Tag Archive | non-fiction

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: 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.

Book Review: All the Single Ladies

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, by Rebecca Traister

This is a book of non-fiction.  And a good one at that.

Traister, through an analysis of research studies, vital records and interviews with women around the United States, wrote a book that examines the costs and benefits of singlehood.

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation

Throughout history, it has been notoriously difficult to be a single woman.  With laws and patriarchal rules that prohibited women from owning property, limited inheriting, forced women into arranged marriages, made it difficult for women to get custody of children in a divorce, required women to quit their jobs if they married, prohibited voting and any amount of other nonsense, it was tough for a woman to choose to not marry.  Only relatively recently have women been able to make a different choice.

Traister explores several issues surrounding women’s marital status – both the pros and the cons:

  • the social stigma of being unmarried
  • the pain that women face if they are unable to find a suitable partner with whom to have children
  • the “mommy penalty,” which affects women’s careers and salaries after they have children
  • the impact of loneliness
  • government programs that are designed to encourage women to marry, instead of fixing the underlying problems of why they aren’t
  • the fact that women are perceived to be more loyal to their careers if they remain unmarried
  • that fact that women’s socio-economic status is closely tied to marriage
  • the rich friendships that single women can develop when they are not devoting time to a spouse

She tells the stories of some of the incredible unmarried women in history, who used their free time to advance women’s causes, such as suffrage, contraception and equal rights, as well as those to rose in the ranks to positions of power.  She tells the stories of a few incredible women who decided to ultimately get married too.

Traister doesn’t advocate for singlehood or married life, and instead simply advocates for women to have the choice, free from the hassle of absurd public policies that limit that choice.  While at times the book is a bit repetitive, and it is a slow read due to its focus on research and historical facts, it was an interesting deep dive into the institution of marriage for women and what leads some to follow a different path.

As a single woman, one who has a terrible experience with marriage, and who did not get the opportunity to choose to have children, this book resonated with me.  At times, being single has been a source of deep despair for me.  However, being single has also given me some incredible flexibility, to buy a home, advance my career, travel and plan for an early retirement, all on my own.  It is a double-edged sword, and one for which I am now incredibly grateful.


4 stars.

Book Review: Furious Hours

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep

This is hands down one of the best books I have read in a while.  I checked it out from the library’s online audio book selections because it was available, without knowing anything about it.  Was it non-fiction?  Fiction?  Did Harper Lee sue someone over book rights?  Was she sued?  I was intrigued in my ignorance.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

As it turns out, you get two fascinating non-fiction stories for the price of one.  Enter the Reverend Willie Maxwell.  A smooth talking, well dressed man, who supervised a lumber crew by day and preached by night.  And who had a thing for insurance.

As it turned out, over a period of two years, six people close to the Reverend died (five were family members), most in “car accidents.”  Except they didn’t look like your typical accident; the vehicle in each situation was not damaged enough for investigators to believe the accident would have killed someone.  Six people: two of Maxwell’s wives, his second wife’s first husband, his brother, his nephew and his adopted daughter.  And oh, isn’t it interesting that there happened to be multiple insurance policies on each person, purchased by the Reverend, with Maxwell listed as the beneficiary?

The Maxwell case took an unexpected turn, and Harper Lee decided to take a trip to Alexander City, Alabama to research the case and write a book, her first since To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lee had helped her close childhood friend Truman Capote research his best-selling novel, In Cold Blood, and Lee thought that this would be her ticket to her own true crime book.

In addition to the story of the Reverend Maxwell, Cep also chronicles the life of Harper Lee, from her childhood in Alabama, her process of writing and publishing To Kill a Mockingbird, and her struggles after the book immediately became one of the most influential books in history.  Lee was not fond of the fame the book brought her, and began to live as a near recluse, turning down almost all requests for interviews and appearances.

Lee also struggled with profound grief; she had always had a complicated relationship with her mother who died young after struggling for years with mental illness.  She was much more affected when her brother died suddenly shortly after at the age of 30.  He had been her anchor and the sibling she was closest to.  Her father, whom she deeply admired, died after a long, slow decline – even though she was older, his death was hard for her to cope with as well.

Lee’s life was often messy, with decades spent trying to create the next novel to follow Mockingbird.  She developed close friendships with her agents and editors and outlived them all.  She struggled with alcoholism.  She had her ups and downs with Capote, eventually losing touch with him entirely.  She had a love/hate relationship with New York; loving its bustle and culture and the anonymity it afforded her but feeling the pull of small town Alabama.  Her one constant was her family.

The book is candid about Lee’s life, neither idolizing nor maligning her for the way that she lived after Mockingbird came out.  Cep simply tries to tell it like it was.  Cep’s writing fully develops the characters in a way that few authors do, and that is difficult when you are trying to accurately portray real people.  I listened on audiobook and couldn’t wait for my drive so I could start back up where I left off.  Brilliant.

