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

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Simone de Beauvoir by Isabel Sánchez Vegara, Christine Roussey


Rating: WORTHY!

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

Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was a French author and philosopher, and very close companion of Jean-Paul Sartre. She lived through most of the twentieth century, and left a strong legacy of feminism. She wrote novels, biographies and an autobiography, and she made a lasting impression on literature.

Illustrated simply but colorfully by Roussey, this book tells a concise and easy-to-read story of her impressive life from her well-to-do origins, through her family's loss of fortune, to a decent education, to a life spent as a single woman, giving birth to literature instead of children, by her own choice. She pretty much became a feminist before there were women recognized as such (back then they were called trouble-makers!), and a philosopher long before earning any academic credentials. It just goes to show that girl-power isn't a modern invention!

She lived a long and productive life and while I would not agree with the assertion that she "was the first person to write about women making their own choices" (has the author not heard of female authors such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Mary Wollstonecraft and even earlier, women such as Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu?!), she definitely made substantive contributions to what was known back then as emancipation.

I think books like this - part of a series of strong females of history - are highly important for young children - male and female - to read, and this is one more in a series I have been happy to support (with one exception!). I commend this one as a worthy read.


Monday, October 1, 2018

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence


Rating: WORTHY!

I negatively reviewed a book called The Key to Lawrence many years ago and the idiot author came after me like his being a complete dick and calling me names would somehow change my review of his and his wife's crappy novel! For all I know he's the one who went around adding an anonymous negative two-line non-review to some of my books on line, but unlike him, I write for myself and I don't care what reviewers say. As it happens, I was right about that novel which has since evidently gone out of print. At that point I had never read TE Lawrence's memoir, but I had seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia (and watched it again recently). It was a good movie, but quite inaccurate in many particulars, but that's movies for you - always over-dramatizing. I'd always intended to read the book which underlay it.

So...I recently picked up the audiobook of The Seven Pillars from the library and it wasn't bad. It was hardly a ripping yarn, but was interesting to me because I like to read historical books which were actually written during the time being described. It's really useful if you intended on writing a book set in that period (which I'm not - not yet anyway!). The odd thing about this book is that the seven pillars go completely un-iterated and Wikipedia provides the reason for that.

I discovered that the title of the book apparently came from the Biblical book of Proverbs, and Lawrence was writing a book about seven great cities of the Middle East, but he abandoned that when war broke out, and he destroyed the manuscript afterwards. He wrote a memoir instead, but retained the title because he liked it so much. Wikipedia reports that he had to write the manuscript for it three times, once because he left the original on a train and it disappeared. What would that be worth now if anyone has it?

The book describes his experiences fighting against the Turks alongside the Arabs during World War One. It is heartfelt. Lawrence really respected and connected with those people. He spoke the language (he'd learned it long before the war began and traveled extensively in Syria, which the French were claiming as a colony - we know how well that worked out for them in Vietnam) and he learned to dress in Arab garb because it worked! In an amused anecdote (it was amusing to him) at the end of this book, he describes how he was mistaken for an Arab while working to improve conditions in a hospital, and he was abused as an Arab by a complete dick of a British officer who clearly had no idea who he was or what he'd done.

After the war, Lawrence, under an assumed name, applied to join the Royal Air Force, but was rejected when the officer interviewing him deemed he was actually applying under an assumed name! That officer was W. E. Johns, who later went on to write the successful 'Biggles' series of novels about an adventurous aviator. Lawrence was successful in joining the RAF, but his tenure was short. When the air force realized who he really was, they kicked him out and instead he joined the tank corps under another assumed name! Eventually he went back to the RAF under his real name. He really wanted to be a soldier, didn't he?!

It was hardly fitting for such a man, and neither was his death. Lawrence was killed at the age of 46, two months after leaving military service, when he swerved his Brough Superior SS100 motorbike to avoid two boys on bicycles. His head injuries resulted in his death six days later. The doctor who treated him was instrumental in promoting the use of helmets for motorbike riders. The accident is how the movie begins.

