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Robin Friedman (Washington, D.C. United States)

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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Vol 4 [Angela Hewitt] [Hyperion: CDA67974]
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Vol 4 [Angela Hewitt] [Hyperion: CDA67974]
Price: £13.70

5.0 out of 5 stars Angela Hewitt Performs Beethoven Sonatas 11, 18, and 28, 1 April 2015
The Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is renowned for her performances of Bach and of Mozart piano concertos. I heard Hewitt beautifully perform a Mozart concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Zinman earlier this year. Hewitt has methodically been recording other music. She spent eleven years recording Bach; and she has been working since 2006 in recording the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven. The fourth volume of Hewitt's Beethoven cycle, which I am reviewing here, was recorded in August 2012 and released in December, 2013, three years after the release of the third volume of the cycle. The musicality of Hewitt's Beethoven was worth the wait. The performances were recorded in Berlin on Hewitt's Fazioli piano.

This CD includes three highly different Beethoven sonatas, one from each of his three compositional periods. Hewitt's readings have a lyrical, joyful and improvisatory character. She has thought through and lived with this music, as shown not only in her playing but in her detailed notes as well. .

The program begins with the sonata in B-flat major, opus 22. This is one of the less frequently performed of the Beethoven sonatas, but it is a favorite of mine. I studied the sonata a few years ago and have returned to practice and try it again. This is a large, ambitious four-movement work which concludes Beethoven's first period of writing for the piano sonata. I have been concentrating on performing the opening movement of this work. Hewitt takes the movement quickly (it is marked "allegro con brio") and lightly, emphasizing the rhythmic and propulsive character of the piece. The repeated broken arpeggios beginning in measure 4 and often repeated are taken quietly and unobtrusively -- something my experience has proven very difficult to do -- as are the rhythmic tremolos which pervade this large and Haydn-influenced movement. Hewitt takes the lovely second movement slowly, bringing out the operatic, flowing main theme over, again, a subdued left hand chordal accompaniment. She offers a playful minuet with a spiky "minore" middle section and a relaxed, expansive version of the rondo finale. Although her performance is far beyond anything an amateur could achieve, it didn't discourage my own efforts but made me want to stay with and do what I could with the sonata.

The second work on the CD, the four-movement sonata in E-flat major opus 31 no. 3, is a work of Beethoven's second period of piano writing. Each of the three opus 31 sonatas is of a different character, and I had a rare opportunity to hear the first of the set, in G, in a recital last week. Sometimes called "The Hunt", the E-flat major sonata is a lively, jagged work. Hewitt's performance captures the piece's quirkiness, virtuosity, and rhythm. I liked her reading of the work's quiet opening and of the bouncing second theme of the first movement. The piece lacks a slow movement but has a bouncy scherzo-like movement and reflective minuet instead. Hewitt's minuet offered a contrast to the driving nature of the remainder of the sonata. The uptempo nonstop tarantella conclusion from which the work derives its nickname receives a vigorous, ebullient reading.

Hewitt's recital concludes with the sonata in A major opus 101 from Beethoven's late period. In his recent biography, "Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph", Ian Swafford discusses this sonata in depth. He concludes:

"Beethoven's sonatas had always been distinct individuals, starting with their distinctive sonorities. With this one and after, that quality intensified: each sonata became in itself a legendary individual in the history of piano sonatas, more than any other, op 101 is the A Major. Neither he nor anyone else ever wrote one more subtly enrapturing, more beautifully enigmatic."

Hewitt's playing of this complex work is improvisatory with a spontaneous feel, derived from performing it, according to her liner notes, since she was eighteen. The sonata opens virtually in the middle of things with a probing, reflective theme that Hewitt captures in all its singing and reverie. The opening is followed by a resolute, wayward march and by a short, deeply felt slow movement which recalls the opening. Hewitt offers a resolute, chiseled performance of the difficult triumphal fugue which concludes this late work.

Beethoven's piano sonatas are inexhaustible. The cycle, including the lesser-known works has been recorded many times, but each piece offers something to stay with and to love. Hewitt's performances are beautifully fresh. I am looking forward to hearing more of her Beethoven cycle.

Total Time: 72:29

Robin Friedman

This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War
This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War
by James M. McPherson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Why the American Civil War Matters, 28 Mar. 2015
"This Mighty Scourge" (2007) is a short collection of sixteen essays by James McPherson that, as its subtitle indicates, offers a variety of perspectives on the American Civil War. The Civil War remains the seminal event in United States history, and McPherson is the leading historian of the War now writing. With his simple writing style, erudition, willingness to explore and consider a variety of positions, and ability to convey the continued importance and significance of his chosen subject, McPherson has taught me a great deal about the Civil War. Although this book of essays can be read with benefit by those new to the study of the Civil War, it is better suited to the reader with a background in the conflict, as might be acquired from McPherson's own magisterial "Battle Cry of Freedom."

The essays are arranged in five sections which consider the causes of the Civil War, strategy, tactics, and politics, the commanders on both sides, the War as it lived on in memory in the United States, and, importantly, Lincoln.

The first section of the book, "Slavery and the Coming of War", consists of two essays, the first of which emphasizes the underlying importance of slavery as the cause of the Civil War (and summarizes much recent research on the matter), and the second of which examines two famous slaves who escaped to freedom, Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs (the author of a book called "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl") together with John Brown. McPherson offers a thoughtful treatment of the controversy which still surrounds Brown.

