Book Review: The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye: A Pittsburgh Story by Meredith Meyer Grelli

the whiskey rebellion rye

The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye: A Pittsburgh Story by Meredith Meyer Grelli

I remember when I was first presented with the necessity of moving to Pittsburgh. I was a New England girl born and raised, but the possibility of securing a job in my field (probably a bad idea to major in anthropology) was enough to have me seriously considering the move to (in my New England mindframe) the middle of the country. But  . . . Pittsburgh, I said to myself. I pictured post-apocalyptic visions of smokestack-strewn horizons, coal blackened skies and landscapes, the dirty grime of hundreds of years of industry. The reassuring and vague “It’s not like that anymore” from my then-boyfriend (now husband) did little to instill confidence in our new home.

Then we arrived. And all my misgivings and preconceptions faded away. It was a clear, bright midautumn day, the leaves, though not as brilliant as those I’d left behind, marched in colorful ranks up and over the hills. The gleaming US Steel Tower (the locals refuse to call it anything else, no matter who owns it), the castle-like PPG building and the art deco Gulf building dominated the downtown skyline. Bridges of yellow and blue, constructed solidly from (local) steel and concrete sprouted along the rivers like crepe paper. And the hills . . . we were moving to the neighborhood of Mt. Washington (which is extra hilarious for New Englanders) and it seemed that no surface was too vertical to build on. Houses and shops hung from the side of cliffs, streets marched uphill and turned into staircases when the grade became too steep for cars. At night, the city spread out around us both horizontally and vertically, a sight one might associate more with a Rio de Janeiro than a mid-Atlantic American city.

Pittsburgh is a city rooted in its past. Rail lines, old factories, and other evidence of bygone industry haunt the landscape. But Pittsburgh is also one of the fortunate cities in the “Rust Belt” to largely avoid the economic crash so many other places still face. The natural gas and medical industries employ thousands. Google, Uber, and other world-class companies have headquarters here. The city may see itself as a hardhat-wearing, steelmill-working tough guy, but it is also a self-driving-car test ground, a farm-to-table giant, a craft beer haven, and a foodie paradise. These two disparate parts of Pittsburgh coexist, sometimes cordially, sometimes not, and those who have lived their lives here feel the pressure to decide which path the city will ultimately take.

Wigle Whiskey embodies this dichotomy. Started as a family enterprise in 2011, Wigle sought out Pittsburgh’s deep distilling roots (the city was once the rye whiskey capital of the country, before rye was superseded by Kentucky bourbon) while embracing the city’s future (the craft spirits revolution is proceeding quite similarly to the craft beer revolution a few decades ago). The name evokes Pittsburgh’s very beginnings, named after an actor in the Whiskey Rebellion, where local distillers (violently) protested a federal tax placed on whiskey stills.

The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye (I was bound to get to the book eventually) is a love story both to the city of Pittsburgh and the craft of making spirits.  The book begins with a brief overview of The Whiskey Rebellion (for a more in depth look, you can check out William Hogeland’s The Whisky Rebellion), as well as the history of the Overholt family (Old Overholt Whiskey being one of the oldest whiskeys continuously distilled in the United States). The book then gives us an insight into the current state of craft brewing, and the challenges and niches that make distilling both difficult and rewarding. The book finishes with a number of drink recipes (huzzah!) for the dedicated liquor enthusiast.

Meredith Meyer Grelli, who is one of the founders of Wigle Whiskey, is a person enthusiastically in love with her work and her home city, and this loves shines throughout the book. Anyone who has heard her speak at one of the distillery tours knows the level of enthusiasm she brings to the craft, and she carries that enthusiasm over into the written word. Anybody interested in a quick, readable history of the Pittsburgh region and craft distilling should find this book entertaining and informative. And if you’re in the area, be sure to stop by the distillery for a cocktail, a flight, and a tour. The rich history of this city deserves to be celebrated.

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

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Book Review: The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Robin McCarthy

On June 9th, 1912, eight people, a family of six and two children visiting for the night, were murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The murder of eight people, six of them children under 12 years of age, rocked the small farming town of Vilisca, Iowa. But the Moore family were simply the latest victims of this violent perpetrator. Someone with an axe to grind (sorry, I really, truly couldn’t help myself) was traveling across the breadth of the country at the turn of the twentieth century, and leaving piles of corpses in his wake . . .

Bill James is a baseball guy. Specifically he is a baseball statistician, and he approaches this topic with a mathematical mindset. After all, the Vilisca murders, considered to be one of the most infamous unsolved mass murders in US history, are tentatively considered to be part of a series of serial killings at the turn of the twentieth century, but James expands on the widely accepted dimensions of the serial killer’s crimes. Rather than the several crimes most ascribe to the killer, James posits that the man from the train began his cross-country murder spree as early as 1898, and may be responsible for over one hundred murders.

