Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Only Woman in the Room by Beate Sirota Gordon


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a memoir written by a woman (Beate Sirota as she then was) who, through her extensive knowledge of Japan, having grown up there despite being born in Austria, and because she spoke several languages, including English, German, and Japanese, was part of the American delegation which went to Japan after World War Two, and helped draft the constitution, in her case, specifically a section on women's rights (which was largely gutted by the old white men unfortunately) before the final draft was presented to the Japanese so everyone could pretend the Japanese came up with this instead of the Americans.

The story is short and to the point, which I appreciated, but it contains enough detail to paint a vivid picture. It tells of her growing up on Japan, of her time in the USA during the war, working on translating intercepted Japanese military messages, of bigotry, bias, and racism, and of her return to Japan, not knowing if her parents, who were there during the war, were even still alive. Happily they were (and not even interned!), and the story of her involvement in post war planning and then moving back to the USA where she became heavily involved in trying to encourage cultural exchanges between the USA and Asian countries, was both moving and educational, as well as entertaining.

The author writes well and gives the right details without getting bogged-down in material that contributed nothing to both enjoying and learning from the story. I'm not a big fan of memoirs, but i commend this as a worthy read.


Saturday, June 1, 2019

Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell


Rating: WORTHY!

This is something of a Cinderella story and it was also another of those audiobooks I seem to have been listening to lately which gets off to a great start, falls flat in the middle, but picks up again towards the end, so overall I consider it a worthy listen, but it had an issue or two here and there along the way. It was read by Bianca Amato who did a good job.

Wilhelmina Silver has had an amazing childhood in Zimbabwe, despite losing her mother at an early age. Her father was still around and she was allowed to run wild, learning all she needed to from her daily adventures and from the extensive library her father had in their ranch. But when he dies unexpectedly and his nurse movies in on the family and starts taking over, Wil suddenly finds herself on the outs and is eventually and summarily packed-off alone to an English boarding school while her home is sold.

To Wil, the people in her school are as cold as the weather and her spirits as dampened as the climate. Wil runs away from school and lives on her own on the streets (and in a zoo!) for a while before finally returning to the school and finding a place there. The novel tells a good and interesting story when it finds its pace, but there are times when it rather drags and you're wanting something to happen which doesn't. I'm not a big fan of school bully and cruelty stories, so I disliked that part. It wasn't so bad, but it was a bit overdone and too black and white for my taste. I found it hard to believe that girls of breeding who attended this school would have been so relentlessly, uniformly, and openly cruel as depicted here. It didn't seem realistic to me.

The worst part about this story is that Wil is presented in the early chapters as fearless, feisty, and indomitable, but in England she seems completely the opposite. Yes, she has some grit and some inventiveness, but she seems like a different character from the one we'd been introduced to earlier, and while I get that being torn from a comfortable and happy home and dropped unkindly into a new life for which they're completely unprepared can knock the stuffing out of a person, it felt a bit like a betrayal of Wil that she was so consistently and so interminably presented as weak and lost. It felt wrong and inauthentic, and did the character a disservice.

That said, she took charge and bounced back and that's where the story improved for me, so while it has its faults, it's not too bad of a story for an age-appropriate audience.


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

David Bowie by Isabel Sanchez Vegara, Ana Albero


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Erratum:
“This made his eyes look like were different colors” should read look like they were different colors!

I've been following this series quite closely and enjoyed very nearly all of the books I've read in it so far. This is another one to add to the list of successes. David Bowie's career in playing music either as an amateur band member at fifteen or as a legend right before he died in 2016 at the age of 69, spanned over half a century. He constantly reinvented himself and in this spate of musical biopics (including the phenomenal Bohemian Rhapsody and then Rocketman, and the documentary on the Beatles by director Peter Jackson) which seem to be flourishing lately, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see one crop-up about him.

He's been in and out of musical success since he debuted The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in the early seventies, and resurged with Ashes to Ashes and Let's Dance in the early eighties, and in between he had a minor film career. He was also a controversial figure regarding his androgyny, but it's not completely clear (at least to my knowledge) whether this was more of an image he was portraying or more of the person he actually was, so I didn't feel that omitting it was a bad thing in this particular case. Overall I enjoyed this and thought it a worthy and educational read.


Mahatma Gandhi by Isabel Sanchez Vegara, Albert Arrayas


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Another in a children's 'Little People, Big Dreams' series which I've been following, this one tells a great story. Anyone who's watched the Richard Attenborough movie starring Ben Kingsley, and written by John Briley will realize how important it is for young children to be introduced to people like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as opposed to an excess of superhero movies where people typically beat the pulp out of one another. Not that those aren't fun in their place, but let's not ever take them seriously as solutions to problems!

Naturally a life like Bapu's cannot be adequately captured in a book of this nature, but I felt that author Vegara does a fine job in distilling the important stuff. This book, delightfully illustrated by Albert Arrayas, follows Ghandi's life from childhood through university in London, to South Africa and back to India, and it explains his philosophy and where it came from. For young children, that's an important start. I commend it.


