivered, not the difficulty of it. The ordering of events in the book certainly made the process easier to follow. By keeping each state ratification convention to a different chapter, each of them is shown to be unique in both the processes followed and the beliefs held by the nominators.


Ratification profit immensely from the Wisconsin Historical Society's The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (or DHRC, to be a bit more reasonable). This project was started in 1976 and aims to serve as a complete a collection as possible for the ratification process in each state.  The editors collected pretty much any documentation that they could find in any media available. They include writings not only from the most famous names of the time, but even those from "commoners". The twenty-one volumes of the series include documents from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York. The twenty-one volumes are not spread evenly among these states, however. While Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut are combined into one volume, New York spans five volumes by itself.

For those five states not yet included in the DHRC (New Hampshire, South Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina, and Rhode Island), Maier's research admittedly was "old-fashioned" and "far less comprehensive" than those states included. Despite these sections' supposed flaws, I didn't notice decrease in the quality of the research at all. Everything is still comprehensively documented, with minutia represented.


I will say this: Maier is an excellent paraphraser. Since most of her sources are either primary in the form of journals and letters or secondary sources merely repeating speeches or other primary sources, there was the risk of turning this into a book of quotes. While this would have been informative, it most assuredly would have been unreadable. Instead, Maier does a masterful job working partial direct quotes into longer sections of summarizing and paraphrasing, always without editorializing or injecting her beliefs into the equation. Other than this, there isn't much to say for the prose. Rightfully, it exists as a vehicle to deliver others' words.

One complaint: the transitions between chapters are a bit hokey. I've always been of the persuasion than a transition should not be a cliffhanger, but an almost invisible segue to the next section or chapter. The high drama introduced at the end of many chapters always seems a bit manufactured. Not a huge deal, though.

Final Thoughts

Despite being a collection of a collection of facts and details about a potentially very boring topic, Maier finds a way to actually craft a compelling story. This is even more remarkable when one considers that the reader already knows the end of the story. We all know the Constitution was ratified. At least, I hope we all know the Constitution was ratified. What many of us don't know is how this ratification occurred. While it may seem strange to us over two hundred years later, ratification was not a sure thing. The states were at an existential crisis: they could unite under a stronger government that they greatly feared or they could dissolve and fall into civil war or be annexed by colonial powers. This was the mindset of many during the time. It is a grand story; a story which defines how we live today.

Who do I recommend this book to? I would say pretty much anyone with the reading comprehension skills to get through it. Anyone even remotely interested in American history or politics will find this enthralling. I know I did. I also believe this would make a great substitute for some of the more dry, boring high school and college civics textbooks. I'm not going to pontificate about the U.S. public's lack of knowledge about the country they live in. Many have done it and done it better than I possibly could. What I will say is that there needs to be more books like this one. When an author can get a reader looking forward to the next page when the topic is a group of old white dudes maybe signing a piece of paper, that is an achievement.

Accessible - ****
Scholarly-ness - *****
Writing/Prose - *** 1/2
Overall - ****


Because of the brief break I took, the RNG actually chose my next book, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, last week. I am almost all the way through it now, so I'd expect a review late this week.