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Other five-star reviewers have said most everything I might say. I did not want A Gentleman in Moscow to end and will make the rare move (for me) of reading it again, this time for the Kindle so that I can save my favorite references and passages. I was almost entirely taken in by the twists and turns, wholly willingly, and thoroughly enjoyed Towles’s prose, settings, and characterizations. Spying on Russian history unfolding from the 20s through to the 50s was an entertainment; I kept expecting Ninotchka to appear as a character. The references to Montaigne and other thinkers gave me pauses to think for myself. Some authors might have set their essays on the strength and endurance of the human will in a more conventional prison or gulag. Many thanks to Towles for his choices and reminder that classic virtues and manners do not need to be casualties of cultural and political upheavals.

I had very high hopes for this book because I love reading American history and because I can’t help from trying to synthesize what I understand actually happened with contemporary thinking and philosophies. But this book was a big disappointment. It failed completely in gaining any useful insight into the minds of the Founders. I don’t feel that Ricks makes his case at all that America’s Founders got their government-forming ideas and principles directly from reading the ancient Greeks and Romans. And I (still) think the ancients had much less to do with the shape of our country than Ricks proposes.

I learned that Enlightenment and Renaissance thinkers (Machiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Montesquieu, and others) were the main influencers on the Founders’ thinking and that the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution (especially as unpacked and explained in the Federalist) express a reaction to the history and contemporary actions of the British monarchy and parliamentary system much more so than to any other source. Those Founders educated “classically” certainly were exposed to ancient ideas and values as expressed from Homer to Hadrian, but Ricks completely leaves out the one source that was the first and most important source for the ideas and values of practically every thinker, monarch, politician, and military leader from at least the 5th century CE to the 18th, namely the Christian Bible.

Think and say what you like about the Bible from today’s perspective, but I can’t imagine writing an intellectual history of the American Revolution without acknowledging the Bible’s central role in shaping the minds and hearts of the Founders, and the whole United States by implication. At least I couldn’t before reading this book. I’m tempted to say, as have others here, that the book is a waste of time. But I don’t believe that. It has provided more food for thought about the influence of the Bible on all Western history including US history than anything else I’ve read.

Clearly, there is a lot to explore about the influence of the Bible on our political values (the foundation for government provided by laws and a legal system, individual accountability, human rights, social consciousness, egalitarianism, and much more). I’m looking forward to reading those books some day.


Guy Cicero —  07/22/2014 — Leave a comment

1968 was the worst year ever. MLK and RFK. Riots. Viet Nam. An unrelentingly bad outlook for a mostly clueless college junior turning 21 that summer and thinking a lot about what sort of world he would be graduating into the following year (a much better year!).

Drugs and beer brought no relief that summer of ’68, only heightened paranoia and deeper depression. Books and music saved me. Among these was E.B.White’s One Man’s Meat. A celebration of life. Natural peacefulness. Great writing. I’d read Strunk and White (The Elements of Style) in freshman English. “Omit needless words” was a mantra. I pursued clear and concise writing that said something meaningful in an elegant, graceful way.

One Man’s Meat became my paragon for prose, and has remained so. I recommend it to anyone, but especially to people who love good writing and need healing. I am very impatient with anyone who would have us go back to a better time in America. Times don’t really change much. But how we see them does, apparently. White was an intelligent observer of some very awful events in the 30s and early 40s, but gave us a clear, untinted lens through which to view world events in any time. Today, it’s hard to find this kind of seer. Read One Man’s Meat and then go back to reading the news and today’s observers. Compare and contrast. Repeat as needed.

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Guy Cicero —  07/16/2014 — Leave a comment

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914. A month later, no one was at war. A month after that, 20,000+ were being killed in a single day on battlefields in Europe. By the end of 1914, France alone had suffered one million casualties (killed, wounded, missing, or captured) in the first five months of World War I.

Today, we can do a better job of heading off the kind of all-in response that resulted in those casualties, and the many more to come. But we could also generate one million casualties in seconds rather than months.

Looking at the events during that first month after the assassination, with the delays in communication, the misunderstood messages, the complexities of world politics, and the pent up demand for war among the leaders of many countries, it seems inconceivable that today, with our instantaneous information networks, our simpler balance of power scenario, and our ability to react in a fraction of the time it took to do anything in 1914, we could see anything like the run-up to WWI.

But can we be sure?

Check out the NY Times WWI site. Fantastic.

Since I got our first Kindle seven or eight years ago (?) I have read much more than in the preceding 20 years. But I’ve never had reading projects per se until this year. Now, I’ve really gone overboard:


  • Read the Robert B. Parker Jesse Stone series. Six books read so far.
  • Read the Ruth Rendell Inspector Wexford series. Read four so far.
  • Read Charles Todd Inspector Rutledge series. Read nine so far.
  • Re-read the Aubrey-Maturin series. Five read so far.
  • Listen to The Destroyermen series. Have listened to all nine books. Waiting for #10.
  • Read about WWI on the 100th anniversary of its beginning. Reading book of primary sources, The WWI Reader. Listening to Catastrophe by Max Hastings. Have five+ others teed up.
  • Finish William Manchester The Last Lion. Done.
  • Read/Listen to other books:
  • Caesar and Christ, Will Durant. Audio.
  • Moby Dick. About 40% read.
  • Mole, Jo Nesbit. Leading Norwegian detective novelist.
  • A Higher Call, two WWII pilots re-unite.

I feel a lot more informed and well-rounded since starting to read more. And now that I’m reading about writing, it seems like everyone (Stephen King, Mary Carr, Ann Lamott, etc.) says the key to better writing is doing a lot of reading. I’m teaching courses on self-publishing and finding that the biggest problems would-be self-publishers have are all about writing. So, get the old Kindle out and get going!