Presidential Biographies: James Polk #11

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Polk, the eleventh President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and  this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

Polk’s career seems to have been defined by destiny. Whether it was his destiny as a man mentored by Andrew Jackson to become President or his utter belief of and living out of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, Polk’s place in history seemed assured from a fairly young age. After studying law, he rose through the Tennessee legislature to get to Congress. Soon integrated into larger issues as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his friendship with Andrew Jackson grew and he campaigned for the man to become President. Finally becoming President himself, he would expand the powers of the executive office more than perhaps any predecessor, with his eyes upon expanding the borders of the United States as well.

Polk was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, perhaps one of the most damaging ideas in the history of the United States. The idea was that America was some kind of glorious city on a hill and the spread of American (read: white, largely Anglo-European) settlers across the vast expanse of the west was destiny–a destiny given by God. Though Borneman doesn’t explore the notion much (indeed, in the biography the term is only mentioned a few times, and never in much detail), it is clear through Polk’s actions that he fully bought into this perspective.

When he became President, Polk had four primary goals: “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (353). The first two were clearly goals related to Manifest Destiny, and he would go to war to gain California. The dispute over Oregon was eventually resolved as war loomed with Mexico. The United States wasn’t prepared for a two front war against two different opponents, and Polk fell back from his hardline stance over where the boundary for Oregon should be drawn, thus gaining agreement from the United Kingdom.

California was a different affair, and Polk seemed to realize quickly that Mexico would not easily cede California, and began looking for a way to take it from them. He was, he thought, given a gift when blood was spilled near the Rio Grande, though not on American soil. It did, however, become a rallying cry, and Polk moved to declare war. Rather than letting Congress initiate it, however, Polk presented Congress with a declaration of war and got their approval, a clear expansion of executive power. Even as he did this, and having already prepared for the conflict by moving American soldiers into the area, he moved to use the navy as well. These moves expanded the conflict but also helped get a victory for the United States.

There were a few times in Polk’s presidency when he made clear errors of judgment. Perhaps the most obvious time was with his claim about “American blood on American soil”–his claim that Mexico had attacked and killed apparently innocent American soldiers and killed them in American territory. The claim was false and would haunt Polk as his critics continually pointed out his error. Nevertheless, the claim burgeoned the popularity of war with Mexico and effectively got Polk what he wanted anyway. Another issue was his “54 40 or fight” slogan referring to demanding Oregon from the United Kingdom, apparently over threat of war. Those who took up the cry favored war rather vehemently, and Polk was forced to throttle back his claims a bit. Thankfully, it did not come to war, and P0lk had another victory from apparent error.

Polk owned slaves and wrote into his will to free them when he died–so long as his wife agreed. Some see wills like this as evidence of a kind of softening towards slavery, but I think this is clearly mistaken, as it really just shows people wanted to live by enslaving others and didn’t much care what happened once they died. It was a fairly common practice, but one that does nothing to mitigate the ills of slavery. Polk’s clearly expansionist attitude helped contribute to more atrocities being committed against native peoples as white settlers spread and used military might and deception to displace people who were already on the land they overtook.

Regarding the biography, Borneman writes well, and his outlining of the life of Polk is fascinating and enlightening. I had thought for some time that Polk was a rather forgettable President, but after reading this biography, it seems Polk’s influence–for good or ill–on later events in our country, and certainly upon its borders, is astounding. I recommend Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America highly.

Polk’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES

6. James K. Polk (11th President- original ranking- #6): James Polk achieved the goals that he set for himself as he entered the office of the President. As his biographer, Walter Borneman points out, those goals were “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (Polk, 353). Polk accomplished all of these goals, though it took a war to do so. Moreover, he expanded the power of the executive branch, including in the President’s powers regarding war, getting directly involved in helping order the conflict. His clear belief in Manifest Destiny, that doctrine that ought to be consigned to the trash heap of history, continues to influence nationalism today. The unspeakable atrocities that continued to be perpetrated on those peoples native to the land the United States would gain in international eyes though his Presidency must not be understated. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find many Presidents with greater impact on our country than Polk had.

 

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

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Presidential Biographies: Educating Myself and Giving Arbitrary Grades

I like lists. Are there people that don’t? Probably.