Planet Fashion by Natasha Slee, Cynthia Kittler


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Illustrated in style(!) by Cynthia Kittler, this book is an unusual one for children, but I think it will be well-received. Anyone who knows me well or who has read some of my reviews, will know I have no time for the fashion industry, but this book isn't about those pretentious and self-indulgent poseurs. It's a history book about how fashions have changed over the last century and who was wearing what and when. Naturally it's quite USA and Euro-centric, but it also covers other places, such as Australasia and Central America, which was commendable.

It's designed as a print book which means the tablet computer cannot really present it properly. It has to be enlarged to read the text, and then reduced to slide to the next double-page spread, and frankly this caused issues on occasion, with a page disappearing or appearing out of order until I swiped back and then forward again, which seemed to fix it. Do not proceed to page 33 or you will become stuck like I did, unable to swipe back from it! You have to use the slider at the bottom of the screen to get back. Those irritations aside, the book is fully-illustrated and very colorful, but it's not all imagery - there is a lot of text supporting each page and the book is quite long for a children's book, but it is packed with information and interesting facts, and the last few pages have timelines to augment the text.

There is a small boy and a small girl who appear on each double-page whom you're encouraged to look for, and who are dressed in the fashion of the time, and there is also a search exercise at the back where you look at a series of smaller images taken from the earlier pages and then try to find which page it came from. Doubtlessly that would be easier in a print book too. Little kids will have a blast with that while learning something important about how we humans love to adorn ourselves for better or for worse as each page transports them progressively to a different era, and often a different country. I commend this as a fun and education book.


D-Day by Michael Noble


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This was a nice overview of what was involved for those people who had to face the beaches on D-Day, June 6th 1944. It's told truthfully but not too graphically, so it tells the story, and how bad things were, without overdoing it or skipping the truth about what those men - and women - faced.

Yes, there are women featured here, including one who went onto the beach with the men. She wasn't supposed to, but Martha Gellhorn was resentful that her then husband, Ernest Hemingway, got to go, and she was passed over for a male journalist when it came to her publication's chance to send someone. Martha had an interesting history (not covered here). She was fired from a job after she reported a coworker for sexual harassment. After other adventures, She hid in a lavatory on a ship during D-Day, and then went up on the beaches disguised as a stretcher bearer. She was arrested on her return to England.

She's not the only remarkable woman covered here. We learn of others, along with many men from several nations, including Germany, who were involved in one aspect or another of the landing, either taking part in it on land, sea, or air, preparing weather forecasts for it, designing vehicles to deal with conditions they would find there, or defending the beach, and so on. One story was of a fifteen-year-old boy who was on a boat tasked with towing materials across the channel which would be used to create a temporary harbor for other ships coming later. This was another critical mission which, had it failed, would have hampered the effort.

One of my favorites is Dave Shannon, an RAF pilot who hailed from Australia. The book doesn't mention this, but he was part of the Dam Busters raid in May of 1943 that took down the Eder and the Moehne dams in Germany and dealt a severe blow to the Nazi war effort. On the night before the Normandy landings, this same squadron, used to difficult flying tasks, were assigned to fly progressively in precise order across the channel dropping what the Brits called 'window' which was material that would give a radar echo that made it look like a convoy was crossing the channel. They would fly so far, return, then fly the same route again, but advancing very slightly each time. This is where the precise flying came in. If they had not been exact, the radar signal would have jumped and given the game away, but they did not fail. The Germans were convinced that a large convoy was approaching and that this was where the landing would be, when it was in fact a hundred miles away. It was one of the greatest deceptions of the war.

All of these stories are remarkable, and all worth knowing. I commend this as a worthy read.


Thursday, April 4, 2019

Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea by Rebecca K Jager


Rating: WARTY!

Subtitled "Indian Women as Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols," this book turned out to be completely wrong for my purposes and from the little I read of it, it felt to me to be completely wrong when it came to the purpose the author evidently intended it to serve. It seemed abusive to me in a way, in ascribing two, three, or four hundred years on, motives to women whose motives were never considered important at the time, so we have no idea what moved them to do the things they did, and we most certainly no grounds to ascribe high-flying reasons for their behavior.

The book does talk about the mythology that has built-up around these woman and discusses the roots and aims of that in some detail, but that aspect of their story as viewed today seems to me to be so painfully obvious as to be a fruitless exercise in pursuing it more. People have used these women for their own ends whether those ends were supposedly noble or malign. Of that there is no doubt, but the book seems like it wants to go beyond all that to view them in hindsight as cross-cultural ambassadors and I don't agree that's what they were. They were certainly not at the time, and ascribing such a role to them in hindsight seems pointless to me. It seems like it's just as abusive to them as people were in their own lifetime by disrespecting and using them in much the same way that people have done ever since.

The simplest solution to me is that these women acted in their own best interest, and in the interest of the foreigners for whom they may have developed feelings of affection, respect, or love. It's a perfectly human motive, and it's not superhuman. Malinche, who aided Hernán Cortés during the Spanish take-over of central America in the sixteenth century had been treated shabbily by her own people and was respected by the Spanish, so it's entirely unsurprising that she had switched loyalty and wanted to help those who had treated her better than her own people had. There is no overriding nationalist motive here, anti or otherwise. These women had no great plan. They had none of the hindsight we have today, to see where this was going. They were merely doing what they saw as best in their circumstances at the time.

