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Book Review: The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo

The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo, by Amy Schumer, wasn’t a book I set out to read.  But it was available in audiobook format on an evening I went looking on the library website for books for my commute.  So there you go…

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

Amy Schumer is a comedian and actress, who is known for letting it all hang out.  She will say what’s on her mind, in excruciating detail.  She is crass, inappropriate and often laugh out loud funny.  But she certainly has a style that isn’t for everyone.  I’ve known about her for a while, but I’m not really into comedy or slapstick type movies, so I must say, I haven’t seen much of her comedy.

In her memoir, she once again lays it all out there, from her upbringing with dysfunctional parents, her self-esteem issues and what it is like to be a female comedian in an industry still largely dominated by men.  She talks about her career and how she got to where she is, from her teenage job as a summer camp caregiver, to waitressing, to being a pedicab operator in a hilly city…  With all of it, there is a copious amount of drinking!  She talks about dating, being an introvert, learning to accept yourself, and a host of other topics that women everywhere deal with, although perhaps not with as many f-bombs or vagina references.

The book has points where I was laughing in the car, and other sections where I was fighting back tears on my drive to work.  You might not appreciate her style, but she definitely has something to say.

3 stars. 

Book Review: The Testaments

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

I read The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, in college in 1995; it was assigned reading in an American literature class (we will set aside the fact that Atwood is Canadian).  It was so interesting.

The book follows the idea of a United States (now called Gilead) that experiences a takeover by a totalitarian, Puritanical regime, and people are segregated into roles.  Commanders (those running the country), Wives, Marthas (servants), The Eyes (the security force).  The book focuses on the role of the Handmaid, the women who are selected to be breeders for the Commanders; a necessity because some unspecified ecological disaster has caused infertility in most people.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, and in recent years has become wildly popular, with modern-day readers drawing parallels (whether real or imagined) with the current political climate. Hulu picked up the rights and created a television series, which is very well done.

Atwood wrote a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, called The Testaments; it was published in 2019, almost 35 years after the original novel.  It picks up with the stories of Gilead, 15 years later.  An active underground continues to try to destabilize and overthrow the government of Gilead and restore the United States.  Gilead is showing cracks in the system.  It follows the stories of three individual women whose lives are woven together.  All strong women; Atwood doles out their secrets over time and reveals a backstory that the reader might not have guessed.

The Testaments (The Handmaid's Tale, #2)

Again, Atwood writes a novel that draws the reader in and holds your interest, but unfortunately I didn’t find it quite as compelling as the original novel.  Although I’m sure that people will be talking about both for years to come.

3 stars.

Book Review: Valiant Ambition

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Despite being very interested in history, I haven’t spent much time on the Revolutionary War. Maybe it is the stockings… or the wigs… both things I have a long-standing aversion to. Just ask my mom about the time when they dressed me up as Princess Leia in Star Wars, complete with the funny buns on the side of my head. I was about five, and I don’t have much hair, so she did the hairstyle with a wig. Which I removed and refused to put back on about two houses up the street. Times have not changed…

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

But anyway, back to the book. As one might now have guessed, this is a book about the Revolutionary War. It weaves its way through various parts of the war, from Washington’s struggles at the beginning, to Benedict Arnold’s glorious victories early on, to later events where Washington changes his strategy and starts seeing success. And of course, it recounts Benedict Arnold’s eventual treason and defection to the British Army.

It is a fascinating overview of the long years of the war, hitting several highlights for the Northern, Central and Southern corps of the Continental Army (they were called something else, but you get the gist). It tells the story through the perspective of several officers on both sides of the conflict: Washington, Arnold, Gates, Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as weaving in stories of some of the soldiers who were fighting on the front line.

While Philbrick follows a generally chronological timeline, he does bounce forward and back some as he shifts between storylines. The reader should also be aware that the book is not intended to be a complete history of the Revolutionary War, with Philbrick covering some portions and leaving others out entirely. Of course, a comprehensive history would be far outside the scope of one book, but he does seem to pick and choose which events he portrays, and some seem less relevant that others. I say that even knowing that the book is focused on Washington and Arnold…  That said, it is a worthwhile read that gave me a good general overview of some of the major points in the war that founded our country.

Extra points for the fact that the audio-book was read by Scott Brick, one of my favorite readers!

3 Stars.

Book Review: Never Call Me a Hero

Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway, by N. Jack “Dusty” Kleiss, and Timothy and Laura Orr

What can you say about this man, other than the fact that he is, indeed, a hero? Born Norman Kleiss, he went by Jack, until a mistake on a Hawaiian airfield earned him the nickname Dusty for the rest of his time in the service.

Never Call Me a Hero: A Legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers the Battle of Midway

Jack Kleiss wanted to be an aviator early on and set his goal toward getting into the US Naval Academy. He then had the opportunity to attend flight school, where he was trained as a fighter pilot. The United States declaration of war after Pearl Harbor led to his being stationed on a naval aircraft carrier.

Kleiss’ most significant combat operation in the war was as a participant in the Battle of Midway, a battle between the US and Japanese naval forces. Three US and four Japanese aircraft carriers were involved, as well as numerous heavy and light cruisers and destroyers on both fleets. The US was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor but was able to strike a decisive blow to the Japanese fleet. In all the Japanese lost all four of their aircraft carriers and a heavy cruiser, with another heavy cruiser sustaining damage. Over 3,000 Japanese sailors and aircrew lost their lives.

