2020 Reading Re-Cap: The Realm of the Real

It’s hard to know what to call non-fiction anymore, given that everything seems to be written with a slant in some direction. Maybe that’s why it’s just easier for me to reach for a novel. But ultimately, the “real” world is just too interesting to resist – here are the rest of my non-fiction reads for the year:

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

by David McCullough

Published 2019

Kindle, 353 pages

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One could grouse that this is a long telling of a small piece of American history (which I initially did) but one would ultimately come to realize (as I did) that the real story is about more than the settling of the Northwest Territory and what became the state of Ohio. It’s about two of the linchpins of the “American Ideal”: freedom of religion and a push for quality public education. In 19th century Ohio: “The curriculum consisted of reading, spelling, writing and arithmetic, and in some districts a rule prohibited the teaching of anything more.” There was a third linchpin that, one could argue, essentially assured the outcome of the Civil War: the Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress in 1787 – which specifically excluded slavery. Because it’s McCullough, the book is well-organized and readable. Recommended. 4 stars

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge

by David McCullough

Published 1972

Hardcover, 608 pages

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I began 2020 with McCullough’s Pioneers and closed it out with his The Great Bridge. Any year that is bookended by two McCullough reads is a good year! The Brooklyn Bridge was a colossal undertaking, begun in 1869 and completed in 1883, at which point many viewed it as the eighth wonder of the world. It had an immense, and grave, impact on the the father and son -John and Washington Roebling – who conceived, designed and executed a masterful architectural triumph in an era before the telephone and electric light had been introduced. Yes, I learned more than I ever really want to know about wire cable, and the political machinations of the time (the utter and complete corruption of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall were all too reminiscent of current events), but it was still a great read. Recommended. 4 stars

Vicksburg: The Bloody Siege that Turned the Tide of the Civil War

by Samuel W. Mitcham

Published 2018

Kindle, 418 pages

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Way back at the beginning of 2020, in a pre-pandemic world, the CE and I made plans for a trip to the South which would include a day at Vicksbug, Mississipi. Of course that and every other trip was canceled, but at least I had plenty of time to read this book.

Given that it was conducted as a siege, the conquest of Vicksburg was different from any other Civil War action. The hardships of civilians driven to sheltering in caves and reduced to eating mule meat and rats while fending off lice and swarms of mosquitos is a sobering reminder of the abject misery endured in the war. The author, who makes no effort to conceal his sympathies, is strenuously protective of Confederate General John Clifford Pemberton, who was from Pennsylvania but chose to fight for the South out of loyalty to his Virginia-born wife. General Robert E. Lee and General Joseph E. Johnston come under the author’s scathing criticism for prioritization of Pennsylvania over Mississippi. He quotes historian J. F. C. Fuller who wrote “It is not too much to say that had Grant been decisively defeated (at Champion Hill [Vicksburg Campaign] the South would have won the war.” Ironically, the South’s surrender at Gettysburg and at Vicksburg occurred on the same day – July 4, 1863. I wouldn’t call this an objective read, but it was an interesting one. 3.5 stars

The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America during World War II

by Mary Jo McConahay

Published 2018

Kindle, 319 pages

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This was a somewhat complicated, but thorough read, of how sympathies and aspirations in Mexico, central and South America contributed to the geopolitical intricacies of World War II. The author states: “What I discovered was that a shadow war for the Western Hemisphere reverberated in every country and that Latin America influenced the global war.” Germany had established an agricultural presence in South America in the 1850’s, which strengthened after WWI, and achieved a powerful head start on the second World War thanks to their access to Mexican oil. Oil and the rubber tapped in Amazon rain forests, were the coveted resources from which war was waged, and the Allies invested heavily in spy craft to court influence in the Latin American countries rich in those treasures. The OSS and the CIA come under the author’s express scrutiny for their meddling in Latin American politics, but she departs from an otherwise objective tone to express unabashed enthusiasm for Salvador Allende’s Marxist reign of Chile. 3 stars

Economics in One Lesson

by Henry Hazlitt

Published 1946, updated 1979

Paperback, 214 pages

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It’s never too late to learn, right? And after following some of the big names of fintwit for the past few years, there seemed to be a consensus that this is a “classic” read for the novice. At the end of each chapter, I would reflect and think to myself, “well yeah, isn’t that basically just common sense?” And I think it is, but the principles – and principals – of today’s economics have taken a very different direction. Hazlitt’s overriding directive is that “the art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Hazlitt is pro-free market, anti-Keynesian, anti-printing money, anti-tax, anti-minimum wage, anti-rent control and anti-government price fixing. Bottom line – lucky for him he isn’t here to see what’s going on today. My favorite line from the book: “When Alexander the Great visited the philosopher Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for him, Diogenes is said to have replied: ‘Yes, stand a little less between me and the sun.’ It is what every citizen is entitled to ask of his government. 4 stars

American Harvest: God, Country and Farming in the Heartland

by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Kindle, 416 pages

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I don’t even know if I can say I liked this book, but it has stayed with me for the months since I read it and I ponder it often. The author is a self-admitted atheist and proud “coastal elite” whose ease with those labels is troubled only by an atavistic tie to land in Nebraska where her family has farmed wheat for more than a century. We’re not talking a field or two – we are talking about corporate farming and big money.

As a journalist by trade, she undoubtedly saw the allure of a story where she tags along with the crew that has long traveled from Lancaster, PA to harvest her family’s crop. Eric Wolgemuth is the evangelical Christian descended from Anabaptists who heads up the crew of harvesters, which includes his wife, son and other relatives. The book is about the land, about farming and, pointedly, about religion. The author, bereft of familiarity with the tenets of Christianity, says she would “feel suspicious of any God who would kill off his only son for me.” Eric, on the other hand, is stoically tolerant of every sling and arrow she aims at his beliefs. He doesn’t react to Mockett’s barbs or her gleeful prying into his son Juston’s rebellion against his father’s Evangelical faith.

Mockett accompanies them to a “cowboy church’ in Texas, a megachurch in Oklahoma City and a home worship service in Nebraska, writing more or less like an anthropologist observing the rituals of a primitive tribe, which of course, is what she assumes them to be. “I am a modern person”, she says, “and can’t know the real God, because he doesn’t have a place in my world of information and human-controlled experiences.” The jumble of belief systems against the backdrop of America’s wheat belt makes for a provocative read. 3.5 stars

Next week: my Top 10 for 2020

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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1 Response to 2020 Reading Re-Cap: The Realm of the Real

  1. dizzyguy says:

    McCullough is always a good choice for getting a deep view into some piece of Americana that interests you. Good selection of books in between the bookends also!

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