The second section of the book, "The Lost Cause Revisited" includes six essays which examine a variety of Southern approaches to the Civil War, both during and after the conflict. I was most interested in the essay; "To Conquer a Peace" Lee's Goals in the Gettysburg Campaign" which assesses the various reasons which students of the Civil War have given for Lee's decision to invade the North, leading to the fateful battle of Gettysburg in early July, 1863. A broader essay, "Was the Best Defense a Good Offense" examines Southern strategy and tactics in prosecuting the Civil War and, as McPherson does when at his best, allows the reader to understand the complexity of the question. Other essays explore the impact of the battle of Antietam on the Confederacy's attempt to secure foreign recognition, and the manner in which "Lost Cause" advocates in the South tried to mould history to their own views in the textbooks used to teach the Civil War to high school and even college students.

In part III of the book, "Architects of Victory" McPherson focuses on the friendship between Grant and Sherman and the work of these two northen Generals in winning the War. The final essay in this section, "Unvexed to the Sea: Lincoln, Grant, and the Vicksburg Campaign" is an excellent short analysis of the pivotal campaign which, even today, does not get the attention it merits.

In "Home Front and the Battle-Front" McPherson offers three essays which examine the courage shown by Boston intellectuals in the war effort (He might have broadened his topic slightly to include Maine's Joshua Chamberlain.), the importance of newspapers to the life of the soldier on both sides of the line, and the various efforts at negotiating a peace which occurred between North and South during the conflict -- why they were initiated and why they ultimately failed.

The final section of the book consists of two essays on Lincoln whose presence is felt througout the study. McPherson suggests more than once that a key reason for the Union's success was that they had Lincoln and the Confederacy did not. The essay "To Remember that he had Lived" is a highlight of this book, and an outstanding short introduction to Lincoln's life and to the important historical sources on his life. The final essay in the book is a short summary of Lincoln's actions in suspending habeas corpus and taking a broad view of Presidential powers in prosecuting the Civil War. This subject has been explored many times, but McPherson offers a good overview.

Readers with an interest in the Civil War will learn from and be inspired to learn more from this volume. More important than any fact or controversy about the Civil War, McPherson will help the reader understand why the Civil War deserves study. He teaches how the Civil War matters.

Robin Friedman

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication Of Democracy And A Critique Of Its Traditional Defense
The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication Of Democracy And A Critique Of Its Traditional Defense
by Reinhold Niebuhr
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.50

5.0 out of 5 stars A First Reading of Niebuhr, 25 Mar. 2015
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 -- 1971) was an American Protestant theologian and political thinker. His writings attracted great attention and controversy during his life and continue to be read. In recognition of his importance, the Library of America is publishing in April, 2015, a collection of Niebuhr's "Major Works on Religion and Politics" which has been offered to me for review. Reinhold Niebuhr : Major Works on Religion and Politics (Library of America) I hadn't read any of Niebuhr in depth. I began my reading with this difficult book, "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense" published in 1944 during WW II. The book originated as a series of lectures Niebuhr delivered at Stanford University.

This book is an extraordinary combination of religious and political philosophy. The ongoing war against Nazism was central to the book's project. Niebuhr wanted to give a philosophical explanation of the nature and importance of democracy and to rescue democracy, so to speak, from its defenders. Niebuhr believed that traditional defenses, based on Lockean "bourgeoise" individualism were inadequate and unresponsive to contemporary life. He also took issue with what he saw as "secular" non-religious attempts to defend democracy. He relied a great deal on concepts of original sin. Many readers of Niebuhr try to read his insights into the fallible nature of humanity, prone to do evil, in a way not requiring a theological commitment.

In a short space, the book covers a great deal of ground and shows broad learning. The writing is difficult but full of short, quotable, and memorable passages and aphorisms. Niebuhr proceeds by drawing and expounding a number of distinctions, the chief of which is indicated in the book's title. "The Children of Darkness" or "Children of this world", for Niebuhr are those "who know no law beyond their will and interest." For these, "children", right is power and authoritarianism. Niebuhr defines "children of light" as "those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law"; or, in a slightly expanded formulation, "those who seek to bring self-interest under the discipline of a more universal law and in harmony with a more universal good."

Niebuhr believes that both Lockean liberalism and Marxism are in the camp of the "Children of Light". He finds that both these "children" share a common error and have a lesson to learn from the Children of Darkness: the power of self-interest and selfishness to overcome a naïve idealistic faith in reason. Put otherwise, the Children of Light underestimate the sinful human heart, whether individually or collectively, and its capacity to substitute personal interest for a search for what is right and good. Niebuhr writes:

"The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and the international community. Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical. It has an easy solution for the problem or anarchy and chaos on both the national and international level of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of man. It does not know that the same man who is ostensibly devoted to the 'common good' may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set him at variance with his neighbor."

