Editors’ Picks for June 2018

10 reviews handpicked from the latest issue of Choice.

Barnard, John Levi. Empire of ruin: black classicism and American imperial culture. Oxford, 2017 (c2018). 233p index ISBN 9780190663599, $74.00; ISBN 9780190663612 ebook, contact pubisher for price.

Empire of Ruin focuses on the ideological dimension of classicism and how its legitimization of imperialism and exceptionalism transposes Thomas Jefferson’s idea of an “empire of liberty” into the opposite—an empire of ruin. Barnard (English, College of Wooster) argues that for African American’s classicism has a dark side, and he analyzes how black writers from the American Revolution to today have identified slavery and white supremacy as a classical imperative. As the paint factory in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man uses a black ingredient to manufacture the perfect white paint, so does the US require the “blood of blacks” to achieve political power. Accordingly, whereas the white Doric columns of the Lincoln Memorial appropriate ancient Greek and Roman culture and thus permanence and imperialism, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby—a replica, made of sugar, of the Great Sphinx of Giza, with the sphinx as black woman—honors slaves and exploited workers but will crumble because it is made of sugar. This is a brilliant study of power in the US. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —L. L. Johnson, Lewis & Clark College

Chernow, Ron. Grant. Penguin Press, 2017. 1,074p bibl index ISBN 9781594204876, $40.00; ISBN 9780525521952 ebook, $19.99.


While Ron Chernow was researching and writing Grant, the inescapable question was “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” A seemingly simple query with a straightforward answer, though it trivializes a major historical figure. But surprisingly few aspects of Ulysses S. Grant’s life were simple.

This comprehensive biography is long, very long indeed. At nearly 1,100 pages, it is so gargantuan that Grant could have used it to crush the Confederacy. Chernow skillfully recounts Grant’s life, but he also seeks to refute longstanding myths and calumnies about the general and president, replacing them with more accurate, not to mention fair, understandings. Given enduring controversies about the Civil War and Reconstruction, Grantwill, perhaps inevitably, have its critics. Still, they should not disdain learning from this impressive and stylishly written study.

Chernow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Washington: A Life (CH, Jul’11, 48-6475) and Alexander Hamilton (CH, Jan’05, 42-2983), inspiration of the current Broadway show, follows the standard chronological structure of narrating an individual life, but he chooses interesting priorities. There is rather less emphasis on Grant’s early years than in some other biographies, with just one chapter on his youth.1 The Mexican-American War, which Grant loathed as unjust aggression, gets a single chapter, though Chernow acknowledges that it provided Grant with crucial military experience and strengthened his character. These sections are somewhat weakened by their frequent reliance on witnesses influenced by hindsight. This seems rather pat when these witnesses assert years later that they recognized Grant’s greatness from casual acquaintance.

The book hits full stride with the advent of Southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War. From spring 1861, steady if not constant success marked Grant’s meteoric rise from failure and obscurity through an impressive string of victories to commanding all Union troops in March 1864. A little over a year later, his triumph over Robert E. Lee effectively ended the war. No general surpassed Grant at forcing surrenders, winning in this way at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and Appomattox. Chernow clearly admires Grant’s generalship, highlighting his ability to learn from mistakes and exploit changing circumstances. Grant’s strategic vision encompassed the conflict in its entirety, orchestrating several offensives in the concerted 1864–65 campaign that doomed the Confederacy. Chernow aligns with historians’ view that, essentially, Lee was the last great general of the eighteenth century, and Grant was the first great general of the twentieth century. This contrasts Lee’s tactical brilliance but limited concept of overall strategy with Grant’s shrewd, relentless use of industrial and numerical supremacy in pioneering modern total war.2

Grant also supports a better understanding of his presidency. Long dismissed as among the worst presidents, his achievements were substantial. Though Grant himself was honest and competent, corruption and favoritism plagued many administration officials. Grant was the only president to deploy federal troops during Reconstruction, which was not just about rebuilding the Southern economy, but reconstructing American democracy.3 The president used the judiciary on behalf of freedmen too, successfully prosecuting thousands of cases against the Ku Klux Klan and destroying its effectiveness as a terrorist organization. Documenting this accomplishment may be the book’s most innovative aspect.

Grant pursued a Peace Policy in relations with Native Americans. This was less successful due to constant pressure on Indians from westward migration, and Grant’s assumption of the benefits of assimilation was misplaced. But his administration’s efforts were generally more humane in their intent than preceding policies. Grant also appointed a Seneca Indian, Ely Parker, as commissioner of Indian affairs, then the highest federal office attained by any Native American. Furthermore, skillful conflict resolution characterized his foreign policy. Other historians have focused on Grant’s administrations, but it was often done to condemn him. Thanks to Chernow (and recent predecessors), Grant should rank in the middle range of presidents, and arguably higher.

