Book Review: George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

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George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

So here you are, reading a book review about a book about the history of George Washington’s books. It’s hard to get more meta than that. In all seriousness, though, this was an interesting angle for a history/biography about the first president of the United States.

Working roughly in chronological order, Hayes takes us through the library at Mount Vernon. We start with Washington’s earliest books (collections of devotions by famous preachers), and move from there to travel guides, reference books, abolitionist tracts (though he regrettably never used his considerable political influence to address the injustice of slavery, in his personal dealings Washington was an abolitionist), popular fiction, and military books.

Hayes introduces us to a man born in the American colonies, and denied a “proper” English education. In order to compensate for an education he perceived as lacking, Washington would embark on a lifetime quest of self-improvement. He actively sought out books to deepen his understanding of the physical, spiritual, and literary worlds. His passion for books and for reading would remain undiminished throughout his life.

George Washington has deservedly been the subject of countless biographies. Approaching his life from the direction of his library is both refreshing and educational. While some of the conclusions the author draws based on the content of the Mount Vernon library shelves seems a bit reaching, on the whole this is a fascinating look at one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Apache Wars by Paul Andrew Hutton

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The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History by Paul Andrew Hutton

In 1851, an Apache warrior named Goyahkla found his entire family massacred by Mexican militia men. This warrior, believing the justice of his revenge earned him the protection of the gods, would embark on a lifetime of violent retribution. The name he would become known by was not his own, but (a bit perversely) the name of the saint his Mexican victims prayed to when he attacked: Geronimo. Ten years later, a young boy, Felix Ward, was abducted in an Apache raid on his parent’s ranch. These two figures would contribute to a war between the Apaches and the American government that would last for decades.

This is an incredible history, and one which has largely been forgotten (at least in my east-of-the-Mississippi neck of the woods). While the name Geronimo is known to many (though to most as the word that is shouted before jumping from a high place), few know the details of the Apache resistance to American and Mexican encroachment. Like many Native American histories, it is a part of the past that has been de-emphasized in school curricula.

The story is stunning, and devastating. The duplicity and racism of the American government, while not surprising, is nauseating to read about in such detail. The bad-faith deals, the continual shunting of the Apache onto smaller and smaller portions of land, the corruption of the Indian Agents assigned to their “care,” the selling of troublesome Apaches into slavery, it’s all there in black and white. And it’s horrifying.

This is a well-written history, but keep in mind that this is more of an academically-inclined book. The story is an incredible one, but in this tone, it does become dry and dragging at times. History buffs and those interested in the topic will find an incredible trove of information here. Those looking for a more accessible version of the story should check out Indeh, written by Ethan Hawke and illustrated by Greg Ruth (Which made my Top 10 for 2016).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Seeds of Life by Edward Dolnick

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The Seeds of Life: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Shark’s Teeth to Frog’s Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From by Edward Dolnick

For the entirety of our existence, we have wondered “where do babies come from?” Yet this question proved to be so incredibly complicated and intricate, that only in the last century and a half have we been able to discover answers with any sort of surety. Seeds of Life examines the scientific pursuit of the origin and continuation of life from the 16th century through the 19th. Scientific giants such as da Vinci, Leeuwenhoek, and Harvey would find themselves stymied by this question. In an age of scientific enlightenment and accomplishment, the inability to answer such a seemingly basic question was frustrating to the extreme. The pursuit of this answer led to bitter feuds and rivalries, and at times split the scientific community asunder.

Dominick does a great job of bringing this story to life in an engaging and easy to follow way. It is no mean feat to cover such a topic over such a broad time frame, but Dolnick sets the story as a form of detective novel, with various players entering the fray, only to crash on the shoals of an unanswerable question. Dolnick makes the story easy to follow, and adds welcome (and some would say, inevitable) humor to the topic.