With a colleague, Lawrence had prepared fresh maps of the Negev desert in 1914 since it was considered to be of strategic importance in wartime. He joined in many Arab raids against the Ottomans, attacking cities and sabotaging railroads, and at one point the Turks offered a substantial reward for his capture (some two million dollars at today's prices). No Arab betrayed him. The Sharif of Mecca had given him the status (and thereby protection) of a son. It was Lawrence's idea to bring down Aqaba from the landward side rather than seaward, and he was successful. After that he could pretty much do no wrong in Arab or British eyes.

It's a pity we don't have that kind of cooperation and understanding with the peoples of the Middle East today, isn't it? I commend this book as a worthy read especially if you've seen the movie and want to get the real skinny.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Beats by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, and others


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a graphic novel about the so-called Beat Generation, although 'Beat-up Generation' might be a better term. I've never been a fan of Jack Kerouac or William Seward Burroughs, or had any interest in anything those two jerks had to say, and I only consider this a worthy read because it pulls no punches in exposing what these poseurs and losers were, warts and all. And there are many warts.

Of the main three depicted here, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, only the middle one comes through with any decent sort of character intact. Kerouac was a racist and a bigot who thought the world owed him a living, and misogynist Burroughs got away with murder - literally - in a case that would not be equalled until OJ Simpson came along. It was not the only murder one of this group would get away with. Lucien Carr was aided in a half-assed cover up by Burroughs and Kerouac, of a murder he perpetrated. He served only two years for it relying on an early version of the so-called 'homosexual panic defense'.

Kerouac denied his daughter was his until a blood test proved what a lying cheapskate he was; only then did he oh-so-kindly allow that she might use his last name if she published anything. Jerk. Burroughs shot his wife in a drunken recreation of William Tell's supposed feat, but whereas Tell shot the apple on his son's head, Burroughs shot his wife through the forehead killing her instantly and got away with it. Alcoholism seemed to be an integral and significant part of the Beat Movement and more than one of them had done time in prison and shown no real improvement for it afterwards!

These were not nice people, yet such as these are worshipped by the pretentious and clueless alike, and were the main - or perhaps more accurately the most celebrated - founders of the Beat Generation which was supposedly known for spiritual values inter alia. According to Wikipedia the hallmarks of the Beat Generation were: "rejection of standard narrative values, spiritual quest, exploration of American and Eastern religions, rejection of materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration."

It made for an interesting read, but there was no rejection of materialism or any sort of values in evidence here. There was lots of drugs and irresponsible and unsafe sex, and denial of responsibility or their actions. After the main three were given their own mini-stories, a lot of lesser-known people in or tied to this group are also mentioned. I read about half of those supplementary materials. It's notable that there is only one person of color mentioned and very few women at all except insofar as the women were involved (usually to their detriment) with the men, or were offspring of the men.

So, while it was worth reading to learn all of this, it's not worth reading for any sense of spiritual enlightenment or literary enrichment.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Hild by Nicola Griffith


Rating: WARTY!

This is a tome! A five-hundred page novel which I normally avoid like the plague for the very reasons which led me to DNF-ing this one.

I normally do not trust a book by its cover, because covers are so misleading. Experience has taught me that they're all too often created by someone who has no idea what's in the book, and so the cover has nothing to do either with the author or the novel. This is why I laugh out loud when I learn of some idiot author hosting a big "cover reveal" like it's some spectacular event. I ahve no time for that. I'm much more interested in what you wrote, not how pretty your cover is.

The cover of this novel shows a young woman in armor à la Jeanne d'Arc, and it;s entirely misleading. The woman in the novel - at least as far as I read - is no warrior woman; she's a mystic. Even that would have been fine by me if the novel had gone anywhere, but it never did - not through the first thirds or so of it, which is when I gave up on it because it was becoming tedious to read and literally nothing was happening.