The same 'motive' applies to Matoaka (aka Pocahontas) and Sakakawia (aka Sacagawea). Matoaka was a child and came to the Jamestown village because it was exciting and new, and there were new playmates to interest her. She was not a princess. She did not represent her father. She had no great diplomatic aspirations. Yes, she came often with gifts of food, but there's nothing recorded to show that this was her idea as opposed, say, to her father's idea. Maybe she talked her father into it, maybe not. We don't know! Maybe she was no more than a spy for her father, infiltrating the English camp and reporting all she saw back to dad. We don't know!

The great life-saving story that John Smith belatedly related was in my opinion pure fiction, and there's an end to it. He'd used the same story before in a different context. And Disney ought to be ashamed of themselves for dishonestly portraying it as a love story, but since when have they cared about historical accuracy, or about integrity in retelling ancient fairytales?

Sakakawia started out in very much the same as Malinche, being kidnapped at a young age and sold or traded off. Her life followed a somewhat less abusive trail than did Malinche's but they were both torn from their roots and were sharp enough women to make it work for them. My own personal feeling about Sakakawia isn't that she saw herself as a great diplomat either, but that she enjoyed new adventures and may well have talked her way into being the one wife of Charbonneau who went on this excursion merely because she relaly wanted to go. She had no great ambition to be a bridge between peoples and to pretend now that she was is farcical!

So I can't take a so-called 'scholarly work' like this seriously, I really can't, and I certainly cannot commend it as a worthy read.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Sacagawea: crossing the continent with Lewis & Clark by Emma Carlson Berne


Rating: WORTHY!

I'm reviewing three different books this month about the life of "Sacagawea" who is actually more accurately referred to as "Sakakawia" - which was, it's important to remember, her Hidatsa name, not her Shoshone name. No one at the time bothered to ask her about her previous name or her life before the Hidatsa era. All we know of her earlier life came out because of fortuitous coincidence during the expedition.

William Clark spent a lot of time with Sakakawia, but he never wrote anything down of their interactions - which admittedly were limited in regard to conversation since she spoke no English and he none of Shoshone, Hidatasa, or French, all of which she had at least a smattering of. Since American Indian names tended to be quite fluid throughout life, perhaps Sakakawia didn't care that much how she was referred to or would have been concerned if two centuries on, we had a clue what it really was or what her short life had been.

This book was fine, but of the three I've read, it was the least interesting even though it wasn't the last I read. I say that because the facts are very limited in discussing her life, and the only thing a new author can add is their own spin, which may or may not count for much. So one book about her tends to be very much like another. That's why I don't intend to write yet another boring book about her life on the expedition; I have something very different in mind which to my knowledge hasn't been done before, and this is why I've been reading all of these books, and why I intend to read the Lewis and Clark diaries too. This is all for background, but my story won't be the expedition, which I feel has been done to death and beyond.

This book tells a workmanlike version of the story if given to flights of fancy at times. That said it isn't ridiculously exaggerated and it does not make up stories any more than any bother such book has done. The problem is that these books tend to ascribe things that were never there in real life. All native Americans, for example, were tough people back then, men and women alike, so personally I don't feel there was anything particularly special about Sakakawia's toughness and abilities. Any "Indian Squaw" could have done what this woman did because it's what they did day in and day out!

I do feel, and this is just a guess, that she had an interest in adventure, and so was game to go on this expedition. It could have been Charbonneau's other wife (latterly referred to as 'Otter Woman' although no one actually recorded her name at the time) who went instead, but to me it feels like Sakakawia was intent on going and did not see her post-partum status as an obstacle, whereas Charbonneau's 'Other Woman' wasn't at all interested, and perhaps this 'Older Woman' saw his prolonged absence as a chance to get away from him and find a better life for herself? The truth is that we don't know how or why the cut was made the way it was, we just know it was.

The backcover blurb for this book - which is not typically in the hands of the author admittedly - claims that without Sakakawia, "Lewis and Clark certainly could never have succeeded," but I think that's patent buffaloshit. I think they would have succeeded with or without Sakakawia, with or without "Otter Woman" and with or without Charbonneau, but that doesn't take anything away from the real and solid contributions that Sakakawia made and the fortitude and can-do qualities she exhibited. She deserved a hell of a lot better than she got, and she deserves to be remembered, honored, and commemorated. If this book helps with that, then it's a worthy read.


Sacagawea : westward with Lewis and Clark by Alana J White


Rating: WORTHY!

With any book on Sacagawea the problem is not only getting her name wrong, but also fictionalizing her life and adding fanciful and wishful things which are not in the historical record. This is nothing new. Historical revision began over a century ago when the suffragette movement in the USA was looking for a strong female figurehead and poor Sakakawea was resurrected to fit the bill. That's when the myth-making began. No one stopped to think whether she would have wanted or supported something like that.

The fundamental truth about her is that the record is light. She's barely mentioned in the diaries that the two expedition leaders kept, and when she is, the variations in spelling are numerous making it difficult to do a search to find all the references to her. She's referred to as "the Indian woman", as "Charbonneau's squaw" (various spellings), and by the name the Hidatsa kidnappers gave to her (again with variations). That's how little regard she was given at the time.

