It’s time for our annual book review. Here are our favorites of 2014.
Was the late Don Tyson a business genius or a corporate bully?
Either way, Christopher Leonard lays out the story in a page turner. I had mixed feelings toward Tyson, who worked his way out of poverty to build an empire, but ruled unfairly sometimes over farmers who needed answers from managers and got stonewalled instead.
Dead End, Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism by Benjamin Ross.
There are some terrific books on the subject of suburban sprawl, including Christopher Leinberger’s “The Option of Urbanism,” and Leslie Gallagher’s “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving.”
We can now add “Dead End, Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism” by Benjamin Ross. A transit advocate and environmental activists, Ross headed up Maryland’s Action Committee for Transit for 15 years.
Ross covers early ground other authors have not, at least from what I have seen. I enjoyed his first chapter on the “Strange Birth of Suburbia.”
In the 1830s and 1840s, residents of cities became fed up with living and working in filthy places. Some fled the slums for a better way. Influenced by Charles Fourier, the French idea maker, reformists built what they thought were ideal and progressive communities beyond the choking cities.
Practicality never reached high enough, leading to compromises. In 1852, Marcus Spring, a businessman, refigured the paradigm and established Raritan Bay Union. The author notes, “From Raritan Bay Union sprang a settlement that laid down a pattern for the suburbs to come.”
A year later, Alexander Jackson Davis helped design Llewlyn Park, a new community in South Orange, New Jersey and one of the first planned subdivisions. Land was cheap, the landscape lush, and the views remarkable. Homes were set back from the road, and the lots subdivided. Neighborhood associations required conformity and prevented commercial development.
From his Capital Hill studio, Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN, and for the past 25 years, host of “Book Notes” and its successor “Q&A,” has conducted over 1,300 interviews with authors. Fans of Lamb’s Sunday night show appreciate the fact he zeroes in on authors who have tackled historic public figures, journalists, and human interest stories.
For this anthology, Lamb, who lives in Arlington, chose 41 interviews. Biography giants such as McCullough, Chernow, and Caro are here, as well as big names like Erik Larson, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Lewis.
At his promo appearance at Politics & Prose this summer, Lamb recalled his interview with Mikhail Gorbachev. At the last minute, the former leader of the Soviet Union he said he could only do 30 minutes. Lamb stuck to his guns, saying its one-hour or nothing. Walking back from the restroom, Gorbachev relented.
Black Prophetic Fire by Cornel West.
Christa Buschendorf’s partnering with West makes all the difference in the world in this important book. She asks the right questions- it flat out works like a charm.
As someone interested in the life of Frederick Douglass, I devoured that chapter first. West’s analysis of Douglass is a fair balance of praise and criticism. In my look at Douglass I had gotten into hero worship mode, so I needed West’s penetrating look to off set that.
Douglass peaked, West points out, after emancipation. But he is fair with that criticism, saying – “So it is not a matter to reduce Douglass, but to contextualize him, to historize him.” He also later says, “There is nobody like him. I mean, I don’t know of any figure in American history whose language and oratory is so full of fire and electricity focusing on a particular form of injustice. I think Douglass stands along in that regard.
I next read the Ida Wells chapter, because she came up in my look at Douglass as a heroine who put her life on the line to speak out against lynching. Wells was a leader when men dominated the Civil Rights movement.
Next up was W.E.B. Dubois, a great who needs no introduction, but someone who whites tried to marginalize. This was the most difficult chapter to read, as West and Buschendorf veer off into deep philosophical territory at one point.
Ella Baker, I’m ashamed to say, I did not know. But West tells us about her great leadership as an organizer, especially with SNCC. Her thing was working away from the limelight and she did it better than anyone.
Next June, Alexandria will play host to the crew of L’Hermione, a reproduction of the 1779 Hermione, a 26-gun frigate that will sail from France. The tallship covered itself in glory in 1780 when it arrived in America. On board was a young general. Marquis de Lafayette, soon to be a close friend of George Washington, assisted the Americans in their war against the British and then made a triumphant return in 1824.
If you need to brush up on Lafayette, and want a recent biography, this book fits the bill. Author Laura Auricchio, a specialist in 18th-century French history and art, brings a knowledge that perhaps other biographers did not.
One of the strengths of this book is the 52 illustrations.
The greatest diplomat France ever sent to America was not an ambassador. It is the baguette.
Even if you don’t agree with that, I think you will enjoy reading Samuel Fromartz’s delightful romp through his travels to Paris and back to the states to learn how to make, well, the perfect loaf of bread. Fired from his job during the financial downturn, he flew to Paris to write about his learning process. Training started at 4 in the morning with a busy baker in a boulangerie. Learning the craft, which at times seems to be more art than science, he produced a loaf that impressed his mentor.
Fromartz gives us great insights into the bread industry. He learned that bakers could produce top notch bread, but that would create the expectation of same. Mass production is easier.
To Annoy or Destroy the Enemy, The Battle of the White House after the Burning of Washington by Patrick O’Neill
Containing 78 images and maps, this is the definitive account of a War of 1812 battle that took place south of Alexandria from Sept 1-5, 1814.
The book details the story of how American citizen soldiers and seamen fought the British from their batteries along the shore of modern day Fort Belvoir. The reader learns about 60 enslaved humans that escaped to the Potomac Squadron, the whereabouts of Francis Scott Key, and much more.
(Note: This book can be purchased as an Ebook at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Hard copies are available by contacting the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Book of the Year
As always, this is tough. West’s Fire is very important, and the others were very enjoyable.
We’re going, however, with Meat. Exposing bad behavior in an industry such as one that produces the food we eat takes gumption, courage and a long-term investment in time. Such investigative journalism, something we once took for granted, is harder to do in a world where newspapers are laying off staff.
For that reason, we congratulate Christopher Leonard on his expose.