May 31, 2011

Book 18: Empire By Default

Empire By Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century
Ivan Musicant

One of the reasons I spent much of the latter end of my undergraduate career studying English, and not history, is because historians are incomparably proficient at making the amazing strands of the past fall flat. My love for history and its most human of stories has not, however, ceased, and a recent work assignment processing the papers of one Russell Alexander Alger (embattled Secretary of War at the beginning of the McKinley administration) led me to pick up this weighty, but promising, book on the Spanish-American War. Author Ivan Musicant's refreshingly accessible, informative, and enjoyable history of the under-appreciated conflict has not solely redeemed the Hobsbawms of the world, but nonetheless illustrates that popular history can indeed be well-researched, competently written, and far more effective than the thesis-chasing strains enjoyed in more erudite circles. Strangely, however, the thesis offered in the book's first and final chapters, though scarcely (if ever) alluded to in between, may have actually helped drive the book, though it does not lack for momentum and indeed navigates well between multiple theaters of war and tangled webs of diplomacy and international negotiation.

Regardless, Musicant seems to believe, undoubtedly rightly so, that the Spanish-American war dropped empirical concerns into America's lap, but offers little support throughout his story of the war. While a lighter touch is much appreciated around these parts, and the book seems to travel along just fine without an overbearing thesis, it is interesting to see how the author's perception of his argument differs from a consistent tone that initially seems to be just-the-facts, ma'am. Let this not prevent you from reading Empire By Default, however; the book is far from dry and offers an engaging account of war on the precipice of the calamitous quagmire of 1914 and under the increasingly important auspices of the navy and intra-military cooperation. Indeed, all of the pieces are here for the enterprising reader to chew on and digest at will, and Musicant subtly drops several hints throughout the narrative that will entice those interested in looking at the larger tides of history. It is perhaps no accident, given this subtle drive that pulses quietly beneath the surface, that the emergence of the United States Navy is the opening shot and steady ammunition of the book, which traces the history of a single, small-scale, and brief war while subtly considering the implications that would resonate to the present day. Much appreciated is the contextual background Musicant provides, which takes up a healthy chunk of the opening book and reads, at times (and one must believe accidentally), almost as a thriller while readers wait to discover just how and when the final straw is dropped upon the soon-to-be belligerents.

Also appreciated is a healthy attitude of amusement taken up by the author, which stops gracefully short of becoming either patronizing or downright silly but which colors the narrative nicely. Readers may be forgiven for shaking their head upon finishing this book, which tends to highlight with the slightest of literary smirks the very WTF nature of the whole enterprise. The overall effect is, in a nutshell, "How did anyone ever win this war?" with neither Spaniards nor Americans receiving exceptionally kind treatment (though Spain does get by far the worse of the blows). Yet this attitude does not hijack the narrative, and instead serves in its way to highlight the impossibility of objectivity in the historical narrative while delivered amongst an obviously well-researched and thorough outline of events both at the front and behind the scenes. Aside from a lack of a strong, permeating thesis (which does the book both good and ill, I believe), the only major complaint to be levied at the author may be his tendency to allow sentences to get away from him amid a flow of commas and dependent clauses that lose original meaning. These, however, are reasonably infrequent, can usually be parsed, and do not greatly mar the reader's experience. And it is truly strange that this history, placed so well in the context of the 1890s, seems to outright ignore the following decades as the implications of the war are either ignored, dropped (as in the baffling disappearance of the Philippines after a series of tantalizing hints and implications), or lost in a short series of sweeping, thesis-like generalizations. Though its conclusion does the foregoing 650 pages little justice, Empire By Default represents a superb effort to reconstruct the woefully neglected and immensely influential "splendid little war," one that will reward both casual readers and those who will look beyond the text to imagine the conflict's lasting implications upon the upcoming 20th century.

Grade: A

May 20, 2011

Book 17: Maurice

E. M. Forster

Some novels easily stand the test of time; others, less so. But there is a third category of dated books, books that illuminate their chronological surroundings though they have become, in a sense, aged and difficult to relate to. Maurice, which traces the story of a homosexual man through pre-Great War England's traditional middle class life story, is not exceptional as a work of literature, but as a contemporary work focusing positively on homosexuality it exposes in ways retrospective literature cannot how this facet of one's personality affected life and love in a previous era. Unfortunately, this accident of nature is seen through the experiences of the titular character, a far less than loveable cad whose confusion is reasonable enough given his circumstances but whose personality is constructed with little consistency or care. Forster makes clear in an afterward that he originally had a clear picture of Maurice when he set out, but the most consistent aspect of his hero is a kind of petulance that does neither character, author, nor reader any favors. Maurice slips at will from being a raging dynamo to a tender lover, and emotional confusion alone does not elucidate or explain the behavior. That the main character is weak, impressionable, and distinctly nasty does the novel's difficult subject matter few favors, and indeed other characters come across just as poorly, though less acidic in nature.

