Monday, February 18, 2013

Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Pulitzer-prize winning writer Meacham turns to the story of America's third president.  Thomas Jefferson: the Art of Power explores the ways Jefferson wielded power both domestically and politically.  As a boy Jefferson learned from his father how to be the master of the plantation, and he attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, which was the center of Virginia politics at the time.  After college Jefferson was elected to the House of Burgesses and then became governor of Virginia during the war. But, the book is not just about Jefferson the politician and statesman.  Meacham takes the time to explore Jefferson's domestic life, especially his brief but happy marriage to Martha Jefferson.  We see the agony of the couple as they experience the deaths of four of their six children, and then Martha dies after a difficult childbirth.  On her deathbed she makes Thomas promise that he will never marry again, and that is a promise  he keeps.  Thomas was a passionate man, as his various infatuations attest, and the specter of Sally Hemmings haunts the book throughout.  Meacham has no doubt that Thomas fathered her children, and he quotes from primary family sources that identify Thomas as their dad.  The book is easy to read, despite the weighty topic, and it is divided into parts that correspond with the various episodes of Jefferson's life.  The reader gains insight into the arguments between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans about the structure of government and the fear that America would adopt a monarchy or some other form of permanent executive leadership.  Foreign affairs also occupy a substantial portion of the book, as America was caught in the middle of the ongoing war between England and France.  Meacham may well be nominated for another award for this insightful book that brings the Revolution and early days of the Republic to life.


If you enjoy this book, you may want to read "American Scripture: the Making of the Declaration of Independence" by Pauline Maier

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Art of the Visit: Becoming the Perfect Host; Becoming the Perfect Guest by Kathy Bertone

The Art of the Visit is a fun, very helpful little book all about the ins and outs of being a perfect overnight host and overnight guest. Broken up into two parts (host and guest) some of the chapters include:

Creating a Welcoming Home...Preparing the Rooms

Hosting Children, Young Adults, and Seniors

Simple Steps to a Smooth Visit

Hospitality and Pets

I learned quite a bit from this great read. Just tons of tips about the small things that can make a great visit. I highly recommend this for anyone who plans on either hosting or being an overnight guest.


Monday, February 4, 2013

The Story of Ain't  by David Skinner

I so much wanted to enjoy, savor, relish this book, as the rest of the title is "America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Every Published."  As a devotee of reference books, I was excited at the prospect of reading the story of how "Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language. Third Edition." was published.  I was even pleased to see that it actually begins in 1934 with the publication of "Webster's....Second Edition."  What I didn't appreciate was Skinner's decision to clutter up the text with discussion of obscure literary writers and scholars, such as Dwight McDonald, Henry Seidel Canby, Charles William Eliot, and Charles Carpenter Fries.  While these individuals had roles to play in the development of literary culture and linguistics, Skinner presented too much background information on them.  When Skinner actually devoted space to his thesis--that editor-in-chief Philip Gove changed Webster's International Dictionary from an elite prescriptive dictionary full of enyclopedic entries and obscure cultural references to a more descriptive work that captured English in its current usage--I was captivated.  Skinner surveys 20th-century culture to show it was changing due to the world wars and how new words entered the language.  He also shows how people's word usage changed and how scholars came to realize that the standard rules of grammar and usage no longer applied.  As a result of this linguistic shift, "Webster's Third" was highly criticized by Dwight McDonald and others who thought the dictionary should uphold the traditional culture, not reflect the new one. The inclusion of the word "ain't" didn't cause controversy simply for its inclusion, since it was also listed in Webster's Second.  Instead, it was controversial because it was a symbol of how the dictionary changed its usage notes on many colloquial words to make them "nonstandard" and remain neutral regarding which words educated people should use.


Readers who want a more focused book on the topic of dictionaries should read
"The Professor and the Madman" about the Oxford English Dictionary.