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 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 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. 

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: Love Give Us One Death by Jeff P. Jones

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Love Give Us One Death: Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days by Jeff P. Jones

Jones is careful to emphasize the fiction portion of this Bonnie and Clyde tale. While many points of this lyrically-written historical fiction are taken from first-hand accounts, Jones brings the two young lovers to life in a way that is entirely his own. Considering how Bonnie and Clyde have entered into the realm of American legend, perhaps this approach is is the one to take.

The story weaves from the beginning of their fiery relationship to their deaths on a country back road in Louisiana. The format is more poetry than novel. Screenplays, transcripts, poems, songs, comic strips, police transcripts, journal entries, and letters are scattered throughout the story, most are Jones’ creations. The prose itself waxes poetic, turning the book into something of a ballad.

Jones sets Bonnie and Clyde’s tale against the real-life post apocalyptic wasteland of the Great Depression and the Dustbowl. Poverty, massive storm fronts, and the sense that the world is coming to an end (which is what it certainly must have felt like in the Midwest during the 1930s) roll into one chaotic fervor that mirrors the anarchy of Bonnie and Clyde.

I would recommend this book for historical fiction fans who don’t mind a bit of a dense read. The rhythm of the prose takes some getting used to, and it is slow to get started. Once you get into it though, you begin to appreciate the unique voice Jones has provided for his two antiheroes.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. Love Give Us One Death is currently available for purchase.

Book Review: Maiden Flight by Harry Haskell

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Maiden Flight by Harry Haskell

You’ve surely heard of the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright Brothers took the first sustained flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903. However,  you may not have heard of the Wright Brothers’ little sister, Katharine.

Katharine helped raise her older siblings, and was the first in the Wright family with a college education. Once her socially awkward brothers became worldwide celebrities, she left her teaching job to help Wilbur and Orville deal with well-wishers, journalists, and irate members of the scientific community. For years, Katharine took care of her older brothers, and with Wilbur’s untimely death in 1912, she and Orville became incredibly close.

While in her 50s, she fell in love with an old school friend, Henry Haskell (the Grandfather of the author). When the two were married in 1923, Orville considered their union the ultimate betrayal. He cut off all ties with his sister and refused to even go to her wedding. Haskell’s book details this period of her life.

The book is engagingly written in the first person, from Orville, Henry, and Katharine’s point of views. The tone is that of a journal entry or a letter to a good friend. Haskell does a good job of creating a unique voice for each of the three, and no wonder: he used their own letters as the primary source for the book. The story stutter-steps through time, doubling back on itself occasionally so we can see certain events through more than one perspective. This occasionally makes the chronology a bit tough to follow, but overall the method worked well.

In fact, my biggest complaint about the book is that there wasn’t more. The characters will reference something in passing, and I generally found myself looking to the Wright brothers’ Wikipedia page (I have a little bit of guilt over that) to get the full story. While I understand that the structure Haskell chose does not lend itself to long, detailed backstory, I do wish he had been able to include more detail.

In all, lovers of history or historical fiction will enjoy this intimate portrayal of a fascinating woman. Katharine Wright is a fiercely intelligent and forward-thinking woman in a time when women’s rights were just starting to take flight (ha).

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

Book Review: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

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Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi

Amazingly enough (especially considering my interest in the macabre), I had never before picked up this classic true crime account of the Manson Murders. I’m pleased to say that I have rectified that deficiency, and that I was not disappointed in the least.

Bugliosi (who was also the lead prosecutor of Manson and his co-defendants) begins the 600+ page book with the Tate murders themselves. We follow the housekeeper as she enters the property to begin her day, the trauma of the bodies being discovered, and the movements of the police who first entered the scene. We are next led along to the LaBianca murder scene (the murder of an elderly couple also committed by Manson’s “Family”). From these two bloodbaths, Bugliosi takes the reader along through the (occasionally horribly bungled) police investigation, letting us walk along with investigators as they try to make sense of such seemingly senseless killings.

As I said earlier, Bugliosi was the lead prosecutor of the case (and occasional investigator). This is certainly in evidence as Bugliosi approaches “Helter Skelter” like a trial in and of itself. Physical evidence, witness statements, and paper trails are carefully presented and thoroughly dissected for the reader. The sheer weight of evidence eventually brought together against Manson and his family is presented here in largely chronological order, and shows just how completely Bugliosi throws himself into his work. There is a good reason why Helter Skelter is considered one of the best true crime books written (easily up there with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood).

