Tag Archive | books

Book Review: Death in Yellowstone

My aunt and uncle got Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, by Lee H. Whittlesey, for me as a gift.  It’s like they know me!  They have spent a couple of summers working in the bookstore near Old Faithful, so I imagine this book was screaming out at them from the shelves until they couldn’t ignore it anymore!

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First, let’s get this out of the way.  Yes, I appreciate the morbid.  It helps me cope; I get it from my mom…  But who wouldn’t want to know about all the strange and grisly ways there are to die in the nation’s first National Park?  Yellowstone was designated as a National Park on March 1, 1872, so that’s almost 150 years of opportunity to die there.  And Whittlesey has done a great job of compiling a comprehensive list of all of the deaths in the park.

There are a lot of ways to die!  He covers drownings, falling into thermals, deaths caused by horses and wagons, falls, deaths caused by wildlife, exposure, poison gases, suicides, murders and more!  Some, like deaths by wildlife, are less common than I would have guessed, with most of those being caused by grizzly bears (which is to be expected).  It also impressed upon me that you should never, ever, go roaming around Yellowstone at night, in the dark.  There are too many opportunities to fall in thermals, to fall off cliffs, to freeze to death (even if it isn’t winter), or to get eaten by a bear!  I mean I knew this already, but apparently there are people who don’t.

The writing style, leaves a bit to be desired; Whittlesey compiles information and presents it in a matter of fact manner, rather than spinning a excellent story.  At points it almost seems that bullets would be his preferred method.  That said, it is still interesting, and I enjoyed where he was able to get additional information about a victim (or a perpetrator) from the folks that knew them.

If you love our National Parks, and have a fascination with the macabre, you are sure to like this book!

3 stars.

Book Review: Mary Todd Lincoln, A Biography

I picked up Mary Todd Lincoln, A Biography, by Jean H. Baker, at the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, Kentucky, when I visited there in August 2018.  I have read a lot about Abraham Lincoln, and have learned much about Mary in the process, but I have never read anything that explores her life as her own person, separate from her relationship with our nation’s 16th President.

Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

The book covers the entirety of Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, from her birth and upbringing in Lexington, Kentucky.  Her mother died when Mary was six, and her father remarried shortly after to Mary’s step-mother, a woman that Mary had a tumultuous relationship with.  She went to boarding school across town, and received far more education than a girl typically received at the time.  She was versed in politics and could speak eloquently on a variety of topics, in both English and French.

She was, by all accounts, a formidable force, who had strong opinions and a pushy nature.  However, it is likely that Lincoln’s rise to the Presidency was heavily influenced by his wife, her encouragement and her assistance behind the scenes.  She believed she would be the First Lady, and Mary Todd Lincoln often got what she wanted.

Her life was also overshadowed by tragedy.  She lost her mother as a child, and three of her four sons died before they reached adulthood.  And of course, you know what happened to her husband…  She grieved.  Yet she grieved in a way that the nation thought inappropriate, not becoming of a lady of her time.  She was too much to take.

Mary’s polarizing personality bought her many enemies, and those enemies have tainted the historical record.  She certainly was far from perfect, but this biography will help the reader to understand what is true and what is myth surrounding Mary Todd Lincoln.

4 stars. 

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: 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 Dutch Girl

The Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, by Robert Matzen

Ever since the first time I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I was fascinated by Audrey Hepburn. So alive yet so reserved, so slender and beautiful, and so demure. In learning more, I was even more impressed. This hugely famous starlet who never liked being in the public eye, and who never got over her past, growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II

She saw things that never left her; the trains deporting Jews to concentration camps, her beloved uncle arrested, held hostage and murdered in retailiation for the activities of the Dutch Resistance, her close-call near-kidnapping as the Nazis were rounding up young women to serve as domestics in Germany. Her demeanor was hugely shaped by this experience, and affected her greatly for the rest of her life.

Matzen does a superb job of detailing Hepburn’s life, from her early childhood, through her death of a rare intestinal cancer in January 1993, at the age of 63. His biography talks about the important pieces of her life, from the abandonment by her father, to her strained yet co-dependent relationship with her mother, who followed the German fascist movement in the 1930s, to her love of ballet and dance.  Her tenacious will to live and thrive meant Audrey never gave up, even when things seemed hopeless.

The book reads as one part biography, and one part action-adventure story, as he describes her experience growing up under Nazi occupation and participating in Dutch Resistance activities. Never one to toot her own horn or even talk much about her personal life, Matzen reveals a part of Audrey Hepburn that has been little known to her admirers.

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.