If I had wanted to learn about the dark ages, I would have read a scholarly book about it instead of this one. I don't mind some atmospheric scene setting, but when it hampers the story, it's too much. I don't want to spend my reading time learning how much research the author did! I want to spend it seeing the characters do interesting things, have meaningful interactions, and go to fascinating places. There was none of that here. This character, Hild, was one of the most passive and tedious characters I've ever read of in a book. I'm sorry but no!


Count Karlstein by Philip Pullman


Rating: WARTY!

I've typically liked stories by Philip Pullman with a few exceptions such as Clockwork, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and Tiger in the Well. I have to add this audiobook to that small group, I'm sorry to report. It wasn't engaging me at all, wasn't interesting, offered nothing of value, and I DNF'd it.

The story isn't aimed at me, yet while I've enjoyed many middle-grade stories, I found this one tedious and the character names trite. For a parody, they might have been amusing, but for a story like this, they seemed a bit like profiling! Arturo Snivelwurst? Signor Rolipolio? Really? If I'd known that Kirkus Reviews (who apparently never met a novel they didn't like) had boasted of its "whirlwind plotting, manipulated into a pulsing tale of darkened hearts, treachery, and at long last, redemption" I would have avoided it like the plague. If all of your reviews are positive, then what's the point?

The story is of two young girls (Lucy and Charlotte) whom their evil eponymous uncle is going to offer up as sacrifices to appease Zamiel, the Demon Huntsman, who has granted Karlstein his riches. How exactly that worked remains unexplored - at least in the bits I listened to. Set in Switzerland in 1816, the story relates how the count's scheme is derailed by the actions of Hildi Kelmar, a servant at the castle where the count lives.

Hildi helps Lucy and Charlotte escape (at least temporarily), and later becomes attached to an amusing shyster named Doctor Cadaverezzi, an illusionist. The ending (part of which I listened to, the rest of which I read of in Wikipedia) is so irrepressibly happy that it's nauseating. I advise having insulin on standby if you plan to read the ending.

The book featured an ensemble cast featuring three of the four Strallen sisters: Zizi, Saskia, and Scarlett. I assume it was recorded in winter because Summer didn't take part.... There was also someone by the name of Schrapnell! The reading of the various parts which wasn't too bad, it has to be said. I loved the English accents (despite these girls supposedly being Swiss!), but was bemused by the differing accents among other characters, and also by some of the pronunciations.

In German, 'stein' for reasons which escape me, who speaks no German to speak of, is pronounced like 'schtine', but with less spittle than you might expect(orate!), yet the pronunciations of Karlstein's name were all over the place and actually seemed out of place given that most accents were English! It's a pity the content of the book wasn't as entertaining as the accents, so all I can do is paraphrase Much Ado About Noting's Benedick, even if it means being a dick: in faith, I consider it too low for a high praise, too simple for an intricate praise, and too little for a long praise; only this commendation I can afford it: that were it other than it is, it were unappealing, and being no other but as it is, I do not like it.


The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey


Rating: WORTHY!

It's appropriate I should start listening to this audiobook the day after Indian Independence Day (August 15th). It's first person voice, but listenable for once, especially since it was read very well by Sneha Mathan. I could listen to an Indian woman talk until the Brahma bulls come home, their voice is usually so mellifluous.

There was a film released in 2003, which I haven't seen, about this same topic and with the same title. The two aren't connected, and the book is supposedly different and was published in 2013. The story begins in 1930 and is about a girl whose entire family is wiped out in a tsunami, but who then goes on to be a force in the fight for Indian independence. I have to say that I felt let down by the ending, which could have been a lot better, but I'm not going to let that trip up the earlier story which was engaging and captivating.