The book is at its best when it is broadest in its opening chapter and in the second chapter which distinguishes between "the individual and the community" Democracy tries to give credence to the needs of both. While they are often viewed in opposition, Niebuhr recognizes that individual life requires strong ties to others and that communal life requires a degree of transcendence -- individuals must be free to change and expand beyond what may be arbitrary, time-bound limits. Niebuhr writes:

"The ideal of individual self-sufficiency, so exalted in our liberal culture, is recognized in Christian thought as one form of the primal sin. For self-love, which is the root of all sin, takes two social forms. One of them is the domination of other life by the self. The second is the sin of isolationism. The self can be its true self only by continued transcendence over self. This self-transcendence either ends in mystic otherworldliness or it must be transmuted into indetermine realizations of the self in the life of others. By the responsibilities which men have to their family and community and to many common enterprises, they are drawn out of themselves to become their true selves. The indeterminate character of human freedom makes it impossible to set any limits of intensity or extent to this social responsibility."

The remaining portions of the book tend to be slightly less general. Niebuhr develops his distinctions to show issues in individual versus communal conceptions of property, the treatment of minorities in democratic societies, and the expansion of national boundaries to embrace a world community and the difficulties and perils of so doing. On my initial reading, I found Niebuhr at his best when he remains a theologian, particularly when he discusses diverging religious beliefs and religious toleration in chapter four and elsewhere.

Niebuhr's views were well on the liberal side of American politics and he wrote about them extensively. This book, however, is far different from a political tract. Niebuhr takes a serious, provocative, and nuanced look at democracy and its sources. His religious convictions, while important in their own right, may be restated by secular individuals who understand the nature of human fallibility and finitude. I was more comfortable with his treatment of religious questions than with other approaches which tend, wrongly in my view, to draw religion into public life. I learned a great deal from this book and was glad to have read it as my first sustained approach to Niebuhr.

Robin Friedman

Lonesome Traveler (Penguin Modern Classics)
Lonesome Traveler (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Jack Kerouac
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Travels with Jack Kerouac, 24 Mar. 2015
Kerouac's "Lonesome Traveler" (1960)is a collection of eight travel essays, several of which had been published earlier. Kerouac offers insights into the collection in his introduction. He states that he "always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the 'beat'generation. -- Am actually not 'beat' but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic." The essays in "Lonesome Traveler" support Kerouac's comments about his work, which has frequently been misinterpreted or sensationalized. The subject of the collection Kerouac aptly describes as "railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solepsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmosh of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going nowhere."

I read much of this book sitting alone in a park on a Saturday afternoon, and it was a fitting companion to my own reflections. There is an intimacy of tone in Kerouac's book that made me feel at times that I was with him and sharing his experiences. Kerouac's spontaneous prose, with its long, strangly, and rhhythmic sentences is an erratic instrument indeed. But when it works, it is moving.

There is a continuity in these essays as Kerouac takes his reader back and forth across the United States, to Mexico, and to North Africa and Europe. Kerouac's vision tends to be highly particularized and specific. He is at his best in describing a lonely room in a San Francisco apartment, a night walk on a pier awaiting a ship, and evening's drinking with a friend and, especially, the sights and places of 'beat' New York City. Many of the scenes in the book show Kerouac sedentary -- in a cheap room or in a fire lookout on Desolation Peak -- while others show a fascination with travel, with ships and the sea and even more with railroads.

The first essay "Piers of the Homeless Night" shows Kerouac wandering on a dock in San Pedro in what becomes a failed effort at securing employment on a ship. "Mexico Fellaheen" describes the trip to Mexico he took immediately thereafter, with scenes in a drug den, a bullfight, and a church. "The Railroad Earth" is a lengthy chapter in which Kerouac details his experience working as a brakeman, and how "railroading gets in yr blood", as a character says at the end. In "Slobs of the Kitchen Sea" Kerouac describes his experience working on a ship -- before he gets fired. "New York Scenes" includes the finest writing in the collection, as Kerouac takes his reader on an intimate tour of the New York City he clearly knows and loves. "Alone on a Mountaintop" is a reflective chapter about the summer Kerouac spent as a watchman on Desolation Peak. The "Big Trip to Europe" includes William Burroughs as a character and describes Kerouac's experiences in Tangiers, with women, in Paris, with art museums, and in England, with hostile police. The final essay, "The Vanishing American Hobo" is a nostalgic tribute to those wanderers, such as Kerouac himself, who once graced the American and the world landscape.

Besides the descriptive writing, there is a sense of mystical pantheism in this book. Kerouac's thought is notoriously difficult to describe. The book is replete with religious metaphor, both Buddhist and Christian. For all the vagaries of his life, Kerouac the writer has something to teach. The book teaches of the need to accept and love one's experiences and to let go --- expanding upon what Kerouac himself says in his introduction. Life is to be loved and cherished, regardless of one's circumstances.

Thus, at the end of "Mexico Fellaheen", following a visit to a church, Kerouac observes: "I bow to all this, kneel at my pew entryway, and go out, taking one last look at St. Antoine de Padue (St. Anthony) Santo Antonio de Padua. -- Everything is perfect on the street again, the world is permeated with roses of happiness all the time, but none of us know it. The happiness consists in realizing that it is all a great strange dream."

Kerouac offers a great deal of reflection in the essay "Alone on a Mountaintop." Sitting in the fire observation tower, he comes to realize that "no matter where I am, whether in a little room full of thought, or in this endless universe of stars and mountains, it's all in my mind. There's no need for solitude. So love life for what it is, and form no preconceptions whatever in your mind." As he leaves his summer in the fire tower, Kerouac states that he "turned and blessed Desolation Peak and the little pagoda on top and thanked them for the shelter and the lesson I'd been taught."

