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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Life Is So Good and John Adams (and Weekly Geeks)

Our Weekly Geeks task this time was to swap interviews with another blogger about a book we've just finished reading. I was paired up with Melissa from Book Nut. She asked me questions about my book, Life Is So Good by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman; and I asked her about her book, John Adams by David McCollough.

Doing reviews this way is lots of fun, and I'm glad the Weekly Geeks are doing it again. I may start doing this myself from time to time, asking you - my lovely readers - to ask questions about the books I'm reading, especially for books that I'm having a hard time reviewing. But for now let's just get to the reviews, shall we?


First up is the book I read, Life Is So Good.

I haven't read the book (or even heard of it before -- I'm slow!) so can you give me a bit of a summary without too many spoilers?

This is the true story of George Dawson, the grandson of a slave, who was born in the late 1890s and grew up on a farm in Texas. Age the age of 98 he decided to learn to read. Going back to school at that age brought him to the attention of the media, and this book is the result.

What led you to pick this book up?

I read this book after seeing it reviewed here. Because another review led me to read it, it was perfect for the Irresistible Review Challenge. I failed the challenge because I didn't complete this one in time, but that's perfectly ok with me (I had a really good reason - see my answer to the next question for details).

Easy one: did you enjoy it? Why or why not?

I LOVED this book. It was very readable and always kept my interest. I liked how each some of the chapters began with news from the time period, and continued with what was going on in George's life at that time.

After just a few chapters I was telling my Gram (she's 84) about it and she asked if she could borrow it. Of course I said yes. As I mentioned in this post, Gram isn't a big reader so I was quite impressed when she finished it in just a few weeks. She says it was a wonderful book, and that George is a lovely man. She really enjoyed reading this one.

Was his life really "so good"? Why did the book have that title? Do you think it fit?

George had a difficult life, but he was always happy. He lived in the moment, not worrying about what tomorrow would bring. He didn't expect things to be perfect, he didn't expect people to be kind (at least, not all the time) and he didn't believe that anyone owed him anything. Based on that, you may think that he was depressed, or pessimistic, or something like that, but he wasn't. He just took life as it came and made the best of it every day.

For him, life really was "so good" ... it's a perfect title for the book.

Did you learn anything you didn't already know?

Yes! I learned how different life really was for "colored" people [George's word] in the South in the first half of the 20th century. Of course I knew about segregation, and the Klan, and things like that. But it's the little things that I just had no clue about that really struck me.
I also learned a bit about "riding the rails". Train-hopping-hobos make appearances in many novels of the time, but George's experiences give a bit more life to these faceless masses of moving people.

There are so many things I learned from this book, but nothing that I would say is "profound" ... it's just the details of life that are often overlooked that were so fascinating to me.

Would you recommend it? Why or why not?
I would whole-heartedly recommend this book. I can't think of any reason NOT to like it. Ok, maybe I'd like an "Afterword" that tells me when happened to George after the book was published, but hey, you can find that on the internet so it's really not a big deal. This is a lovely book, an easy and captivating read, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Just for fun, here's a picture of my Gram reading this book!


And now on to Book Nut's book, John Adams.

Why did you decide to read this book?
Way back when my blog was young, I read Setting the World Ablaze. The one thing I got from that book was how under-appreciated John Adams is. In the comments, someone recommended this one to me. But... I forgot about it until my dad reminded me about it in March. It took the I Heard it Through the Grapevine challenge though to actually get me to read the book.

Did you watch the mini-series on tv a few months back? If so, how does it compare to the book?
I haven't. It's on my Netflix queue, but I wanted to read the book before I watched the mini-series. I've heard that it's really good, though.

Was this a challenging read? Why/why not?
Yes, and no. Yes because it encompasses a HUGE amount of time -- more than 50 years of detailed accounts -- which is a lot to handle in any book. It's 650 pages of John Adams. But no, because David McCulllough is a great writer. I usually have a problem with biographies because I find them stuffy, but McCullough makes the research and the letters incredibly accessible and engaging.