One reason for this failure of Forster to create likeable characters is his reluctance to let events and conversations run their course. While writing axioms are generally to my distaste and are of course far from universal, there is no question that Forster's writing would improve considerably were he to relax his grip a bit and let the characters wander a bit. Maurice is a novel that tells without showing, and readers who are left one time too often to take the author's word for it can be forgiven for becoming frustrated with the entire enterprise. There are moments when the author's added insights are welcome and indeed serve to make poignant observations about the nature of love and about the way in which homosexuality was viewed in Forster's time; indeed, there are good times to be had in the novel and there are moments when the narrative drives ahead in an almost gripping manner. Inevitably, however, the author comes crashing back in, making his presence known and swooping in to save readers from the tedious task of construction a judgement of character for themselves. Buried within this overbearing authorial focus is an interesting novel about love and, if nothing else, an amusing story of self exploration and discovery that just manages to cut through the bluster and emerge both subtly and through Forster's less delicate efforts. The ending, even after a number of miscues and relentlessly uneven pacing, feels proper and retrospectively unites some elements of Maurice's character and love affairs despite coming after a particularly rushed portion of the plot. Overall, Maurice is, despite its faults, an interesting (if not entirely enjoyable) artifact of an era that is happily, if gradually, receding into the distance and provides insight into homosexuality and into love that remains relevant today.

Grade: B-

May 16, 2011

Book 16: Starburst

Frederik Pohl

Science fiction often gets a bad rap from the more erudite literary crowds, and may be accused of concentrating on fanciful ideas rather than character development or a steady plot. Of course, much work in the genre manages to surpass low expectations, but the fact remains that some science fiction, like some work in all genres, simply misses the mark; this, unfortunately, is the case with Starburst. The book has several elements that should make it a success, starting with an interesting, sufficiently knotted plot and a host of fervent, intriguing ideas driving both the science and promising some rich character development. Pohl, however, seems unsure how to actually develop his ideas, and instead flails as he gives away interesting elements of the plot too early, too late, or in muddled prose that confuses his ideas even as he's attempting to work through them. While there are times when the book becomes quite readable and almost enjoyable, Pohl's choice to utilize the first-person voice of doomed space crew members as they report back to Earth often backfires as neither reader nor the message's in-story recipients know quite what is happening aboard. Worse, when Eve Barstow takes the reins of the story, it is almost impossible to slog through her woefully low (and unsympathetically rendered) self-esteem issues to get to the heart of the story at hand, which is often hidden among unnecessary self-pity masquerading as character development but ultimately fooling no one. The unreliable narrator can be a powerful literary device, true, but alternated here with the kind of overbearing omniscience that ruins any narrative surprises it merely serves to confuse and to make readers feel as though they have missed a crucial reveal.

The story of Starburst is in other ways a story of missed opportunities. Despite its slim size, the novel seems to be at least two, and possibly more, novels crushed together asymmetrically: herein lies a doomed space mission, a civilization rebuilding itself, and a post-apocalyptic future, and though each part seems to consistently demonstrate a kind of them about self-sufficiency they appear to be ripped out of different novels. The vast differences between these three acts mean that Pohl's choice to have the United States on the verge of civil war is bizarre and incongruous at first, but makes perfect sense at the end of the book. But by beginning with it as mere background without a hint of explanation or even the promise of future relevance, Pohl loses readers at the outset, making it less impressive and far less redemptive when, suddenly, the setting becomes thematic in the book's final third; by this point, readers may not care. Again, there is the hint of a good authorial instinct in simply having the setting begin as it irrevocably is, but an inability to integrate it or to spin it into a robust story. The same, sadly, is true of the narrative arc of the book, an interesting inversion of redemption that, too, falls flat after being placed in the hands of unlikable and horribly underdeveloped characters. This, however, only occurs after sex strangely hijacks the narrative, leaving more completely bizarre elements of Pohl's imagination dormant until he deigns to explain them chapters later. These authorial failures render the book frustrating at best, and mask what is at heart an interesting premise and story. With some character development, tighter appreciation of plot development and revelation, and more exploration (rather than trite explanation) of the satisfyingly intriguing scientific ideas that pop up unexpectedly, this novel could have been an interesting examination of what makes us human. Instead, though the question is asked throughout, Starburst is plagued by too many problems in construction and execution to be a satisfying read even within the sometimes suppressed (though inherently unfair) standards placed on science fiction.

