Friday, November 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A History of France by John Julius Norwich

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve read a couple of John Julius Norwich’s histories and although the style is rather old-fashioned, focusing on great men/great events, I’ve found them to be very useful for providing broad, sweeping, big-picture narratives.

Norwich died in June, but managed to complete his final work, a labor of love: A History of France (which is also published, I think, as France: A History: From Gaul to deGaulle.)

In just 400 pages, Norwich races through the history of France up to WWII. It’s a book for those who want to know about France but need a place to start. He works his way chronologically through the major leaders in the pre-king stage, then through the kings, then through the Napoleons, and finally through the Republics. He writes in a chatty way, interrupting himself with entertaining anecdotes (often mildly racy and essentially the only place where women enter the picture, except, of course, for Joan of Arc.) In this way, he succeeds in delivering a vast amount of information painlessly.

The Netgalley version, unfortunately, did not contain the illustrations or the bibliography, so I can’t comment on those. The bibliography would have been interesting, since Norwich doesn’t cite references as he goes and seems to be relying more on his memory than on specific sources. In fact, part of what makes the book so entertaining is that some of the unsourced anecdotes are a little vague and he admits he may not have the story exactly right. It’s like listening to an accomplished storyteller at a dinner party after a few glasses of wine, one who has most of his facts right or, at least, close enough.

The history is straightforward and surely oversimplified. This is Norwich’s interpretation after having synthesized a good deal of material over many years. He tells us who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, leaving out the nuance and controversy in order to give the reader a framework to build upon. And this framework is something I sorely need since my "big-picture" history knowledge is sadly lacking.

If you’re curious about how France came to be France, this is a great place to start.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Founding Brothers. The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers. The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is our book group’s next pick. This relatively short book examines the crucial post-Revolutionary War period when the U.S. was not at all united and was in danger of being unable to fulfill the lofty goals of the war. Having won independence from Britain, the revolutionaries were not quite sure what to do with it. Or, more accurately, each was quite certain he knew what should be done if only everyone else would just get in line.

The men treated in this work, primarily Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington, are more usually referred to as Founding Fathers. Ellis uses the term Brothers to emphasize that rather than spreading a mature, protective, paternal wisdom over the newborn nation, these men grew up with it, squabbling all the way.

The first two chapters can be read as background to the extraordinary musical Hamilton. "Chapter One: The Duel" leads us into what the author describes as an anomalous outcome of the brothers’ squabbling: violence and death. "Chapter Two: The Dinner" had me singing The Room Where it Happens in my head. Other chapters discuss Washington’s Farewell Address (who wrote it and what a legacy it was), the collaborative efforts, infighting, and strained friendships among the men, as well as the taboo subject of slavery.

With such fascinating subject matter, the author does an admirable job of focusing each chapter around its theme. Some chapters are less interesting than others and in places he wanders too far into the weeds, but overall there is a good balance of big picture versus close detail. If you feel your historical knowledge of the time period could use a little filling in, this book is a good place to start.