There is much in journeying with Kerouac in this book that can inspire still.

Robin Friedman

Nightmare Alley (New York Review Books)
Nightmare Alley (New York Review Books)
by William Lindsay Gresham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The Great Stanton, 21 Mar. 2015
Set in the sleazy low-life world of travelling carnivals in the 1920's -- 1930's, William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 novel, "Nightmare Alley" tells the story of Stan Carlisle from his days as a carnival sleight-of-hand magician, to his rise as a mentalist and spiritualist, to his abject degradation. The book became a 1947 movie starring Tyronne Power. I was drawn to the book because I have been reading American noir and have a fascination with the novel's gritty carnival theme.

The book is replete with opacity and hokum. Each chapter begins with a Tarot Card, as befitting its theme, which is tied in with the development of the story. A popular, best-selling novel in its day, "Nightmare Alley" requires attention to read. The story develops slowly, carefully, and obscurely with substantial foreshadowing. The book becomes clearer by returning to the beginning after an initial reading.

The word "geek" has acquired a contemporary meaning, but in Gresham's novel the word denotes the lowest, most vulgar act in a carnival sideshow. As the book opens, Gresham portrays a "geek", "half man, half animal" as he crawls about on all fours in a dirty pen fondling snakes and killing and eating raw chickens. The most fascinating portions of the book are its portrayals of carnival life, with its "kooch shows", electric girls, tattooed sailors, magicians, midgets, and mind readers. The book's focus is on the "ten in one" show which offered a collage of frauds and freaks for a single price.

Stan Carlisle, the "Great Stanton" is the central character in the book. As it begins, Stan is an ambitious, unprincipled young magician rising in the carny world. The story is told by "misdirection", the heart of the sleight-of-hand worker, as Stan's early life unfolds only gradually and by hints. Stan romances an older carny woman, Zeena, who works as a mentalist answering questions from the audience or "marks" based on a complicated system of cues. An ambitious young man, Stan wants to learn the tricks, which he does in part by knocking off Zeena's alcoholic husband. Stan then teams up with a young girl named Molly, who began her carny life working in a girl show and who has moved up to the role of electric girl. She ostensibly is able to take electricity passed through her body in a replica of the Sing-Sing electric chair. Stan and Molly leave the carnival for bigger and better things and richer marks. For several years, the couple do their mentalism routine in vaudeville shows. They gradually move up to work in the realm of spiritualism, seances, and raising "spooks" which Gresham parodies mercilessly. The Great Stanton finds what proves to be the ultimate vicious femme fatale, a psychiatrist named Lillith Ritter who is more unscrupulous and intelligent than her mark, Stan. Together, they plot to deceive a wealthy manufacturer, Ezra Grindle, who has carried a lifelong guilt when his college sweetheart died from an abortion. Following a long climactic scene, the novels winds inexorably through the world of crime, killing, alcohol, hoboing to eventual geekdom.

Many shocking scenes in the novel take place in alleys, as befitting its title. In one scene, Stan runs through an alley following an encounter with a prostitute en route to a meeting with the psychiatrist, Lillith. The desperate, claustrophobic scene is emblematic of the book. Gresham writes:

"Stan felt the prickle crawl up over his scalp again. The old house was waiting for him and the fat ones with pince-nez and false teeth; this woman doc probably was one of them, for all the music of voice an cool, slow speech. What could she do for him? What could anybody do for him? For anybody? They were all trapped, all running down the alley toward the light."

"Nightmare Alley" is a raw, sordid, powerful book. It is full of details and people which enhance the seamy character of the tale. The primary characters, Stan and Molly, are well and cunningly developed and contrasted. For readers fascinated with such matters and willing to explore noir literature now somewhat off the beaten path, the book offers a sharp portrayal of the underside of American life. The book is available in the single volume I am reviewing here or in a Library of America volume of Crime Novels of American Noir from the 1930s and 40s.American Noir: 11 Classic Crime Novels of the 1930s, 40s, & 50s (Library of America) The book also reminded me of one of my favorites: a photographic history of Carnival girlie shows by the renowned photographer Susan Meiselas.CARNIVAL STRIPPERS. Readers interested in the world of the carny will love Gresham's book.

Robin Friedman

Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World
Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World
by Evan Thomas
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £29.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Eisenhower's Lonely Presidency, 13 Mar. 2015
Dwight David Eisenhower(1890 -- 1969) served from 1953 -- 1961 as the 34th president after a heroic military career in which he was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during WW II. Proceeded by Harry Truman and followed by John Kennedy, Eisenhower's presidency tended to be poorly regarded in its immediate aftermath. But Eisenhower's presidency continues to attract attention and debate. Beginning in the late 1960's, scholars began revisiting Eisenhower's leadership style and accomplishments to find that he was a president of both force and subtlety. Early in 2012, Jean Edward Smith published a lengthy and highly laudatory biography of Eisenhower that has received substantial critical attention. Eisenhower in War and Peace Smith covers Eisenhower's entire life rather than focusing on his presidency. Evan Thomas' new book "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World" (2012) is much more narrowly focused. Thomas covers only Eisenhower's presidency, and considers almost exclusively his foreign policy rather than his domestic programs. A Washington insider, Thomas has written extensively on 20th Century American history.