Grade: C

May 12, 2011

Book 15: Bossypants

Tina Fey

Ah, the high-handed celebrity memoir. Yes, usually I attempt to stay as far away from these (usually) ghostwritten, (often) clich├ęd (and occasionally) train wrecks, but a continuing flurry of positive reviews for Tina Fey's Bossypants combined with my natural love for the comedian and led me to pick this one up. And let me tell you, like the blurb given by Trees on the book's back cover, it was "Totally worth it." From the blurbs to the dustjacket and author biography, this book is end-to-end hilarious, and the text isn't bad either. Part autobiography, part essay collection, and part memoir, Tina Fey proves that her wit, charm, and intelligence are genuine as she successfully wears a variety of hats beyond the carefully cocked bowler she sports on the cover (assuming that the book is not ghostwritten). While some jokes fall a bit flat or seem slightly out of place, as may be expected, Fey is so often spot-on while joking about everything from feminist-rage-inducing clueless college boys to the joys of motherhood, and what is most remarkable is her ability to allow opinions, genuine and beneficial cultural criticism, and insightful observations about life and society to shine through her humor. Indeed, her thoughts on Photoshop and the unrealistic expectations placed on women's bodies are rendered even more powerful through her hilarious side-notes and non-serious, but still urgent, treatment of these topics. The constant barrage of jokes only occasionally becomes old, but more importantly serves to diffuse any potential tension and might hopefully help to provoke actual thought about an array of important ideas.

But let's be honest, here, Fey's elucidating thoughts on gender are a pleasant bonus and supplement to the meat of the book, which is a charming rendition of the author's life and experiences. Nestled between jokes are accounts of the joys of working a crap job while Pursuing the Dream and the importance of perseverance and loving oneself, though the Obvious Hammer is, despite the humor and somewhat surprisingly, deployed extremely rarely, if ever. One of the most interesting examples of this is Fey's recollection of the series of skits in which she portrayed Sarah Palin prior to the 2010 presidential election, rife with hilarious anecdotes and incisive commentary on that most bizarre of democratic processes. The memories of that strange period will be fresh in the mind of most of Fey's current readers, and her thoughts actually add to and elevate the conversation in surprising ways. What is best about Bossypants, however, is that the author never wears, well, bossy pants in her writing, allowing her to remain hilarious and effective while offering readers the option for a deeper experience. The book could benefit from a bit more organization, sure, but what Fey has created in a book that functions successfully on several different levels, from anecdote to political manifesto, while maintaining a genuinely happy face and always bringing something interesting to the conversations that arise. Fans of Tina Fey have probably already read this book, but anyone who takes a mild interest in the star should read this funny and insightful memoir/humor tract/manifesto-y thing, and hopefully Bossypants will make many both think and laugh as hard as I did.

