Book Review: Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey. Bolster


Author: W. Jeffrey. Bolster
Title: Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail
Publication Info: Harvard University Press (2009)
Summary/Review:

I read this book with my co-workers to see if we can better reflect the experience of Black sailors in the archival records of ships and merchant mariners.  It’s a broad overview of Black sailors in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. It traces the sailing traditions of Black Americans to their African roots.   In some cases, enslaved Black men served as sailors and ship’s pilots at the behest of their enslavers.  Free Black men found a greater level of freedom and equality in the maritime trades than in other areas of work available to them, although the practices of ship discipline were contradictorily some of the most restrictive to liberty. A great percentage of New England and New York Black men found work in the maritime trades in the 1800s although at the cost of separation of families and loss of community leadership.

There are numerous fascinating stories in this book about people I’d like to learn more about.  These include Richard “King Dick Crafus who lead the Black US Navy sailors held prisoner at Dartmoor during and after the War of 1812, and who remained a revered member of Boston’s Black community decades later.  Robert Smalls was a pilot who escaped from slavery in Charleston during the Civil War and turned a gunboat over to the Union Navy.  David Walker distributed the abolitionist tract “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” while working at a second-hand clothing shop near the wharves of Boston.  Honestly, these stories should be made into movies.


Favorite Passages:

“Whereas white seamen were among the most marginalized men in white society, black seamen found access to privileges, worldliness, and wealth denied to most slaves.” – p. 36

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

Book Review: Triangle The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle


Author: David Von Drehle
Title: Triangle:The Fire That Changed America
Narrator: Barrett Whitener
Publication Info: New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, [2003]
Summary/Review:

At closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York’s Greenwich Village.  146 people – mostly young women and girls – died as result of the fire, many of them jumping to their deaths because locked doorways prevented their exit.  The fire proved pivotal in leading to legislation for factory safety and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), a union that lives on today in UNITE HERE.

Von Drehle provides a thorough but concise history of the fire, with all the grim details, and the ensuing trial which failed to find the company owners guilty of manslaughter. There’s also a lot of background before the fire.  This includes the history of the factory owners, themselves immigrant strivers who rose to wealth and prominence.  The stories of many of the garment workers are also included, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy, who had survived pogroms in Poland and volcanic eruptions in Italy before seemingly finding stability in New York.  A massive strike lead by the ILGWU in 1909 is also covered in some detail.

If there’s any flaw in this book it is that it doesn’t quite live up to it’s subtitle “The Fire That Changed America.”  For the aftereffects of the fire, Von Drehle emphasizes the rise of progressive Tammany Hall politicians Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and how they brought about an urban liberalism that lead to the New Deal.  I wouldn’t say this is a stretch but I think it’s a more high-level approach to history than it would be to detail what women and immigrant communities did in response to the fire.  Nevertheless, I did find the book to be very interesting and informative.  The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory still stands and I paid my respects to the workers killed in the fire on a visit to New York in 2007.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore


Author: Jill Lepore
Title: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2021) [Originally published in 1998]
Summary/Review:

Jill Lepore explores the history of King Philip’s War, fought in New England from 1675 to 1678 between an alliance of several Algonquian-speaking indigenous tribes under the leadership of Wampanoag Chief Metacomet, a.k.a. King Philip, and the English of the New England colonies and their Mohegan, Pequot, and Mohawk allies.  The war is poorly defined in American history with even the name controversial.  Was Philip a King? Was his name even Philip? Was it really a war or an exchange of atrocities?

Lepore investigates how the war changed the way the English colonists identified themselves.  She also examines the historical resources to find the Native perspective on the war that’s not often directly recorded in Western literature. A large part of the book focuses on the captivity narratives that became one of the major forms of literature that arose from the war.   She also details the lasting legacy of the war, particularly how Metacomet became a romanticized figure in American drama in the mid-1800s at the same time that Andrew Jackson is forcibly removing the Cherokee from the Southeastern states.

