GrantGrant by Ron Chernow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a world rife with sarcasm (this reader is guilty) and pessimism (also guilty), we could use a few more earnest men like Grant. Chernow paints a portrait of a man whose character was conspicuously free of pretense, guile, or hubris. Despite a demonstrated brilliance in military affairs and civic leadership, Grant’s exceptional character blinded him time and time again to the deceit of others. So much was Grant without guile, Chernow says, that he seemed incapable of imagining that his counterparts could have a mind to do anything other than what they’d promised. Related to this was Grant’s unbounded empathy. He never gloated in victory and couldn’t countenance the suffering of another being, human or otherwise.

A natural result of Grant’s character was a life repeatedly defaced by fraudsters and double crossers. But it was that same character that catapulted Grant into the highest echelons of government (as well as the highest esteem of the vast majority of Americans).

Grant had faults, to be sure (e.g., favoritism, misguided tenacity, intermittent alcoholism, etc.), but these were on par with those vices that we all battle within ourselves, and a far cry from the darker blemishes that we all-but-automatically overlook for lesser presidents.

Every now and again, a decent, unassuming, but remarkably capable person comes along who happens to be recognized by the powers that be (Lincoln, in this case) as the right man or woman for a critical job. America could have done a lot worse than General Grant. Grant’s contributions to the preservation and strength of the American experiment are immeasurable and, thanks in part to Chernow’s book, will continue to point us all in the direction of greater unity.

This review also appears in Goodreads.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HistoryFantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fantasyland was a fun read for at least two reasons: (1) each of the underlying themes seemed custom-made to validate my preconceived notions about why people (Americans, particularly) are quick to believe unsubstantiated claims, and (2) Andersen’s style is smart, conversational, and funny.

I really wanted to give Fantasyland five stars, but it was frustrating in one pronounced way: Andersen waits until the second half of the final chapter to do most of the work of tying together the themes and ideas of the previous 45 chapters. It makes for a satisfying finish (a method that probably serves Andersen’s fiction readers well), but this approach leaves the reader with long stretches of what begins to feel like recitations of “oh, and look at this other weird thing people believe.”

Also, I know it wasn’t Andersen’s purpose, but I wish he’d given the reader just a little more by way of suggested remedies, more how-to advice on making America reality-based again. Perhaps a companion volume is forthcoming?

All that said, this book deserves a wide audience and to be added to civics syllabi everywhere. It won’t turn everyone into rational empiricists overnight. But a basic understanding of the historical and developing reasons why facts and reality have taken a backseat to relativism and magical thinking for so many Americans (on the left and the right) is a good starting point, and Fantasyland delivers just that.

This review also appears in Goodreads.