Grade: A

May 10, 2011

Book 14: Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand

Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve
Gioconda Belli

It is obvious from the beginning that this book comes from the pen of a poet, and its continued lyricism is even more striking for the fact that the book comes to English via the translation of Margaret Sayers Peden. My own unfamiliarity with Spanish makes a comparison impossible, but this edition of Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand reads so smoothly, aside from a few minor blips that usually seem more the work of typos than mistranslations, that one can't help but wonder whether translation was in this case of assistance rather than the usually assumed hindrance to art and interpretation. Regardless, the prose in the book is beautifully wrought and suitably adapted to evoke the inner emotions and confusion of the world's first couple in the impossibly difficult days after The Fall. The subject of Adam and Eve's first post-Garden experiences is one of almost numbing precedent and weight, encompassing quite literally the history of humanity and assuming importance in religions beyond those who hold Genesis sacred. The simplicity of the language and Hemingway-quick sentences illuminate and deepen understanding in what is, essentially, a simple story in which not many extraordinary things actually happen. Yet in its sparseness, Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand loads each action with meaning and invests the story with a proper sense of gravity. Here, those essential firsts (the first attempted return to the Garden of Eden, Adam's first time killing for food, the first artistic impulses) achieve that gravity they rightfully deserve as eye-opening precedents for all future generations.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the book's less charming aspects come when the pace accelerates or when the language outpaces the deliberative introspection that makes the book work. While it is understood that the (interestingly female gendered) Serpent speaks in theologically philosophical riddles that twist her forked tongue as she illustrates timeless conundrums (and these indeed are one of the book's foremost charms), other complex words and constructions serve not to deepen understanding but, rather, pull the reader forcibly out of the story. Likewise, as the pace of understanding accelerates toward the end of the novel, and quite rapidly at that, the tone feels rushed yet strangely drawn out as the author somewhat clumsily handles the story of Cain and Abel. Likewise, there is a strange resorting to presumed gender roles between Adam and Eve, which makes an odd bedfellow with a story that is so obviously revisionist and uses an only recently possible feminist lens to view the story. It is difficult to decide whether one should be praising Belli for her obvious care for the story and grappling with its implications or being frustrated at the forceful way in which the Serpent informs Eve that she will take the blame for sin in the world. While Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand is not the kind of book that is meant to offer any answers to the great philosophical questions of theodicy, it does provide a noble, intellectually honest, and religiously sensible effort to provide a new twist on the Adam and Eve story, raising questions in a thought provoking manner and using beautiful, sparse language to fully populate her newly created Earth. Despite some missteps that may make reading a bit frustrating, Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand is a brilliant launching point for theological discussion and will satisfy the intellectually inclined if not totally entertain readers looking for an all-encompassing and internally consistent story.

Grade: A-

May 5, 2011

Book 13: Like You'd Understand, Anyway

Like You'd Understand, Anyway
Jim Shepard

Single-author short story collections can do a variety of different things, from encapsulating several points of view on a theme or showcasing the diversity of an author's talent. Jim Shepard's offering, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, does a bit of both, exploring a range of individual perspectives across geography and time in a series of intimate character portraits. While Shepard clearly has- and displays- a keen ear for voice and style, however, some elements within the stories in this collection arise often enough to become repetitive rather than uniquely elucidating and enough stories offer too little in the way of closure to make the collection resonate as powerfully as it could. The great poise and potential of Shepard's work are clear from the outset, and "The Zero Meter Diving Team" serves as an excellent opener with its moving depiction of one man's guilt following the meltdown at Chernobyl. As in "Eros 7," Shepard subtly evokes the inner lives of Soviet citizens, paying attention to those differences in societal upbringing that offer degrees of internal differentiation but carefully avoiding a lazy resignation to their Soviet-ness as a sole defining characteristic. Indeed, it is main character Valentina Tereshkova's relentless and unsympathetic immaturity that sinks "Eros 7," just as the brilliantly rendered and almost bewildered familial guilt of nuclear engineer Boris Prushinsky, combined with a sense of beautifully desolate hopelessness, that allows "The Zero Meter Diving Team" to soar.

It is not merely a matter of unlikable protagonists that might make readers hesitant about Shepard's stories. While Parisian executioner and narrator Charles-Henri Sanson waxes self-piteous in "Sans Farine," the story nonetheless achieves an emotional impact other stories only grasp for, often desperately in final sentences. One can feel Shepard's Serious Literary Instincts fighting, and unfortunately beating, common sense as one story after another ends with interesting poetic strains but without any hint of true resolution. There is much to be said for subtlety, and it is certainly not always desirable for an author to beat theme into readers' heads with the Obvious Hammer, but Shepard's elusiveness almost becomes insulting as he bows to the gods of Serious Literary Merit. His stories suffer for this pandering and sadly become inaccessible for all but a select group of readers, a true shame given the clear depth and quality of Shepard's talents. Using first-person narration throughout his stories, Shepard deftly navigates everyone from a Nazi-funded anthropologist ("Ancestral Legacies," though said scientist's story ultimately comes across as silly for a lack of narrative thrust) to troubled American seventh graders during the Vietnam Era ("Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian" and the tragically close to meaningful "Courtesy for Beginners"). It is these latter two that make the collection become truly onerous, however, each displaying a similar enough story and narrative voice that readers will become distracted from the matter at hand and merely think, "Wait, didn't I just read this?"

