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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. 

Book Review: Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered

Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered:  The Definitive How-To Guide From the My Favorite Murder Podcast, by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Karen and Georgia are the voices of the podcast, My Favorite Murder.  They have gained quite a following for their clever banter about solved and unsolved murders, exploring the grim details and sad facts of any number of murder cases throughout the world.  They both have a morbid sense of humor and a healthy dose of witticisms, and minds that are detail oriented enough to recall the cases that they are describing on the podcast.

They don’t make light of the unfortunate victims of the crimes, but do acknowledge that there is a morbid curiousity in many of us who look into these past murders and wonder why, or wonder if some could be some break in the case that solves the crime and brings closure to the family.

Stay Sexy and Don't Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide From the My Favorite Murder Podcast

The podcast is fascinating, but that’s not what this book is about.  Instead, their book is a more personal deep dive into these two women and how they have gotten where they have.  They talk about their childhoods, their struggles with addiction, dating, ailing parents and life in general.  They bring a candor not often seen in people discussing their personal lives and they are both willing to open up about the good and the not so good pieces of their pasts and personalities.  It is refreshing to know that they have had trials and bumps along the way.

If you consider yourself a murderino (their newly coined term for those of us who are interested in true crime and amateur sleuthing on murder cases), and you haven’t listened to the podcast, you should check it out.  And if you like these two very raw, real and relatable women, who should check out this book.  It’s even OK if you check it out at the library; they will only judge you a little bit.

One last thing – the audiobook version is read by the authors, and they are superb!

4 stars.

Book Review: Today Will Be Different

When I picked up Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple, I was hoping that it would be a lighthearted novel about the struggles of being an overworked career woman raising a family and trying to maintain her sanity while struggling with anxiety and depression.  That would have been a good book.

Today Will Be Different

That is not what this book is.

This is a novel about Eleanor Flood, a career woman turned stay-at-home-mom, who is so self-absorbed and flaky that she becomes instantly overwhelmed by the slightest demands on her time and energy.  She is paranoid that her world is falling apart, to the point that she creates a self-fulfilling prophecy which vomits her problems all over everyone around her.

This woman is a dumpster fire.  She can’t keep it together long enough to drop her kid off at school and meet a friend for lunch.  She can’t even give her son a normal name…

Unfortunately, she is such a mess that she makes women look bad – seriously, do people buy into this as a good way to manage your life?  It evokes images of the Victorian era and the early- to mid-1900s, when women were institutionalized and subjected to treatments like electro-shock therapy and lobotomy, because they had “hysteria.”  This character is a caricature of the way doctors described women back in the day…

It would be one thing if the novel seemed like it was intended to be an over the top farce, but I didn’t get the impression that it was.  Sadly then, I can only assume that the author intended this to be only a mild exaggeration of a woman trying to manage a life while struggling with anxiety and depression.  What a disservice to women everywhere…

I have read good reviews of Semple’s other novel, but I would skip this one.

1 star.

Book Review: Barracoon

Recently I read Barracoon: The Story of the last “Black Cargo”, by Zora Neale Hurston.  What a fascinating concept!  A young Zora Neale Hurston, working as an anthropologist in the South, meets and interviews Cudjoe Lewis, a man who was considered to be the last living African man who was transported to the United States in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Kossola, as he was named in Africa, was brought to the U.S. illegally in 1861, long after importing slaves had been made illegal.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

Lewis was freed in 1865 when the Union Army came through and freed the slaves at the end of the Civil War.  He became a sharecropper, married and had a family, and lived through the harsh periods of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow days of the south.  By the time Hurston came along in 1927, armed with a pad of paper and gifts to cajole him into speaking with her, Lewis was an old man.

He told her stories about his life in Africa, his childhood growing up and the conflicts associated with the tribe.  He told her the story about how he was captured by warriors from a neighboring tribe, and sold into slavery.  He told about his trans-Atlantic passage.  He told her about being split up from most of the people that he had been transported over with.  It was interesting to hear his stories, and Hurston attempted to remain true to his manner of speaking, using a curious vernacular dialect of English that came from learning English as an adult and not having received any formal education.

