Monday, May 18, 2015

those magnificent men

There is nothing like a trip to catch up on reading.

That sentiment is a bit contradictory to my other rule of travel: learn as much as possible from new environments.  After all, I can (and do) read quite a bit at home.  It is one of life's great pleasures.

Just before I left Barra de Navidad for the Orient (book 'em, steve-o), I downloaded three of Jorge Castañeda's older books: Uptopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War; Ex Mex: From Migrants to Immigrants; and Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara.  I intended to work my way through each of them on the trip.

It didn't turn out that way.  I read the Latin American Left book at home before I flew off to Dallas. 

I had a rather sound grounding in the subject matter through my academic studies and practical experience.  But, in this one book,
Castañeda added a lot of subtlety to what I thought I once knew.

His purpose in writing the book was to provide some suggestions for the Left to make its message more relevant in a world where liberal economic policies were triumphant throughout the continent.  But his prescription was hardly novel.

In effect, he advised the parties of the Left to essentially become Blairite social democrats.  At the time he wrote the piece, 1995, the solution seemed to be a bit elegant.  After decades of watching third way politicians implode, the idea has lost a bit of its gloss.

For whatever reason, I did not open either of the other two books.  The immigration book is on one of my favorite topics.  But, I do admit I am a bit reluctant to devote too much time to a praise-worthy biography of Guevara, one of the butchers of the twentieth century.

Instead, I moved some books into line in front of the
Castañedas.  David McCullough's Greater Journey -- a history of nineteenth century France played out through the lives of a series of American visitors, and Robert Middlekauff's Washington's Revolution: The Making of America's First Leader -- a biography that traces Washington's growth as a military and political leader during the Revolution, and some of the forces that developed his views on the new nation he helped create.

I read both on the trip.  In Vancouver, I purchased two new books that I have now been reading over the past week.

Today I finished David McCullough's most recent work: The Wright Brothers.  McCullough has two skills as a biographer.  He is a thorough researcher; no Dorothy Kearns Goodwin scandals for him.  And he is an engaging writer.  Some of his works have been uneven, but never at the cost of undercutting his narrative.

I thought I knew a lot about the Wright brothers.  After all, they are a major part of our national history.  But McCullough's book quickly
disabused me of my hubris.

I knew a lot about the stick figures from school history, but next to nothing about the real men who fought against all received wisdom that flight was impossible.  And, though, I knew the details of Kitty Hawk, I knew almost nothing of the subsequent years of flight demonstrations on both sides of the Atlantic, as aviation fought to be recognized as something other than a scam perpetrated by cranks.

And that brings me to the biography I opened this afternoon: H.W. Brands's Reagan: The Life.  I am a fan of Brands's presidential biographies.  His works on Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ulysses Grant are some of the best I have read.

He has now turned his attention to my favorite president.  I have read most of the memoirs written by associates of Reagan.  But most of the works capture only portions of the man's character.

Even though I have only started the book, Brands has found a psychological hook for his subject.  From his previous biographies, I expect the book to be hard-hitting, but fair.  Just as a biography should be.  I am not fond of hagiographies of people I admire.

And the
Castañedas?  They may need to wait until I return to my pool in Barra de Navidad on Saturday.  Where the sun will preside over days with plenty of time to enjoy books.

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