The subject explored at greatest length throughout is also the key controversy surrounding Grant: his drinking. Chernow carefully analyzes the evidence for numerous (in)famous episodes (commonly exaggerated by critics) and concludes that Grant was an alcoholic whose periodic binges never interfered with wartime duty or became public spectacles. Rather than viewing his drinking as a damning failure, Chernow argues that Grant’s successful struggle with alcoholism actually exemplified his personal triumph in surmounting a disease that derailed his early military career, motivating countless addicts to overcome their own limitations.

The victory over alcoholism is but one way Chernow sheds light on Grant’s personal life; identifying two others here will suffice. After leaving office, Ulysses and Julia Grant spent two years traveling the world, and one historian has already used sources from this tour to indicate that their itinerary traversed many regions devastated by the global El Nino drought and famines of 1876–79.4 Chernow recounts another aspect of the Grants’ lives; namely, their great romance from beginning to end. Most people today assume that couples always tended to “marry for love,” but less than 200 years ago, this was untypical. Young people seldom exercised choice, instead serving as instruments in forming alliances between families. Modern Americans take romantic love and companionate marriage for granted (sic), but the Grants were prominent early, if not pioneering, models of this fundamental shift. Indeed, they were known for public displays of affectionate kisses and chaste caresses that seem tame by today’s standards, but it was heady stuff for Victorian observers.5

Grant’s last battle was fought against mortality. Racing against cancer and time, he completed his Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885-86) one week before his death. This act of devotion gave his family financial security while giving posterity a priceless document—a literary masterpiece and probably the best book ever written by a US president, and now available in a superb annotated edition (2017).6

Finally, we return to the hoary question: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” The correct answer is: no one. Both Ulysses and Julia Grant are entombed there above ground, but nobody is actually buried underground. Since Grant rose to prominence in early 1862, there have been many questions about his abilities, strengths, weaknesses, and character. Grant addresses them in a manner that compels historians to reckon with this landmark work. Chernow firmly establishes Ulysses S. Grant as the general of freedom who vanquished the armies of slavery, then defended freedom. If that is not greatness or heroic, then nothing is. Summing Up: Essential. All public and academic levels/libraries. —T. P. Johnson, University of Massachusetts, Boston


Inspiration for the review title comes from A. L. Conger, The Rise of U.S. Grant(Da Capo, c.1931,1996), xvi; and George S. Kanahele ed., Hawaiian Music and Musicians: An Illustrated History (Hawai’i, 1979), 287. CH, May ‘80.

  1. Cf. William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography; (Norton, 1981) CH, Sep’81; J.E. Smith, Grant (Simon & Schuster, 2001) CH, Dec’01, 39-2399; and R. White, American Ulysses (Random House, 2016). For years, McFeely’s highly critical study dominated scholarship on Grant because of its thorough research. But it has been superseded by more favorable assessments from Smith, then White, and now Chernow’s work.
  2. Primarily associated with J.F.C. Fuller, Grant & Lee (Scribner’s, 1933), 248–49; and Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. (Beechhurst Press, c. 1942, 1953), 319.
  3. W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (Harcourt Brace, 1935); Katharine L. Balfour, Democracy’s Reconstruction (Oxford, 2011) CH, Dec’11, 49-2347.
  4. Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (Verso, 2001), 1–6. CH, Jul’01, 38-6200, making effective use of John R. Young, Around the World with General Grant (The American News Co., 1879). Davis claims that the Grants seemed barely aware of the catastrophes unfolding around them.
  5. Stephen M. Frank, Life with Father: Parenthood and Masculinity in the Nineteenth-Century American North (Johns Hopkins, 1998), 179. CH, Jul’99, 36-6457; Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (Basic Books, 1975) CH, Mar’76.
  6. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, ed. John F. Marszalek (Harvard, 2017).

Ellerbroek, Lucas. Planet hunters: the search for extraterrestrial life, tr. by Andy Brown. Reaktion Books, 2017. 267p bibl index ISBN 9781780238142, $27.00; ISBN 9781780238784 ebook, contact pubisher for price.

