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What I'm Reading (No. 76): a patriotic reading list + Cheryl Strayed
Despite the subject line and contents of this newsletter, my reading world right now is centered firmly on Les Miserables. The 1862 novel is, I believe, the longest book I've ever attempted. My version is over 1,400 pages (I'm using the Everyman's Library edition and immensely enjoying it). I'm about 400 in, and truly wish that I didn't have to put it down. That's certainly not the case with other classics (lookin at you Captain Ahab).
I did still manage to do some other reading this week, including another book focused on the Korean War (though from a much higher level).
Let's get right to it.
This book tackles the epic drama of General Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman during the Korean conflict. MacArthur was a legendarily difficult commander; he was known for doing pretty much whatever he wanted, regardless of what other commanders ordered, including the President. That tension came to a head in Korea, where MacArthur wanted to use the atomic bomb to basically obliterate the peninsula. It's a fascinating story featuring a number of complex characters.
Unfortunately, it wasn't a book that really felt like it needed writing. The story of Truman and MacArthur is covered in numerous other books in a more entertaining and better written fashion. While I appreciated the broad overview of the politics surrounding the Korean War, those are details that most other authors of this subject cover as well.
In general, there's something about Brands writing style that just doesn't really click with me. I read Reagan a couple years back, and even though it was readable and fairly enjoyable, I came away from it feeling like I hadn't gotten the whole story. It hasn't aged well in my memory. Brands presents all the facts, but doesn't arrange them or convey them in either an entertaining or poetic manner, which is always what sets histories/biographies apart from each other. While I know plenty of folks who enjoy his approachable form, it doesn't much appeal to me.
A Patriotic Reading List
The 4th of July is next Thursday. Read something patriotic. As for myself, I might start in on Rick Atkinson's much-acclaimed new history, The British Are Coming.
Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss. An account of all the presidents who have served during America's most harrowing moments.
Rocket Men by Robert Kurson. The story of Apollo 8 may not seem overly patriotic on the surface, but I finished this book and felt more proud of my country than nearly any other I've read. Seriously.
1776 by McCullough. The master storyteller of history, bar none, taking on one of the best stories in all of history inevitably makes for a great book.
Anything by Joseph Ellis. Writes with more nuance about the founding generation than any other author I've encountered.
James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Madison was as responsible for the nation's foundation as any, but doesn't get much credit. This bio is the most readable and entertaining of those on Madison.
Any of America's founding documents. Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers; all are readily available on the world wide web.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
I tried reading Wild when it first came out. I hated it. Put it down after maybe 100 pages; I don't remember the exact number.
The premise had clear appeal. My wife and I had recently moved to Colorado, were avid and frequent hikers, and I'd always enjoyed hiking/adventure memoirs.
But Strayed was just dumb about her hike. She was as woefully unprepared and embarking on a trail that kills people every year. I get that she fully confesses to her dimwitted approach, but I couldn't stand it in memoir form.
It was tempting to write off Strayed for all of time. And yet I've seen this collection of advice columns referenced numerous times by very smart people, men and women alike (which I only mention because of the obviously feminine-sounding title).
While the writing style was still grating at times, and the vulgarity often over-the-top, her advice — which originally appeared in the form of an anonymous-written online column — was sometimes rather stirring. The problem, for me, was that most of the advice just didn't resonate with my station in life right now. There's a lot about relationships, heartbreak, finding yourself (whatever that even means), etc. In general, my life doesn't have much drama or trauma, and these are pretty drama- and trauma-heavy questions and problems she's addressing.
There were certainly some memorable ideas, but it really feels geared towards 1) young people who haven't quite found their way in the world and 2) people who have gone through some sort of intense heartbreak or death in the family or parental grievance. I gave it about 100 pages and put it down, though I can definitely see the value of these bits of advice for certain people.
Folks, I'm getting ruthless about my DNFs. No mercy.
What I'm Listening To
Real quick, as I know I'm getting long here. Couple recent podcasts I've listened to that were very enjoyable:
"Snakebit" by Outside Podcast. Part 1 is one of the craziest survival stories you'll ever hear, and goes into the science of what happens to your body when bitten by a snake. Part 2 is about one guy's insane and mostly successful quest to inoculate himself against the world's deadliest snake venoms.
Jill Lepore on the New York Times Book Review. Jill talks about the handful of new books that have come out for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. I've wondered which of those handful I should actually read, and historian Jill basically picks for me, which is nice.
Okay, that's all for me this week! I did some traveling this week, which means that next week I'm really excited to write about the unique joys of reading on airplanes and in airports.
I'd love to know what you're all reading, and thank you for the inbox space.