Anyway, I heave been burning through the science fiction reading list that I’ve been doing for a couple years and realized I was rapidly running out of ideas for what to read next. I am, of course, going to keep reading science fiction and fantasy, but I wanted to do something different. I tried looking up some lists of classics, but I’d either already read too many of them or they included “modern classics” alongside things like Pride and Prejudice or Crime and Punishment. No thank you. So, while I keep searching for a list of classics worthy of the name, I decided to educate myself. I realize that even though I studied history in college and got more than my heaping helping of history, I still know very little about the history of the United States. So to alleviate that, I figured I’d start reading through biographies of Presidents of the United States. So then new quest is launched: read one biography of every President of the United States, in order! I’d totally have an awesome picture with all the Presidents on it, but I couldn’t find one in the limited time I took searching. So here’s the book cover of the first biography I’m going to read.

How will you choose which biography to read?

Good question! Goodreads reviews and lists, blog reviews, and the like will help me choose which biography to read. Heck, feel free to suggest one if you think there is a MUST READ biography of a specific President.

Grading?

Yes, I’m going to rank the Presidents. As I read through this list, I’ll do a review of each biography I read, and at the end I’ll have an ever-increasing ranking of the Presidents until, at long last, we will have:

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments! I’m hoping each entry will look something like this:

1. George Washington: THE Presidential appearance, basically saved the existence of our country, but owned slaves. _____ (list of other accomplishments). Starts ranked at one because I haven’t read about any others.

Anyway, I’m hoping it’ll be a good time. I’m sure I’ll have fun anyway. Come along for the ride! Starting…. soon… ish.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

Reading through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books- #16-20 scores and comments

childhoods-endI’m a huge science fiction fan, but realize I haven’t read a lot of those works considered classics or greats. I decided to remedy that, and found a list online of the Top 100 Science Fiction Books. The list is determined by vote from sci-fi fans online, so it may change over time. I am going off the order of the list as it was when I first saw it. Each book will receive a grade between F and A+ as well as very brief comments. I’m interested to read what you think about these books as well. There will be very minor spoilers in some of these.

16. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman Grade: A-
“As interesting for its historical context as it is for the plot that fills the pages, The Forever War is speculative fiction to the extreme. What happens ‘back home’ while soldiers are off at war? Who changes more: the soldiers or those sent to protect them? When will wars end and why? Haldeman constructed a classic. My main complaint is that for all of its grand speculation, the core of the plot is somewhat lackluster compared to later, similar efforts.”

17. Brave New World by Alduous Huxley A-
“Full of chilling moments of utter carelessness, Huxley’s book is eerily prophetic while remaining utterly ‘other.’ It has a sense of foreboding strangeness about it that I cannot shake off. Better than a lot of dystopias that have come out since.”

18. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells Grade: B
The Time Machine is a great read told in a somewhat archaic style. I enjoyed the interplay of fiction and speculation about philosophy. The main complaint against it is, again, the delivery, which is almost entirely a monologue of one person telling everyone else what happened.”

19. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke Grade: A
“I saw the SyFy [*shudders at spelling*] miniseries before I read this book. I liked the series quite a bit, and the book was even better. It’s unexpected and haunting. It is bleak. It questions everything. An excellent work, that challenges raders to think about what it means to have hope in humanity–or not.”

20. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein Grade: B-
“I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. It was enjoyable, but the style dragged it down somewhat. It felt very matter-of-fact about even the most intense moments of the book. It’s not as beautiful as Stranger in a Strange Land nor as challenging as Starship Troopers. It’s still enjoyable, but the whole plot felt predictable. It lacked the excitement that comes with many other science fiction books. Not bad, certainly, but neither is it spectacular.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Reading through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books- Check out more posts in this series as I continue.

SDG.

Reading Through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books- #6-10 scores and comments

do-androids-dreamI’m a huge science fiction fan, but realize I haven’t read a lot of those works considered classics or greats. I decided to remedy that, and found a list online of the Top 100 Science Fiction Books. The list is determined by vote from sci-fi fans online, so it may change over time. I am going off the order of the list as it was when I first saw it. Each book will receive a grade between F and A+ as well as very brief comments. I’m interested to read what you think about these books as well. There will be very minor spoilers in some of these.

6. 1984 by George Orwell A
“We live in an age of dystopias, but Orwell’s remains head and shoulders above the rest. It is chilling in ways that few books manage to approach. People of varied political backgrounds continue to point to it as a warning, and than in itself is a kind of fulfillment of Orwell’s vision of the future. An excellent work.”

7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury Grade: B-
“There’s almost no character development, and there is way too much inner dialogue vs. action. It was a solid premise, and I definitely understand how it received its status as a classic. I just felt it was a little unfulfilling.”

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke Grade: B
“I actually liked the first half a lot more than the second half. Watching the development of human thought and technology over time was more interesting than reading about some guy going on an acid trip by means of alien encounter. It got too weird.”