From the burning of Giordano Bruno in 1600 for stating the universe was infinite to the launching of the Kepler satellite in 2009, this book recounts the search for planets outside the Solar System, known as exoplanets. Ellerbroek (Univ. of Amsterdam, the Netherlands) blends history and personal interviews with today’s leading researchers, resulting in a uniquely personable approach that does not skimp on science. Ellerbroek’s interview subjects relate the various techniques they use to identify planets outside the Solar System: for example, locating the ‘wobble’ in the orbit of a star caused by a massive planet orbiting it, or the periodic fluctuation in a star’s brightness as a planet passes in front of it. Since its launch, NASA says the Kepler satellite has confirmed 3,532 exoplanets and 4,496 other candidates. It is likely that countless more exist around the stars in the Milky Way alone. This is an excellent read for anyone interested in exoplanet research and the astronomers who pursue it. A thorough list of references and chapter bibliographies provide direction for serious readers, though the text is accessible enough for the general reader as well. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. —C. G. Wood, Eastern Maine Community College

Furman, Todd M. The ethics of poker. McFarland, 2017. 229p bibl index ISBN 9781476664613, $29.95; ISBN 9781476627854 ebook, contact publisher for price.

Furman (philosophy, McNeese State Univ.) provides a wide-ranging exploration of applied ethics in the world of poker. At times alluring, intimidating, aggravating, and exhilarating, poker is—as Poker Hall of Fame inductee Mike Sexton famously said—a game that “takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.” Though the Tournament Directors Association (TDA) works to standardize rules, especially for tournament play, rules and acceptable practices can vary by venue (home game, casino, charity card room, etc.), cash game versus tournament, and governing body stipulations, such as those from state or tribal agencies. This work acknowledges rule variance while offering a thoroughly readable moral discussion of behavior at the poker table and the world surrounding it. Obvious “don’t steal chips from other players’ stacks” scenarios are not its focus. In defining poker as a game of skill, Furman’s analysis concentrates on less clear-cut issues, including truth as deception and falsehood not necessarily being a condition of lying. Two appendices supply an overview of hand rankings and basics for playing no-limit Texas hold ’em. Poker aficionados, general philosophy students, and gaming professionals will find much of value in this engaging, insightful work. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. —R. E. Kelly IV, Hutchinson Community College

Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo da Vinci. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 599p bibl index ISBN 9781501139154, $35.00; ISBN 9781501139178 ebook, contact publisher for price.

Who is not familiar with the versatile genius Leonardo da Vinci? He was an artist, scientist, innovator, and bold thinker, an icon on whom volumes have been written. But here comes a new biography by a biographer par excellence. Isaacson (Tulane Univ.) presents a wealth of fascinating material on the hero with superb clarity and erudition. We read about this unschooled scholar exploring optics and anatomy, fantasizing about technologies to be actualized centuries later, painting masterpieces; we consider his genius as a military engineer and architect. There is reference to the challenges Leonardo faced as a gay man (though in Florence’s art world da Vinci was not alone). We read of his Vitruvian Man and that of Giacomo Andreas, about the range of the artist’s attire, and much more of significant and trivial interest. There are thoughtful comments on the master’s paintings and details on his stay with François I of France. The inclusion of many color reproductions adds considerably to the book’s charm, besides making one feel that the price is a bargain. Leonardo’s immense accomplishments jolt us to the recognition of what the human spirit is capable of. A must-read for all educated people and for those seeking to expand their education. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. —V. V. Raman, emeritus, Rochester Institute of Technology

Johnson, Loch K. Spy watching: intelligence accountability in the United States. Oxford, 2018. 615p bibl index ISBN 9780190682712, $34.95; ISBN 9780190682729 ebook, contact publisher for price.

Johnson (UGA) offers a necessary and encyclopedic account of intelligence oversight, covering its history since 1975, as well as perennial challenges in conducting effective democratic oversight of an enterprise that requires a large measure of secrecy to be effective. With his experience as a congressional staffer involved in the investigation of abuses by the intelligence community and a distinguished career as a scholar of intelligence issues, Johnson brings a wealth of knowledge to this ambitious project. Using the metaphors of firefighting and police patrolling, he provides a useful conceptual framework for understanding the ebb and flow of congressional oversight. The book is not perfect: sentiment clouds Johnson’s assessment of former counterintelligence chief James Angleton, for instance, and his typology of intelligence overseers seems arbitrary in application, adding little that simple narrative could not provide. Overall, however, Spy Watching will surely come to be seen as an essential part of the literature on intelligence administration in the US. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals. —T. C. Ellington, Wesleyan College

Meltzoff, Julian. Critical thinking about research: psychology and related fields, by Julian Meltzoff and Harris M. Cooper. 2nd ed. American Psychological Association, 2018. 334p bibl index ISBN 9781433827105 pbk, $49.95.