Such a claim often precedes eye rolling and offers of tin-foil hats, but in this book, James provides the reader with carefully researched and sourced data to back up his assertions. Using newspaper records from across the country, combined with modern profiling techniques, James has unearthed a truly startling number of mass murders like the one in Vilisca. Like any good historian, James is careful to use primary sources where possible, and to document where the data available clash with his hypothesis. While several similar crimes are dismissed out of hand as being tied to our suspect, James makes quite a strong argument for adding several more murders to the ones traditionally ascribed.

Fans of history and true crime (lovers of Devil in the White City take note) should enjoy this book. But the casual reader need not despair. James’ writing style is accessible and engaging, and replete with dark humor and some truly monstrous puns.

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

Book Review: Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock

Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock

The Revolutionary War is the origin story of the United States. Like every origin story, it carries certain expectations: a plucky underdog comes into power, or comes into the realization of their own inner power, and proceeds to upend the established order of things. The origin story reaches its climax when said plucky underdog is able to defeat the villain, who is the representative of the power of the old order.

That is certainly the popular narrative that winds through most histories of the Revolutionary War. But is this all there is? Hoock’s Scars of Independence seeks to add to the Revolutionary narrative, to complicate and humanize the feel-good legend most of us learn in school. Hoock has little time for the “immaculate conception” origin of the United States, which features a noble and forward-looking young colony rebelling and separating nearly bloodlessly from the stodgy and declining Britain. Rather, Hoock shows us the bloody underside of the fight for independence, a violent and cruel conflict regarded in its time not as a fight for independence, but as a civil war.

In Scars of Independence, Hoock takes us through the escalating violence on both sides of the conflict. We learn about tarring and feathering, prison ships, rapes, whippings, hangings and lynchings. We learn about petty grievances between neighbors turned into war crimes. About prison camps in mines, about the impossible position of Native Americans and of slaves, caught between two feuding (largely white) armies.

This is a fantastic, thoroughly researched history. A must read for any history buffs or Revolutionary War enthusiasts. Hoock has presented an aspect of the Revolutionary War that is seldom dealt with in popular literature. Though this is first and foremost a history book, Hoock’s writing style is accessible and clear, and Scars of Independence is highly readable, even for the more casual reader.

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

Book Review: Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

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Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath

Dear husband brought this book to my attention after hearing a segment about it on NPR (what a very good husband!). After hearing only a few anecdotes about it, I needed to read it, NOW. Thank goodness for Amazon Prime.

Rejected Princesses grew out of a lunchtime chat among Dreamworks animators: Who was least likely to be turned into an animated princess? Out of this seed grew a blog (http://www.rejectedprincesses.com) and the blog sprouted a book (with a second on the way!). The first volume is a massively heavy compendium of 100 women who defied norms, expectations, invading armies, assailants, and politicians. Each entry is roughly 2-3 pages long, and each features a Disney-style illustration of the featured “princess.”

The entries are neatly cataloged with maturity ratings and applicable trigger warnings. This means you can read the more family-friendly entries to the kids, and save the stories of rape, murder, and revenge for later (or never, as it suits you). In this way, Porath has created a book that has something for all ages, while at the same time not glossing over the violence experience by quite a few defiant women. The stories also skip across time, space, and legend. You’ll find biblical queens next to Bolivian revolutionaries next to British suffragettes next to African warriors next to Japanese samurais. You’ll find straight women and women who represent every color of the LGBTQA rainbow. Porath show us that there is a princess out there for everyone.

This book was amazing. Some women, like Hatshepsut (the only female pharaoh in Egypt), Harriet Tubman (“Moses” of escaping slaves), and Joan of Arc (the gold standard of defiant woman) I had heard of already, but others like Saint Olga of Kiev (who set a town on fire using pigeons), Calafia (mythical Muslim queen and namesake for the state of California), and Trung Trac and Trung Nhi (Vietnamese sisters who led armies to defeat the Chinese in the 1st century) I had never even guessed existed. The book is jam-packed with these kinds of stories, and the encyclopedia-entry-style of each story means it’s easy to pick up and put down as needed, and come back to your favorite parts. Once you read through the book, there are even more entries on the Rejected Princesses website, so you can head over there to keep getting your fix.

This is a great book for anyone looking for inspiration from some truly badass ladies. Porath’s rating system means that you can share these stories with the little girls in your life, and let them know they can grow up to command their own tank regiment (Mariya Oktyabrskaya), overcome handicaps (Wilma Rudolph), be great at math (Hypatia), and/or decide exactly what they want out life and strive for it.

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.