Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review: The Race Underground by Doug Most

AuthorDoug Most
Narrator: John H. Mayer
TitleThe Race Underground
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2014
ISBN: 9780553398069
Summary/Review:

This fascinating study documents the race between Boston and New York to be the first city to have underground rapid transit.  Spoiler:  Boston wins the race, but the modest Tremont Street subway would soon be overshadowed by New York City opening an extensive network of subways covering hundreds of miles all at once.  This work includes a lot of tangents into the engineering, technological, and social changes of the late-19th century and early 20th-century in delightful ways.  Most frames the story around two brothers – Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York City – who were behind the push for improved transit in their cities, but the stories of many politicians, engineers, financiers, dreamers, and ordinary people amazed (or frightened) by the changing world around them.  The story is not without tragedy as people died building both subways, not to mention a fair amount of corruption, but ultimately this is a triumphant story about the progress of humankind.

Recommended books722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood , A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo, Underneath New York by Harry Granick , Subway Style by New York Transit Museum, Change at Park Street Under: The story of Boston’s subways by Brian J. Cudahy, and Tremont Street Subway A Century of Public Service by Bradley H. Clarke.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Cousin K by Yasmina Khadra

Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Algeria
Author: Yasmina Khadra
Translator: Donald Nicholson-Smith and Alyson Waters
Title: Cousin K
Publication Info: Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780803234932
Summary/Review: Yasmina Khadra is the female pen name for the male Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul, which he adopted to avoid censorship of the Algerian army.  His real identity was only revealed when he moved to France in 2001.  This thin, stark novel tells the story of a boy in an Algerian village whose father is killed is a traitor, whose elder brother is often absent with the army, and whose mother is dismissive and neglectful of him.  The titular Cousin K is a girl who comes to visit for the summer who becomes the object of the boy’s affection, but she in turn is cruel and mocks him.  The novel creates a sympathetic portrait of a wounded boy which unravels as he’s grows up with shocking results.

Recommended booksThe Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Rating: ** 1/2

 

Book Review: Life Form by Amélie Nothomb

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Belgium
AuthorAmélie Nothomb
Translator: Alison Anderson
TitleLife Form
Publication Info: Europa Editions (2013)
ISBN: 9781609450885
Summary/Review:

Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan to Belgian parents, lives in Paris, and writes about the United States’ war in Iraq.  That’s the kind of worldliness I like for an Around the World for a Good Book selection.  Nothomb creates a fictional version of herself in this novel (how true-to-life, I do not know) in which she carries on a correspondence with an American soldier in Iraq, Melvin Mapple.  The soldier is aware that Nothomb (the fictional one, at least) responds to letters from her readers and that she may be a sympathetic voice.  Over the course of the letters, Mapple reveals that he and other soldiers react to the war through eating and enormous weight gain.  Mapple sees it as a means of protest, forcing the military to pay for food and increasingly larger clothing.  As the correspondence continues, the absurdity increases so that Mapple’s obesity is treated as an artistic statement.   Nothomb creates in herself an unsympathetic sounding board for the pathetic and grotesque Mapple.  The book works well both as a satire of American foreign policy and obesity problem, but also is a gripping read with a number of interesting twists.  On a literary level it works with the ideas of language and reality.

Recommended booksThe Night Listener by Armistead Maupin, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and Every Inch of Her by Peter Sheridan
Rating: ***1/2

World Cup of Reading

So, the FIFA World Cup ended over a month ago, but I still used this year’s tournament as inspiration to revive my ongoing Around the World for a Good Book project.  The basic gist is that I’m attempting to read a work of fiction (in English or English translation) from every country in the world.  So far I’ve been able to read literature from more fifty nations, but I’ve stalled out the past couple of years.

My goal for 2014 is to try to read a book for all 32 nations represented in this years World Cup.  Luckily, countries I’ve read abundantly – such as England and the United States – as well as other countries I’ve read for the project were represented in the tournament, so I will only have 12 books to read to complete the field.

Here are the books I’ve read, or plan to read, for the World Cup nations of 2014.  As always, I’m open to suggestions.

 

Book Review: Drinking Boston by Stephanie Schorow

Author:  Stephanie Schorow
Title Drinking Boston : a history of the city and its spirits
Publication Info: Wellesley, MA : Union Park Press, c2012.

Other books by same author: The Crime of the Century

Summary/Review:

It’s an interesting premise to study one city and it’s relationship to alcoholic beverages. Arranged roughly in chronological order, Schorow covers the following topics: Colonial taverns, saloons for immigrant communities, the role of bars in ward politics, several chapters on Prohibition, the golden age of night clubs (1930s-1950s), neighborhood bars, and the present day revival of the fancy cocktail.  Schorow takes particular interest in the Ward Eight, a cocktail invented in Boston with fascinating and contradictory stories of its origin, although most people admit it’s not a very good cocktail.  The book is filled with stories and anecdotes, but does not cohere as whole.  I enjoyed reading it but I can understand criticisms of other readers who did not feel engaged by the material.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Author: Allie Brosh
TitleHyperbole and a Half 
Publication Info: New York : Simon & Schuster, 2013.
ISBN: 9781451666175
Summary/Review:

The deliberately crudely-illustrated comics from Allie Brosh’s classic Hyperbole and a Half blog are collected here in book form.  Brosh’s writing and drawing based on her life is both hilarious and poignant.   Her works on depression and motivation (or lack thereof) are particularly brilliant, and make me feel that she gets me.  She also writes a lot about her dogs and their lack of intelligence and a particularly belly-guffawing story of her house invaded by a goose.  The colorful pictures also attracted my two-year-old  daughter who kept picking up that book whenever I wasn’t reading it.  This book should be read by one and all.

Recommended books: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Rating: ****

Book Review: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by Peter Gottschalk

Author: Peter Gottschalk
Title: American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance by
Publication Info: New York: Palgrave McMillan (2013)
ISBN: 9781137278296
Summary/Review:

I received a free early reviewers copy of this book via the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

As Americans, we proudly proclaim our religious tolerance and maintain that our country was built on religious freedom.  While many forms of religious expression have flourished in the United States, Gottschalk reminds of the many instances of religious intolerance in our country from earliest settlement to the present day.  The book is divided into seven chapters focusing on:

  1. Puritan persecution of Quakers in colonial Massachusetts
  2. The struggles of Irish Catholic immigrants in Protestant-dominated cities in the 19th century
  3. The Ghost Dance and the extermination of the Sioux
  4. 20th prejudice against Jews by the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, and immigration restrictions
  5. The Latter Day Saints struggle against violent opposition in the 19th century and how the political careers of George and Mitt Romney show a growing acceptance.
  6. The Branch Davidians and the vilifying of outsider groups as cults
  7. Islamophobia in the wake of the September 11th attacks

The book is short for all the topics it covers and Gottschalk really only touches upon these various topics.  The author can get oddly deep into some parts of the topics while being very broad at other times.  I also found it troubling how much he defends the Branch Davidians as a persecuted minority rather than recognizing that child rape and their vast military arsenal were a threat to the community at large.

It’s an interesting overview, and if you have a familiarity with American history there shouldn’t be too many surprises.  But if you think that religious groups have always been welcomed in the United States, you’ll want to read this book.
Recommended books: Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman and The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong
Rating: **1/2

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