Research in the human sciences poses enormous complexity, spanning issues like the varied characteristics of different samples, validity measurement of abstract concepts, appropriate statistical analyses, and research ethics. Doing sound research therefore requires systematic thought about myriad factors. In this second edition of Critical Thinking about Research, Meltzoff (Emer. California School of Professional Psychology) and Cooper (Duke Univ.) tackle these issues skillfully. They argue that it is not necessarily more difficult to do good quality research than it is to do flawed research, but good research requires careful consideration of potential pitfalls. The authors equip readers with the necessary mindset for developing sound research. However, what makes this book unique is a set of 17 realistic but fictional journal articles containing research flaws; these articles are accompanied by critiques and explanations. Spotting problems in actual research articles is difficult even for advanced students because flaws in published work are likely either minor or extremely hard to detect. These practice articles illustrate how easily problems can arise and suggest how to recognize and deal with them. This volume provides a valuable background for the skills students must develop to be good consumers and producers of research. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and graduate students. —B. C. Beins, Ithaca College

Vedfelt, Ole. A guide to the world of dreams: an integrative approach to dreamwork. Routledge, 2017. 236p bibl index ISBN 9781138948075, $175.00; ISBN 9781138948082 pbk, $44.95; ISBN 9781315669717 ebook, $44.95.

Vedfelt leads the Institute for Integrated Psychotherapy and Cybernetic Psychology and supervises the Danish Psychologist’s Association; his wealth of experience in dream studies is evident in this richly informative volume. Aiming for an integrative approach to dream studies and dream work, Vedfelt examines theorists and researchers across a broad spectrum of thought, including Jungian, Freudian, existential, experimental, cognitive, and neural network models. Integrating seemingly disparate views into a cohesive whole, the author combines theory and practice into a usable handbook, including specific examples. The text systematically examines the various methods, establishes a framework for understanding dreams, and suggests practical techniques for those working with dream content. Vedfelt presents his Ten Core Qualities of Dreams in the middle section of the book, which includes a chapter on dreams and trauma. The volume’s final section focuses on the pragmatic application of the Ten Core Qualities. This work will be of interest to psychotherapists, counselors, instructors, and students of dream psychology. Written in a clear manner, the text is well researched, with extensive documentation accompanying each chapter. A valuable addition to psychology of dreams collections. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. —J. Bailey, Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute

Weed, Eric Arden. The religion of white supremacy in the United States. Lexington Books, 2017. 139p bibl index ISBN 9781498538756, $90.00; ISBN 9781498538763 ebook, $85.50.

This analysis of US racism examines white supremacy as a religion that has endured perpetual challenges and continues to affect the lives of non-white people in the US. Key themes include the Naturalization Act of 1790, which stipulated whiteness as a requirement for citizenship; the Puritans’ rationalization for seizing the land of Indigenous peoples; the ritual function of lynchings; the Tulsa riots; and the contemporary revival of ethno-nationalism under the administration of Donald Trump. Weed identifies a clear pattern of whites opposing the right of blacks to self-defense. He analyzes why enraged whites murdered African Americans who refused to hand over their family members to white lynch mobs, arguing that such violence presumed a divine right to sacrifice blacks to a white god. Weed also addresses the racial history of jurisprudence (e.g., United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind) that denied national membership to non-white races. Throughout the book, the author emphasizes the theological and ritual aspects of racism. In so doing, Weed makes an important case for why elucidating white supremacy as a religious formation is analytically compelling and enables unique insights into the function of racial politics. Summing Up: Essential. All public and academic levels/libraries. —S. A. Johnson, Virginia Tech

Young, Miles. Ogilvy on advertising in the digital age. Bloomsbury, 2018 (c2017). 288p index ISBN 9781635571462, $30.00; ISBN 9781635571479 ebook, contact publisher for price.

Young’s take on advertising in the digital age is a terrific book and an accessible text on the state of digital marketing beyond advertising. The title might cause confusion. Yes, it is about digital advertising and more, and true, Young is an executive at Ogilvy and Mather. However, despite the back cover proclamation that this is a “must-have sequel,” it’s not like Ogilvy on Advertising, the 1983 classic that belongs on the bookshelf of every advertising professional, educator, and student. That book, while certainly a product of its time, contains the wisdom and musings of the legendary David Ogilvy. Young (Oxford) has created a substantial book that stands on its own. The book pays tribute to its namesake as well as other visionaries in the digital marketing space. Young examines the impact of digital marketing in business, politics, and government, as well as tourism, as David Ogilvy would surely appreciate. But most of all, Young’s work is a textbook that explores the modern realities of digital marketing alongside the fundamentals of creativity and marketing communications. Summing Up: Essential. Lower-division undergraduates through professionals. —D. Aron, Dominican University