As far as I know, this is not true, but the term 'sleeping dictionary' is supposed to refer to the mistresses that the English male occupiers of India took to bed with them and from whom they learned some language and some culture. Perhaps many people today do not realize just how many words came to England from Indian back then. Words like Bungalow (for a Bengali style house - single storey with a low roof). Cot is another one. Avatar; bandanna; bangle; calico; cheetah; chintz; chutney; cummerbund; cushy; dinghy; dungarees; gymkhana; guru; jungle; loot; mantra; mogul; nirvana; pajamas; pundit; shampoo; thug; typhoon; veranda.

Juggernaut comes from the Indian god Jagganath and the unstoppable cart upon which the god's effigy was placed for transportation during ceremonies. A word for crazy, known in England, but not in US English is doolally, which refers to Deolai, and Indian town which had a sanatorium. Another English word is pukka, meaning a stand-up guy (or girl!). The Brits often referred to England as Blighty, which is another Indian word, although not one which means Britain. Some Brits refer to jail as chokey; another word by way of India. A Brit might say, "Let's have a dekko" meaning "let's take a look." Again it's an Indian term.

Even the word 'punch' comes from Hindi. Punch has five constituents and in Hindi the count to five goes; ek, do, teen, char, panch. Char is also a word for tea in England, so the English often talk about a cup of char even though in Hindi it's actually chai or chaay, and nothing to do with the word for four, although four o'clock is teatime!

But I digress! This book tells the story of someone whose name we never know, although we have a plethora of pseudonyms. We first meet her as Pom, a young girl who is about to lose her family to a tsunami. From that point onwards, her existence become precarious at best. She manages by accident to secure a place for herself as a janitor at a Catholic school where she's arbitrarily renamed Sarah. Because of the kindness of a teacher, discovers she has a facility with languages. She learns English, and emulates the refined teacher's 'BBC English' pronunciation and accent effortlessly, and she learns to read, write, and type, and starts to pick up a smattering of other languages.

Although despised as an untouchable by other Indians, and bullied by the snobbish English schoolgirls, she is befriended by a fellow Bengali named Vidushi (sp? This was an audiobook! I'd originally thought the name was Bidushi). The two become very close, especially since it is Sarah who actually writes Vidushi's letters to her lawyer fiancé, Pankaj, in Britain. but when Vidushi unexpectedly dies and a necklace goes missing, Sarah is automatically blamed for it.

Knowing she can never find justice, she goes on the run, aided by a Muslim cart driver who worked at the school and whom she has befriended. This means forsaking all the money (a pittance, but a lot to Sarah) she earned at the school, and talk of 'out of the frying pan into the fire', her plan to go to Kolkata (aka Calcutta) to try and link up with Pankaj is derailed when she gets off the train at the wrong stop and cannot afford another ticket.

Sarah is 'befriended' by a young woman named Bonney, who is actually a recruiter for a local brothel. Young and naïve, Sarah, now with a new name Pamela (a misunderstanding of 'Pom'), is slowly sucked into the life and spends the next three or four years there until she is raped and becomes pregnant.

Realizing that her baby, if it's a girl, will be kept in disgusting conditions and raised to be a whore, Pamela flees the place with her newborn, again leaving her accumulated earnings (five hundred rupees - a substantial amount this time), and leaving her child Cabeta (again, sp?), with the Muslim driver, she finally makes it to Kolkata where she's unsuccessful finding work or finding Pankaj.

Now going as Camilla, she happens into a job organizing the substantial personal library of an English government official, Simon, who pays well. Finally she feels like she can settle and put her past behind her. She can send gifts and money to the family taking care of her daughter, and be stress-free. But that's not going to happen! She ends up spying on her employer and reporting back to Indian freedom movements, but she also finds herself falling for him.

And that's enough spoilers! I really enjoyed this book up until the last ten percent or so. The ending felt a little bit too trite in some ways and amateurish in others. Both Camilla and Simon suffer Harry Potter syndrome - failure to talk and share things, even when there was no reason not to. Obviously Camilla had some deep secrets, but there were ways she could have sidled into those if she had been as smart as she was portrayed as being later in the book.