9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick Grade: A
“It bears little resemblance to the film ‘Blade Runner,’ but that wasn’t a bad thing. It’s surreal, entertaining, and befuddling all at once. One of the few novels to balance well a combination of suspense and humor. It has its share of action and surprises. I loved it. Also, it spawned a whole lot of cool book covers.”

10. Neuromancer by William Gibson Grade: A-
“Gibson predicted much of the future and coined a number of terms and ideas in his prophetic novel. However, the dialogue-to-action ratio is too high and the world and characters feel somewhat empty and lifeless. It’s well-worth the read, though I think other books in the cyberpunk genre are better, even though they do rely on Gibson for inspiration.”

What do you think? Which are your favorites? Are you surprised at any of the scores or what is on the list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Reading through the [Alleged] Best 100 Science Fiction Books- Check out more posts in this series as I continue.

SDG.

Microview: The “Eisenhorn” Trilogy by Dan Abnett

eisenhorn-abnettThe Eisenhorn Trilogy by Dan Abnett is a set of stories that takes place in the universe of Warhammer 40K. The universe is one created for tabletop gaming (learn more here). I have read in many places that these novels are a great entry point, and I’d have to agree because they are the first I read that were set in this universe.

The trilogy follows the footsteps of Gregor Eisenhorn, an Inquisitor whose job it is to hunt down heretics, xenos (aliens), and the like (daemons, etc.). It is a perfect set up for a story with lots of fighting and intrigue, and Abnett delivers on both. Throughout the books, readers are treated to plenty of twists and turns, and the overarching plot is superb. It’s an absolute blast to read these books and engage in the plot.

The books are also filled with a slew of terminology, characters, and references to events which are not always explained. Many of these are from the overall 40k universe, and many of them are clearly borrowed from the language of Christianity. This means that although the book is often recommended as an entry point, it still has a pretty steep learning curve at points. Expect to either be looking things up a few times or just not fully knowing what’s happening or being referenced. At times, too, some side characters do not seem to get enough development. There’s awareness that they are there and generally who they are, but Abnett doesn’t often go beyond that.

Despite a sometimes steep learning curve, the Eisenhorn Trilogy is a fantastic place to enter the Warhammer 40K universe. Filled with action and adventure, with a hefty helping of deception and plot twists, the trilogy is an enthralling read. Trust me, you won’t look back.

The Good

+ Great action sequences
+ Very interesting story
+ Lots of unforeseen plot twists
+ Dark universe that is deeply interesting
+ Tons of interesting religious references

The Bad

– So many locations it becomes hard to keep track of them all
– Secondary characters lost against the backdrop
– At times, a steep learning curve

The Verdict

Grade: A

If you like science fiction with lots of action, Abnett is a must-read.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Microview– Read more microviews to discover more materials to experience! (Scroll down for more)

Source

Dan Abnett, Eisenhorn (Black Library, 2005).

SDG.

Microview: “Red Rising” by Pierce Brown

red-rising-brownAnytime I read the phrase “it’s the next Hunger Games” I get excited. When that is combined with comparisons to Orson Scott Card’s phenomenal Ender’s Game (my look at the book here), it’s time to read that baby! Pierce Brown’s Red Rising fulfilled both of these criteria, so I rushed to get it from the library (well, I had to wait about two weeks, but you get the idea). What did I think? Read on! There are minor SPOILERS below.

Brown has done an excellent job world-building. The Society dominates the known universe and different castes are maintained through a Color system. The eponymous Reds–of which Darrow, the main character, is one–live on Mars and terraform the planet in brutal conditions. They don’t even know the extent of their plight, as the book later reveals whole layers of reality beyond the narrow confines of the beginning.

Violence often seems offhand, but Brown writes it in such a way as to speak to the beauty of human activity and love even in times of great sorrow and stress. He has a way of capturing emotions in just a few sentences that is fantastic. The book packs a heavy punch in the emotional category.

The story also feels like the start of something epic. The injustice in the system must be taken down! The way Red Rising sets the table for later books is great, and the story is extremely compelling. The book is definitely a page-turner.

All of this is not to say there aren’t any negatives. First, the fact that this book does draw so many comparisons to the aforementioned Hunger Games and Ender’s Game means that readers will compare themselves, and Red Rising doesn’t quite reach the heights of these other books. That’s not an awful thing–Ender’s Game did win the Hugo and Nebula awards after all!–but it does set up a bit higher expectations than the book reaches.