The title "Eisenhower's Bluff" refers to the central characteristic of the president's enigmatic foreign policy. In public, Eisenhower appeared a smiling, confident, avuncular war hero who frequently spoke in fractured syntax and who displayed a fondness for playing golf. Eisenhower as also a skilled a fiercely competitive poker and bridge player. In these games, and as a general, he learned how to hold his cards and his feelings. The "bluff" refers to Eisenhower's attitude towards the use of nuclear weapons. As Thomas points out, with his presidency and with the United States possession of a nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower became the first person to literally hold the fate of the world in his hands.

Eisenhower's foreign policy was based on a doctrine called "Massive Retaliation" under which war would be averted and avoided by the United States threat to resort to nuclear weapons, even in seemingly local conflicts. Eisenhower seemed to be convinced that nuclear weapons had made conventional warfare obsolete. In seeming contradiction to this policy, Eisenhower was fully aware of the terrible character of the nuclear bomb and was convinced that such weapons should never be used. Eisenhower's foreign policy, for Thomas, turned upon the threat to use nuclear weapons, not their use. Thomas summarizes his study of Eisenhower early in the book.

"The 1950s were boringly peaceful (or are remembered that way) only because Eisenhower made them so. Eisenhower governed by indirection, not just because he preferred to, but also because he had to. His ability to save the world from nuclear Armageddon entirely depended on his ability to convince America's enemies-- and his own followers-- that he was willing to use nuclear weapons. This was a bluff of epic proportions."

Thomas offers a number of telling anecdotes to explain Eisenhower's bluff. The first involves a meeting with Dean Acheson, Truman's Secretary of State, who advised Eisenhower to determine for himself when, if at all, he would commit to the use of nuclear weapons and to "tell no one" what he decided. Then, in 1958,the poet Robert Frost visited the White House to present Eisenhower with a book of poems. Frost inscribed the book: "[t]he strong are saying nothing until they see." Eisenhower wrote in response "I like his maxim perhaps best of all."

Thomas book is in two parts, each of which considers one of Eisenhower's two terms as president. Thomas describes the many foreign policy crises in the Eisenhower years beginning with Korea, and continuing through Vietnam, Formosa, the Suez Canal, Berlin, and much more. In these and other crises, many advisors close to the president were willing to opt for the use of nuclear weapons, a prospect Eisenhower seemingly found unthinkable. Eisenhower governed, Thomas argues, through indirection and through deliberately sending mixed and confusing signals to achieve his goals. Eisenhower was willing to threaten in public the use of nuclear power while working in a different direction behind the scenes. The process was messy but it kept the United States out of war during Eisenhower's presidency. Thomas argues that Eisenhower's method of governance was dependent upon the esteem in which Eisenhower was held and upon his stature as a war hero and could not have been used effectively by any other American leader.

The book describes Eisenhower's complex relationship with John Foster Dulles, his Secretary of State, and with his brother Allan Dulles, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Eisenhower could reign in his sometimes blustering Secretary of State but he fared less well with the CIA and the many covert operations in which it engaged during the 1950s and thereafter.
The book describes well the tensions of the Cold War and the exaggerated views held by many, not including Eisenhower, about the Soviet threat at the time. The launching of Sputnik and the fears of an in fact nonexistent "missle gap" brought a great deal of fear to those growing up in the United States at the time. Thomas suggests that Eisenhower would have had difficulty defusing these fears at the time because doing so would have required the release of highly secret information and of the means of its collection.

Following Eisenhower's presidency, his successors adopted a doctrine called "Flexible Response" which Eisenhower had rejected. This doctrine allows for the prosecution of limited war without the nuclear threat. As Thomas points out, the use of flexible response has achieved questionable results in places such as Vietnam and perhaps Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scholars remain divided on the nature of Eisenhower's commitment to "Massive Retaliation" and whether the threats to use nuclear weaponry in fact constituted a "bluff". Thomas offers a detailed examination of Eisenhower's governance which on the whole offers a highly favorable assessment of Eisenhower and his accomplishments, while recognizing that the policy would not have worked in the hands of his successors. Thomas concludes:"Eisenhower understood with profound insight ,the moral ambiguities, the wrenching dilemmas, the dreary expediencies, and the quiet moral courage required of a life of duty, honor, country..... That he could be, as he made his lonely and sometimes inscrutable way, so resolutely cheerful, so determinedly optimistic, was a kind of miracle born of faith."

This book will be of interest to readers with a passion for 20th Century American history, particularly to aging baby boomers such as myself.

Robin Friedman

Writings (Library of America)
Writings (Library of America)
by George Washington
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £27.34

5.0 out of 5 stars George Washington In His Own Words, 12 Mar. 2015
A new book by Joseph Ellis, "The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783 -- 1789" prompted me to read more about George Washington (1732 -- 1799). Ellis' book discusses the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation and the importance of four individuals, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, in spearheading the movement for a constitution and a strong national government. Of these four, Washington emerges in Ellis' account as the towering, pivotal figure. I wanted to go back to him.

