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Roosevelt's Purge
Roosevelt's Purge
by Susan Dunn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.95

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable narrative hobbled by a flawed thesis, 8 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Roosevelt's Purge (Hardcover)
American presidents fortunate enough to enjoy two terms invariably find their second term more difficult than their first one, but if there was a president who could have bucked the trend it was Franklin Roosevelt. Enjoying one of the most massive reelection victories in history, he could claim a clear mandate from the voters, one reflected not just in his own overwhelming numbers but the enormous majorities enjoyed by the Democratic Party in both houses of Congress. Yet despite this Roosevelt was unable to accomplish anything approaching his triumphs in his first term, when he was able to pass through Congress legislation that transformed the nation. Instead Roosevelt squandered his political capital in ill-advised confrontations that diminished his standing and eroded his support. Though the first of these battles, over the Supreme Court 'packing plan', is well known, far less so is his subsequent effort to purge conservative Democrats from office during the 1938 midterm election. Susan Dunn's book is a history of this effort, providing an examination of its origins, its consequences, and its subsequent impact on national politics.

Dunn argues that the origins of the purge lay in Roosevelt's desire to reshape the American political landscape. In the early twentieth century, American political parties were mainly coalitions of regional political groupings, often ideologically disparate. Roosevelt aimed to change that by forcing the conservatives out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican one. His immediate motivation, however, lay in his frustration with the failure of his legislative agenda in Congress. Despite large Democratic majorities in both houses, his court-packing and executive reorganization bills were thwarted and his wages and hours legislation faced similar hard going. Roosevelt sought to target the conservative Democrats up for reelection in 1938 who had succeeded in stymying his agenda.

In spite of his enormous national popularity, Roosevelt's plans faced considerable obstacles. Foremost among them was the political support these congressmen and senators enjoyed at home, even when that support clashed with their constituents' approval for the New Deal programs their elected representatives often opposed. Many of the targeted politicians took advantage of this, turning Roosevelt's attacks to their advantage by decrying national interference in their local elections, thus playing to voters' sense of their independence. Nor was Roosevelt's own camp completely on board, as Roosevelt's handpicked party leader and former campaign manager, James Farley, conspicuously absented himself from the effort out of skepticism of its success and concern for the impact of such internecine warfare on the party's prospects in November. Yet perhaps the greatest impediment to the president's plans lay in Roosevelt's own half-hearted efforts in his own cause. Often he seemed hesitant about his own campaign, starting out late in launching it and often pulling his punches in speeches. Opponents of Roosevelt's targets often could not even count on outright endorsements, leaving them with little counter to the advantages provided by incumbency. As a result, Roosevelt's efforts and the publicity surrounding them translated into few successes but many open wounds, confirming further the limits of even the president's political ability.

Dunn's book is an enjoyable narrative of the campaign. Drawing upon contemporary press coverage and other published sources, she sheds considerable light into an overshadowed aspect of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. Yet her narrative is based upon a flawed premise. The political realignment that her book attempts to establish had its origins not in 1938 but in the political campaign of another Roosevelt - his cousin Theodore, whose Progressive bolt form the GOP in 1912 was the true beginning of the recasting of party politics of ideological lines. Franklin Roosevelt's presidency was only one - albeit very important - step down a road that the country was already on by the 1930s. By overlooking this Dunn overstates the importance of the Roosevelt purge in American political history and limits her achievement with this book, which ultimately chronicles more of a premature push than the dawning of the political landscape Americans know today.


Crimea
Crimea
by Orlando Figes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A long-overlooked conflict finally receives its due, 1 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Crimea (Paperback)
On July 18, 1854, two British warships under the command of Captain Erasmus Ommaeny bombarded the monastery on the main island in the Solovetskie Islands in the White Sea. The monastery itself had no real military or political value, but Ommaney lacked the forces necessary to attack the main Russian base in the area at Archangel and decided that the monastery was a suitable enough target to win his men plaudits at home. After the outdated Russian batteries defending the monastery were destroyed, Ommaney demanded the surrender of the place; when this was refused he launched a second bombardment before sailing away in frustration, his bold military action having caused a total of six casualties, all among his own men.

There is no mention of Ommaney's adventure in Orlando Figes's history of the Crimean War, which is unfortunate considering how nicely it encapsulates the pointlessness that is a dominant theme of his assessment of the conflict. Its absence is also revealing, as it shows Figes's focus to be squarely on the eponymous theater of the war. There is some discussion of the combat in the Caucauses, a couple of passing mentions of fighting in the Baltic and no mention of battles anywhere else. This is also unfortunate, as it would have been interesting to see him employ the same penetrating analysis to these other overlooked theaters that he applies to the fighting in the Crimea. For his book offers a insightful reexamination of this often-overlooked conflict, one that demonstrates its underrated significance to the history of Europe in the 19th century.