It is a very interesting historical account of a significant but forgotten war and a historiology of the study of war itself.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forrest


Author: Katherine V. Forrest
Title: Curious Wine
Narrator: Jane Merrow
Publication Info:  Allure Audio (2009) [originally published in 1983]
Summary/Review:

Someday I need to start keeping track of where I find out about the books I put on my reading list, because this is definitely not the typical book for me to read.  Which is a good thing, so thank you random person who recommended it to me.

Curious Wine is the story of a women’s retreat at a cabin at a Lake Tahoe ski resort, and through encounter games and various intimate conversations share a lot about themselves.  Two of the women, Diane and Lane, form a bond that leads to a sexual relationship.  The problem is that up to that point they had considered themselves straight and have a lot of things to navigate in order to continue the relationship.

This was one of the first mainstream romance novels about a lesbian relationship by a lesbian author.  The novel goes to great lengths to add “respectability” to the relationship by having two white, professional women who’ve previously had relationships with men as the protagonists who then put a lot of effort into making sure no one can consider their love “just a phase.”  This was certainly necessary in the early 1980s but feels awkward now.  Nevertheless it is a sweet and honest story with well-developed characters.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2021

Other Books Read By The Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Lesser Evil completes the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy of books that deal with our favorite Chiss military tactician’s early career. Thrawn must defend the Chiss Ascendency from dangerous outside threats as well as civil war breaking out among the ruling families. Jixtus, an agent of a mysterious people called the Grysk Hegemony, was behind the attacks on the Chiss described in the earlier books, but now is ready to face Thrawn in battle.  Thrawn must ally with an alien race and work against his own military, political, and family leaders to find a way to defend the Ascendancy against the more powerful Grysky warships.

The great thing about Zahn’s books is that they long ago stopped being about just Thrawn.  There are a rich collection of characters her including Thrawn’s mentor General Ar’alani, ship captain Samakro (who Marc Thompson voices to sound like Jack Nicholson), the young “sky-walker” or ship’s navigator Che’ri and her caregiver Thalias (both of whom have Force sensitivity which is key to the plot), an alien navigator-for-hire named Qilori (drink everytime that Qilore’s winglets twitch!), and in flashbacks, Thrawn’s friend Thrass who has the political acumen that Thrawn lacks.  I confess that I lose track of the many characters and plots, but nevertheless I do find it incredibly engaging to read.  And the book ends perfectly setting up the events at the beginning of Thrawn.

Rating: ****

 

Book Review: The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion by Jeff Baham


Author: Jeff Baham
Title: The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion
Publication Info: Theme Park Press (2016)
Summary/Review:

Like it says on the tin, this is a history of the legendary Disney Parks attraction, the Haunted Mansion.  The story of its is one of competing ideas among the imagineers – some wanted it to be scary, some wanted it to be funny, and Walt mainly wanted it to be clean and well-maintained.  The attraction opened after over a decade of planning and work, and despite – or perhaps because of – the lack of unity on what it should be, it became an instant classic.  The book also carries us through on a virtual ride on a Doom Buggy exploring the different details and modifications made over the years.  Would you believe they once had a live human performed in knight’s armor swinging a sword at passing guests?  This is a fun and in-depth book about the Haunted Mansion and what makes it brilliant.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald


Author: Lisa Grunwald 
Title: Time After Time
Narrator: Erin Bennett
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This charming historical romance takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.  The adventurous 23-year-old flapper girl Nora and a hardworking railroad employee, Joe, who is a decade her senior, meet at Grand Central in 1937 and fall in love.  The only problem is that Nora is dead.  Killed in a subway crash in 1925, Nora returns every year on the anniversary of her death to Grand Central.  With Joe’s help, Nora learns that she can maintain her bodily form only if she stays within 900 feet of the terminal.

