Tag Archive | book review

Book Review: The Murderer’s Daughters

The Murderer’s Daughters, by Randy Susan Meyers, was a book club pick, and I was thankful that my hold at the library came in just in the nick of time.  Of course, my hold at the library had been ready for several weeks, but pick ups were delayed by violence and protests at a homeless camp that had been set up on the library lawn…  2021 so far seems to be a continuation of 2020!  But that’s a story I won’t get into here.

The Murderer's Daughters

Lulu and Merry were 9 and 5 years old when they witnessed their father murder their mother in a drunken rage.  The family was fractured and dysfunctional, and shortly afterwards, the girls were sent to live in a group home for girls.  They had weekend visits with their grandmother, who inexplicably couldn’t care for them, even though she managed to live on her own, and visit their father in prison every other weekend.  She and Merry had to take a couple different buses and the Staten Island Ferry to get there, but visited him faithfully, while Lulu refused.  The girls spent years in the orphanage before they were finally fostered by an employee of the home for a short time.

Lulu and Merry each developed different coping methods and strategies and built drastically different lives for themselves.  They remained bonded in their trauma, neither effectively dealing with the pain of what happened.  The novel follows them from the time of the murder in the 1970s until the early 2000s; their careers, their relationships and their family bonds.

Randy Susan Meyers draws on her experience working as a domestic violence advocate to frame the story. It was interesting in many ways, with the characters displaying believable attributes.  The manipulative father who holds no accountability for his actions, the perfect child, and the daughter who rebels against everything…  That said, the characters felt one-dimensional and flat to me; they needed more depth to truly immerse myself in the book.

3 stars.

Book Review: Building the Great Society

Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House, by Joshua Zeitz

First of all, let me just say that I did not finish this book.  I tried.  Our library has been opened and closed over and over again due to COVID (and a bit of casual rioting but that’s a different story), and nobody else wanted to read this “masterpiece”, so I kept on trying through three standard checkout periods – nine weeks total…  I couldn’t.  So this review is based on pages 1 to 137, and a little bit of casual skimming beyond that page to see if the narrative would change (it did not).

Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson's White House

I wanted to learn more about President Johnson’s self-described War on Poverty, otherwise what became known as The Great Society.  I wanted to learn about this New Deal-esque plan to lift Americans out of poverty by the multi-pronged plan to address inequities in housing, employment, education and nutrition.  I also wanted to learn about the successes and failures of this sweeping legislation and how it has continued to shape politics and people’s lives today, even more than 50 years later.

I didn’t get any of that.  This book – at least the first 137 pages, focused on who Johnson allied with to pass his legislation, who he selected for his implementation team, and the political infighting that was rife, even at the staff level.  I learned which ill-equipped and un-remodeled buildings they were housed in, how they had to scramble to even get pens and phone lines, and how team members who should have had access to information were shut out and marginalized.

If this was interesting, it might have made up for the fact that a third of the way into the book, Zeitz still hadn’t given the reader more than headline scraps of the meat of the Great Society plan, but it wasn’t interesting.  In fact, it just frustrated me.  It reminded me that back then, and still today, politicians seem to have forgotten that we the people have elected them to work together, to find compromise, and to actually SOLVE problems.  Instead Johnson just sounds like a bastard.  And probably an alcoholic.

So if you are interested in learning more about the Great Society, maybe this book gets into it later on, but go ahead and skip the first third…  And if you know of any good books on the Great Society, please let me know.

1 star. 

Book Review: The Other Einstein

The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict, is a work of historical fiction about a woman whose story has largely been lost to time…

Mileva Marić Einstein was Albert Einstein’s first wife.  They met when they were physics classmates together at the Zurich Polytechnic, where they were both studying physics and mathematics.  She was brilliant in her own right, being the second woman in the history of the university to finish the course of study.  Marić and Einstein collaborated on several projects while they were students, and historical records show that they were equals in the scientific field, although their fellow students believed Marić’s mathematical abilities surpassed Einstein’s.  He was an attentive and passionate suitor, and showered her with love and affection during their courtship.

The Other Einstein

Things changed once she got pregnant out of wedlock with his child.  Marić returned to her family home during her pregnancy and remained there after the birth of their daughter.  She repeatedly requested that Einstein visit them, and that he marry her and make their child legitimate, but he let her down, and left her alone for several months during her pregnancy and after the birth of their daughter.  Even after she was born, he refused to marry her and legitimize their daughter; the record is unclear, and does not account for what happened to their daughter, other than the fact that she was no longer in their lives when they married.

Marić and Einstein finally married in 1903; and by all accounts, it was an unhappy marriage.  Einstein had a brilliant mind, but the historical record does not reflect kindly on his ability to maintain a kind or loving relationship.  It was his way or the highway; he expected his wife to act as a servant during their marriage, rather than a partner.  Her wishes went unheeded and her aspirations were ignored.  It is unknown whether Marić played a role in collaborating with Einstein on his theories, especially his Theory of Relativity, but it is quite possible that she was involved in his research and never received credit.  It must have been heartbreaking for her to be in love with a man who simply wanted control and submission from her, rather than a partner in life.