Figes spends the first part of the book teasing out the complicated origins of the war. While many factors were involved, he considers the role of the Russian tsar Nicolas I to be the most significant one, giving greater weight to religion as a motivating factor in his actions than have previous historians. Yet this only served to define some of the particulars of what was an ongoing struggle between the major European powers over the fate of the Ottoman Empire and her territories. Pressured by Russia, the Ottomans received support from Great Britain and France, each of whom were motivated by different interests and seeking different goals.

Achieving their various goals eventually cost the sides involved far more than they had anticipated. When war did break out in 1854, the British and the French were divided as to what to do to strike at the Ottomans. Eventually an assault on the Russian Black Fleet and their main naval base at Sebastopol became their goal, motivated as much by the allies' desire to move their forces out of cholera-afflicted Bessarabia as anything else. Their landing and subsequent advance soon developed into a ponderous siege of the town. Here Figes excels in describing the siege and the major personalities involved, capturing the bravery of the men and the appalling errors which were made by their leaders in waging it. The fall of Sebastopol, along with Nicholas's death and succession by his reform-minded son Alexander II, led to a negotiated peace that was a humiliation, one which was soon reversed by a combination of adroit diplomacy and fortuitous timing. Figes concludes with a chapter in which he looks at the weight given to the conflict in the national imaginations of the various countries which sent men to fight and die there, a few of whom were immortalized but most ultimately forgotten.

Figes's book is a superb history of a often-overlooked war. His background in Russian history and his command of the Russian-language sources allows him to provide a far more complete examination of the conflict than exists in most English-language accounts, while his abilities as a writer help bring the war to life. In this sense Ommaneny's escapade can go unnoticed, overshadowed as it was by the far larger and bloodier farce that took place further south that Figes recounts with both humanity and insight. The result is a book that, while far from the final word on this complex and multifaceted conflict, is unlikely to be bettered anytime soon for the author's success in providing such an entertaining and informative account of a war that has long been denied its due.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 26, 2011 12:17 AM BST


The Big Switch (War That Came Early (Del Rey Hardcover))
The Big Switch (War That Came Early (Del Rey Hardcover))
by Harry Turtledove
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If you can't beat them . . ., 22 July 2011
Harry Turtledove's newest volume in his "War that Came Early" series picks up where his last book, West and East: The War That Came Early, left off with a war grinding on in the harsh winter of 1940. Both Germany and the Soviet Union find themselves facing two-front conflicts, and with the focus increasingly on the clash with each other, their leaders are willing to let go on the other front. For the Soviets, that means allowing Japanese triumphs in Siberia. For the Germans, however, a more radical move is attempted: convincing their opponents Britain and France to change sides and join the Nazis in their war against Communism. Yet as the prospects of an alliance grow increasingly likely, the question posed by Winston Churchill seems increasingly pertinent: can the proverbial lambs lie down with the Nazi lion, or are they just setting themselves up to be consumed in turn?

Longtime fans of Turtledove's alternate history novels will find much that is familiar within the pages of his latest book, as he describes the experiences of a cast of characters struggling to survive in a world where history takes a dramatic new turn. Yet the series does not measure up to his best efforts. The main flaw here seems to be one of characterization: unlike his Timeline-191 series, which offered a range of characters from different backgrounds and positions, nearly all of the characters in this series are enlisted men fighting in the war he described. This has the unfortunate effect of homogenizing the people and the action, as well as creating a similarity of perspective that limits his ability to offer exposition of the broader events that define alternate history. The problem is not without a solution - Turtledove has demonstrated in the past an ability to transition new characters into ongoing series - but he will need to do so soon or face squandering the effort he put into developing his latest alternate world.


The Woodrow Wilson Dime
The Woodrow Wilson Dime
by Jack Finney
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lighthearted look at one man's alternative life, 10 July 2011
Ben Bennell is a man unhappy with his life. Bored with his wife Hettie and stuck in a dull, undemanding job with little outlet for his creativity and ambition, he fantasizes about other women and hunts in vain for the big idea that will make him rich. Then a chance encounter with an unusual piece of change transports him to an alternate world, one where he enjoys wealth, success, and the woman of his dreams. Yet an encounter with the Hettie of his new home leads him to realize where his heart truly lies, and he begins a madcap quest to do whatever it will take to win her back.