No one bothered to record her original name or her thoughts and feelings about the journey. In that, she was treated like every other member of the expedition despite being the youngest who also happened to be carrying and expertly caring for a young baby for the entire journey. In this, she was treated as an equal to the men, so in that regard she might be considered the first recorded exemplar of equal rights in North America.

The closest we can come to her Hidatsa name is Sakakawia which means Bird (sakaka) Woman (wea). No one recorded why she had this particular name or what happened to her original Shoshone name. Native American names were very fluid, changing sometimes many times between birth and death. They were more like a current status - like something in social media - than an actual name as we in the west in modern times view names, so perhaps even Sakakawia didn't care that much what her name was.

This book along with most others, refers to her as Sacagawea which is closest to the name used phonetically in more than one spelling, in the diaries. As to her Shoshone name, no one knows what it was. A popular one doing the rounds is 'Boinaiv', but that sounds far too much like Bowie Knife to be taken seriously. Besides, as far as I know, Grass Woman in Shoshone is Ambosoni, not Bonaiv!

The next thing the books tend to do is to inflate Sakakawia's importance and contributions to the expedition by claiming, for example, that it could not have succeeded without her. I don't buy that, and neither Lewis nor Clark ever made such a claim, but this takes nothing away from the important contributions she did make, which were acknowledged by the expedition leaders.

Stoicism was an important part of Indian life. These people were tough and resilient, and Sakakawia was stoic without a doubt. She never complained, even when she was sick. She accepted what life laid before her if perhaps hoping always for something better. She obviously never wanted to be kidnapped by the Hidatsa, but she made a life with them. She more than likely didn't want to be married to Charbonneau, but she made a life with him, too.

When he signed on for the expedition, in part being allowed in because he could boast two "squaws" who spoke Shoshone, it raises the question as to why she went along when she had a newborn in tow, rather than his other wife who was referred to in later mythology as midapokawia (Otter Woman), although she remained nameless during the time of the expedition and disappeared from recorded history at that time.

But she was older with no new child, so why take the younger post-partum woman? Personally my feeling is that Sakakawia actually wanted to go on the expedition and didn't see her newborn as an obstacle. I really think she wanted the adventure and a chance of seeing her own people again, whereas 'Otter Woman' (Other Woman?!) wasn't that interested and perhaps saw this as a chance to get away from Charbonneau in his absence?

There seems to be some conflation of Otter Woman with the friend of Sakakawia's who was kidnapped at the same time as she was. That girl is referred to as Leaping Fish. I have no idea what the Shoshone for that name is, but fish is Akai. She was not Otter Woman, because Leaping (or Jumping) Fish managed to escape the Hidatsa and return to her own people. Why Sakakawia didn't go with her was never recorded. Perhaps she could not escape, didn't know about Leaping Fish's escape plan, or was recaptured. Or maybe she didn't want to escape because staying with the Hidatsa was an adventure for her - a chance to see different things. Perhaps that's why she married Charbonneau too. Perhaps she didn't escape because Charbonneau offered another distraction. We simply don't know.

So those are the facts, and this book does not embellish them inordinately. It tells a wider story, too, offering insights into life back then, into the different tribes we learn of, and so on, so it fills out the story and makes for a much more rounded reading experience. But in the end, one book about 'Sacagawea' is pretty much, of necessity, like another, because the facts don't change - only the spin an author chooses to put on them. So while I think I am done reading such books after this present flurry, I can commend this one as a worthy read.


Sacagawea by Judith St George


Rating: WORTHY!

You might guess that when I start in on reading a slew of books about a certain topic, I'm thinking about writing a story, so here we go again!

This book was entertaining, but very much buying into the popular mythology of Sacagawea. Let's get her name straight first. It never was Sacagawea, and certainly not Sacajawea. Lewis and Clark recorded it as minor variations on "Sah-kah-gar we a" in their diaries, but the closest we can come today is probably Sakakawia.

The real problem though, is that this was a Hidatsa name, not her Shoshone one! She was kidnapped at the age of eleven or twelve and absorbed into a Hidatsa tribe before being given to a fur-trapper named Charbonneau, who already had a previous (and slightly older) Shoshone wife. I guess he was really into Shoshone women. The name never was her original Shoshone name, but that said, American Indian names were rather fluid and one person might go through several names during their lifetime. To them, a name was really more like Facebook status in a way! As far as I can tell, Sakakawia is closest to the name she became most commonly known by in her own time, so it's the one I'll use here. No one uses it in books and novels because people generally don't recognize that name as applying to her.

Additionally, no one knows what Sakakawia actually looked like. She's never described based on the farcical "all Indians look like" fallacy that was prevalent then and unfortunately still is among certain categories of people even now. Even as Lewis and Clark described in some detail the things they saw during their trip.

