Book Review: Empire of Shadows by George Black


Author: George Black
Title: Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story Of Yellowstone
Narrator: Jack de Golia
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc, 2019 [originally published in 2012]
Summary/Review:

I’m planning to visit Yellowstone National Park for the first time this summer, so I was excited to read this history.  I failed to read the small print, though, since it turns out this book is the history of Yellowstone over the six decades from the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Congressional establishment of the first national park in 1872. It is primarily a military history of the conflicts between Native peoples and the U.S. armed forces sent to defend the interests of white American explorers, exploiters, and settlers.  Part of me rolls my eyes at another history that focuses entirely on military actions, while another part feels shamed that I wish to avoid the bloody background of a place special to all Americans.

Key figures in this history include Jim Bridger, a trapper known for his tall tales, although later many of his descriptions of Yellowstone’s natural wonders would be proved true.  William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, known for their adoption of total war tactics in the Civil War, are key military leaders in the effort to “tame” the West.  The first thorough expedition to explore the future park by the United States was lead by Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane, and the exploits of his team make up much of the latter part of the book.

The message of the book is clear in that creating a National Park preserved a unique ecosystem, but it only happened after extermination of the buffalo and removal of the Native tribes.  The buffalo have been reintroduced to the park, but the legacy of the Native people is still hidden.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt


AuthorNathalia Holt
Title: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
Narrator: Erin Bennett
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This book tells the story of several women who worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasedena, California in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Their work was instrumental in creating missiles for military use and rockets that lifted their payloads into space.  They were particularly key in working on Ranger and Surveyor missions to the Moon that prepared the way for Apollo, the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury, and the Voyager program missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Holt interviewed several women who worked at the JPL to get their perspectives on this age of discovery.

Many of the women got their start as “computers,” who were JPL employees who performed mathematical computations (a usage of the term that’s been made familiar by the book and movie Hidden Figures).  Working as a computer provided an opportunity for women who studied mathematics to use their skills.  While it was a support position to the (predominantly male) engineers, the position was highly-regarded within JPL and well paid.  The group of women working together, with women supervisors, also felt that they had a close-knit family at JPL.  Not everything was positive as the group of women felt that they had to look out for one another at office parties when men were on the prowl. Woman employees were also fired when they got pregnant.

Holt does a great job of telling these women’s stories from their roles in furthering interplanetary exploration to their everyday lives of marriages, raising children, and even oddities like a JPL beauty contest. As Holt notes, it was the progressive hiring practices at JPL that made it possible to have enough women to even to something as seemingly outdated as a beauty contest.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Shearwater: A Mermaid Romance by D.S. Murphy


Author: D.S. Murphy
Title: Shearwater: A Mermaid Romance
Publication Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2017)
Summary/Review:

“Mermaids are real?” Patricia asked finally, looking stunned. “Like really real?” Ethan nodded solemnly.

“And they want to kill us all.”

The passage above is an actual quote from this teen paranormal romance set in a seaside village in Northern Ireland. It succinctly captures the flaws of this mermaid fantasy novel that has an excellent premise but the author doesn’t have the writing skill to make it pay off.  Clara is an American teenager whose parents die in a car crash. She learns that her mother actually was from Ireland and fled as a teenager.  Clara’s only living relative is a grandfather she never knew existed, Aedan, and she is sent to live with him in the seaside village of Portballintrae.

As Clara grieves her parents and adjusts to her new life in Ireland, she meets a handsome but mysterious boy, Sebastian.  It’s revealed that Sebastian comes from the mer-folk – the merrow – and that Clara is part merrow as well.  Clara also forms a friendship with Ethan, who is from an ancient group of families who are sworn enemies of the merrow and use merrow blood to perform magic.  Soon a plot by the merrow to kill all of humanity emerges.

Murphy does a good job of taking elements of Irish folklore and bringing them into a contemporary setting.  The big problem is that he is overly reliant on introducing big revelations and plot twists.  As they revelations multiply they must of course become bigger and soon just more ridiculous.  I think Murphy would’ve have done better to hold of on making revelations and built up the mystery and atmosphere of the novel.  A well-told story with smaller stakes (nevertheless of great importance to the characters) would’ve been far more interesting than this sprawling tale of a global threat.

