Book Review: Revolution Song by Russell Shorto

Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Revolution Song
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Recorded Books: 2017

This history of the American Revolution is in fact the parallel biographies of six individuals whose lives came in contact with the war and the underlying ideologies of American independence.  I really like this approach to writing history because while it is unwieldy to attempt a comprehensive history of the American Revolution, by focusing on six individuals you get a better sense of how the war affected different kinds of people.  And as Short tells their entire life stories we get a lot of detail beyond just the 8 years of the war of their lives before and after the conflict.  Finally, we also get to see how these six historical figures dealt with the ideals and challenges of freedom.  I should add, and Shorto makes this explicitly clear, that these six individuals are not representatives of greater populations but simply their own American Revolution stories.

The six subjects of Revolution Song are:

  • George Washington – The most obvious figure of the story of the American Revolution, and yet Shorto is able to get beneath the “great general and first President” story to get an understanding of a many struggling to find his place in society and the opportunities that military leadership bring.
  • Venture Smith – Born in modern-day Ghana as Broteer Furro, Venture Smith was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, eventually living in servitude in Rhode Island, New York, and Connecticut.  Venture purchased his freedom and that of his wife and children and became a successful farmer in Connecticut. One of his son’s would serve in Washington’s army during the war. His A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America was one of the first published slave narratives.
  • George Germain – The only figure in the book who never set foot in the Americas is George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.  Having been court martialed during the Seven Years War, he was disgraced in aristocratic circles.  Nevertheless he was a favorite of King George III and was able to claw his way into politics and get appointed Secretary of State for the American Department. His aggressive approach to attempting to suppress the rebellion and lack of familiarity of the reality of the situation in the colonies is blamed for the British failure in the war.
  • Cornplanter – The chief warrior for the Seneca people who fought in both the French & Indian War and the Revolution allied with the British forces. He and his people suffered greatly when General Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to carry out a scorched earth campaign destroying Iroquois Six Nation villages throughout New York. After the war, Cornplanter protested against the Treaty of Paris ceding Iroquois land to the United States that had never been under control of Britain, and met with President Washington in person in 1790.
  • Abraham Yates – A revolutionary lawyer and politician from Albany, Yates took a more radical position on individual liberty and mistrust of government.  He became a rival to Alexander Hamilton and a staunch opponent of Federalism and the Constitution.
  • Margaret Moncrieffe – The only woman in this book, Margaret Moncrieffe was a child when the Revolution started living in New York as the daughter of a British officer.  Her father arranged her marriage to the cruel British Lieutenant John Coghlan although she was in love with Aaron Burr. After moving to Britain, she separated from her husband and found a measure of independence as the mistress of several prominent men in Britain and Europe.

I think the stories of Venture Smith, Cornplanter, and Margaret Moncrieff are the most interesting since they are the type of people that don’t appear in histories that focus on military and political leaders.  Nevertheless, the whole book reads very well and is an interesting addition to Revolutionary War historical studies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

Author: Bill Bryson
Title: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
Narrator: Kerry Shales
Publication Info: BBC Audio, 2005 [Originally published in 1989]
Previously Read By The Same Author:


Revisiting an old favorite of mine leads to wonder what I once saw in this book.  The Lost Continent is the first of the many travel books that Bryson wrote and the first one that I read way back in 1993.  I’ve included it on my Favorite Books of All Time lists but will have to reconsider that.  Bryson’s schtick is that he’s often cranky but in this book he’s just downright nasty and describes everyone he encounters as dumb.

Bryson (who may be a distant relation since I have Bryson’s in my family tree) grew up in Iowa, but as a young adult emigrated to England.  The premise of this book is his return to the United States and driving around the country to recreate the vacation travels of his childhood while looking for the amalgam of the American small town.  He finds that most towns have been eclipsed by strip malls and highways.  And he makes some good observations about why it is that some places can be made beautiful – Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Colonial Williamsburg – while the ordinary places are the drab and ugly right up to their edge.

I’ll have to review Bryson’s later books but I feel that he becomes less of a nasty misanthrope and more of a cuddly curmudgeon.  More importantly, he also begins to research the history of places he visits, interview local experts, and incorporate that into his travelogue.  At any rate, the last time I read this book was 2001, when I wrote a more positive review, so I will include that so you can see how my feelings have changed over time:

One of Bryson’s earliest travel books and maybe one of his best since at this point he’s writing from the perspective of an average person driving around America as opposed to the famous travel writer he’d later become. Bryson’s search for the perfect American small town is also very pointed in its satire and criticism. The view of an American expatriate has a special appeal to it.