5 stars.

Book Review: The Man from the Train

What happens when a sports writer tries to solve a series of unsolved murders that occurred over 100 years ago, all across the country? This book.

Between the 1890s and the 1930s, there were numerous ax murders of families occurring across the United States. Not that many, but perhaps more than could be explained by mere coincidence. The Man from the Train details author Bill James’ theory that many, if not most, of these murders were committed by the same man.


The book details the facts that are known about each murder, which is often very little after so much time has elapsed. Then he explores the commonalities among the murders, and then determines whether these commonalities fit the pattern. If so, they were part of the series of murders all committed by one man.  Neatly wrapped up – case closed.

Never mind that these murders occurred hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles away from each other, in a time when most people didn’t travel far from their homes. Never mind that he had absolutely no evidence to tie the murders to the man he accuses, who was only suspected, and never prosecuted, for one ax murder.

Never mind that his murderer would have had to have been murdering families for decades without ever being caught. Or that traveling around the country would have been expensive and time-consuming, and these murders didn’t have money stolen from the scene of the crime.

The book was interesting because it detailed what is known about many of the ax murders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, I don’t agree with his theory about a freight training hopping serial killer who eluded capture for 30 years. Just because the crimes were similar is intriguing, but not necessarily a smoking gun (or bloody ax). I just couldn’t get there…

2 stars.

Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Let me say right now, that I don’t always choose disaster books. The last book I reviewed was a light hearted memoir about the Appalachian Trail after all! But I get it – I do choose a lot of disaster books. I consider this due to my love for all things historical, and well, disasters do make good history. At any rate…

Erik Larson has made a name for himself with several books on famous American tragedies; this book dives into the 1915 sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania during World War I by a German U-boat with several hundred Americans on board.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

The Lusitania disaster was a perfect storm of disasters, and Larson expertly details the circumstances leading up to its sinking. He meticulously researched records of the British admiralty, discovering just how much they knew about the movements of U-20 off the coast of Ireland in the days and hours leading up to the disaster.  He tells the stories of the passengers aboard, including tales of the 2nd and 3rd class passengers rather than just the rich and famous. He spins the stories in a way that leaves the reader hanging until the final moments about who lived and who died.

And he tells the story of the U-boat captain, living in the cramped, hot conditions of a submarine, ultimately more concerned about the tonnage that he could sink than the lives of over 1,000 non-combatants, including hundreds of women and children.

I like Larson’s writing style. He switches back and forth effortlessly among the three perspectives; the Lusitania, U-20, and the British Admiralty. He tells the story chronologically, building suspense and a sense of foreboding. You know the ship will go down – that’s in the history books, but who will make it?

And after the sinking, the mistakes don’t end. There are all those hundreds of lives that probably could have been saved, if only other ships had been dispatched right away. If only others hadn’t turned around, thinking it might be a German trap. If only…

It has been over one hundred years since the sinking of the Lusitania. Although the heyday of ocean liner travel is long over, there are still elements of the story that are very relevant. How many times have governments allowed innocent civilians to die because they didn’t want to reveal what they know and how they know it?

Dead Wake was a very worthwhile read – I was hooked the whole way through…

The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts

I recently read The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts, by Burke Davis.  It is a collection of short stories and musings on the Civil War.  It is one of those books that is a hodge-podge (I love that word) of random information that the author came across while researching for another book, and couldn’t use.  But of course, us history nerds don’t want random trivia to go to waste, so what better place to compile a bunch of random facts than a book about random facts!?

The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts

Davis does a great job of choosing some of the more obscure trivia from the war.  He details friends of men from north and south, and one horse who had four brothers shot and killed on his back.  He tells stories of military inventions, and descendents of famous Civil War figures who went on to their own fame.

However, some of his stories are widely known.  Like the fact that the Civil War began on Wilmer McLean’s farm in Manassas, Virginia, and ended on the same man’s farm at Appomattox Courthouse (the man moved after the first battle to get away from the fighting).  Or the story of the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel.  Of course at the time that Davis wrote this book, in the 1960s, the Hunley had not yet been found on the seafloor, recovered, and placed in a museum.  So I can give him a break for that one, since the story of the Hunley was probably not as widely known 40-some years ago.

That leads me to a few problematic time references.  Several times in his stories, Davis makes reference to Civil War descendents (usually sons, but once a widow) who are still alive.  It took me aback several times thinking “but the war was 150 years ago”!  Once I realized that the book was first published in the 1960s, the references made more sense.  And it would be difficult to update them to modern day, since the story explores these Civil War connections in the modern day (by modern day, I mean the 60s, when the book was written).

All in all, it’s an interesting book for the Civil War buff.  You aren’t going to learn anything deep about a battle or a man, but it’s worth a read for the interesting trivia that he has uncovered.  Enjoy.