Recommended books:

  • Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King


Author: Stephen King
Cover of the book 11/22/63.Title: 11/22/63
Narrator: Craig Wasson
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

Stephen King’s time travel adventure focuses on Jake Epping, a recently divorced high school English teacher in Maine, who is drawn into a plan to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His friend Al, owner and cook at a greasy spoon diner, discovered a “rabbit hole” to 1958 and has been using it to try to prevent Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, but he comes down with a fatal cancer and is unable to complete the mission.  So he returns to 2011 and recruits Jake to take over.  Al’s hope is that if Kennedy lives that it will have the knock-on effect of preventing the escalation of the War in Vietnam.

Jake decides that to test the effects of changing history, he will rescue the family of high school janitor and his G.E.D. student, Harry Dunning. On Halloween 1958, Harry’s alcoholic father murdered his mother and siblings and left him with permanent brain damage and a limp. A good portion of the early part of the book takes place in Maine in 1958 as Jake adjusts to living in the past and trying to prevent the Dunning murders.

Later, Jake moves on to Texas and settles in the fictional Dallas suburb of Jodie. With years to go before the Kennedy assassination (or even Lee Harvey Oswald’s return to the United States from the Soviet Union), Jake becomes a substitute high school teacher and director of the school’s theater productions.  He meets and falls in love with the school’s new librarian, Sadie Dunhill and becomes a beloved member of the town community.

I really enjoy the parts in Maine and Jodie as it focuses on the small details of everyday life in the past and Jake’s efforts to fit in.  King does not glamorize the past but demonstrates its strengths and weaknesses.  On Jake’s visit, for instance, he observes that the past smells terrible (because of the mills in Maine) but tastes great (real root beer at a diner).  The mundanity of everyday life becomes a fascinating world to explore for the person from the future. King also builds tension with examples of the “obdurate past” throwing up obstacles to Jake’s efforts to change it and the many coincidences which Jake refers to as “the past harmonizes.”

Unfortunately, when Jake finally focuses on the Kennedy assassination, the narrative becomes less interesting to me.  Especially dreadful are the seemingly endless passages of Jake listening to Oswald’s everyday conversations through an audio surveillance.  King runs up against the challenge that faces all writers of time travel fiction: you can change major events in history in fiction, but they remain the same in real life. And so they have to find some way to justify leaving the past unchanged.

Back to the Future seems to be the only time travel story to ever consider that changing the past would make the future better.  King rather obviously makes the future where Kennedy survives a (ridiculously) worse place.  This is an unsatisfying payoff after a lengthy book.  It’s still worth reading though, as again, at least the first two thirds of the book are very engagingly written.  And the characters of Jake, Sadies, Harry, and others are sympathetic enough that my interest in seeing how they turn out carried me through the final act.  I also highly recommend Craig Wasson’s audiobook narration because he is able to perform believable accents for both Mainers and Texans.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben


Author: Peter Wohlleben Cover of The Hidden Life of Trees
Title: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries From A Secret World
Translator: Jane Billinghurst
Publication Info: Greystone Books, 2015
Summary/Review:

Peter Wohlleben, a forester from Germany, writes a series of essays about trees – how they communicate, how they feel, how they handle the stress.  If you’ve never thought that trees can do these things, you’re in for a treat.  Fungal networks in the roots allow individual trees to communicate with other trees in the forests.  In fact, trees can even scream.  They have to deal with the strains of storms breaking their limbs, animals chipping away their bark, and fungi invading their interior. If you like trees, or even just enjoy a nice walk in the wood, this book is a great guide to the hidden world of what is going on around you.

Favorite Passages:

“most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.”

“They love nutrient-rich, loose, crumbly soil that is well aerated to a depth of many feet. The ground should be nice and moist, especially in summer. But it shouldn’t get too hot, and in winter, it shouldn’t freeze too much. Snowfall should be moderate but sufficient that when the snow melts, it gives the soil a good soaking. Fall storms should be moderated by sheltering hills or mountain ridges, and the forest shouldn’t harbor too many fungi or insects that attack bark or wood. If trees could dream of an earthly paradise, this is what it would look like. But apart from a few small pockets, these ideal conditions are nowhere to be found. And that is a good thing for species diversity.”

