Saturday, November 10, 2007

Discussion of Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome

Here are some questions to respond to in order to jump start our online discussion of King's book.
  • In a book about architecture, how well did King explain the science, math, materials and engineering involved in creating this amazing dome?
    • Were the illustrations appropriate companions to the text?
    • Were they sufficient to clarify the complex engineering discussions?
  • What reaction did you have to the center of King's book, Filippo Brunelleschi? To his accomplishments?
  • How well does King back up his account? Did you ever feel like he was speculating too much? Did you find yourself looking for more details that weren't there? If so, where?
  • What was your favorite invention in the book?
  • How does this compare to previous books we've read in book club? [e.g., are there parallels to the building of the White City in Chicago? What difference does it make that we're reading about 500 years ago instead of 50 or 100 years?]
  • What did you think of King's writing style?
  • What was your reaction to the various discussions of daily life (e.g., the changing conceptions of time on p. 51)?
  • What was your favorite moment of pettiness or feuding in the book?
    • Anyone think the "Tale of the Fat Carpenter" was mean?
  • What about King's use of historical context did you like or dislike most?
  • What is the legacy of Brunelleschi's dome?
I would add that I really enjoyed this book, though I found myself overwhelmed at times with the engineering details. What did you think? Was this a good choice for our book club?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Discussion of Yokohama Burning

Feel free to add your reactions/answers as comments. [This goes for those who'll be there tomorrow and those who couldn't make it.]

Questions/topics for discussion:
  1. What is Hammer's thesis and what evidence does he have to support it?
  2. As usual, does the popular style of the book (including citation style) undermine it's effectiveness and/or accuracy?
  3. How much is this book a product of the post-Hurricane Katrina era?
  4. Hammer apparently doesn't read Japanese. Is that necessarily a problem?
  5. What do the book's images add?
  6. What did you think of the book's three most-discussed characters:Frederick Starr, Lyman Cotten, and Akitsune Imamura?
    1. Why didn't more people believe Imamura?
    2. What do think Hammer thought of Cotten?
  7. How do the various governments come off in their reactions to the disaster, in Hammer's view?
  8. How well does Hammer capture the details of life before, during and after the earthquake? What sources does he have to create that detail? How carefully does he stay within the limits of the sources he's got?
  9. How effectively does Hammer explain the complex geologic issues at the heart of the disaster?
  10. Was anyone else struck by the unpredictability of life and death in the earthquake and following fires?
  11. What was the most upsetting story in the book?
  12. What was the most inspiring?
  13. Hammer notes several events/concepts resulting from the earthquake and fires that he claims are precedents. For each, do you agree with him and why?
    1. Xenophobic, violent behavior
    2. Wireless technology & rise of the power of the media
    3. International relief efforts
    4. Japanese-American relationship
  14. Did you like the book and why?
Finally, what book should we read for the next meeting?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

July Book Pick

Hello all,
Thanks to the large number of you who voted. It was a close vote, but the winner, by a nose, was Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II by Joshua Hammer

[Given how close Goodwin's Team of Rivals was, I'll plan on giving people a chance to vote for it again for our next meeting, probably in October.]

The other winner, in a less close vote, was Sunday, July 29 as our meeting day. We'll meet at 2 pm and probably on campus, given the general trend of the feedback I've received from various people. [We can meet in NOVA at a future date. Let me know if you're interested in hosting a meeting in Fredericksburg or Northern Virginia.]

Alright, get the book (check your local library too) and get reading.... I'll be in touch with the details of the meeting place as I get them together. [And don't forget that you can post questions or comments on the acebook group page ( or here on the blog.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Vote now for our next book choice

We're considering the following for our July meeting:

1) Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II (Hardcover) by Joshua Hammer --

2) A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Paperback) by Carol Berkin --

3) Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Paperback) by Doris Kearns Goodwin --

4) War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (Paperback) by John W. Dower --

5) 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Paperback) by Charles C. Mann --

Vote for your choices and the date of the meeting at:

Monday, February 26, 2007

Discussing The Professor and the Madman

Our in-person discussion will take place on Sunday, March 4, but please add your own commentary in the comments section of this post.

Here are a few broad questions to get you started (but feel free to talk about whatever you want about the book):

  1. Overall reaction to the book, the writing, the history involved?
  2. What other works does this book make you think of?
  3. Most of these book club discussions have spent time exploring the differences between popular and scholarly history. Where does this book fit and what impact does that have on the way you read and evaluate it?
  4. What field(s) of history does this work touch on?
  5. What is the significance of this work?
  6. Would you read other works by Simon Winchester?
  7. Favorite part of the book?
  8. Most irritating part of the book?
  9. Compare this book to other history texts you've read in terms of quality, readability and historical argument.
Please, feel free to add your own comments, answers, and questions below. Thanks!

Monday, January 08, 2007

The March 2007 Meeting

Our book for this meeting (Sunday, March 4) will be Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Feel free to add comments here as you read, especially if you can't make the meeting itself.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The October meeting

Our book for this meeting was Richard Zacks's The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines and the Secret Mission of 1805.

Here are the key issues we discussed:
  • What is Zacks’s writing style? Sense of humor? Does this undermine the scholarly nature of the book?
  • View of Eaton? Is he a tragic figure? A hero? Are his problems only of his own making? Would he have made it past the desert trek from Egypt to Derne without the stubbornness?
    • What does Zacks think of Eaton? Is he objective enough?
  • View of Jefferson? Of Tobias Lear? Of Yussef? Of Hamet?
    • How much does this book fit into the larger trend of "humanizing" the Founding Fathers?
  • What did you think of the use of extended excerpts (or complete) primary sources?
  • What impression does this book leave of Tripoli and the other Barbary nations in North Africa?
    • Of slavery and prisoners’ experiences there?
  • What is Zacks’s view of Islamic culture? [Use of “Moslem” as term?]
  • View of Capt. Bainbridge? [Isn’t this all his fault?]
  • Sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the new American Nation? Federalists and Republicans?
  • Why wasn’t Lear censured or condemned for his secret treaty about Hamet’s family? For his immense spending?
  • We all caught ourselves thinking at some point that Zacks should have written a better ending for this historical event....
  • Why did the Acknowledgements have the tone that they did?
  • As one person pointed out, “I think the lyrics should be re-written. ‘From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores and walls of DERNE’ I have to say I was EXTREMELY disappointed to learn that they never actually landed at Tripoli!”
  • Epilogue and Bin Laden? -- Are these reasonable connections? Is there something to be learned from comparing this mission to later covert missions (377-378)?
    • Does Zacks have an overt modern political agenda?
  • Overall view of the book? Success?
Whether you were at our meeting or not, please feel free to comment on what you thought of the book.


The first post -- The UMW Book Club goes online!

A number of alums of Mary Washington's History and American Studies Program have been meeting to discuss books we've read and picked together. This blog will be a place to continue those conversations and to allow other alums to participate in these discussions, even if they're far away from Fredericksburg.