The Library of America is an outstanding national resource in publishing the best of America's cultural heritage, including literature, philosophy, history, and much more. Over the years, the LOA has published twelve volumes of original source material on the American founders. The books in this series that I have read include a volume of eyewitness accounts of the American Revolution, two volumes of the writings of John Adams, and a volume each of the writings of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Marshall. Among the books in the series I hadn't read was the LOA's 1997 volume of the writings of George Washington. With Ellis' book as the immediate prompt, I took it off the shelf at last and read it.

The book offers a generous 1140 page selection of Washington's writings, both public and private. It includes the texts of 446 documents that the volume's editor describes as "official and private letters, military orders, addresses, proclamations, memoranda, and diary entries -- that were written by George Washington, or written at his direction, between 1747 and 1799." The texts are drawn from a large still ongoing edition of Washington's complete writings together with other less comprehensive editions of his writings that have been published over the years. John Rhodehamel edited the volume, selected its contents, and prepared a detailed chronology of Washington's life to accompany the texts.

The five-part division of this book in itself shows Washington's pervasive influence in the formation and future of the United States. The first part covers the Colonial Period, 1747 -- 1775 and centers upon his military service in the French and Indian War and in his activities at Mount Vernon. It is important to recognize the esteem in which Washington was already held during this period, as shown by the role he assumed immediately thereafter.

The volume's second part covers Washington's years as Commander of the Continental Army, 1773 -- 1783 which secured America's independence from Great Britain. Many of the themes of Ellis' book come through in these documents as Washington described and struggled with the lack of a strong central government which hindered and almost destroyed the efforts to win American independence. Among the documents is Washington's final "Circular to State Governments" dated June 8, 1783, in which Washington urges eloquently at length the establishment of a constitutional, national government to replace the thirteen-headed governments of the states under the Articles. But there is much else that is rich and valuable in these texts, military, political, and personal. Among them is a small note of thanks to the African American poet, Phillis Wheatley in which Washington expresses his thanks for Wheatley's poem in his praise and invites her to visit.

Part three of the book covers The Confederation Period, 1783 -- 1789. Washington had retired to what he hoped would be private life at Mount Vernon. He continued to insist on the necessity of a strong national government and reluctantly came out of retirement to attend the Constitutional Convention as a delegate from Virginia and to serve as President of the Convention.

Part four includes documents from Washington's two terms as the first President, 1789 -- 1797, a position he assumed with expressed reluctance. This was a critical, difficult time as it was necessary to establish the new government and the duties of the presidency on a firm footing. I doubt that anyone else had the broad respect of competing segments of the population and the judgment and political wisdom to have done so. The documents cover Washington's role in the competing visions of Hamilton and Jefferson, foreign relations resulting from the French Revolution, the Jay Treaty with Britain, relationships with the Indian tribes, increasing domestic discontent and factionalization, among other things. Washington's Farewell Address, of course, is a highlight of this part, but there is much more.

The final and shortest part of this book covers Washington's retirement to Mount Vernon, 1797 -- 1799, his continued involvement in public life, efforts to involve him still further (including standing for the presidency again) and the text of his will.

I have focused in the above summary on Washington's public life, but the volume includes much more. One of the fascinating features of the book is the way the documents move back and forth between the public and private sides of George Washington. Documents describing difficult military or political decisions are often followed by (sometimes in a single document) documents in which Washington manages, or micro-manages, his Mount Vernon estate, borrows or lends money, buys and sells, and writes advice to family members and friends. It is striking to see Washington "multi-task" in the modern phrase. It is also valuable to see how practical and sometimes petty were his concerns. Washington was a person of large ego and ambition which he often concealed, even from himself, but which comes through clearly to readers of this book. Although a practical man more than a thinker, Washington had strong opinions, including his belief in the need for a strong central government, and expressed them forcefully. In his personal and business relationships, he often was unpleasantly blunt. The book allows the reader to see Washington's views on many matters, including his growing rejection of slavery, and his belief in a vague deism and strong sense of providence.

This is a lengthy collection of texts which is not always easy to read. Washington was not the most elegant of writers, and many of his famous public addresses or papers were heavily edited by others, such as Hamilton or Madison, or were ghostwritten. In addition, the book will be most suitable to readers with a working knowledge of the Revolutionary Era and of Washington's life. The chronology in the volume is useful but insufficient. Without a degree of background and patience, some readers will find it difficult to work through this book.

This book, and its subject, are treasures. George Washington, and the American experience, have come in for debunking and skepticism in recent years. The debunking, together with a widespread ignorance of American history, make this book invaluable. It enables readers to reflect on Washington and his lasting importance throughout the Revolutionary Era -- including colonial times, the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and the first Presidency. There are few individuals who have served their country so broadly and well and who have a better claim to be studied and remembered with affection. The Library of America deserves gratitude for this volume and for its series on the Founders.

Robin Friedman

The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon
The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon
by John E. Ferling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.67

4.0 out of 5 stars Still The Great American Founder, 11 Mar. 2015
Early in this new book, "The Ascent of George Washington", John Ferling quotes the famous two lines offered by Henry "Light Horse" Lee in his eulogy for George Washington offered on December 26, 1799 in Philadelphia. Lee declared that Washington was "first in war - first in peace - and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Lee proceeded to observe that in his long public life, Washington had acted in a selfless manner. Washington's intentions and actions had been motivated solely "from obedience to his country's will". (Ferling, pp 3-4) Ferling is professor emeritus of history at the State University of West Georgia and the author of many books on the Revolutionary Era. Most recently, he is the author of "Almost a Miracle", which describes the Revolutionary War with an approach that he also follows in this book.