“Today’s deposits of these fossil fuels come from trees that died about 300 million years ago. They looked a bit different—more like 100-foot-tall ferns or horsetail—but with trunk diameters of about 6 feet, they rivaled today’s species in size. Most trees grew in swamps, and when they died of old age, their trunks splashed down into stagnant water, where they hardly rotted at all. Over the course of thousands of years, they turned into thick layers of peat that were then overlain with rocky debris, and pressure gradually turned the peat to coal. Thus, large conventional power plants today are burning fossil forests. Wouldn’t it be beautiful and meaningful if we allowed our trees to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors by giving them the opportunity to recapture at least some of the carbon dioxide released by power plants and store it in the ground once again?”

“Wood fibers conduct sound particularly well, which is why they are used to make musical instruments such as violins and guitars. You can do a simple experiment to test for yourself how well these acoustics work. Put your ear up against the narrow end of a long trunk lying on the forest floor and ask another person at the thicker end to carefully make a small knocking or scratching sound with a pebble. On a still day, you can hear the sound through the trunk incredibly clearly, even if you lift your head. Birds use this property of wood as an alarm system for their nesting cavities.”

“Every trunk is different. Each has its own pattern of woody fibers, a testament to its unique history. This means that, after the first gust—which bends all the trees in the same direction at the same time—each tree springs back at a different speed. And usually it is the subsequent gusts that do a tree in, because they catch the tree while it’s still severely bowed and bend it over again, even farther this time. But in an intact forest, every tree gets help. As the crowns swing back up, they hit each other, because each of them is straightening up at its own pace. While some are still moving backwards, others are already swinging forward again. The result is a gentle impact, which slows both trees down. By the time the next gust of wind comes along, the trees have almost stopped moving altogether and the struggle begins all over again.”

“Chlorophyll helps leaves process light. If trees processed light super-efficiently, there would be hardly any left over—and the forest would then look as dark during the day as it does at night. Chlorophyll, however, has one disadvantage. It has a so-called green gap, and because it cannot use this part of the color spectrum, it has to reflect it back unused. This weak spot means that we can see this photosynthetic leftover, and that’s why almost all plants look deep green to us. What we are really seeing is waste light, the rejected part that trees cannot use. Beautiful for us; useless for the trees. Nature that we find pleasing because it reflects trash?”

“I, for one, welcome breaking down the moral barriers between animals and plants. When the capabilities of vegetative beings become known, and their emotional lives and needs are recognized, then the way we treat plants will gradually change, as well. Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: The Bluest Eye
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007 [originally published in 1970]
Summary/Review:

I first encountered Toni Morrison in college where I read her novels for three or four different courses (including a senior seminar focusing entirely on Zora Neal Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison) and she quickly became one of my of favorite authors.  I first read The Bluest Eye in the summertime, not for a course, and found it a most emotionally devastating novel.  I’m not alone if feeling strong emotions about The Bluest Eye.  A friend in college said after she read the description of Pecola’s rape, told sympathetically from her father’s point of view,  that she threw the book across the room.

Pecola is young Black girl in Lorain, Ohio in 1941 from a poor and unstable family.  Her father Cholly Breedlove is an alcoholic while her mother Pauline is distant and more invested in the cleanliness and order of the rich white family where she works as a housekeeper than her own family.  Pecola is dark-skinned and even among the African American community she is considered “ugly” and is mocked and shunned.  Pecola in turn idealizes whiteness and dreams of getting blue eyes.

When we first meet Pecola she is staying with a foster family because Cholly burned their house down.  The MacTeer family, working class but stable, offer a contrast the Breedloves. They have two daughters around the same age as Pecola, Claudia and Freida.  The youngest of the girls, Claudia, is a narrator for parts of the novel (alternating with a third-person omniscient narrator) and offers a child’s perspective on many unsettling incidents.  Claudia is also the only person to show any compassion to Pecola.

The Bluest Eye is not an easy book to read, although it is an important book because it deals with real problems. The cruelty of people and the deep scars of racism that lead to internalized hatred are too prevalent to ignore.  The audiobook is especially powerful read by Toni Morrison herself.  She makes the excerpts from Dick & Jane stories at the start of each chapter sound chilling.

Favorite Passages:

“So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die.”

Rating: ****

Book Review: When the Irish Invaded Canada by Christopher Klein


Author: Christopher Klein
Title: When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom
Publication Info: Doubleday (2019)
Summary/Review:

Several years back I first heard about how Irish revolutionaries attempted to invade Canada from the United States and thought to myself “That would make a good movie!”  But I never knew the details until I read this history book.

