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: Rigor Mortis by Richard F. Harris


Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Undermines Tomorrow’s Medicine by Richard F. Harris

It seems like every other week a new study hits the news: Red wine cures cancer, coffee is terrible for you, taking vitamins is crucial for good health, red wine might actually cause cancer, caffeine in small amount is good for you, vitamins are worthless. With this whirlpool of conflicting information coming rapid-fire into the public sphere, one could certainly forgive the average person if they stopped paying attention, or even started to doubt everything they hear from a scientific source.

In Rigor Mortis, former NPR science journalist Richard F. Harris seeks to illuminate the systemic problems which underlie this phenomenon. Especially in this political environment, such an undertaking is a double-edged sword. It would be too easy for someone to take the basic concept: that there are structural problems within the field of medical research, and leap wildly to the conclusion that science itself is deeply flawed. However, the current situation within the scientific community needs to be addressed. Improvement can only be achieved with honest admissions of fault, greater transparency, and dedication to change. In this regard, Harris’ book does the field more good than harm.

The current crisis has been labeled one of reproducability. Flawed research, lack of standardized methods, and inadequate analysis, combined with the chaos of working within living systems, result in a nigh-impossibility of one lab successfully reproducing the results of another. The causes of this are multifaceted; lack of training in laboratory and statistical methods, the dog-eat-dog nature of research funding, the press by Universities to “publish, publish, publish” with more regard to quantity of work than quality. Right now, it pays far better to be first to be right.

Harris’ book isn’t just a condemnation of the state of the field, he provides concrete adjustments and changes that can be made to improve the quality of research being done, and shares the stories of those within the field who are working towards those ends. The emphasis here is that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As more and more researchers begin to deal honestly with the flaws of their research and seek solutions, the benefits for medical research, and for doctors and patients, will be profound.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher 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: 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: 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.

A TBR for the Next Four Years #Resist (Part One)

First off, I’d like to thank everybody who responded to my Reading List for the Resistance post over a variety of platforms. This is my follow-up list, a resistance-themed TBR of books I plan to read (hopefully I’ll get to most of them this year). As I read and review each, I’ll be adding links for convenience sake. I’ll likely be posting updates as well when new books come to my attention. As always, if you have anything you think I should add, give me a shout!

I’d also like to add that I tried to make an effort to seek out books with diverse authors. My searches led me to some very interesting books, and I’m excited to read them!

Brave New World
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

This was by far the most suggested book, and I shockingly have never read it! Brave New World introduces us to a dystopian future where even our genetics are under the thunb of the World Controllers. This book is considered a classic of dystopian literature.

Anarchism and Other Essays
Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman

Okay I’m going to say this once: I do not condone bomb-throwing and attempted assassination. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, Emma Goldman as something of a badass. An immigrant who came to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, Goldman became the queen of the anarchist movement in New York. She advocated and lectured for prison reform, for an end to inequality, she spoke out about rampant militarism and sexism. All topics which are still relevant today.

The Origins of Totalitarianism
The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

Another great suggestion! This book details the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, starting with the rise of anti-semitism in the early 1800s through to Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia. An important book to help set current events in perspective.

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith by Alethia Jones, Virginia Eubanks, Barbara Smith

A fascinating look at the life and activism of Barbara Smith. Smith has an unreal amount of experience with grassroots social justice movements. As a black woman, and a lesbian, she has been fighting for equal rights on several fronts for most of her life. This book actively deals with the current hot button topics of intersectionality and identity politics, and as such is a good reference for anyone looking to become an ally.

The Book of Unknown Americans
The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez

This is a fictional story about immigrants from Mexico and from Panama. While ultimately a love story, this book also deals with the effervescence of the American dream, and the meaning of being an “American.”

The Book Thief
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Another critically-lauded fictional work (and a hit movie!). This was suggested by a Litsy member as a necessary read. Beyond the subject of Nazi Germany, The Book Thief is also about the importance of resistance in the face of fascism.

The Illegal
The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Another fictional tale about a marathon runner named Keita who flees his native Zantoroland to become a refugee in the natiojn of Freedom State. Unfortunately, Freedom State is cracking down on undocumented people. Facing death if he returns to his homeland, Keita instead becomes part of the underground of Freedom State.

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, Alastair Smith

This nonfiction look at politics starts with one simple hypothesis, that politicians’ primary interest is to keep themselves in power, whatever the cost to the “national good.” The book posits that the line between a democracy and a tyranny is perilously thin, needing only the complacence of enough people to shift from the former to the latter.