Many generations of Americans have accepted the iconic portrayal of George Washington that Henry Lee, together with his fellow eulogists, propounded. In our critical and skeptical age, this idealization of Washington has received substantial attack and correction. In his book, Ferling takes issue with two primary components of the Washington legend. He attacks the view that Washington was a disinterested participant in the political process and finds instead that Washington was heavily motivated by personal, political ambition. Ferling also attacks the view that Washington was above partisan politicking, and describes the first president as a skilled politician knowingly acting to advance a specific political agenda. Ferling argues that "George Washington was so good at politics that he alone of all of America's public officials in the past two centuries succeeded in convincing others that he was not a politician." (at xix) Ferling also takes issue with other parts of the Washington legend. He points out that Washington made many military mistakes, both in the French-Indian War and in the Revolutionary War. Further, Washington was habitually indecisive and frequently acted with slowness more than with his vaunted deliberation.

Unlike the other Founders, Washington lacked an extensive formal education and, at least early in life, was not as wealthy as is sometimes believed. But Washington had an overweening ambition to make something of his life. (In this regard, Washington resembles the other great American hero, Abraham Lincoln.) Through hard work and the use of connections, Washington rose to increasingly large positions of responsibility while showing, especially in the French-Indian War, military deficiencies, a tendency to blame others for his own shortcomings, and a certain indecisiveness. Washington became active and Virginia politics and an early supporter of American independence. He saw America through a difficult and brutal war for independence, served as president of the Constitutional Convention, and as the first President of the United States, to highlight the greatest of his accomplishments.

Ferling shows that in many instances, Washington's disinterestedness and apparent aloofness were calculated to mask an individual with a drive for power. Ferling seems to me correct in this, but he also tends to overlook that many other students of Washington have made the same observation. Ferling also fastens upon Washington's many military mistakes. Here again, he offers little that will surprise students of the Revolutionary War. However, Ferling overstates his case against Washington, and he tends to overlook glaring deficiencies and mistakes made by other leaders of the Continental Army that, Ferling would have the reader believe, had a better military sense than Washington. There is a feeling of carping in Ferling's account. He recognizes, as he must, that Washington displayed the highest qualities of leadership and administration during the difficult years of the war. The conflict almost certainly could not have been won without Washington at the helm. Some of Ferling's criticisms, while true, are thus relatively insignificant.

When he considers Washington's presidency, Ferling again covers ground that has been well-explored by other historians. He argues that Washington was not above the political fray but was instead a strong supporter of the politics and tendencies to aristocracy of the Federalist Party, as exemplified in Alexander Hamilton. Yet Ferling recognizes that Washington, at his best, listened carefully to divergent points of view before making up his mind on issues of importance. He also downplays instances in which Washington did not fully follow Hamilton's counsel. While Hamilton undoubtedly tried to use his Chief on several occasions to further his own agenda, Washington was savvy enough to use Hamilton as well. Here again, Ferling's criticisms, while well-taken in part do not capture the nature of Washington's presidency. Ferling acknowledges the judgment, skill, and dedication with which, for all his pomposity, Washington conducted the presidency. Washington established the presidency as an institution. There was no one else, Ferling admits, who could have led the United States through the eight tumultuous years of domestic and foreign unrest as did George Washington. Ferling's account perhaps humanizes Washington. But it hardly lessens his stature.

It is a commonplace that many Americans today are woefully ignorant of our history. There is also a tendency to approach history and revered figures with cynicism. Ferling's book is readable and accessible. If his book encourages readers to think about its subject, it will have served its purpose well. The book offers a good if polemical account of Washington, the Revolutionary era, and the first presidency. For all his caviling, Ferling offers a portrait of a Washington who deserves strong and continued study and admiration from his countrymen.

Robin Friedman

Schumann: Carnaval [Boris Giltburg] [NAXOS: 8573399]
Schumann: Carnaval [Boris Giltburg] [NAXOS: 8573399]
Price: £5.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Boris Giltburg Plays Schumann, 11 Mar. 2015
Pianist Boris Giltburg (b. 1984) offers performances of Robert Schumann's "Papillions" Carnaval" and "Davidsbundlertanze" in this new CD on Naxos. Born in Russia, Giltburg has spent most of his life in Israel. His career blossomed when in 2013 he won the Queen Elizabeth Competition. He has recorded works by Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky, Liszt, and Grieg to high acclaim. This CD was my first experience with his music. Naxos kindly sent me a review copy.

The three Schumann works are wildly romantic, wayward, full of contrasting emotions, and quirky. They each consist of a series of seemingly disjointed short pieces. Each of these three works are highly popular with pianists and audiences and have been recorded many times by the greatest pianists. With so many readings of these works, Giltburg's is passionate, exciting, and fresh. He possesses a large virtuoso technique which he uses in this disk to the utmost. More importantly, he has thought and felt through these works and captures their characters, lyricism, drive, and introspection. The result is a beautiful CD of romantic Schumann.