Despite ostensibly being on a journey of observation and recording, never once did either of this pair think of describing Sakakawia in any way - physically, mentally, personality-wise, clothing-wise or whatever. She was "just a squaw" to them and therefore not that important. So, while the model for the image on the US dollar coin minted in 2000 was a Shoshone woman (Randy'L He-dow Teton), even she was not Lemhi Shoshone. She was a thoroughly modern woman who graduated from University of New Mexico at the same age as Tsakakawia apparently was when she died.

Why the image from a photograph taken much closer to the time of Tsakakawia's life wasn't used instead, I have no idea, but what we must do when seeing all these modern images and thinking of her life, is to keep in mind that Sakakawia was actually much younger when she became the only woman on that expedition. She had just had a baby less than two months before the expedition began, and she was barely more than a child herself.

This begs the question, why her instead of the less-well-known 'other wife' - an older Shoshone girl given the much less exotic name of Otter Woman - which wasn't actually her name either! This suggests to me that Sakakawia actually wanted to go on this trip whereas Charbonneau's other wife probably did not, and so she left history whereas Sakakawia entered it quite forcefully

All that said, the book is entertaining, but the constant championing of this young woman becomes a bit tedious and feels a little fake. She's mentioned often in the diaries, but under variations of her name, and also as a 'squaw' (various spellings) and as 'the Indian woman'.

The telling thing about these mentions is that it is of her utility to the expedition - saving light objects that were in danger of being washed out of a flooded pirogue at one point, finding roots and herbs to feed the hungry crew at another, easing Indian tribes fears of the intentions of the travelers at another, of giving up her prized blue-bead belt in trade for an otter skin cape that was given to Thomas Jefferson and for which Sakakawia received no credit other than the brief mention in the diaries, and of her joy at meeting her brother, now a chief, whom she had not seen in a decade, when they finally arrived in Shoshone territory.

Although her value did not really give cause for much comment in the body of the diaries, in a letter written after the expedition was completed, when he was in process of what became an adoption of her children, Clark apparently had misgivings and pretty much apologized that their appreciation of her contributions had not been better represented. That says it all right there. I commend this book as a worthy read for younger children, but keep in mind that there's much more going on in her story than a short and somewhat biased book like this can convey.


Home Sweet Homicide by Craig Rice


Rating: WORTHY!

Craig Rice is an interesting and underrated author. She was the first female author ever to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Born Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig in 1908, she changed her professional name for her adoptive parents family name, putting her original family name first when she moved from journalism and radio writing, to detective fiction.

Most of her output was a series featuring three oddball investigators, none of whom was actually a police officer. She wrote other stories too, and this was one of them. Here, the three investigators were the children of a detective fiction writer. Maybe Georgiana was rewriting her own less-than-satisfactory childhood - and adulthood for that matter. She died before the age of fifty probably largely due to her heavy drinking, but she had issues with deafness, blindness, and she attempted suicide more than once.

This cheery story reflects none of that. It's bright, screwball, upbeat, well-written, and fun all the way through, I loved it. The title is emblematic of her screwball titles, too. Other titles were of a similar nature: The Big Midget Murders, The Corpse Steps Out, Crime on My Hands, The Lucky Stiff, The Pickled Poodles, and my personal favorite My Kingdom for a Hearse although I confess, it was a close-run thing between that latter one and the title of the novel reviewed here.

The three Carstairs kids, Dinah, April, and Archie, are left almost totally unsupervised while their windowed mom, Marion, is in one of her writing frenzies. They happened to be sitting outside on the porch when they heard two gunshots from their next-door neighbor's house, home to a woman who was widely despised and who was, it seems, blackmailing certain of her neighbors. The kids try to involve their mom, who isn't interested and so, despising the local cops for stupidity (the kids learned a lot from reading their mom's stories, including pseudo-gangster dialog, but unfortunately expended no effort in differentiating between fact and fiction!), they decide to undertake their own investigation, misleading the cops about the time of the shooting because they don't believe the husband did it.

They also believe if they solve it and give the credit to their mom, it will work miracles for her sales. Additionally, there is one cop they think might make the perfect partner for their lonely mom so they have to tread carefully, deny the police information they discover while luring the detective in to bring him and their mom into frequent contact. Published in 1944, this novel was made into a movie in 1946, but as usual, the movie doesn't follow the book too closely.

I completely loved this novel and I commend it highly.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Tidewater by Libbie Hawker


Rating: WARTY!

You know I should just swear off any novel about Jamestown which features the name Pocahontas on the cover. Even though that was not strictly speaking, her name, but a descriptive term, the author uses this name exclusively for the main character (at least in the part I listened to which honestly wasn't very much).

The American Indians speak in modern English idiom, and while I certainly didn't expect that their words would have been spoken in their own language in this audiobook, I thought some effort might have been made to render their exchanges a little more authentically. It felt so fake.

On top of that, The Pocahontas, who was well-known amongst her own people, was refused entrance to a meeting to which she had been instructed to bring food by her father. The guards on the door didn't recognize her? There were guards on the door? It felt so completely unrealistic that I couldn't hear it. It felt like the author had no clue whatsoever as to how these people lived back then, and simply translated everything into modern western European terms and was happy with what she'd done. The truly disturbing thing is that believe it or not, this wasn't the worst part of it for me!