Hurston’s manuscript failed to find a publisher in the late 1920s, in part because of the vernacular in which in was written, and probably because people were not ready to face both the reality of a period that was still fresh in people’s minds, as well as the fact that it implicated Africans for playing a role in the enslavement of people from neighboring tribes.  The book was published posthumously in 2018.

My gripe with the book was that I wanted more.  The stories felt pieced together and didn’t always logically connect.  It was like just getting a window of certain moments in his life, before someone stepped in front of you and blocked the view.  I wanted to hear more about his experience as a slave.  I wanted to hear how he made the transition to freedom in an unknown culture after his emancipation.  What hardships did he face?  This was our last opportunity to hear from someone who lived it, and I feel like it fell short.  The book presented his story as being much too simple.  Perhaps that is the reality of interviewing someone who has had such a long hard life, but I still wanted more.

3 stars.

Book Review: The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley

I found this historical romance novel in my neighborhood free library, and it looked interesting.  And it was!

The Winter Sea (Slains #1)

The book tells two parallel stories.  An American author, Carrie, living abroad, trying to overcome her writer’s block and get moving on her next historical novel.  A young, orphaned woman, Sophia, living in the early 1700s at Slains, a castle owned by a distant relative who has taken her in.

The novel weaves expertly from the past to the present, with Carrie writing the Sophia’s story, learning more and more about her, and realizing that Sophia is her own ancestor.  The story is set during the Jacobite Rebellion, where an exiled King James is attempting to mount a revolution to regain the throne from France.

I don’t know much about the English kings and queens of the 17th and 18th centuries, and I don’t know how historically accurate this book is, but it was interesting and it read quickly.  The cliffhangers at the end of each chapter made me want to continue reading long after I should have gone to bed.

There is a fair amount of romance in it, both in the historical portions and the present day, but it is mild if you aren’t a romance reader.  I enjoyed the combination of history and love story.

3 stars.

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates; The Forgotten War That Changed American History, by Brian Kilmeade, co-written by Don Yaeger

How much do you know about the Barbary Wars? Not much? Yeah, me neither.

The United States was a brand-new nation, with no money and swimming in debt from the Revolutionary War (wars have never been cheap). Merchant ships were trading around the world, but frequently had to sail near the Barbary Coast, the term at the time for the coastal regions of North Africa. They were inhabited by the Berber people, and the Ottoman Empire – Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli. The present-day nations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya now make up what was once the Ottoman Empire.

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History

Pirates along the Barbary coast regularly captured merchant vessels, stole their goods and held their crews for ransom if their country of origin didn’t pay tribute or protection payments. Unfortunately for the Americans, the U.S. government didn’t have the money to pay these exorbitant fees, so over the years, several hundred Americans (including women and children) were languishing and dying in prisons and forced labor camps.

Jefferson was not pleased with this arrangement. He tried for years to influence George Washington and John Adams to build up the U.S. Navy and take on the Ottoman Empire in a meaningful way; largely to no avail. When Jefferson was elected to the Presidency, he finally had the ability to do something about it.  He realized after seeing how the strategy had worked over the last several years that tribute payments just ensured more of the same.  A small military presence in the area wasn’t enough. It was time to get serious.

And get serious he did. This book details the history of piracy in the region, the impact it was having on American shipping, and the war that the United States fought in its infancy, along a foreign shore.  The Barbary Wars established the U.S. as a major power in the world. It was not without its setbacks, but Jefferson’s plan successfully changed the course of merchant shipping in the region – and that’s no small feat.

Kilmeade reads his own book, and it is a little distracting, because he talks really fast and doesn’t have the same tone and pace consistency as a professional reader. That said though, he did a pretty good job.  It is also interesting to read the other reviews on Goodreads, because they seem to fall in line with the reviewer’s political affiliation and whether or not you know and like Brian Kilmeade from his Fox News show.  I had never heard of Kilmeade, and don’t pick books on whether their authors line up with my politics, so I didn’t have any preconceived notions when I picked the book or wrote my review.

The book certainly doesn’t dive too deeply into the topic, but it does give a good overview on what happened during a period of history that I knew little about.

3 stars.