Kleiss’ book is written with the humble style so common among World War II veterans, the characteristic, “I was just doing my job,” deflections when someone points out the significance of the sacrifice he made for our country. He says a number of times that his fallen comrades are the real heroes, the men who were shot down as they bombed their targets, or worse, ran out of gas on their flight back to their carrier, because they were sent out knowing there wouldn’t be enough fuel for the return trip. And those men are truly heroes, but that doesn’t make Jack less so.

This poignant memoir relates his tale of the Battle of Midway, but also his long marriage to his wife Jean and his family, which he considers his real accomplishment. His simple style is relatable and easy to read, and he is honest enough to share his failings, as well as his frustrations with his superiors and colleagues. Jack had a long career in the Navy, training pilots after Midway, then moving into the private sector for a period before retirement.

Jack Kleiss lived to be 100 years old, another memorable accomplishment, but sadly died shortly before this memoir was published. We can’t tell him now, but he really was a hero.

4 stars.

Book Review: The Winemaker’s Wife

The Winemaker’s Wife, by Kristen Harmel

In this historical novel, Inès and Michel are a young newlywed couple in the Champagne region of France at the beginning of World War II. Michel’s family business, the champagne house of Maison Chauveau and its elaborate wine cellars are the perfect location to hide guns for the French Resistance. Inès and Céline, the wife of Maison Chauveau’s winemaker, have a strained relationship and do not see eye to eye.

Liv is the American granddaughter of a French woman who whisks her off to France after Liv’s marriage falls apart and she finds herself starting over. She soon learns that her grandmother has secrets; the frail, elderly woman is taking her on a wild goose chase to uncover her long-buried family history, a history she tried to leave behind at the end of the war.

Harmel takes the reader on a series of twists and turns; each character is not who they initially seem to be. They are complex and multi-dimensional, making it impossible to either love or hate any of them. Each one has their good and bad qualities, much like we all do in real life, which are exacerbated by the stress and privation of war.

I don’t want to give much away, because each twist in this winding road is worth discovering for yourself. Just know, it is well worth the read.

4 stars.

Book Review: The Pioneers

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough

I’m a big fan of David McCullough’s books; he always does such a great job of making his history topics interesting and relatable.  This book is no different.

The book covers the period from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, and the settlement of what was then the far west of the United States, and what is now Ohio.

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

Manasseh Cutler was a clergyman who was born in Connecticut, and served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War.  He became an agent of the Ohio Company, which he helped form in order to develop land in the Western territories.  He was responsible for ensuring that Congress financially backed the venture, and was a part of the original group created to explore and establish the new colony in present day Ohio.  Cutler also pushed for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which created the Ohio territory and ensured that there would be no slavery in territories formed from that land mass.  It was controversial at the time, and required him to assert his strong will and influence to ensure it passed.

It is a story that is told in generalities in middle and high schools across the nation, but without the specific names of men who played a part.  It is often glossed over in favor of the stories of later westward expansion through the Plains States, so it is nice to see this story told in more detail.

The book is about Cutler and a small number of white men who played a role in establishing the territory; it tells the stories of their efforts and trials along the way.  Some critics have pointed out that McCullough does not tell the stories of the Native Americans who were already living there, and were killed or pushed off the land by the white men who settled there.  I understand their criticism, but also believe that the book would be overly long and broad if McCullough tried to tell the story of everyone who played a role.  As it is, he worked from primary source documents and journals left by Cutler and the other men who founded the colony, and the view of the Native Americans clearly comes as a product of their time.  That said, it would be nice if there were a companion book that told the other half of the story.

There is some repetitiveness in the story, and times when it felt like the action moved very slowly.  But overall, it was well written and well researched, as all of David McCullough’s books are.

3 stars.

 

 

Book Review: Stiff

Imagine for a moment that you have died and donated your body to science.  Do you know what happens to your body? Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach, explores the multitude of ways in which cadavers are used in medical research.  It is a fascinating book, but not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Everyone knows that cadavers are used in medical schools, because med students need to learn human anatomy.  And that’s easiest to do with an actual human.  Interestingly, the use of cadavers for this purpose is decreasing, due to emerging digital tools.  However, did you know that cadavers are also used to help surgeons practice their craft and learn new techniques?

Other uses of cadavers tend to be less likely to be discussed outwardly, because people tend to get more squeamish, when the cadavers are subjected to violent acts.  These include research of auto safety devices; real life crash test dummies, if you will.  Over the years, safety improvements have significant lowered the death rate in car crashes, so now cadavers are used to study the impact of non-fatal injuries.  As Roach put it in the book, if you died in an accident it didn’t matter if you also shattered your ankle.  But if you live, suddenly you have an interest in how your ankle fares.

They are used for research on safety devices like bullet proof vests and footwear that is better able to protect your feet and legs from mines and other explosives.  Forensic science is another area where cadavers are really helpful.  If we are better able to understand how and under what conditions bodies decay, then forensic analysts can better estimate how, when and where someone died.  This can be the key to solving a crime.

Stiff explores organ transplants and what happens when you agree to donate.  It also documents some pretty far-out research in the last couple hundred years.  This is probably the most squeam-inducing part of the book.  Head transplants, and what happens after someone is decapitated are explained in detail.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you…  You could always skip that chapter, but you won’t.

Roach does have a morbid sense of humor, which of course is necessary for a book of this subject.  Yet she speaks of the cadavers she “meets” with a respectful dignity, aware of the gift that they have given to society in death.  It is well researched and well-read (I listened to the audio book) by Shelly Frasier, and Stiff enlightened me on several areas of research that I knew nothing about.  Well done.  Perhaps just don’t read it at meal time.

4 stars.