American history was never my favorite subject, but I was quite caught up by Michael Beschloss's Presidents of War. In particular, I was impressed by the short, contentious, and fatal presidency of James Polk. (After a single term, he set out on a triumphal tour to Nashville, catching a cold and then apparently cholera, which killed him a few months later.) It is hard to imagine our country without the nearly million square miles he added to it, including the present states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Utah, plus portions of Colorado and Wyoming. At the very least, if Mr Polk hadn't ordered the US Army into Mexico, John Wayne would have had to find another career. Later wars -- and war presidents -- are not as surprising, because we know more about them, but it's amusing to see how often Democrats and Republicans swap positions, depending on who occupies the White House. For most of the 20th century, Democratic presidents got us into war (Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy) while Republicans were the isolationists, 180 degrees off from what followed the Vietnam War. This isn't as clear as it might be in Mr Beschloss's book, because for all practical purposes Vietnam is the most recent war he writes about, though it ended more than half a century -- and nine presidents! -- ago.
It's very bad of me, I know, but I started reading Energy: A Human History two-thirds of the way through, at the dawn of the atomic age. Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, published forty years ago but still selling so briskly that it ranks higher on Amazon than his new book. He's a fan of nuclear energy, pointing out that the deaths caused by the meltdowns at Three Mile Island (none, as far as we know), Chernobyl (37 known, thousands estimated), and Fukushima (none known, hundreds predicted) are eclipsed by the lives saved by replacing coal-burning plants with nuclear. A chapter on smog focuses on the "Great Killer Fog" of December 1952 that shrouded London in darkness for more than three days and killed three thousand Londoners from inhaling coal-smoke particles coated with sulfur dioxide. And there were killer fogs and smogs in cities around the world, including Beijing in recent years. His earlier chapters trace the evolution of mankind's lighting and heating through the millenia. He doesn't much go into our current obsesssion with "sustainable" energy, though he does make the point that every new source has been expensive to start -- inflation adjusted, whale oil for lamps cost upwards of $30 a gallon! -- so why should solar and wind be any different? Blue skies! — Dan Ford
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