Folks who enjoy their nonfiction with a dash of humor will enjoy this book. If you’re a fan of Mary Roach (indeed, Bonk is a great follow up to this book), or were entertained by Unmentionable by Therese Oneill, this is a great book for you. Even if you aren’t usually a nonfiction person, this is the perfect book for dipping a toe into the genre. It may not be an explosion-laced extravaganza, but it is an entertaining and fast reading true story. You’re bound to have fun with this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Ice Ghosts by Paul Watson

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Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition by Paul Watson

In 1845, Sir John Franklin, a British explorer nearing the end of his career, set out in command of two ships to discover the Northwest Passage: a nautical route between Canada and the arctic that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The hunt for the passage had taken up decades, and the accumulated loss of lives and ships in its pursuit was largely considered part of the cost of ensuring Britain’s continuing dominance of the seas. Franklin was determined to be the one to finally find the passage, and to ensure the immortality of his legacy. Setting off with the prophetically named Erebus and Terror, Franklin and his crew of 128 men disappeared into the great white desert of the Arctic Circle. The search for the crew and for the ships would span more than a century, and cost millions of dollars; Franklin’s widow would spend the family fortune in a vain search for answers. The mystery of the Franklin Expedition would capture the imagination of governments, academics, and the public. Franklin achieved his dream of an immortal legacy in the most unfortunate way possible.

Watson explores the story from the late 1840s through to the present day. From the first rescue attempts (delayed by bureaucratic posturing within the Royal Navy), through to the high-tech hunts of the 21st century. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this story involves the local Inuit tribes, whose oral histories seemed to point to the fate of the Franklin Expedition, but were nearly universally disregarded by the European, Canadian, and American searchers.

Watson has written an engaging and fascinating history. The saga of the Franklin Expedition is one of those epic historical tales that seems more like an adventure story. Watson has done a marvelous job of capturing the suspense and drama that accompanied the lost expedition across the decades. His use of multiple primary sources, and his emphasis on the Inuit oral histories make this book stand out from the pack. Fans of adventure-oriented nonfiction like The Lost City of Z should certainly make a point to read this book next.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

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Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

In the early 1920s, members of the Osage tribe, made wealthy through oil reserves underneath their reservation, began to die. Some were shot, either in robberies or apparent suicides. Others were poisoned, tainted whiskey being a favorite vehicle. More than one tribal member simply “wasted away,” their deaths attributed to an unknown illness. One woman, Maggie Burkhart, watched as her sisters, mother, and even her daughter died, leaving her in sole possession of a significant fortune. it was almost inevitable that Maggie would begin to fall ill as well . . .

In Washington, J. Edgar Hoover is under a tremendous amount of pressure to prove the worth of his new Investigative Bureau. With local and state authorities unable or unwilling to investigate the Osage deaths, Hoover sends agents to start what would turn into a multi-year investigation, and would set Oklahoman society on edge.

This non-fiction book is written as a murder mystery in three parts. The first part introduces us to the major players, using primary sources from Maggie Burkhart, her family, and other Osage tribe members of the time. The second part is concerned with the FBI’s investigation and is drawn primarily from the memoirs of Agent Tom White, J. Edgar Hoover, and other investigators. The third portion of the book deals with the author’s own investigation into the murders.

The book itself is engagingly written, and the subject matter has been largely forgotten by history. The subject matter itself is compelling and infuriating; the pervasive and institutionalized racism that allowed these crimes to hide amid a thousand lesser forms of violence is nothing short of appalling. The Osage in the 1920s, while millionaires on paper, were treated more like indentured servants. The government would not allow the Osage to manage their own money, each was assigned to a white “guardian” who held complete control of their finances. The abuses such a system would invite are easy to imagine. In addition, the lack of investigation (for years), suggests a breathtaking lack of concern in the swath of deaths; so long as those dying were not white. Indeed, many at the time seemed to think that the “uppity Indians” had brought such violence upon themselves, solely by being richer than their white neighbors.

This is a fantastic example of narrative nonfiction. Grann has created an incredible narrative from this story. The horror the Osage lived with in the first decades of the twentieth century has been lost to history until now, but it is a story that needs to be told. Fans of Erik Larsen will enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hogeland

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The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty by William Hogeland

As a Pittsburgh transplant, I love finding new historical bits about my adopted hometown. I first heard of the Whiskey Rebellion during a tour at a local whiskey distillery, Wigle Whiskey  (totally necessary product placement), which is named after one of the accused rebels. The Whiskey Rebellion is the only time in The history of the United States that a sitting president has led troops against his own citizens. Fascinating stuff.