The invasions, known as the Fenian Raids, occurred from 1866 to 1871 with attempts by Irish Republicans to cross the border from Maine to New Brunswick, Vermont and northern New York to Quebec, Buffalo to Ontario, and the Dakota Territory into Manitoba.  The purpose of these raids was to capture territory of the United Kingdom in hopes of drawing supporters to the cause and perhaps even exchanging Canada for Ireland’s independence.

Klein sets the stage for the Fenian Raids by establishing the 19th-century perspective that Americans had on borders.  The practice of filibustering, private military expeditions across borders, was well known at the time, especially with Mexico.  The United States and Canada also had many border conflicts and Manifest Destiny looked north as well as west, with many Americans assuming that all or parts of Canada would one day become the United States.  Finally, there was resentment against Great Britain for tacitly supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War which made it possible that some people within government might turn a blind eye to incursions across the Canadian border.

Ireland had suffered the potato blight and Great Hunger of the 1840s and 1850s which caused the death of over a million and the emigration of at least a million more.  The survivors within Ireland used the cavalier indifference of the British to their starvation as impetus to revive the fight for independence.  The Young Ireland movement of the 1840s was succeeded by the secret society of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  With so many Irish immigrants in the United States, it became a place where Irish Republicans could raise money and organize freely.  The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in New York City in 1858 where they established headquarters and a government-in-exile.

Or I should say, two headquarters, because much like Irish Republican movements throughout history, the Fenian Brotherhood was divided by infighting.  One of the contentious issues was whether to invade Canada or to focus solely and supporting an uprising in Ireland.  Klein notes that both Fenian branches would succumb to popular pressure and support raids in to Canada at different times.

Irish-born soldiers made up a large proportion of the men who fought on the front lines on both sides of the Civil War.  Some of them specifically enlisted in order to gain the military experience they could then use to fight for Ireland’s liberation, and in the early raids, the officers and troops were predominately Civil War veterans.  The Irish invaders had success early on at the Battle of Ridgeway, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, on June 2, 1866 where they defeated reservists and militias from Toronto and Hamilton.  This proved to be the only victory in the cause for Irish independence in-between  the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919.

The raids more typically were a comedy of errors. The Fenian Brotherhood faced as much trouble with the United States government enforcing the Neutrality Act as they did with British and Canadian military forces.  But hubris and lack of organization were their biggest obstacles.  Again and again, the Fenians gathered together a small band to strike into Canada with the optimistic belief that once they start fighting people would flock to their cause, and they’d even gain support from French Canadians and the American government.  On one of the last raids with the supposed goal of linking up with the Métis in Manitoba, the Fenians not only failed to make any allies but they also didn’t even manage to cross the border.

One of the great ironies is that Fenian Raids did help bring independence to a country, but not for Ireland.  There was division among the provinces of Canada before the raids, but the fear of invasion lead many people to support Canadian Confederation in 1867. The Fenian Raids also played their part in the longer struggle for Irish independence, especially the key role of Irish Americans as fundraisers and organizers which persists to this day. Klein’s book takes an historical curiosity and fleshes out a story of a campaign that consumed decades of the lives of many Irish Republicans. He demonstrates how invading Canada seemed a plausible and compelling idea as well as showing why it ultimately failed.  And yes, this would still make a great movie.

Favorite Passages:

The Canadian plan offered several scenarios that could result in Ireland’s independence. An attack could divert British army troops from Ireland, increasing the chances of a successful IRB uprising. It could perhaps even trigger a war between Great Britain and the United States, which had cast its land-hungry eyes northward after having expanded west and south in the prior three decades. Under another scenario, the Fenians could seize Canada and trade the colony back to the British in return for Ireland. In essence, a geopolitical kidnapping of Canada, with its ransom being Ireland’s independence. Even the plan’s proponents understood that the chances of success weren’t in their favor. But the odds would be against the Irish no matter what they did. A slim chance is all Ireland ever faced when challenging the British over the past seven centuries. The likelihood of failure might have been high, but it was guaranteed if they did nothing at all.

