Thursday, March 31, 2011

Unraveling Freedom

Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I
by Ann Bausum

96 pages
National Geographic

Publisher's Description:

In 1915, the United States experienced the 9/11 of its time. A German torpedo sank the Lusitania killing nearly 2,000 innocent passengers. The ensuing hysteria helped draw the United States into World War I—the bitter, brutal conflict that became known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars. But as U.S. troops fought to make the world safe for democracy abroad, our own government eroded freedoms at home, especially for German-Americans. Free speech was no longer an operating principle of American democracy. Award-winning author Ann Bausum asks, just where do Americans draw the line of justice in times of war? Drawing thought-provoking parallels with President Wilson’s government and other wartime administrations, from FDR to George W. Bush, Bausum’s analysis has plenty of history lessons for the world today. Her exhaustive research turns up astonishing first-person stories and rare images, and the full-color design is fresh and stunning. The result is a gripping book that is well-positioned for the run-up to the World War I centennial.

My comments:

What most impressed me about this book is the topic it covers and the parallels it draws between the political environments of World War I and post-9/11 America. The 2-page foreword by Ted Rall (in comic form) lays out the stakes - will we learn from our past mistakes? - in a clear and provocative manner that Bausum carries on in her introduction.

Chapter 1 focuses on a riveting account of the sinking of the Lusitania. Although I thought this chapter was occasionally hampered by awkward phrasing, it is also the most captivating section of the book. Remaining chapters cover the lead up to war, war propaganda, the harsh laws imposed by Wilson's administration, vigilante justice, and the end of the war and it's aftermath.

The book is very readable, but I was bothered a few times by unclear writing. For instance, when discussing the persecution of German-Americans, Bausum uses the ambiguous phrase "German-Americans including many citizens." I had to go to a sidebar (on page 60) to find explicit mention of the deportation of German aliens. I can only guess that Bausum's phrasing was used out of sensitivity to current illegal residents who have grown up in the US. If so, why not make the connection explicit in the main text? Pointing out that specific non-citizen populations have been targeted for persecution in the past as well as today makes sense given the book's themes.

One other issue I have with the text is the description of Wilson's stroke and subsequent impairment. Bausum uses the euphemism "mentally challenged" (page 65) to describe Wilson's post-stroke state, which is inaccurate. In actuality, Wilson was partially paralyzed on his left side, meaning that he suffered a stroke in the right hemisphere of his brain. According to the National Stroke Association, other effects could have included problems with spatial and perceptual abilities and short term memory loss. I don't understand why Bausum didn't present a proper medical explanation of Wilson's brain injury.

Overall I like the design a lot. The cover, dominated by a battered, windblown flag is great. I like the inclusion of political cartons and propaganda posters. The digital silhouetting and color tinting (mentioned on page 4) treatment used on several of the archival photographs is effective at making the people stand out, but also makes the backgrounds nearly indecipherable. I think that removing the subjects from their context makes the photographs less effective in some cases (like on pages 53 and 71).

The back end materials include two great timelines. The first is a 5-page guide to wartime presidents that compares Wilson's wartime actions to those by other administrations throughout American history. Why didn't I know that James Maison was so committed to freedom of the press? A second timeline tracks major events in the life of Wilson, the history of the Lusitania, and World War I. It nicely summarizes the main points of the book in three pages.

Notes and acknowledgments, a bibliography, a resource guide that includes books and websites, quote citations, and an index are also appended.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tom Thumb

Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature
by George Sullivan

Published by Clarion Books
204 pages

Publisher's description:

When Charles S. Stratton was born in 1838, he was a large baby, perfect in every way. But then he stopped growing. At age four, though a happy and mischievous child, he was just over two feet tall and weighed only fifteen pounds--the exact same size he had been as a seven-month-old baby. It was then that the notorious showman P.T. Barnum dubbed him Tom Thumb and put him on display, touring him around the world as a curiosity. A natural performer, Charley became enormously popular and wealthy, more so than any other performer before him. In this spirited biography--the first on its subject--George Sullivan recounts the fascinating adventures of Tom Thumb, and raises challenging questions about what constitutes exploitation--both in the 19th century and today.

My comments:

Not having been previously familiar with Charles Stratton's (aka Tom Thumb) story, I was soon enthralled and read it on my computer in just a couple of sittings. I like that, overall, Sullivan doesn't talk down to his young audience, writing instead with sophistication. There are a couple of rare (and pretty minor) exceptions, like on page 49 where he mentions that Apollo was a major Greek god, instead of just saying that he was the Greek ideal of manly beauty.

Reading on the full-size monitor gave me a sense of the full-size book; the size and spacing of the text and the placement of the images. Reading this way made it obvious that the book is intended for a young audience. I later re-read it on a 7 inch nook screen, where text size and spacing became meaningless and I focused more on the content. Reading this way, I became aware that people of all ages could read the ebook without ever thinking about the "intended" audience.

I did relish all the photographs. Particularly fascinating are pictures of some of the other performers (circa p. 58) who lived and worked at Barnum's museum with Stratton, and the pictures of him in various costumes (circa p. 75). I found it intriguing that while Charles (or Charley to family and friends) and his cohorts may have been exploited, they were also sometimes given opportunities that they wouldn't have had otherwise. Charley, for instance, learns to read and travels the world. He also meets other dwarfs like himself, and eventually marries.

I like the design of the book overall. I thought the image of Stratton on the cover was a cartoon at first, but later realized that it's a reproduction of a photograph that has been colorized. If I have one wish it is just that the cover would look less cartoony. In addition to all the wonderful black and white photographs, the interior pages are decorated with 19th century patterns and flourishes in shades of gray.

Source notes and a bibliography are appended. The notes are organized by chapter, and include page references to quotes and articles included in the bibligoraphy. The bibligraphy includes works by Stratton's wife, Lavinia, and by friends Sylvester Bleeker and Barnum as well as books and articles about the period in general. There will be an index, however, it wasn't included in the advanced reading copy.

Disclosure: This blog post is based on the reading of an advanced reading copy received through NetGalley.