The story was narrated by three people, and the woman who narrated the Powhatan portions was Angela Dawe, an actor who isn't native American and whose voice was one of the most harsh and strident I have ever heard. It was quite literally painful on my ears. I began listening to this on the drive home from the library after I picked it up. That drive is very short, but even so, I couldn't stand to listen to her voice for the entire journey home. I turned it off and almost looped the car around to return the book that same afternoon! LOL. It was awful. The voice was completely wrong in every measure. It was hard to listen to because of the tone, and cadence and pacing. Every single thing was off about it, and it made my stomach turn to listen to it.

So based on an admittedly tiny portion of this, I can't commend it.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

Dreaming in Code: Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer by Emily Arnold McCully


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I really enjoyed this short biography of Ada Lovelace, a near contemporary of Jane Austen, who is commonly described as the world's first computer programmer. It goes into sufficient detail to give you a good picture of her life, but not so much that it gets bogged down. There are images of some of the main characters involved in her life to provide a visual, and the text is a swift and informative read.

Lovelace was beset by a matching pair of bad parents in that one was way too loose and the other way too strict - to puritanical levels. She never knew her father in any meaningful sense because she never really met him. Her mother took her from him at a very early age, got custody - which was unusual for a mother back then, and she never let Ada know who her father was until after he had died, by which time Ada had sort of figured it out for herself. That said her mother was very liberal in terms of getting her daughter an education, which was extremely unusual back then.

Ada had some flighty impulses, but constantly either had them reined in or reined them in of her own accord. She was an avid scholar of many disciplines and excelled at math, which brought her into Babbage's sphere when she became interested in his difference engine at the tender age of seventeen. The rest is quite literally history. Ada died quite young. I commend this story as a very worthy read about a strong female character who happens to have been real, not fictional!


Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Mozart Girl by Barbara Nickel


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Set in 1763, this is a middle grade (not middle-grave as I initially typed! That's a whole different genre! LOL!) novel that I originally thought was based on a diary, but no such diary exists. In fact we have almost nothing of Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart (who was a contemporary of Jane Austen), that doesn't come to us via a third party. There is a notebook that was created by her father, and which contains compositions that she played, but the only reason that survives, I suspect, is that it also contains compositions that her kid brother, the renowned Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, added to the book of his own accord.

I was disappointed to discover that the diary entries are spurious. That removed this novel further into fiction, and that became a problem for me because other than the general outline of the story - a tour which actually did take place - this book is pretty much all fiction, and for me it was way over-done. I had thought the over-wrought tone of the novel was taking its complexion from the diary, but that's obviously not the case if there is no diary.

Additionally, some of the history is a bit off and the modern language seems inappropriate. Naturally you don't want a novel of this nature to sound archaic, but a little less modern slang would have improved the tone. It's also historically inaccurate. At one point, the author is talking about wax candles when in that era, tallow was the norm, and she mentions gelatin, when aspic was the norm back then.

She frequently refers to financial woes when in fact, the Mozarts did very well for themselves in this tour, at least until both children became ill and things slowed down quite a bit, but no such illness is mentioned for "Nannerl" (Marianne), only for "Wolferl" (Mozart). I have to say that though it is historically accurate, these endless '-erl' nicknames made me want to hurl. I shall refer to the sister as Marianne which was what she went by when pet names were not used.

The worst faux pas was getting the main character's birthday wrong! Marianne turned 12 on 30 July 1763 when the family was in the middle of a three year tour of Europe, but in this novel, she turns twelve before the tour begins, and the author has her birthday in June!

At each stop during the tour, the author has her taking second place to Wolfgang whereas in reality, she was, at least initially, the star performer, but clearly this changed as Mozart the younger began to flourish, and maybe that's what the author is trying to reflect here. I don't know. I was quite confused by this point!

Another faux pas the author makes is the discussion of money. She makes the father sounds like some sort of avaricious beggar. As I said, they did well for themselves on this tour earning substantial amounts, but the author always has them sounding impoverished. That's not as bad as this one section when they visited an important family - that of Baron Kerpen and his musically talented children - and the Mozart father says at one point: “How wonderful to have such a fine orchestra, all in one family...Do you ever play in public, for money?”

That would have been an unconscionable impertinence back then. It really stood-out like a sore thumb to me, and continued a process of turning me off this story even more than I already had been. If the novel had not been so short, and I was not already over halfway through it by then, I would have DNF'd right there. As it was I made it only to eighty percent before I could not stand to read any more when the author was making a fuss about Christmas, which back in Mozart's time, was not the big event it is today. Yes, it was celebrated, but the bigger event was Saint Nicholas's Day which was early in December.

I understand this is fiction, and little is known about Marianne, particularly how she thought and felt, and that some dramatic license is permissible in a novel like this, but the portrayal of her in this story felt wrong, inauthentic, and frankly, disrespectful of such a talented young woman. It may well have been that she had the same musical yearnings as her brother, and even the same skills, but we will never know because nothing of hers survives to compare with Mozart's own work.

What does seem likely is that her facility with music was what inspired such a passion for it in her kid brother. He watched as her father taught her to play. She was an accomplished musician, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was all she ever had on her mind as is implied here.