Best known for his time travel novel Time and Again, as well as his oft-adapted The Body Snatchers (S.F. Masterworks), Jack Finney was a master of nostalgia-flavored tales romanticizing the past. These elements are here in this novel as well, in which Ben Bennell's utopian alternate world is one more relaxed and respecting of its heritage than its fast-paced real-world contemporary. This is also a novel more comic than most of his other works, with a tongue-in-cheek approach best demonstrated by his main protagonist's series of harebrained plans to win Hettie back. At times the novel can border on the ridiculous, but it is never less than entertaining and offers a lighthearted look at how the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence, even when one can cross from one side to the other.


War Games of Zelos (Coronet Books)
War Games of Zelos (Coronet Books)
by Edmund Cooper
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The War Games of Zelos, 25 Jun. 2011
The latest exploratory mission for James Conrad and his team of Expendables takes them to a planet 24 light years from home. Designated as Zelos, the crew expect to find an Earth-type world that is uninhabited, yet soon after their arrival they discover a previously-unidentified city on the main continent. Once they make landfall, they discover something even more astonishing - a population of primitive warrior humans that soon challenges their presence. Now, in order to win the acceptance of the Zelosians, Conrad and his team must participate in the War Games, a set of physical and martial challenges in which failure could result in their deaths and a conflict Conrad hopes desperately to avoid.

Edmund Cooper's third Expendable novel presents what is now a familiar pattern for readers of the series. Again we have the core team of Conrad, Indira Smith, and Kurt Kwango, along with four other new members who largely serve as secondary characters. The action does not really pick up until halfway through the novel, but once it does it provides an adventure every bit as entertaining as Cooper's previous entries, The Deathworms of Kratos and Rings of Tantalus. The Zelosians themselves are fairly undeveloped as a set of characters, but they serve as effective enough plot devices to keep the action going. Some readers may take issue with the undercurrent of misogyny that characterizes much of the series, but this aside the novel is an enjoyable adventure that provide a nice afternoon of escapist reading.


Palmerston: A Biography
Palmerston: A Biography
by David Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.20

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A detailed biography of 'the most English minister', 22 Jun. 2011
Few politicians have enjoyed as long and distinguished a career as Henry John Temple, the third Lord Palmerston. First elected to Parliament in 1807, he accepted office as Secretary at War two years later. After an unprecedented nineteen-year stretch in the post, he served three times as Foreign Secretary and three years as Home Secretary before becoming Prime Minister in 1855 at the age of 70. His resignation in 1858 led many people to conclude that his days in office were over, yet Palmerston returned to the premiership the following year, embarking on a second term that would only end with his death in 1865, two days before his 81st birthday.

Palmerston has often attracted the attention of biographers and historians, yet studies of him have faced the problem, as David Brown notes in the introduction to this book, of coming to terms with the enormous amount of material generated over the course of his long and active life. Encompassing over a half-century of British history and touching on an extensive range of issues during that time, the sheer number of documents generated during his political career has threatened to overwhelm efforts to use them. Brown is certainly well-prepared for the effort: a longtime Palmerston scholar and author and editor of several previous studies on "Pam", he brings an expertise possessed by few others.

This expertise shows in Brown's assured command of the details of Palmerston's life. His book is a coherent and insightful study of Palmerston, one that focuses on his public career but without slighting his private life. He sees Palmerston as a remarkably consistent figure ideologically during a period of considerable political flux, arguing that Palmerston held a fealty throughout his career to the ideas taught to him by Dugald Stewart. Though initially a Tory, Brown argues that this was due more to the influence of Palmerston's guardian, Lord Malmesbury, than any devotion to Tory ideas. Palmerston's liberal views eventually brought him to the Whig Party, where by the 1830s he had emerged as a leading figure, particularly in foreign affairs. Though disliked by Queen Victoria and detested by many of his colleagues, his popularity with the voting public - a new factor in British politics at that time - gave him a strength that made him a figure that could not be discounted politically, and one ultimately brought him to the pinnacle of British politics.

Thoroughly researched and carefully argued, Brown's book is an indispensable study of Palmerston. Yet it is a challenging work for readers to digest. Its greatest strength - the extensive knowledge the author brings of Palmerston's foreign policy - is also the book's main narrative weakness, as Brown spends pages recounting the minutiae of British foreign policy. Domestic politics and the particulars of Palmerston's personal life are covered in nowhere near the degree of detail, and they are the better for it. This excess of information on foreign policy diminishes the book's accessibility, but does not in any way temper its indispensability as a study of Palmerston. Brown's biography is the new standard by which future Palmerston biographies will be judged, one that rewards the effort spent wading through its pages with the insight it provides into a towering figure of nineteenth century British politics.


