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.

Book Review: Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

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Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport

Caught in the Revolution is a meticulously researched account of the months surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution. The book focuses on the experiences of foreign nationals in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) who were caught up in the violence of the revolution. Rappaport carries the reader from the first conflict of February 1917, through to the final revolutionary spasm in October of 1917.

Rappaport has delved into the diaries and correspondence of ambassadors, nurses, reporters, bankers, anarchists, and expats. Her long fascination with the topic shines through in the breadth of detail she brings to bear. Rappaport also provides a detailed history of the Revolution itself, so even those who have never studied the October Revolution will be able to follow the book. Coming out for the centennial anniversary of the event, and considering the state of current affairs, the release of this book is exquisitely well-timed.

The book is intended more for the serious history reader/scholar. My major complaint with the book is that Rappaport has provided almost too much information. The book would have made a wonderful narrative (in the vein of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts) if she had chosen to focus on the experiences of a few key players. As it stands, we are able to learn a little bit about quite a number of foreign expats, to the point where it is hard to remember who everyone is. The lack of background for the same people also makes it difficult to connect with them as real people, rather than just words in a diary.

In all though, Russian scholars and lovers of history will likely find this book informative and intriguing. And, with everything else that is going on in the world right now, the more casual reader might be interested in picking up this book for a valuable perspective on revolution.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Caught in the Revolution will be available for purchase on February 7th, 2017.

Book Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

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The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

I’ve been a fan of Douglas Preston’s fictional work for years, so there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to read one of his non-fiction titles, especially with how closely this fits within my own wheelhouse (my education is in anthropology, and Husband studied Maya archaeology).

Welcome to the jungles of the Mosquitia region on Honduras; an area so remote, large swathes of land have been untouched by humans for hundreds of years. The jungle is thick and forbidding, and venomous snakes, hungry jaguars, and deadly diseases have dissuaded most from exploring the region. But rumors persist. Rumors of a great white city (La Ciudad Blanca), filled with untold riches, brought low in ages past by hubris and curses. These tales of “the El Dorado of Central America” have inspired explorers (ahem, looters) since the time of Hernán Cortés to try to find the fabled city. Repeated failures, plus a good deal of hucksterism, relegated the city to the realm of fiction and myth.

Enter LiDAR, which uses pulsed laser beams to detect objects, and a filmmaker with an obsession.  LiDAR shows its capabilities when it is used to uncover a lost city in the Cambodian jungle, and filmmaker Steve Elkins elists it as the perfect way to prove or disprove the myth of the white city. When scans of the vast jungle reveal structures hidden in a remote and nigh-inaccessible valley, Douglas Preston accompanies a team of scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, photographers, etc., are choppered in to study the Lost City.

It sounds like the tag line to a thriller or an adventure story (and certainly could be the plot of one of Preston’s fictional books), but this really happened. Preston tells the story like an adventure novel, needing little embellishment to emphasize the danger and the excitement of journeying into an area uninhabited for centuries. In addition to the story of the lost city, Preston also provides the reader with a brief look at Honduras’ turbulent (frequently due to meddling by the United States) history.

In the book, Preston himself laments the difficulty in walking the line between writing for those without an anthropology background and making sure your work is culturally sensitive and avoids colonial overtones. Overall, Preston does well walking this line, despite the sensationalism of the book’s title. He discusses frankly the controversy surrounding the venture and does a wonderful job presenting an archaeological discovery in an interesting and accessible way. The book is also replete with information relevant to us in the present day. The Maya civilization (the word Mayan is used only for the language) vanished as an entity prior to the Spanish invasion. Instead, the culture was brought low by a combination of environmental degradation and societal inequality (sound familiar?).

In all, this book is a definite recommendation for any lover of history, anthropology, or Central American culture. But I think even the casual reader will find a lot to like in this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Lost City of the Monkey God will be available for purchase on January 3rd, 2017.

Book Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

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Human Acts by Han Kang

I’m going to say off the bat that I loved this book. I was a fan of The Vegetarian, another of Han Kang’s books (you can read my review of this book here), but Human Acts was simply incredible.

The plot is centered around the democratic uprising in Gwangju, South Korea (the author’s hometown) in 1980. Protesting against the authoritarian South Korean government, civilians and military clashed in the small town in May of 1980, and several hundred people were killed (official estimates on the death toll vary). In the midst if this, Han Kang focuses on one boy, Dong ho, a fifteen year old student caught up in the middle of the violence.

Through the chapters, we hear from many people, all who have lost something to this massacre. As the story moves forward in time, we see how the living and the dead are still haunted by what took place in the square at Gwangju, and how the scars of the souls involved (both the human souls and the soul of South Korea itself) never really heal completely.

The book is wrenching. The stark horror of the story is made all the more immediate by the familiarity of the author with the subject matter. Han Kang grew up in Gwangju, and while she wasn’t living there when the massacre took place, friends, family, and neighbors were drawn into the conflict. Many of the chapters in this book were drawn from survivors’ accounts written up after the fact.

This book is a difficult read, more due to the subject matter than the language (Deborah Smith did a wonderful job translating). But I would recommend this book to just about everyone. With all the unrest in the world today, sometimes we need to be reminded that such things have happened in the past, and so we must be doubly vigilant to prevent them from occurring in the future.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Human Acts will be available for purchase on January 17th, 2017.