In particular, the book flows quite a bit like Hunger Games. Darrow exists in a world dominated by a hierarchy and he is on one of the lowest rungs. Whenever resistance raises up, it is violently suppressed. He ends up inside a created world for a game that determines peoples’ places in society. There are many comparisons to be made, and this makes the book feel derivative at times. The “game” portion of the book also seems at least 50 pages too long, as we read about raids, violence, and more in a seemingly endless cycle.

The world which is so promising never quite gives readers the access to it they desire, but this is the first in a trilogy so hopefully we get to explore more later. Also, the crude language and violence seems a bit over-the-top for something deemed “Young Adult” and although the latter is often integral to the plot, they both seem unnecessarily ubiquitous at points.

This book is really a good read. It could have been shorter, and it has a few other pitfalls, but it is quite compelling. I look forward to reading the next one.

The Good

+Interesting main character
+Intriguing universe
+Emotionally powerful

The Bad

-The “Game” portion of the book feels very drawn out
-Side characters feel somewhat underdeveloped
-Feels derivative
-Unnecessarily crude/violent in places
-Lack of exploration of the world makes it feel smaller than it should

The Verdict

Grade: B-

Pierce Brown’s Red Rising has much potential and several unique aspects, but doesn’t quite rise to the same level as its inspirations.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Red Rising: You Must Live for More– A look at the worldview issues behind the book from Anthony Weber. I highly recommend you follow his fantastic blog!

Microview– Read more microviews to discover more materials to experience! (Scroll down for more)

SDG.

Star Wars: EU Read-Through – “The Last Command” by Timothy Zahn

tlc-zahnI have embarked on a quest to read through the Star Wars Expanded Universe once more. Be sure to check the linked text there to see other posts in this series. Here, I look at The Last Command by Timothy Zahn.

The Last Command

Does the conclusion of the Thrawn Trilogy live up to the opening works’ potential? I’d say it certainly does.

As the Empire’s forces continue to push back those of the New Republic–both through the activity of Crazed “Jedi” C’Baoth and the strategy of Thrawn–Luke and others work to keep politics from overthrowing the republic they’re building up.

The action is effectively constant, and Zahn does a great job interweaving plot into what is effectively an almost 500-page action novel. What Zahn continues to do masterfully is portray characters aside from the “Big 3” (Leia, Han, and Luke) in realistic ways. Karrde and Mara Jade are fully realized characters, and Thrawn himself once more appears to be just as much the strategic mastermind as we have been told to expect.

One area the book really excels in is this latter thing–conveying strategy during battle. The former two books do have some interesting battles, but Thrawn’s blockade of Coruscant with asteroids seems particularly devious, and his use of cloaked cruisers to make it seem like he can shoot through planetary shields was also delightfully tricky.

The ending is perhaps the biggest pitfall of the book. Yes, it does wrap up quite a bit and also–as is typical in the Star Wars EU–opens up a horde of new possibilities for later stories, but it feels incredibly rushed. The last 10 pages happen all at once in a flurry of plot-wrapping that is not disappointing but still feels as though it could have gone on for about three times as long.

As with the previous books–but not so pointed as in Dark Force Rising–some events seem to occur in all-too-convenient ways. Characters show up at just the right (or wrong) times and places to push the plot forward, and this sometimes pushes the boundaries of suspension of disbelief.

All that said, however, The Last Command is an epic ending to a fantastic trilogy which really pushed the Expanded Universe into existence. These books are revered as much for nostalgia as they are for being great, but it is their strong readability and the way Zahn masterfully brings forth realistic characters that make them endure.

The Good

+Unique locales which are all fully realized
+Interesting battle sequences, paired with a strong sense of Thrawn’s tactical prowess
+Good character building across the board

The Bad

-A few all-too-convenient moments, again
-Abrupt ending

Best Droid Moment

R2-D2 attempting to travel through the forest on Wayland. A good reminder that the Prequel Trilogy with R2-D2’s Iron Man upgrades, crazy Yoda, and Jar Jar don’t exist.

Grade: A “A great conclusion to a fantastic series.”

Conclusion

When trying to think of the grade for this book, I tried to best take into account its place both in my heart and in the broader scheme of the Star Wars universe. There’s no way to avoid one’s own nostalgia, but I also think the book, like the rest of the trilogy, represents one of the better entries of the Star Wars universe. So far, my journey through the EU has been great, with very little to disappoint. We’ll see if that continues as I move on!

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Reading through Star Wars: Expanded Universe– Here you can read other posts in this series (reviews of other EU books) and make suggestions about what I should include in my reviews.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

There are other posts on science fiction books to be found! Read them here.

SDG.