Rightly or wrongly - obviously wrongly by our modern expectations - there were different pressures and constraints on girls back then, and certain behaviors that now are considered restrictive and even abusive, were the norm and accepted as the way things are. Precious few people saw life differently. To present her in a modern light as though she had beliefs and lofty, but frustrated ambitions that she may well not have had is an imposition and is dangerous ground for writers to traverse with such abandon.

Perhaps Marianne was exactly as she was as depicted here, but we don't know, and it seems to me to be more likely that she simply enjoyed playing, and had no other ambition. It may well be that she chose to set aside music later in life in favor of other priorities, and had no grand plans, frustrated or otherwise, that she longed to pursue.

It may have been just the opposite. The fact is that we do not know. What we do know is that women had certain expectations both for themselves, and also that were set upon them by others, particularly their parents and husbands, and we do not know exactly where her own views lay, so to present her as this thwarted, frustrated genius felt like a grave imposition to me and one which is not supported by history.

It's true that there is much debate about her talent, not so much about her playing ability, which is a given, but about her compositional skills, but as I mentioned, of those we have nothing by which to judge. She composed music, that we do know, but none of it has survived. The only real 'evidence' we have of its quality is the complimentary comments of both her father and her brother, and while I'm sure these were genuine, we do not know if father was praising a talented daughter and brother was praising a fellow prodigy, or if both were simply bolstering a beloved daughter/sibling with great praise where average praise may have been more objectively appropriate. It’s a great shame that we do not know, but the fact remains that we do not.

Where this book did well was in highlighting her playing ability, but everything else is pure speculation and I felt it serves a woman like Marianne badly to puff her up for talent (in composition) that we know nothing of, while underserving the talent she had that we can certainly attest to, based on historical records. I cannot commend this as a worthy read therefore.


Thursday, January 24, 2019

Cowl Vol 2 The Greater Good by Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, Rod Reis


Rating: WARTY!

I didn’t like this. It was too much of a rip-off of Watchmen: set in earlier times in the 20th century, a death of a super hero, an investigation. That might have been fine, but the problem was that it did not have the characters that watchmen had. The super heroes here had no life to them. They were boring. If I had read volume 1, I might have found more investment in it, but I doubt it. The story by Higgins and Siegel was dragging, and there was nothing of interest (to me) happening, especially since the super heroes were out on strike(!) and so there was no super hero-ing going on to speak of. It seemed stuck in a rut, and the Reis‘s artwork was nothing special either. I cannot commend it based on this experience and I have no interest in pursuing this series at all.

And what a trite title! Cowl? Could they not have come up with something a bit better and more original?


Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Lost City of Solomon and Sheba by Robin Brown-Lowe


Rating: WARTY!

I picked this up because I thought it might have something interesting to say about the very enigmatic Queen of Sheba, which might perhaps lead to an idea for a future novel, but no! It had almost nothing to say about her because almost nothing is known about her. Solomon gets short shrift. It's tempting to say that the main thrust of the book is as its title suggests - the lost city of Ophir, but I can't say that because there is no thrust, and the names of Solomon and Sheba were obviously just tossed into the title merely to draw potential readers' interest. Well, shame on me!

This endlessly rambling book does recount a lot of history, but it's disjointed and disconnected and sways back and forth between time periods without ever making its case. The main problem with it is that, in the same manner employed by those morons who write books about Earth being visited by aliens from outer space, it builds tissue-thin claims upon non-existent foundations, with the author, who is not an archeologist but a journalist, making huge speculative leaps based on the flimsiest of 'evidence'.

Thus we have him categorically setting Ophir in Zimbabwe, based on the Great Zimbabwe, a beautiful monument which racists have traditionally tried to deny was built by native Africans. The author seems to be doing the same thing. His chapter titles are sensationalist: To Ophir Direct, Ophir Revealed, Ophir Spinning, and closing with Ophir Writ Large (there are many other chapters) yet not once does he fulfill the promise of the title by laying down a solid case for The Great Zimbabwe being Ophir. Nor doe she explain

He defeats his own claims because while the book does contain some photographs, none of them support the text our the claims he makes in it. In fact, some refute his claims. One of these claims is that bird effigies were found at Zimbabwe which had a design around their neck like a necklace or perhaps, it occurs to me, a pattern or tattoo, yet though he shows several pictures of the birds, not one of them has any of the features he claims for them. This alone defeats he 'thesis'.

Of these birds, wikipedia says, "They are unique to Great Zimbabwe; nothing like them has been discovered elsewhere." - something which the author seeks to muddy at best, and never once does he mention that certain birds were sacred to the people, more than adequately explaining why they would want to sculpt images of them. So once again we see a native culture being denigrated by a white writer, as though no native African could ever have an advanced thought in their head, and none could create or build anything beautiful. I call bullshit on that.

So after plodding through most of the book vainly searching for his supporting evidence, and skimming other repetitive areas, I concluded the guy doesn't know what he's talking about. As wikipedia puts it, "The majority of scholars believe that it was built by members of the Gokomere culture, who were ancestors of modern Shona in Zimbabwe." And the site is dated as originating In the Iron Age, long after Solomon. The stone structures were built in the eleventh century. It was half millennium after that before any white person came anywhere near them. QED.