Rating: **

Book Review: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Author: Casey McQuiston
Title: One Last Stop
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2021)

After a troubled childhood with an obsessive mother, August finds it difficult to connect with people.  Things begin to change when she moves to Brooklyn to attend college and is pushed out of her comfort zone by her eccentric housemates, Myla, Niko and Wes.  She also finds herself enraptured by a beautiful punk woman she meets on the Q train, Jane.  However, finding love and happiness is challenged by three strange things about Jane: 1. she can’t seem to leave the train, 2. she can’t remember her past, and 3. she hasn’t aged at all from a picture taken of her in 1976.

This book is great fun as it uses a unique time slip story mixed with a queer romance and a story of New York’s gentrification.  It’s particular interesting to read the contrasts of Jane’s experiences in the early LGBTQ+ liberation movements of the 1970s compared to the more accepting contemporary times.  There are a lot of subplots in this novel that get things a bit confused, and perhaps there’s just a bit too much “deep conversation,” but all is forgiven because I love the characters.  McQuiston does a great job of bringing to life a community of fun, creative, and really horny young adults in the city.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb

Author: Ben Goldfarb
Title: Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter
Narrator: Will Damron
Publication Info: Chelsea Green Publishing (2018)

Beavers are important!  That is the message that you will get repeatedly while reading this book, although author Ben Goldfarb does not skimp on providing detailed evidence behind his thesis.  What we learn from reading this book is that the beaver’s most identifiable trait, building dams on rivers and streams, has a profound effect on the landscape.  When beavers were hunted for their pelts in colonial times it lead to the loss of beaver-facilitated habitats for numerous fauna and flora.

Daming also helps in preserving groundwater and preventing flooding and runoff as some farmers and ranchers have learned where managed beaver populations have been reintroduced.  Unfortunately, the benefits on the macro level can be damaging on the micro level, causing local flooding and damage despite being better for the region overall.  This contributes to the beaver being seen as a nuisance animals and extermination policies of many local governments.  Goldfarb documents the efforts of ecologists and scientists to convince people to learn to live with beavers.

It’s a very interesting and fact-filled book and definitely gave me new respect for the beaver!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen J. Hornsby

Author: Stephen J. Hornsby
Title: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps
Publication Info: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, in association with the Library of Congress, 2017.
I’ve always loved those little maps you get for free at tourist destinations that have lots of little comical people doing touristy things on plan clearly not drawn to scale.  In fact, when I was a teenager I had two pictorial map posters, one of Greenwich, CT (the town next to my own where I attended high school) and one of Williamsburg, VA (where we went on lots of vacations before eventually moving there).  Stephen Hornsby breaks down the history of pictorial maps in this book which he says peaked in the United States from the 1920s to the 1960s.  Pictorial maps were used for education, for civic and industrial promotion campaigns, and to help people on the homefront keep up with the battles of World War II among other things.  Although this is a richly-illustrated coffee table book, my one complaint is that the images were often still too small to see the details.  Nevertheless this is a fun and interesting book about an esoteric topic of my interest.

Recommended Books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan

Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Ship of the Dead
Narrator: Michael Crouch
Publication Info: [New York, New York] : [Listening Library], [2017]

This is a terrific conclusion to the Magnus Chase and the Guards of Asgard trilogy.  Magnus Chase and his allies must stop Loki from bringing about Ragnarok.  To accomplish this, they sail on a banana-colored ship to various locales including the court of the ocean god Aegir, York, England, the frozen lands of Norway, and the palace of the winter goddess Skadi.

Magnus is once again joined by the Islamic Valkyrie  Samirah (who is fasting for Ramadan), the elf Hearthstone, the dwarf Blitz, and the genderfluid child of Loki, Alex Fiero.  In fact, Magnus takes a romantic interest in Alex which I think is wonderful for the children reading this, both children learning about their own gender expression as well as cisgender children who get to see a positive representation of a transgender character in a book.  Three more characters who had smaller roles in previous books join the team and play a bigger part in the finale: Thomas Jefferson Jr., a young Black soldier who died fighting in the American Civil War, Mallory Keen, who died attempting to defuse a bomb in Belfast during The Troubles, and a Norse mercenary berserker  Halfborn Gunderson.  Each member of the team ends up having a task that leads them to their final confrontation with Loki.  And Magnus draws upon their teamwork in his battle of words, or flyting, with Loki that serves as the novel’s terrific climax.