What are two or three things that you learned that really surprised you?
How much Adams did behind the background. He never was a charismatic leader or even a terribly popular one, but he was tireless. In the same vein, I was impressed how visionary Adams was. He saw the evils of party politics: "There is nothing I dread so much as a division of the Republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader and converting measures in opposition to each other," Adams had observed to a correspondent while at Amsterdam, before the Revolution ended. Yet this was exactly what had happened The "turbulent maneuvers" of factions, he now wrote privately, could "tie the hands and destroy the influence" of every honest man with a desire to serve the public good. There was "division of sentiments over everything," he told his son-in-law William Smith. "How few aim at the good of the whole, without aiming too much at the prosperity of parts." And predicted that slavery would be a big issue, possibly leading to war. The other thing -- that I knew, but was impressed with again -- is that you can't write a biography of Adams without making Jefferson a big part of it. Their lives, for good or ill, were intertwined. And I found that interesting.

Was the relationship between John and his wife, Abagail, typical of the time period or was it unique? Is that your own opinion or is there something in the book that led you to that conclusion?
I've long been impressed with Abigail Adams -- she was a hero of mine since I read a biography of her in middle school. That said, I'm not sure if their relationship was unique. It probably was, but because we don't know much about other relationships from the time, it's hard to tell. What was unique was the amount of letters that they wrote. And it's because they were both prolific writers that we even know about their relationship at all.

Did this book alter your impression of any historical figures? In what way?
Ah. Jefferson. He did some great things, but he was not a great man. The history books have unfailingly altered Jefferson. Same with Franklin, too. And I had no idea that Alexander Hamliton was such a creep. Brilliant, but really really warped.

Do you think the author gave an unbiased review of Adams' life? Was there an apparent or implied message that the author was hoping to convey in this book?
No. I don't think McCullough was unbiased. I think he was fair -- Adams was not perfect (he had two alcoholic sons, one of whom died at age 30, and he was incredibly vain and easily hurt) -- but you could tell as a reader about the affection that McCullough had for Adams. He really liked this man. And, by the end of the book, so did I. I think McCullough's just attempting to change the perception -- or lack of one, for who really thinks of John Adams -- of Adams and put out there how much he really did for the country, not just during the revolution, but his whole life. (One little side note: he worked tirelessly -- and was unpopular for it-- for peace with France during his term as president. McCullough makes this statement later: "Bonaparte abandoned his plans and suddenly, in 1803, offered to sell the United States all of the vast, unexplored territory of Louisiana. It was an astounding turn of events and one that would probably not have come to pass had the Quasi-War burst into something larger. Were it not for John Adams making peace with France, there might never have been a Louisiana Purchase.")

What type of reader would you recommend this book to? Why?
Definitely history buffs. But I think the average reader -- one who is willing to invest the time in this book, because it does take time -- will enjoy it. It's enjoyable, it's interesting, and hopefully, they'll come away with as much respect for Adams as I did.


As always, if you've reviewed either of these books please let me know. It's more fun when there are a variety of opinions!

Bold.Blue.Adventure is the one that turned me on to Life Is So Good in the first place (although I read her review when she cross-posted it on the "In Their Shoes" Reading Challenge Blog).


MoxieMamaKC said...

Oohh! John Adams is on my list. I may need to put it up a few notches. David McCullough is one of the easier to read historians.

amanaceer said...

i just discovered that "life is so good" book on a friend's bookshelf and thought it looked worth reading!

Susan (5 Minutes For Mom) said...

Sigh. I wish I had more time to read. This work-at-home mom life just doesn't leave a moment free.

Aldawen said...

Hi, thanks for the comment! You can feel free to join in for as many books as you feel like reading. ;) It'll be great to have you chime in.
It's great visiting your blog; very nice! (like I need another bookish blog to read...haha) Do you by chance have a goodreads account?
No galu govad gen

Bybee said...

after your review, I'm definitely going to give the Adams biography a try! Thanks!

gautami tripathy said...

Great interviews. Sounds like good books!

WG #16: Interviewing

Book Zombie said...

Terrific interviews! It's so wonderful to see that your Grandmother enjoyed your book also.

Kim L said...

I'm glad you enjoyed Life is So Good! What an amazing read, right? I'm happy my review inspired you, I couldn't say enough good things about that book. It really makes me wish I could have met Richard Dawson, he sounds like an amazing guy.

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