The author is not wrong in asserting that there is a genetic link between the male line of the peoples known as Mwenye, and people of ancient Jewish descent, but he fails to mention that they could also be of South Arabian descent too. This is dishonest, in reporting only the evidence that can be deemed to support his claims and withholding that which might defeat or dilute them. Just because a lineage has certain DNA doesn't make the author's case at all. DNA is so dissipated around the world these days that no one group is really isolated from another, and we're talking many hundreds of years ago. One trader passing on his DNA to a local woman all that time ago could easily lead to a tribe later in history, and there were no doubt many traders. This doesn't prove the author's thesis though, especially not with the lack of evidence he has.

I disrecommend this book.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert


Rating: WARTY!
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I believe in giving credit where credit is due, but aside from the focus on Sullivan rather than Keller - and lets face it, without Sullivan there would be no Keller as we know her today - there really is very little due here.

This graphic novel is aimed at grades six through eight, but while I am far from those grades, I was not happy with it. The artwork is indifferent and appears in tiny panels (a rigid and plodding sixteen per page) such that the image is not only tiny, but the text is also small. I had a hard time reading it and an almost impossible time reading the narration, which is in script. There were parts I skipped rather than strain my eyes trying to read it. If the format of the book had been larger this would not have been such a problem, but as it was, it was really irritating to me and overwhelmed the story.

While the book does convey the magnitude of the task which faced a visually-impaired 20-year-old Sullivan trying to teach a willful and spoiled seven-year-old who was impaired in ways much greater than Anne herself was, it fails to make the impact it should because it is so choppy. An early flashback itself dissolves into an earlier flashback and this back-flashing keeps happening as we move back and forth between the 'present' where Anne is teaching Helen, and the past, where Anne had her own trials to go through, which were tough enough. Anne Sullivan was a strong woman.

This story is about Anne as opposed to Helen, which most stories are written about, and such a story is important and needs to be told, but I don't think this book gets it done. The 'Annie' of the title was better known as Anne, although her birth name was Johanna Mansfield Sullivan to which she added a 'Macy' when she married later in life. Her initial interactions with Helen were nightmarish because Helen was so spoiled and had no discipline. Anne was not only fighting her charge, but also Helen's parents who did not understand the huge amount of work which needed to be done to liberate Helen from the prison of her impaired senses.

Much as I'd like to recommend a book like this, I cannot. I've read other books about Helen Keller and the one I commend so far is Helen Keller by Jane Sutcliffe. This might not be quite as appealing as a graphic novel to children in this age range, but it isn't something they could not handle, and I'd prefer it to this graphic novel. However, if this novel gets kids interested enough to read something on this topic that's more grown up and less picture-y, then all well and good, but I have doubts it will do that.


HP Lovecraft He Who Wrote in the Darkness by Alex Nikolavitch, Gervasio, Carlos Aon, Lara Lee


Rating: WARTY!

I'm always interested in reading about other writers if they have anything interesting to say but for me, this graphic novel about Lovecraft was a fail. He wrote over sixty stories - most of them short stories, during his short lifetime (he died at 46 from cancer), but this didn't really delve into many of them or even keep track of his writing them, which seemed very odd to me for a book about a writer.

It did highlight some of his quirks and made a passing mention of his racism, but it seemed more focused on his inabilities rather than his abilities - his inability to live with his wife (a curiosity for someone whose name is love craft!) and his inability to focus on writing stories while effortlessly penning thousands of long letters - than it ever did in discussing his work or even mentioning it.

That said it is a graphic novel, not a biography, so some things inevitably get left out. It just felt to me that writer Nikolavitch left out the wrong things, and the art by Gervasio, Aon, and Lee was average at best, so I cannot commend this as a worthy read.


Friday, January 4, 2019

The Mechanical Horse by Margaret Guroff


Rating: WORTHY!

Subtitled 'How the Bicycle Shaped American Life', this book made for an informative and at times fascinating read and even gave me an idea for a novel - you never know where your next inspiration will come from!

It details the growth, retrenchment and regrowth of the bicycle (and it went through that...cycle...several times) from the earliest bike to modern times, discussing how it impacted not only the obvious - roads - but also other things, such as women's independence and military activities. It tells some great stories and makes for an engrossing book, and I commend it as a worthy read.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Miss Don't Touch Me by Hubert, Fabien Vehlmann Kerascoët


Rating: WORTHY!

Set in 1930s Paris, this was a fun "naughty" (but not too naughty) novel about a young girl Blanche, who sees her sister Agatha murdered by the 'Butcher of the Dances'. No one will believe her, and Agatha is written-off as a suicide. Losing her job as a maid, Blanche seeks work at the Pompadour, an elite brothel, and the only place which might take her in. She's almost laughed out of even there, but once taken in, quickly establishes herself as a mistress of untouchability and the virgin dominatrix.

But she hasn't forgotten her sister and slowly begins to unravel the brutal crime, while fending off assaults from patrons, unwelcome attempts at relieving her of her prized virginity, and shifting allegiances among the call-girls. This made for a different and fun read and I commend it.