Long story short, in order to pay our country’s debts from the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton (yes, the one from the musical) lobbied for a tax on whiskey production. Unfortunately, this tax was designed to disproportionately affect small, independent stills, and not the larger corporate enterprises (deja  vu, anyone?). Citizens of Western Pennsylvania were especially hard hit, and a (sometimes violent) grassroots resistance formed to fight the whiskey tax.

Hogeland does a good job of balancing the drier, dates-and-names portion of the tale with the utter insanity of the times. The book is definitely meant for more serious historians, but I think that even the average reader will find the subject matter fascinating. The Whiskey Rebellion is an important part of United States history, and the story has many parallels with events today.

The Whiskey Rebellion is currently available for purchase.

Book Review: Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

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The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

Like most of you (I’m assuming), I really only think of one thing when I hear about Nero: the emperor who fiddled madly while Rome burned down around him. Well, Margaret George, one of historical fiction’s great writers, has set her sights on the infamous Roman emperor in an attempt to (at least partially) clear his name.

The novel (the first of two planned for Emperor Nero) focuses mainly on Nero’s childhood and early years as emperor. Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, and nephew to the then-emperor Caligula (yes, that Caligula), who had his sister (Nero’s mother) banished from the country as a potential threat to his rule. Nero gets his first taste of Roman imperial politics at the tender age of three, when Caligula tries to drown him in a lake. Surviving the attempt, the young Nero’s situation is barely improved with the return of his mother after Caligula’s death, as her machinations, and those of the current rulers of the Roman empire, promise more pain and betrayal for the boy.

After ascending the throne at age sixteen, Nero pledges to himself to be a different style of emperor than his uncle, Caligula, or any of his scheming relatives waiting in the wings. An artist and musician at heart, he attempts to seek his own path as the most powerful man in the world.

George uses historical sources to bring accuracy and realism to her work, and this book is no exception. While artistic license must be taken (especially with Nero, whose achievements were largely posthumously suppressed from the historical record), Margaret George takes pain to ensure that her book cleaves as closely as possible to verifiable truth (and you know how I love a fictional book with a bibliography). Ultimately, this book is about family, and how the cutthroat and brutal dynamics of the Roman elite can sully even the most optimistic dreamer.

Any lover of history or historical fiction will find a lot to love in this book. Margaret George is the queen of historical fiction for good reason. The book is engagingly written and suspenseful, and George’s characterization of the young emperor is complex and compelling. In all, this is a highly readable book about a man who exists today as a caricature of himself.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Confessions of a Young Nero will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: The Inkblots by Damion Searls

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The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and The Power of Seeing by Damion Searles

In 1917, Hermann Rorschach, brilliant Swiss psychiatrist and amateur artist, invented a test that would redefine the field of psychology, and would in time become synonymous with the strengths and the weaknesses of the field.

Rorschach sought to go beyond the work of contemporaries Freud and Jung with his (in)famous inkblots. Rorschach believed that while people could alter or mask what they said, they could not alter what they saw. Rorschach developed the blots as a way of plumbing the depths of the human psyche, the test would reveal the workings of the inner mind by revealing how people perceived external images.

Searls’ book is a comprehensive history of both the test and the man who invented it. From Rorschach’s occasionally less-than-ideal childhood in Switzerland, to his coming of age in medical school, his tempestuous marriage to a Russian doctor, and his early death shortly after publishing his inkblot study. We meet a brilliant and creative man, the son of artists, who sought to excel at everything he did, whether at art, music, or medicine. We learn about his careful crafting of the blots themselves, about the planning and execution involved in making the cards both suggestive and abstract at the same time.

The book also details the rise and fall of the Rorschach as a psychological test after its creator’s death. From its height in the 1940s and 1950s, to its decline in the anti-establishment 1960s, to its emergence as a pop-culture staple.

This book is an intriguing look at a fascinating scientist and the test which bears his name. The book is strongest when dealing with Rorschach himself. The controversy surrounding the test later in the 20th century are given a drier treatment. While fascinating, this section of the book lacks something that was present in the first part.