Thus begins a strange romance, where the couple try to make a normal life, taking advantage all of the things a mid-century railroad terminal provides.  This includes the Biltmore Hotel, where the couple lives in hotel rooms, work for Nora, and even an education for Nora at the Grand Central Academy of Art!  There are problems, of courses, mainly that Joe can never bring Nora to Queens to visit his family and that Nora remains forever young while Joe continues to age.  It’s a clever and sweet narrative and it has a twist ending that I enjoyed.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen


Author: James W. Loewen
Title: Lies My Teacher Told Me
Narrator: L.J. Ganser
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2019 [Originally published in 1994]
Other Books Read by the Same Author: Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
Summary/Review:

This book is an expose on why high school students hate history and why Americans in general are ignorant of the historical facts of the United States.  With the teaching of American history once again being challenged as “woke” and more ridiculously as “critical race theory” I thought it was a good time to revisit this book.  Despite the title, this book is not an attack on teachers but on history textbooks which Lowen describes in detail as containing many inaccuracies and irrelevant details, as well as a boring writing style.

I have to note that when I was in middle school and high school, far from being bored, I was obsessed with history.  I was privileged to have teachers who somehow dodged many of the pitfalls of American history teaching as well as the proclivity to learn a lot on my own through reading, watching documentaries, and visiting historic sites. I read the first edition way back when it came out in the mid 90s and remember it being mostly debunking the false histories propagated in several prominent history textbooks.  On this reading I found it was less about debunking and more about why history isn’t taught in a way that allows for critical thinking.

The original edition evaluated a dozen textbooks, while the 2004 second edition revisited some of those books as well as 6 new textbooks.  This third and final edition was identical to the third edition but with a new introduction that pretty much noted that little progress had been made.  The problem with history teaching isn’t simple as one might imagine, and while fingers can be pointed at right wing politicians and parents for objecting to teaching warts and all history, they are just part of many complex and overlapping hindrances.  From publishers who appeal to the lowest denominator to sell the most books to the authors whose names are on the cover having little to nothing to do with the books (and the ghost writers who do write the book having very little knowledge of the history), there’s plenty of blame to go around.

As someone who loves history and thinks that kids should love studying as much as I did and gain the sense of perspective that critical thinking of history provides, I find this is an important book and highly recommend reading it.

Favorite Passages:

When confronting a claim about the distant past or a statement about what happened yesterday, students—indeed, all Americans—need to develop informed skepticism, not nihilistic cynicism.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: The Pearl Thief
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Los Angeles : Hyperion, 2017.
Summary/Review:

Part of the cycle of loosely-tied together novels about women during World War II, The Pearl Thief acts as a prequel to Code Name Verity.  The novel’s protagonist is Julie Beaufort-Stuart, the Scottish aristocrat who is one of the two main characters of the earlier novel, and is set one year prior to the war when she is just 15.  She returns home her family estate from boarding school to find herself embroiled in a mystery regarding the disappearance of a scholar working with artifacts recovered from their property.

Julie is a great character, impulsive and bold that make her stand out among the staid expectations of her time and class.  Much of the novel explores her new friendship with the siblings Ellen and Euan McEwen, who are members of Highland Travellers’ community that camp nearby.  The trio get into many adventures, and they encounter much prejudice against the Travelers (which Julie attempts to shield with her privilege). The book also explores Julie’s romantic attraction to Ellen and to an older man named Richard revealing her burgeoning sexuality (and hooray for bisexual representation!).

This is the first book by Elizabeth Wein that I don’t love, but it is a great character study even if I found the narrative to be a bit slight.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Pirates of the Carribean by Jason Surrell


Author: Jason Surrell
Title: Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies
Publication Info: Disney Editions (2005)
Summary/Review:

Pirates of the Caribbean is one of my all-time favorite Disney attractions so it was a lot of fun to get a behind the scenes perspective on the history of the ride.  Surrell, who was a Disney imagineer at the time of writing, digs into how the original Pirates came to be at Disneyland in the 1960s (one of the final projects with Walt’s direct involvement although he died a few months before it opened).  Then he explores how the ride was adapted and changed for Florida, Tokyo, and Paris.  The book also does a great runthrough of the ride experience in each location, with quotes from Imagineers who helped design them.  Finally, the book concludes with a surprisingly interesting story behind the making of the first movie adaptation Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. This coffee table sized book is lavishly illustrated with everything from artistic sketches to models to photos of the ride in operation.

Recommended books:

 

Rating: ****