Giltburg has thought through these works to a high degree. His liner notes for the CD discuss how these extended works of many short unrelated movements cohere to form a whole. He offers insight into the relationship of the three works to each other which enhances the music, even for those who have loved these pieces for many years.

Broadly, Giltburg understands Schumann as illuminating the nature of love and the varied emotions of the heart. How he did so developed as he grew older. In Papillions (1829, 1831) Schumann took a literary model, and drew twelve wildly varying and idiosyncratic scenes from a masquerade. In "Carnaval", Schumann abandoned his specific literary source, and drew characters and scenes as his imagination took him -- some from real life, others from the Comedia dell'arte. Unlike the prior and the following works, each individual movement has a specific name. The "Davidisbundlertanze" of 1837 abandons both the masquerade and the express storytelling. It is a work of eighteen highly emotive, sharply contrasting movements between Schumann's moody introspective side, Eusebius, and his passionate, extroverted side, Florestan.

I listened to this CD with score in hand and loved Giltburg's performance of each work. "Carnaval" is one of my favorite pieces of music and has stayed with me the longest. Some years ago, I struggled with it on the piano and, played it at home for a group of young lawyers in my office just starting out. Together with my attempted musical rendition of "Carnaval" I gave my more-or-less captive audience a short introduction to the work in which I empasized the importance of romance, imagination, and fun in the middle of the harsh, demanding grind of legal practice. I don't know if the message came through. But I always have had a place in my heart for "Carnaval". Giltberg brought the work back to me. Among many other touches, I was moved by his renditions of Schumann's two loves, Chiarina and Estrella with his musical portrait of Chopin in between. An expanded version of Giltburg's liner notes is available on Naxos which explores each of "Carnaval's" movements in greater detail.

Schumann "marched against the Philistines" not only as a campaign against stodgy, academic music but more broadly as a rejection of stodgy, unpoetic life. It is a voice of romance which needs to be heard. Listners who know and love this music as well as those new to it will love Giltburg's readings of Schumann.

Total Time: 77:11

Robin Friedman

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: Antietam - The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War (Pivotal Moments in American History)
Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: Antietam - The Battle That Changed the Course of the Civil War (Pivotal Moments in American History)
by James M. McPherson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New Birth Of Freedom And Its Cost, 7 Mar. 2015
On September 17, 1862, the Army of the Potomac commanded by General George B. McClellan met the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E. Lee in the fields near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The result was the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American History and a pivotal moment of the Civil War. The battle ended the Confederacy's first invasion of the North and gave President Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

In his short study, "Crossroads of Freedom" Professor McPherson weaves together many strands in discussing the significance of the battle. First, he places the battle against the backdrop of the prior military course of the war, both in the Eastern and the Western Theatres. He points out how Union successes in the early part of 1862 were followed by serious defeats in the Seven Days Battle and Second Manassas with the tide of the war turning to the Confederacy. Although the South would again invade the North culminating in the Battle of Gettysburg, Antietam was a clear check to Southern momentum. It gave the Union the courage, will and political force to fight on.

Second, Professor McPherson emphasizes the role of the European powers -- England and France -- in the Civil War. These nations followed events in America closely and were economically at risk from the loss of Southern cotton for their textile mills. They likely would have recognized the Confederacy if the results of the first invasion of the North had favored the Confederacy.

Third, and probably most importantly to his theme, Professor McPherson discusses the role of Antietam in the changing character of the Civil War. President Lincoln was opposed to slavery, but his initial war aims did not include freeing the slaves. Rather he wished to hold the Union together. As the War continued, Lincoln became convinced of the necessity of issuing an Emancipation Proclamation but believed that he needed a military success to give the Proclamation force and credibility. The victory at Antietam, narrow as it was, and tremendous as was its human cost, gave him that opportunity.

Emancipation was indeed a new birth of freedom. It also, as Professor McPherson points out, changed the character of the War from one with the aim of trying to persuade the South to come back to a state of total War -- which changed the character of a culture and redefined the nature of freedom in the United States.

Professor McPherson's book is part of a series called "Pivotal Moments in American History" whose aim is "to encourage interest in problems of historical contingency." There was a great deal of chance involved in the Battle of Antietam, more so than in most military campaigns. (There were also military blunders on both sides.) During the course of the southern invasion the Union discovered by chance a copy of General Lee's "Special Order No. 179" which had been dropped in a field. Special Order No. 179 detailed Lee's disposition of his troops and gave General McClellan the opportunity to attack in series each detachment of Lee's divided army. This was crucial to the result at Antietam. But McClellan missed the opportunity to win a decisive victory and bring an end to the War. Human error and chance play a great role in human events. But Professor McPherson might have done well to refer to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and compared Lincoln's reflections on the role of providence with the blind chance that led to the Union finding of Special Order No. 179.

There is only a short description of the battle of Antietam itself. The focus of the study is putting the Battle in its historical and political context rather than in a detailed analysis of military moves. Nevertheless, I found Professor McPhersons's description of the battle (as well as his descriptions of the Seven Days Battle and Second Manassas) easier to follow than more detailed studies I have read. Professor McPherson gives a good annotated bibliography which refers the reader interested in a military study of the battle to more detailed accounts.

This is an excellent study of the Battle of Antietam which places it well in the context of the Civil War and which encourages the reader to reflect on the meaning of the War and of the nature of American freedom.

Robin Friedman

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