It Can't Happen Here
It Can’t Happen Here

On a related note, this Great Depression-era political satire details the rise of an American president who installs himself as a dictator to save the United States from welfare cheats and the liberal media (sound familiar?). Written as the Nazis were coming to power in Germany, this book could be taken from today’s headlines.

Okay, that’s probably enough for now, I’ll be putting out another list soon. In the meantime, feel free to chime in with your own suggestions!

Book Review: The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe


The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe

This is a unique take on the true crime genre. In 1998 Kendal Francois confessed to the serial rape and murder of eight women. He had strangled them, then drowned them in his bathtub. To dispose of the bodies, he simply carried them up to the attic of the home he shared with his mother, father, and siblings. No one in the house noticed anything odd, even while living amidst eight rotting corpses.

But The Spider and the Fly isn’t about that, not really. This book hovers between a memoir and a nonfiction crime novel. Claudia Rowe was working as a freelance reporter with the New York Times when Francois confessed. She became obsessed not with the crimes themselves, but with the murderer. She began a correspondence with him that lasted for four years. During that time, Francois and Rowe would each constantly test each others boundaries, he looking for intimacy, she wanting to know exactly what made him tick. Their correspondence would also make her look into her own troubled past, and confront her own inner demons.

While this book is certainly not what I had expected from one billed as “true crime,” I did wind up enjoying the book. There are countless books, some more sensational than others, that detail the crimes of our more infamous killers, but the focus on this book, looking into the nature of the killer, and his relationship with Rowe, is a new spin, and, ultimately, refreshing. This book doesn’t linger on the gory details of Kendall Francois’ crimes, instead we see an awkward and overly large black man, raised in the overwhelmingly white town of Poughkeepsie, New York. We see his social and mental isolation, and the home life that helped shape him into the person he would become. At no point does Rowe excuse or try to mitigate the crimes Francois committed, but she does try to bring a picture to her reader of the damaged man who lived alongside the monster.

I would recommend this book for true crime readers who know what they are getting into. If you’re looking for blood, gore, and sensationalism, you won’t find it here. If you’re okay with a quieter kind of thriller, if you want a (sometimes frustrating) look inside the mind of a serial killer, this book is just the ticket.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Spider and the Fly will be available for purchase on January 24th, 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: Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days by Will Bashor

Marie Antoinette's Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie

 

Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days: Prisoner No. 280 in the Conciergerie by Will Bashor

 

This book is an in-depth account of the two and a half months Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, spent in the Conciergerie Prison before her trial and execution on October 16th, 1793. The book is meant for those who already possess a passing familiarity with Marie Antoinette’s life; events prior to her imprisonment are handled sparingly–Bashor focuses almost entirely on her imprisonment, trial, execution, and the aftermath.

On August 1st, 1793, Marie Antoinette was removed from the Temple prison, where she had been kept prisoner with her family for nearly a year, to the Conciergerie, a dank prison where those awaiting the guillotine were kept. Marie Antoinette was separated from her children and sister-in-law (King Louis XVI was dead by this point) and sent into solitary confinement. Her new prison was built below the level of the Seine, so the damp rotted everything within, and rains would cause water to run down the walls. Despite several rescue attempts, the “Widow Capet” stayed there until October 16th, when she was brought to trial and ultimately beheaded.

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Tuckerby the papillon helping with pictures. Thisbe, Marie Antoinette’s dog, has long been rumored to have been a papillon.

The book is exhaustively researched, and Bashor sources first person accounts for much of his writing. We are also provided with the transcripts of Marie Antoinette’s trial (translated from the French by the author), which allows the reader to step into the spectacle and hear the queen’s words and those of her prosecutors. Bashor’s downfall is in repetition: several key events during this period are told from several points of views (or, occasionally, reiterated later in the text) and at each point the wording of the event is identical. While the use of first person accounts is of course desirable and preferable, using the same phrasing from one source, when the incident is being described multiple times, becomes rather vexing for the reader. Additionally, the trial transcripts, while fascinating, are naturally a bit long-winded. One wonders if Bashor could have played with the formatting (gone with dialogue-style prose, rather than keeping the transcript format) without compromising the academic merits of the book.

In all, this is a scholarly book and should be approached as such. Bashor has assembled a great deal of information for his depiction of Marie Antoinette’s final days. History buffs will appreciate his attention to detail.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Marie Antoinette’s Darkest Days will be available for purchase on December 1st, 2016.