Despite its flaws, however, there is significant merit in Shepard's stories, from his unceasing sympathy to his short, effective sentences. In fact, when the author allows himself to unwind and become engrossed in particular narrative territory, the stories shine and attain far more meaning than the groping ambitiousness of their Serious Literary counterparts. "The First South Central Australian Expedition" even manages to pull off the lyrical ending while offering closure and maintaining an air of ambiguity and nuance, proving that the best literature can successfully combine both intimate character portraiture and, shocker this, an actual story. Nonetheless, none of the stories in this collection are for the weak of heart, and while some will reward due attention others remain just a small step away from the lack of self-consciousness that would make them truly resonate. Each offers a rare complexity of character more remarkable for the range of personas Shepard tackles in the collection. Particularly worth reading are the aforementioned "The Zero Meter Diving Team" and "The First South Central Australian Expedition," as well as the very timely look at the brutality of high school masculinity and (not, as one may expect, wholly unrelated) high school football in "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak." A failure to evoke Ancient Greece in "My Aeschylus" is countered by the success of "Hadrian's Wall" and "Sans Farine," and in its first half even the painfully immature "Eros 7" has a few moments of insightful observation. Though father and family issues are beaten to death by the time "Courtesy for Beginners" rolls around, as a standalone story it offers an interesting perspective on these issues, even if it cuts out just before becoming truly powerful. Like You'd Understand, Anyway is, in its way, a tragic collection, bursting with ambition and showcasing an immense talent hampered by conventions of style and woefully inadequate standards for determining merit; regardless, the stories within offer a range of carefully rendered psychological portraits that will evoke in readers sympathy and the feeling that Jim Shepard is so close to crafting something truly magical.

Grade: B+

May 1, 2011

Book 12: Crusader Nation

Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920
David Traxel

This book is admirably presented as a broad-reaching antidote to the plague of specificity that so threatens readability in history and other, related fields, and to some degree it succeeds in distilling an under-appreciated and overly simplified era in United States history. Unfortunately, however, though these ambitions for a broad scope are appropriate and occasionally successful, Traxel's effort is marred by often horrid writing, an inexcusable lack of any remotely discerning editorial eye, and an often myopic obsession with anecdotes that more often detract from, rather than strengthen, the seemingly salient points at hand. This complete misunderstanding of not only generally accepted conventions of English grammar but also of ways in which to construct, support, contradict, or even display rudimentary understanding of an argument makes the book almost unreadable at points despite unmistakably good intentions and some very good and important pieces of information buried in the muck. Traxel's attempt at a general history of the Progressive Era is appreciated, but the book lacks sufficient focus to maintain either a cohesive argument or a consistent level of exploratory depth, rendering its attempt to speak for the 22 (or so) years it covers absolutely moot and making its epilogue a truly laughable attempt at retroactive concision.

Traxel's primary problem is that the text is at several levels nearly unreadable. Most substantial works can be expected to have a number of mistakes that simply slipped by copy editors, but the level of grammatical error in Crusader Nation truly transcends reasonable levels. The book often becomes contradictory or, worse, incomprehensible on a sentence level when prepositions are woefully mishandled or missing. In the book's final chapter alone, there are at least five sentences whose conclusions were surely meant for far different assertions than those with which they began, and that these leaps occur in two- or three-clause sentences puts the oversight of author and editor(s) alike beyond reasonable explanation. The confusion engendered by this book's clumsy mishandling of narrative structure echoes Traxel's numerous lexical missteps and omissions, with the use of section and even chapter breaks particularly baffling. While some line breaks are indeed used to shift the course of action or facet of historical development being explored, others seem to be conjured of nowhere and disrupt wholly reasonable lines of inquiry; that these breaks appear in a book where so many incongruous ideas are linked in endless incongruous passages makes the entire idea of consistency laughable and will frustrate readers hoping for a glimmer of consistency. Worse still is an utter lack of understanding regarding the importance and/or use of transitions of any sort. In one particularly galling instance, one chapter's last page included a section break properly used to precede a brisk geographic and chronological departure…that was wholly ignored in the next two(!) chapters and returned to far later. It is certainly not easy to juggle a number of interrelated thematic narrative threads while maintaining a sensible timeline, but though there is no one universally efficient and desirable method for doing so Traxel ably demonstrates a thorough grasp of several terrible ways to attempt the same.