The book is insightful into the mind of a man who had many talents, of which his ability to treat people kindly was not one.  Over time, their relationship suffered as a result of his ongoing emotional abuse and neglect.  Her academic passions, her career and the love of her husband had all been stripped from her by the man who once swore that they were one.  They separated in 1914, and finally divorced (after the mandatory waiting period) in 1919.

This book is part love story, and part the story of an incredibly strong woman who was ahead of her time…  She had to make a choice between her career and a marriage, and in the end she got neither…  Her story is not uplifting, but relatable for intelligent, career women to this day.

4 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: The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian woman.  She was middle-aged and unmarried, living with her father and sister Betsie and running a clock and watch shop when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands during World War II.

The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

Of course, the Nazis soon began arresting and deporting the Jews to the concentration camps.  Ten Boom and her family couldn’t stand by and watch their neighbors be rounded up and taken away family by family, so they began sheltering Jews in the home.  Gradually, as things became more desperate and more dangerous, the ten Boom family connected with the Dutch Resistance, participating in acquiring counterfeit food ration cards and having a false wall built in their home to hide the Jews staying there.

Eventually, they were ratted out and ten Boom, her father and her older sister were arrested, detained and sent first to a prison, where her father died.  Corrie and her sister were eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  You already know how conditions were in a concentration camp, and it was no different for Corrie and her sister. They leaned heavily on their faith, setting up evening prayer services and Bible readings in order to make it through.  As Corrie allowed herself to hate the Nazi guards, her sister taught her forgiveness, even of the monsters who imprisoned them.

I was surprised that I had never heard of this book, even though it was published in 1971, before I was born.  It tells an important story of the regular people throughout Europe who did what they could to fight the Nazis.  The story is timeless now, but still needs to be heard.  People need to understand what happened, or history will repeat.

4 stars.

Book Review: Man with Wings

I read the audio-book version of Man with Wings, by Joseph Cottler recently on my commute.  It was written in 1942, although the audio-book is more recent; published in 2008.

I have long been interested in Leonardo DaVinci, but I have never really known that much about him.  He was truly a Renaissance man, with his talent as an artist, and engineer, a designer, and an inventor.  He had so many talents at his fingertips.  The Mona Lisa is the masterpiece he is most known for, but that was such a tiny fragment of his artistic talent and the work that he completed during his life.

This biography goes through the life of DaVinci, from his childhood and time as an apprentice, to his adulthood performing works of art and engineering.  It discussed his tendency to get lost in the discovery process, and frustrate his patrons by working too slowly.  Often, instead of painting or sculpting, he spent his time watching birds fly, dissecting human and animal bodies, studying gravity and the flow of water, and studying other aspects of the natural world.

I would have preferred this book to be more like a traditional biography, rather than what it is – essentially a historical novel with a cast of characters.  It was even more challenging because the audio-book version that I listened to was narrated like a play, with overly dramatic voices and accents.  It got annoying… I still learned more about DaVinci than I knew before, but the way it was presented was distracting…  I guess I will have to find another DaVinci  book I can relate to more, and that presents more information about the body of work he completed in his lifetime.

The verdict – at least if you are planning on the audiobook version, I would find something else on DaVinci…

Book Review: The Book Thief

I read a lot of good books. But rarely does a book come along that moves me; that unsettles me; that makes me ponder the vast chasm that exists between the good in this world and the evil. A book that will stay with me long after I finish the last page and close the back cover. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak is such a book.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl given up into the foster care system for unsaid reasons just before the start of World War II. She travels with her mother and young brother to the foster care agency – and her ill brother dies enroute. At the burial she picks up a book the gravedigger has dropped, and it becomes one of her few treasured possessions. When her mother drops her off – her last tie to family is severed forever.

Liesel finds herself in the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a largely uneducated and coarse couple who could teach us all a thing or two about love. Even when faced with indescribable danger, they do the moral thing – they harbor a Jew. The story of Liesel’s upbringing in the face of such adversity shows the reader that even in such situations, it is possible to respect, to forge deep friendships, and to love.

But most importantly, she learns the power of words. That they can be used for good or for evil – that they can change the world and your reality.  These words left me turning page after page, long after I should have turned out the light each night.  “I am haunted by humans,” – I was changed by these words.

Book Review: Unbroken

I’ve read quite a bit about World War II, but had not heard the story of Louis Zamperini until Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken hit the shelves in 2010. Louie, as he was known to his family and friends, was a record breaking runner, an Olympic athlete turned B-24 Liberator bombardier.

The book follows Louie through his turbulent childhood, as he gets in all sorts of trouble because he’s not a rule follower. It details his brother’s successful attempt to get him to settle down with running, giving Louie something to focus his energy and frustration. He ends up being such a good runner that he qualifies for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, at an age where runners have not yet reached their peak.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

And then along comes the War. Louie enlists and is sent to train as a bombardier as a part of a B-24 crew. He achieves glory as a part of a bombing raid over mainland Japan, the first since Doolittle’s Raiders bombed Japan in 1942. Despite the severe damage their plane suffered, they managed to make it back to base. However, one of the crew died, several were seriously injured, and their plane was too damaged to fly again.