I highly recommend all three of these books to readers of any age.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan

Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Hammer of Thor
Narrator: Kieran Culkin
Publication Info: Listening Library (2016) 

I really enjoyed The Sword of Summer, Rick Riordan’s first installment of the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Series, and there is no sophomore slump in The Hammer of Thor. Magnus Chase is joined once again by the Valkyrie Samirah, the dwarf Blitzen and the elf Hearthstone.  The book also introduces a new character, a genderfluid teenager and child of Loki recently arrived to Valhalla as an einherji.  Together they are tasked with finding Thor’s missing hammer Mjolnir, while Loki attempts to trick and tempt them to his

Their adventures take them to Provincetown, Hearth’s unhappy home in Alfheim, a bowling alley for giants, and the bar from Cheers.  Like the predecessor the book is full of humorous mythological allusions, impossible predicaments, and a lot of Boston or Boston-ish locations.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

Author: Rick Riordan
Title: The Sword of Summer
Narrator: Christopher Guetig
Publication Info: Listening Library (2015)

Magnus Chase is a 16-year-old boy who’s lived on the streets of Boston for 2 years since his mother was killed in a supernatural attack.  He’s avoided his estranged Uncle Randolph, who lives in a Back Bay mansion opposite the Leif Erikson statue and is obsessed with Viking artifacts, but as the book begins Magnus is forced into contact with his uncle.  This unleashes a series of events where Boston is attacked by fire giants and Magnus dies in battle.  And that’s just the beginning.

Much like Rick Riordan’s books about Camp Half Blood where Greco-Roman myths are real and demigods are trained on Long Island, The Sword of Summer incorporates Norse myth.  In fact, the two series are in the same universe as Magnus is cousins with Annabeth Chase of the Camp Half Blood books!  We follow Magnus as he is brought to Valhalla, learns of his godly parentage, and goes rogue on a quest to prevent Ragnarok, or the apocalypse.  I think Riordan is even more clever in how he winds Norse myth into a young adult fantasy adventure, and most of all this book is funny as Helheim.

Magnus travels with a great team including the Muslim Valkyrie Samirah “Sam” al-Abbas from Dorchester, Blitzen, a dwarf with a great sense of fashion, and the deaf and magical elf Hearthstone.  I’m definitely biased, but I love how Boston is set as the “hub” of the Norse worlds and that many scenes are set in Boston, or in an alternate version of the city.  Although it should be noted that Eben Norton Horsford’s discredited theory of  Norse navigators sailing up the Charles River were rooted in the white supremacist belief that an Italian like Christopher Columbus was unworthy to be the person who “discovered” the Americas.

I think this is my favorite Riordan book yet, and I look forward to continuing the trilogy of Magnus’ adventures.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman 

Author: Rutger Bregman
Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Narrator: Thomas Judd
Publication Info: Little, Brown & Company (2020)

The thesis of Rutger Bregman’s book is that the vast majority of human beings the vast majority of the time have good intentions.  Not only that, but scientific research backs up this optimistic perception of human goodness.  Furthermore, trusting in the goodness of others is key to the health and success of individuals and societies.  It is the belief that humankind is inherently corrupt that is often manipulated to have people carry out evil. Accepting the “veneer theory” that human society is only a thin layer over the cruel and selfish human psyche is akin to the placebo effect, or in this case what Bregman calls the “nocebo” for its negative psychological effects.

Bregman breaks down what we “know” about human behavior by debunking a number of famed studies such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience tests and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as histories of the collapse of indigenous society on Easter Island and the popular story of neighbors indifference to the murder of Kitty Genovese.  After reading the truth behind these stories and how they were manipulated to make the worst possible reading, you might find yourself thinking humans are good but psychologists and journalists are evil.Bregman also contrasts the fictional Lord of the Flies with the real-life experience of Tongan boys who survived being stranded on a desert island for a year through cooperation.

After showing that many cases of humans descending to “savagery” actually had many instances of people wanting to help out, Bregman also explores experimental camps, schools and workplaces where children and adults are trusted to do the right thing with positive results.  Bregman builds on existing philosophy, often contrasting the views of humanity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes.  He also draws on evolutionary biology that shows that cooperation was necessary for human survival and the desire to help is hardwired into humanity.

This is just the kind of book I needed to read right now and it’s something I think everyone ought to read.

Favorite Passages:

Tine De Moor calls for”institutional diversity” – “while markets work best in some cases and state control is better in others, underpinning it all there has to be a strong communal foundation of citizens who decide to work together.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Women and the City by Sarah Deutsch

Author:  Sarah Deutsch
Title: Women and the city : gender, space, and power in Boston, 1870-1940
Publication Info: New York : Oxford University Press, 2000. 

This is a book I read to discuss with my coworkers in archival processing.  It is a broad history of women in Boston over a period of about 80 years and how they fit in the city’s urban landscape amid Boston’s notable class and ethnic segmentation.  Deutsch draws upon many primary sources, especially the records of the Boston Women’s Trade Union League and Dennison House, a settlement house in the South End. The book covers a broad variety of topics including women in the domestic space, women as workers and entrepreneurs, women’s social, political, and labor organizations, the suffrage movement, and women’s involvement in politics after gaining the vote.  I found the book worked best when Deutsch focused on individual women or organizations as case studies for her theses.  Unfortunately some parts of this book the author attempts to provide a wider view but it ends up being scattershot and confusing, jumping among people and organizations.  It still proves to be an interesting account of women in Boston over a few generations of profound change.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***