In all this is a great book for history buffs or psychology fans. The subject matter is truly interesting, but the dryness of the later half of the book might make this a bit tougher on the average lay reader.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. Inkblots will be available for purchase on February 21st, 2017.

Book Review: The Portable Frederick Douglass

The Portable Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, Henry Louis Gates (Editor), John Stauffer (Editor)

It being Black History Month (and considering the state of current events), I think I picked the perfect time to read this book. This Penguin Classic Edition is a collection of Douglass’ best and most famous writings.

The book is divided into four parts: Autobiographical (which includes his seminal work: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave), fictional (his lone foray into fiction is The Heroic Slave, about Madison Washington and the Creole Slave Revolt), Speeches, and Journalism.The material covers from 1845 (Narrative, his first piece), through the 1890s (Shortly before his death in 1895).

Douglass’ writing is straightforward and erudite. His portrayals of slave life are vivid and arresting. His arguments are forcefully made and thoroughly worked out. This man is a born orator, and a succinct and powerful writer. I feel a bit guilty for not having read much of his work before now. It is also unnerving how relevant many of his topics are in the present day.

The Fugitive Slave act of 1850 meant that slaves who managed to escape from the South could still be hunted down, even if they managed to flee to a state where slavery was outlawed. The bar for sending someone back was depressingly low; two white witnesses simply had to attest that the person in question was, indeed, a runaway slave; no hard evidence necessary. Further, their victim was unable to speak in their own defense, the testimony of an African American being inadmissible in court at the time. This brings strongly to mind the sanctuary cities cropping up all over the nation; areas which offer safe spaces for undocumented immigrants to live and work without fear of being ripped away from their lives and families. Had such areas existed in the United States in the era of slavery, the fate of many escaped slaves may have been different.

Douglass also reserves special ire for the Church. While a believer himself, he boldly calls out the hypocrisy of the emphatically religious who profess their adherence to the tenets of Christianity, while at the same time treating their fellow man as something less than human. Douglass also has quite a bit to say about those who use the bible to justify their hate and institutionalize bigotry. If this sounds like many of the “religious freedom” laws cropping up in states across the United States, it’s because the arguments are basically the same. Now, however, Christianity is being used primarily to target LGBT+ individuals, and codify a second-class citizenship into our country’s laws.

In these troubled times, it is both wonderful and terrible to read something written so long ago that still resonates so strongly in the present day. I feel that no matter your political leanings, this is an incredibly important book. Hopefully it will be widely read in the coming years. It is always helpful to step back as a nation and ask “Are we moving forwards?” Or are we simply covering injustices in slightly altered costume, under the guise of adhering to tradition?

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. The Portable Frederick Douglass is currently available for purchase. 

Book Review: Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre

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Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Ben Macintyre

This book is utterly fascinating. In 1942, in the deserts of Northern Africa, a brutal war was being waged. The victor of this front would gain a great advantage in the overall scheme of World War II.

Enter a rather peculiar soldier. David Stirling was an aristocratic Scot with many Scarlet Pimpernel-esque traits. He hated discipline, could often be found enjoying the local alcohol or women, and was generally regarded as something of a dandy. But Stirling envisioned an entirely new way to wage war. Rather than the more conventional warfare practiced in WWI, where two large armies threw themselves at one another until a victor emerged, Stirling wanted to create a small, highly trained unit which could operate secretly behind enemy lines and cause maximum disruption to the Axis war machine. Old-school higher-ups viewed this as a unsporting, but with a combination of charm and family connections, Stirling was able to put together his very own squadron of rogues and misfits. Thus the SAS was born.

Macintyre used the war diary of the SAS, a compilation of primary documents about the unit from its founding in 1942 through 1946, for his source material for this book. This recently unclassified document has provided Macintyre with a rich canvas to write this history of the SAS, which he does with wry humor and masterful storytelling. The story of the origins of the SAS rightly belongs in the realm of legend, and Macintyre does their story justice. The primary players in forming the unit are realized as actual people, and vividly brought into focus by the author.

While this is a history book, the fast pacing and accessible narrative makes this a good choice even for those who normally don’t read the genre. Any one with an interest in military or WWII history will find this book fascinating.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Rogue Heroes is currently available for purchase.