After heading back to Hawaii, the remaining crew were assigned a new plane – a known lemon, and several unseasoned crewmates. On their very first flight in the new plane Green Hornet, a rescue mission, they crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Three men survived and were able to get into two rafts with very few provisions. There they drifted for 47 days, before Louie and his pilot were picked up by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war in a series of brutal Japanese labor camps.

Any one of the hardships that Louie endured likely would have killed other men, or driven them insane. 47 days floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean, trying to cobble together enough sustenance by fishing and collecting rainwater. Years in Japanese POW camps, forced to perform hard labor while facing starvation and disease. Frequent beatings and psychological torture…

The book showed the reader in vivid detail what it was like to live as a Japanese Prisoner of War. It makes it clear why so many veterans did not want to talk about their experience in the war. After Louie returned home, he struggled with PTSD and alcoholism – he credited a commitment to God for his climb back up from rock bottom. Although he had not been religious before the war, he made a promise to commit his life to God, if only He would deliver him safety from the raft.

This book is a difficult read – it is graphic, violent and raw. It will make you angry and rip your heart out. I cried more than once and at times audibly gasped. But it is necessary – to understand that war is not a decision to be taken lightly. To understand that when we ask people to give their lives for a cause, they have often done so even if they come home alive. To hopefully one day break the cycle of conflict.  To one day get to “never again.”

 

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson is a humor author. More precisely, he is a baby boomer who first came into my consciousness when my book club read The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir about Bryson’s Midwest upbringing in the 1950s and 60s. It is laugh out loud funny, poking fun at the times, and reliving for his contemporaries the novelty of such innovations as the frozen dinner, and playing in the clouds of pesticide left behind by mosquito spray trucks.

A Walk in the Woods, while not as whimsical, still incorporates a healthy dose of humor as he tells the story of his decision to embark on a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Never mind that he has no experience thru-hiking, or backpacking, or even doing much day hiking or camping. I consider it the pre-cursor to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, only without the drug addiction and extremely self-destructive behavior. But Bryson has one thing that Strayed does not – a healthy (and amusing) fear of bears.

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

The book alternates between telling the history of the Appalachian Trail; it conception, its development, its increase in popularity over the years, and Bryson and his childhood friend Katz’s long hike. He revels in details that include savoring a soda after a week in the woods, to Katz’s emotional outbursts that result in large portions of their rations being hurtled off the sides of mountains. He also goes into great detail on various bear calamities throughout the United States, providing a who’s who of bear casualties over the last several dozen years.

While reading, you can feel the weight of the pack on your back as you trudge along with Bryson and Katz, up and down hills, over stony trails, and finally collapsing in camp at the end of the night. At which point you sleep soundly… unless you can hear what you think is a bear. He also expresses the joy of a beautiful sunrise or sunset, and the absolute peace in the woods. Any hiker can likely relate to these feelings.

A Walk in the Woods is a quick read – and I enjoyed the serious historical facts that complemented the tale of their excursion. The only part I disliked was when he retold the generalizations about the residents who were removed from Shenandoah National Park, describing them as uneducated and barely functional poor people who were far better off once the government swooped in to relocate them and save the day. But given that this book was written 20 years ago, before the true story was likely known, I’m willing to forgive him for the error.

The book is a worthwhile read, especially if you want to get a sense of what thru-hiking would really be like if you are not a serious distance hiker and camper. Just don’t feed the bears.

Book Review: The Heretic’s Daughter

Everyone has heard of the Salem Witch Trials. The unfortunate blight on our history that resulted in the executions of 20 people, proclaimed to be witches by the “evidence” of the day.

Kathleen Kent’s historical novel explores the family of one of the accused and executed women, Martha Carrier, from the perspective of her daughter, Sarah Carrier. Sarah was arrested and interrogated, and imprisoned for several months, but was ultimately set free.

The novel explores the themes of religious intolerance and persecution that existed in 17th century colonial Massachusetts, as well as the deep divides between families and neighbors that undoubtedly contributed to the naming of several hundred innocent townspeople.

The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent

The book also deals head on with the conflict that exists between a mother and a daughter coming of age, in what must be a timeless struggle. Sarah Carrier resents her mother, always assuming that family disagreements must be her mother’s fault. She only learns to appreciate her mother’s fierce loyalty and wisdom once it is too late to rebuild those bonds. Through reflection, she realizes too late that perhaps her mother might have been right.

Kent doesn’t deeply explore the complex reasons for the Witch Trials, but keeps her novel within the historical context with accurate representations of what is known about the players involved. She is skillful at describing Sarah’s surroundings, what it must have been like growing up in the farming community of Andover, Massachusetts, and the horrific experience of confinement in the Salem Town jail, crowded with so many people, and unable to escape the filth, disease or chill.

Kathleen Kent is a 10th generation descendent of Martha Carrier, so she provides a unique perspective, and has clearly pulled from the historical documents that have survived from the trial. The novel is well written and well researched, and pulls the reader into the story from the beginning to the very end.