So, grab this book and read it. For such a hefty tome, it goes by very quickly. Bugliosi’s style is intense, but highly readable. Any one who is interested in true crime will obviously love this book, but even if that isn’t your usual genre, this is a compelling read about a charismatic madman and the incredible influence he had, not only on his followers, but on the country as a whole.

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

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The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

The bloody, horrific battles of World War I ended in 1918, leaving battered nations and shattered families to pick up the pieces of their lives and find a way to continue on. As the 1920s began to roar, the Spiritualist movement, a pseudo-religion based upon making contact with the departed, came into prominence. The mediums who were the face of the movement offered reconnection with family and friends lost beyond the veil.

Into this tumultuous time period stepped two men, both rationalists at heart, yet destined to take very different paths through Spiritualism. The first was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle had lost his brother and cousin in the Great War, and his son to influenza shortly thereafter. Through several mediums, Doyle had managed to make convincing contact with his dead son and his brother, and hereafter became one of the most vocal proponents of the Spiritualist movement. The second man was Harry Houdini, world famous magician and escape artist. Houdini had never really recovered from the death of his mother years before, and had set out on a quest to speak with her again across the veil. Houdini’s trained eye and his experience with legerdemain exposed every medium he visited as nothing more than a fraud. Houdini would make it one of his life’s missions to expose fraudulent psychics.

The book focuses on the eponymous “Witch of Lime Street,” a woman named Mina Crandon. Unlike most psychics of the day, Mina was a member of the Boston Brahmin social elite, and pretty, vivacious, and charming. Multiple scientific researchers would declare her work genuine. Houdini’s quest to unmask her as a fraud would become an obsession.

This book is a well-written, immersive history of a fascinating period in American history. For the first time, modern scientific principles were being applied to old-school supernatural phenomena. Scientists and laymen were seeking the answer to the “ultimate quest”: could life after death be conclusively proven? Jaher handles the subject well, maintaining mystery while providing a scientific expose, no mean feat. Jaher used primary source material for most of the content of the book, and this shows in the vivid (and occasionally contradictory) portrayals of the major players.

I would highly recommend this book for any history buffs out there. But even for those who don’t usually take to nonfiction, Jaher’s writing is accessible and entertaining, making this a good pick for any interested in the subject matter.

A copy of this book was provided by Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review. The Witch of Lime Street is currently available for purchase.

For more information about the book, click here

For more information on the author, David Jaher, click here

Book Review: Dead Distillers by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell

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Dead Distillers: The Kings County Distillery History of the Entrepreneurs and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell

“WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY ALL NIGHT LONG
OH WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY UNTIL THE BREAK OF DAWN”

– The Tossers “Break of Dawn”

Meed the Dead Distillers: heroes, villains, and forgotten players from America’s past who helped to advance the science of making hard liquor, or make a quick buck, or fund other pursuits, or all of the above. Spoelman and Haskell are the founders of King’s County Distillery in New York (check out their website at http://www.kingscountydistillery.com) and they have pieced together a visually appealing, accessibly written history of American distillers in short, to-the-point format (dare I say, as history shots?)

In this book, we meet businessmen and bootleggers, patriots and presidents, colonists and chemists. We meet lawmakers and mobs, mobsters and soldiers.Suffice it to say: the distillation of alcohol has been an integral and omnipresent part of American history since the very beginning. Between these pages you will find the likes of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Lincoln (Abraham’s father). More recently you will find Al Capone, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels. You will also find less well known distillers, including a fair number of women who made a name for themselves in what was (and largely still is) a man’s industry.

This is a great book, not only for history buffs or whiskey lovers. Dead Distillers gives us a bit of the history I, personally, love: the parts underneath, or just around back, or hidden away. We all know George Washington as the first president of the United States, as a general, and a cherry tree murderer, but how many know he operated a fairly large distillery at Mount Vernon? And, especially in the case of the more obscure moonshiners, and those distillers whose enterprises failed, they aren’t usually in the history books. They survive in newspaper clippings, local lore, and family stories. These hidden histories are a wonderful store of knowledge, and I applaud anyone who chooses to bring these stories to light.

PS – Just as a personal aside (and a Pittsburgh resident) I’m quite happy to see both Pittsburgh’s Whiskey Rebellion (you read that right) and Wigle Whiskey (Pittsburgh’s own craft distillery, named after one of the rebels) get a mention!

A free copy of this book was provided via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. Dead Distillers is currently available for purchase.