Worse still than these mistakes in general flow are those made by Traxel when deploying his facts, and the number of contradictions in this book is beyond absurd. It is to be understood that a book of this breadth, and particularly one so heavily reliant on anecdotal illustration, may concentrate on providing opposing primary source viewpoints, and the appearance of such in Crusader Nation is certainly encouraging. Here again, however, Traxel manages to take the interesting and intellectually stimulating and turn it into the incomprehensible. Historians may argue over Woodrow Wilson's opinions on balance of power in the government, and likewise his own views may have changed over the course of his lifetime; regardless, to call Wilson a firm states' rights advocate only to laud his belief in a firm, strong, and centralized national executive branch in the same paragraph is careless at best. More likely, given Traxel's enthusiasm for lending partisan credibility to a range of views, is that this and the book's numerous other insane contradictions represent a kind of hedging; what the author does not seem to grasp, however, is that a broad history may carry a certain kind of argument or viewpoint (see, for example, Howard Zinn) or may actually elucidate specific contradictory viewpoints rather than simply presenting them as equally credible and correct.

The text of Crusader Nation is similarly marred by unfounded accusations and an inconsistent use of endnotes and attribution, and though the book's representation of a number of important issues across a broad historical era will necessarily need to make some omissions, the author's choices are often bizarre. Why, for example, concentrate so heavily on journalist Jack Reed? Better yet, if the reason is, as I suspect, Reed's involvement in a number of important battles throughout the era, why not explain this in a brief introductory note or throughout the text? Rather than illuminating his decisions, Traxel inexplicably returns to the same man's experiences time and again, frustrating readers who are unaware of the reasoning behind this decision and who indeed may be justified in thinking it an accident borne of what appears to be a disorganized mind. Subjects appear and disappear with disarming rapidity, and while some subjects get marvelous treatment, other crucial events and movements of the era are neglected entirely or dismissed out of hand. Prohibition and women's suffrage are two particularly notable absences, often alluded to as the author flails away during scattered attempts for argumentation but never explained or given half of a fair shake. Why women's suffrage is only alluded to in a book that often emphasizes the increasing social importance of the gender and of some of its luminaries is, simply put, beyond this reader's understanding.

And yet, amidst the terrible writing and utter lack of organization on any discernible level, the book does have some redeeming qualities. Early attempts to represent various business and political interests surrounding the trust-busting era are handled well, if not particularly so, and treatment of some subjects is particularly illuminating. Workers' history and oft-forgotten struggles of menial laborers to unionize, often with deadly results, arise consistently throughout the book and are placed (though perhaps accidentally) in a larger context of reform and, later, patriotism. Also appreciated is an examination, however clumsily handled, of the importance of Mexican affairs on American interests during the mid-1910s, a subject not usually examined in the context of the First World War but which likely warrants far more attention than is currently afforded it in general public understanding. Nor does Traxel shy away from contentious issues, though the absence of African-Americans, rare mentions of the arts or culture, and a gross oversimplification of speech suppression after the nation's entry into the war will rightfully induce some misgivings. Most illuminating and actually worth praise is Traxel's handling of the opening of World War I as seen via Europe; rather than discarding the first weeks of the conflict as irrelevant due to geographic displacement, the book provides an engrossing description of Europe on the brink and at the onset of the most unimaginably horrifying four years the world had seen. Likewise, a focus on American neutrality remains engaging despite the familiar flaws in Traxel's authorial skills and, while certainly biased and problematic, at least provides a general framework for understanding Stateside opinion and action during the nation's (quasi-)neutral years.

Crusader Nation that are particularly illuminating, and their quality remains at a low enough level that the rest of the text is simply not worth slogging through to find them. A balance of anecdote and more strenuous analysis is well-intentioned but also fails to gain traction as the scales are inevitably tipped toward the irrelevant and overly detailed on one hand and the far too broadly sweeping on the other, proving again the author's good intentions but inability to make good on any of them. Moreover, gross errors and contradictions will appall seasoned historians and do a disservice to readers looking for a more general introduction to the period; even those like myself who are largely unfamiliar with the era and looking for a good general introduction will find many logical and editorial faults. Readers who make it to the book's epilogue will be justified in believing it terribly inconclusive as it provides running commentary on future historical trends that is not particularly tied to any coherent arguments in the foregoing text. Traxel appears to believe that a few allusions to arguments he could (or should) have constructed will provide acceptable substitutions for the arguments themselves, and the book is a failure judged by this epilogue. Plagued by bad writing and an immeasurably insufficient editorial process, Crusader Nation presents a reasonably thorough but poorly constructed and ultimately inadequate view of the Progressive Era that might appeal to the most forgiving of interested readers but whose scant successes are overburdened and far outweighed by a catalog of missteps.

Grade: D+