The Deathworms of Kratos
The Deathworms of Kratos
by Richard Avery
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable sci-fi adventure with some dated elements, 18 Jun. 2011
Humanity in the year 2071 is straining at the limits of terrestrial and solar sustainability. With billions of people placing a demand on Earth's finite resources, an outlet is needed. Robot probes have identified planets in other systems capable of supporting human life. But before they can be colonized they must be proven - a high-risk prospect. Enter the Expendables: a group of highly talented criminals and misfits who combine technical expertise in their chosen fields with checkered pasts. Led by James Conrad, a former commander in the United Nations Space Service, they are sent out to explore Kratos, the first viable planet discovered by the probes. Yet not only must the team determine the planets viability as a colony for humans, they must also answer an additional question - just who or what left the large ruts scarring the planet's surface?

Edmund Cooper (who published this novel under the pen name "Richard Avery") was a British author whose wide-ranging oeuvre included a number of science fiction novels. This book was the first of a four-book series that he wrote in the mid-1970s in which his team would face various challenges on an Earth-like world. In many ways this is the best of the quartet, as Cooper couples his pulp action here with pages spent laying out his premise and developing his characters into distinct figures rather than leaving them as interchangeable cardboard cutouts. His themes of sustainability and resource deprivation, a growing concern in the years in which he wrote this, gives his book an air of prescience for readers today, helping to separate it from similar sci-fi novels of its ilk.

Yet these strengths sit uncomfortably with dialogue and situations that can seem somewhat racist and sexist to readers today. Cooper's fans have credited him for populating his crew with a diverse group of people, yet the novel seems dated with the degree to which they oftentimes dwell on their racial backgrounds. No character embodies this better than Kurt Kwango. The team ecologist, he is credited with being the smartest member of the group and is often at the heart of the action. Yet he seems obsessed with race to a degree more befitting someone of the 20th century than Cooper's supposedly more enlightened future. It's a problem that detracts from what it otherwise an enjoyable sci-fi adventure, making it more a product of its time than one that, like many of the best works of the genre, rises above it to become a truly timeless work.


The Deathworms of Kratos
The Deathworms of Kratos
by Richard Avery
Edition: Paperback
Price: £198.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable sci-fi adventure with some dated elements, 18 Jun. 2011
Humanity in the year 2071 is straining at the limits of terrestrial and solar sustainability. With billions of people placing a demand on Earth's finite resources, an outlet is needed. Robot probes have identified planets in other systems capable of supporting human life. But before they can be colonized they must be proven - a high-risk prospect. Enter the Expendables: a group of highly talented criminals and misfits who combine technical expertise in their chosen fields with checkered pasts. Led by James Conrad, a former commander in the United Nations Space Service, they are sent out to explore Kratos, the first viable planet discovered by the probes. Yet not only must the team determine the planets viability as a colony for humans, they must also answer an additional question - just who or what left the large ruts scarring the planet's surface?

Edmund Cooper (who published this novel under the pen name 'Richard Avery') was a British author whose wide-ranging oeuvre included a number of science fiction novels. This book was the first of a four-book series that he wrote in the mid-1970s in which his team would face various challenges on an Earth-like world. In many ways this is the best of the quartet, as Cooper couples his pulp action here with pages spent laying out his premise and developing his characters into distinct figures rather than leaving them as interchangeable cardboard cutouts. His themes of sustainability and resource deprivation, a growing concern in the years in which he wrote this, gives his book an air of prescience for readers today, helping to separate it from similar sci-fi novels of its ilk.

Yet these strengths sit uncomfortably with dialogue and situations that can seem somewhat racist and sexist to readers today. Cooper's fans have credited him for populating his crew with a diverse group of people, yet the novel seems dated with the degree to which they oftentimes dwell on their racial backgrounds. No character embodies this better than Kurt Kwango. The team ecologist, he is credited with being the smartest member of the group and is often at the heart of the action. Yet he seems obsessed with race to a degree more befitting someone of the 20th century than Cooper's supposedly more enlightened future. It's a problem that detracts from what it otherwise an enjoyable sci-fi adventure, making it more a product of its time than one that, like many of the best works of the genre, rises above it to become a truly timeless work.