Recommended books:

  • The Great Dan: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell by Charles Chenevix Trench
  • The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan
  • The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace by Tim Pat Coogan
  • Biting At the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair by Padraig O’Malley

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King


Author: Stephen King
TitleThe Shining
Narrator: Campbell Scott
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012) [originally published in 1977]
Other books read by the same author:

  • The Bachman Books
  • “The Body”
  • The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
  • Pet Sematary
  • The Eyes of the Dragon
  • Skeleton Crew
  • The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three
  • Misery
  • The Dark Half
  • Four Past Midnight
  • The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands
  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
  • Faithful
  • “Guns”

Summary/Review:

Having finally gotten around to watching the movie, The Shining, last fall, and finding it didn’t live up to the reputation, I really wanted to read the book it’s based on.  After all, Stephen King dislikes Stanley Kubric’s adaptation of his book, so perhaps I’d like the book better.  I’ll have to say that as an adaptation, the movie doesn’t stray too far from the source material.  There are obviously a lot of details that the movie leaves out, as is vital in filmmaking, and Kubric did the same thing he did with 2001, where he makes ambiguous some things that are explicit in the book.

What movies cannot do well is to express the interiority of the characters, and this is an aspect of the book I liked the best.  King is especially good at getting into the minds of Danny and Jack, but doesn’t do it as much with Halloran and Wendy.

Jack is more of a normal person at the beginning of the book – an alcoholic with anger issues, yes – but not the half-crazed character that Jack Nicholson plays.  Wendy is less of a dishrag and much more resourceful, and she even uses Danny’s shining abilities to help plan their escape.  Danny is the best part of the book as King does a great job of portraying a child dealing with things that someone much older would struggle to handle.  The book works well as straight-up horror but also symbolic of the destructive power of toxic masculinity.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: Rose Under Fire
Publication Info: New York : Hyperion, [2013]
Summary/Review:

This World War II novel is in the same universe as Wein’s excellent Code Name Verity.  Maddie from Code Name Verity is a minor character in Rose Under Fire, and the incidents of that novel are alluded to.  The protagonist of Rose Under Fire is Rose Justice, an American pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary responsible for ferrying aircraft among Allied airbases.  The book is written as her journal with some letters and poems.

Initially the book is about her quotidian concerns regarding flying, the War, friendships, and men. After the liberation of Paris, she flies to France (and buzzes the Eiffel Tower). Return a plane to England, she sees a V-1 flying bomb and attempts to divert it with the wingtips of her plane. Flying off course, Rose is intercepted by German jets and forced to land behind enemy lines.  She is sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp exclusively for women.

While this is a young adult book, it does not shy away from describing the full extent of violence and deprivation the Nazis carried out in Ravensbrück.  It is challenging for children, and adults, to read but I also think it is beneficial.  Rose is able to find hope and survive through the family she makes with the other women at the camp.  These include Polish political prisoners known as the Rabbits because they were forced to endure Nazi medical experiments.  Rose also bonds with Russian military pilots known as the Night Witches.

The story is heartbreaking and devastating, but also hopeful.  I also appreciate that after Rose escapes from Germany, the novel still shows her dealing with her ongoing trauma. Like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is an excellent novel the deals with the horrors of World War II and the bravery of the women who participated in it.

Favorite Passages:

Hope—you think of hope as a bright thing, a strong thing, sustaining. But it’s not. It’s the opposite. It’s simply this: lumps of stale bread stuck down your shirt. Stale gray bread eked out with ground fish bones, which you won’t eat because you’re going to give it away, and maybe you’ll get a message through to your friend. That’s all you need.

Hope is the most treacherous thing in the world. It lifts you and lets you plummet. But as long as you’re being lifted, you don’t worry about plummeting.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King


Author: Maxwell King
Title: The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
Narrator: LeVar Burton
Publication Info: Oasis Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

I know a bit about the life of Fred Rogers from watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor and reading articles about him.  But I couldn’t resist listening to the first book-length biography of Mr. Rogers narrated by another PBS hero, LeVar Burton.  King does a good job of getting a clear picture of Rogers’ background, starting from childhood.

His family was wealthy, which allowed Rogers the opportunities to try his new ideas, but his parents’ philanthropy and noblesse oblige also contributed to his humility and simple lifestyle.  Rogers was also affected by instances of childhood bullying and the sense that he could find support in the neighborhood of his hometown of Latrobe, PA.

As a young man, Rogers learned television production and studied for the ministry, with the unorthodox plan of putting both callings toward educating children.  The big question of this book is whether the Mister Rogers we see on tv represents the real person, with the unanimous response of “yes” from people who know him.  So this book won’t expose any “dark secrets” but it is a very good glimpse into how a wonderful man formed his philosophy for teaching children.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****