Zachary Taylor (American Presidents (Times))
Zachary Taylor (American Presidents (Times))
by MR John S D Eisenhower
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.20

2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointingly thin biography of 'Old Rough and Ready', 11 Jun. 2011
Zachary Taylor ranks among that small group of presidents who was more famous for what they did before they became president than for what they did once they occupied the office. A career army officer, he shot to fame when he led his troops to victory over Mexican forces in the Mexican War. Basking in the adulation of a grateful nation, his parlayed his triumph into a victory as the Whig candidate in the 1848 presidential election, only to have his presidency cut short by his death less than a year and a half after taking office.

Given Taylor's background and claim to fame, John S. D. Eisenhower would seem to be the ideal candidate to write a biography of America's 12th president. The son of a former president, he was a career army officer himself before retiring to become a prolific author of military histories. Yet the end result is disappointing. Eisenhower's slim book is a sketchy account of Taylor's life, one that provides only the barest of details about the man and little real understanding of his role in American history. The first quarter-century of Taylor's life are covered in a scant eight paragraphs, reflecting the lack of effort in understanding the role these early years played in shaping his personality. Much of his early military career is also glossed over in a rush to get to the critical years of the Mexican War. These chapters play to Eisenhower's strengths, allowing him to draw upon his previous work on the conflict, So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. Yet even here precious space is wasted providing unnecessary or superfluous background to events, diminishing the book's value as a biography of Taylor even further.

Though Eisenhower's final chapters dealing with Taylor's time as president provide more in the way of detail and analysis, they cannot make up for the overall deficiencies of this book. Overall Eisenhower's biography is a disappointing entry in "The American Presidents" series, one that fails to reflect the considerable strengths the author brought to the project. Readers seeking more than the barest details of Taylor's life would be better off picking up K. Jack Bauer's far more substantial Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest instead of this book, with fails to satisfy any real appetite to learn about Taylor or his role in American history.


Bismarck: A Life
Bismarck: A Life
by Jonathan Steinberg
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A perceptive study of the 'Iron Chancellor', 20 May 2011
This review is from: Bismarck: A Life (Hardcover)
No single person was more responsible for the creation of Germany in 1871 than Otto von Bismarck. First as minister-president of Prussia, then as chancellor of the German Empire he shaped and guided the creation and development of the country for over a quarter of a century. Yet as Jonathan Steinberg points out in the introduction to his biography of the man, he was a ruler without any sort of sovereignty or popular support, a fact that makes his achievement all the more remarkable. How Bismarck came to occupy this role and stamp he placed on Germany is detailed in this perceptive book, which provides an understanding of his achievements within the context of his life and times.

Little about Bismarck's early years indicated the outsize role he would play in history. Born to a Prussian landowning family, he benefited from the opportunities open to him as a member of the Junker class. Drawn to politics in his early thirties, he soon made a name for himself as a staunch supporter of the Prussian king, Frederick William IV and in 1851 was named the Prussian representative to the Diet of the German Confederation. It was here that he developed his famous pragmatism as a politician, as well as fostering an image of recklessness he felt would serve him well in his political dealings. Yet he desired to be at the heart of power, and he succeeded in winning appointment as Prussia' minister-president in 1862 thanks to the active support of Albrecht von Roon and other members of a conservative camarilla.

Once in power Bismarck began a remarkable transformation of European politics. The key to his power, as Steinberg notes, lay not with party support or military backing but from his ability to dominate Frederick William's brother and successor, William I. With the king's backing, Bismarck was able to remake the map of Europe, forging the nation of Germany from the disparate states that survived the Napoleonic era. Yet the governing system he constructed was one designed to maximize his authority as chancellor, thwarting the demands of liberal politicians for a greater voice for parliamentary democracy. This system proved to be a double-edged sword, however, as Bismarck found out when William's grandson William II took the throne. Lacking the hold that he had on the new emperor's grandfather, Bismarck's resignation was finally accepted in 1890, leaving the governing power of the advanced industrial state in the hands of a mercurial young monarch and his independent and assertive military.

Steinberg's book is an excellent account of Bismarck's life and times. He offers a fascinating portrait of a dramatic politician who dominated the politics of his nation as few have before or since. By setting Bismarck's life into the context of its times, he demonstrates well the impact Bismarck's policies had - for better and for worse - on the development of Germany as a nation. Unfortunately this does come at a cost, as Bismarck's private life is generally given short shrift outside of its impact upon his temperament, but such a sacrifice is understandable given the challenge of summarizing such a long career within the confines of a single volume. Steinberg succeeds in providing readers with what is likely to be the best single-volume biography of the "Iron Chancellor" for decades to come, one that should be read by anyone seeking to understand this fascinating and important figure.


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