But overall, I consider this a worthy read and commend it for those who enjoy a good historical story that involves romance, yet isn't sappy, and who are sick of endless cookie-cutter stories about the US civil war and the antebellum south and want to branch out - out of the country and into something that feels more real and less derivative.


Lucy Maud Montgomery by Isabel Sanchez Vegara


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This one covers the author of Anne of Green Gables who also authored many, many other books including sequels. Montgomery had a rather troubled childhood in that her mother died before Montgomery turned two, and her father felt incapable of raising a child. He immediately put her into the care of her maternal grandparents, who were rather cool towards Lucy. When she was seven, her father left to work elsewhere, making Lucy a very lonely child, so she made up imaginary friends and had a rich fantasy life to go with them.

It's this imagination which led her into writing, something she was very interested in from a young age despite some setbacks. When she had Anne of Green Gables published it was such a roaring success that she never looked back, focusing on fulltime writing, at which she was very prolific. This book does an admirable, if slightly fanciful job of depicting this writer's childhood and her determination to succeed, and I commend it as a worthy read for young children. We need serious writers and if this inspires more of them it can only be a good thing.


The Journey of York by Hassan Davis, Alleanna Harris


Rating: WARTY!

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

This is a short (~40pps) young children's illustrated book depicting the role played by a slave named York during the May, 1804 through September, 1806 expedition of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark. While the expedition is well-known, the contributions made by the Lemhi Shoshone woman known as Sacajawea (meaning 'bird woman'), and by Clark's personal slave, known as York, are less well publicized.

Sacajawea's contribution to the success of the expedition is no less valuable than York's so it's a pity she gets such short shrift in this story, especially since she did it while pregnant, giving birth, and successfully raising the infant during the trip! On the other hand, it is about York so it's understandable that he's center stage.

Very little is known about York, about what he did on the expedition, or about what became of him afterwards, and there are differing stories on this. It would appear that he was treated differently during the expedition than he was before or after it, when Clark seemed to revert to treating him exactly like a slave, whereas during the trip he was treated more like an expedition member than anything else. The fact is though, that while we know he was on the expedition and obviously contributed to the effort, and while he was rewarded by having a couple of places named after him (one of which was later renamed after someone else!) we know nothing about the day-to-day inner life of this man.

We do know that Sacajawea and York made history by being (as far as is known) the first woman and the first black man ever to vote in the USA! Again, not that Sacajawea is mentioned as voting in this story, only York. This wasn't a vote for political office, merely a vote on where to build a winter fort, but nonetheless, these two were included - again confirming that they were treated as full members of the expedition rather than anything else.

That aside though, everything in this story is necessarily conjecture. We don't know exactly what happened or exactly how relationships were, or what either York or Sacajawea felt or thought. They were never asked to contribute in that regard, so the book is really more about the trip than it is about York. It's a story that needs to be told, but I cannot support a story that seeks to raise up one people by downgrading another.

People do need to understand that African Americans, American Indians, and many other minority groups were involved in important events in USA from before the start, throughout history, and continue to be so nowadays, and this book could have been an important contribution to that. The story is simple and easy to follow, and the artwork by Alleanna Harris is excellent, but I cannot condone a book which, under the guise of seeking to set right the appalling wrongs of slavery and racism, ends up devaluing half the population - that is the female half.

I have to say that the unsupported assertion wherein York vows to protect Sacajawea in recognition of their supposedly common bond in slavery of one sort or another was disingenuous. Sacajawea was in no need to of anyone's protection. She was as tough as they come, and for York to be depicted as patronizing her by vowing to protect her (and then never even so much as mentioning it again) devalues both people and treats Sacajawea just as much as a possession as the very thing York was supposedly railing against: the fact that Sacajawea was bought by her 'husband' Charbonneau. I thought that this was disgraceful and inappropriate and for this reason I cannot commend this book.


Earthrise by James Gladstone, Christy Lundy


Rating: WORTHY!

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

Although I disagree with the author's thesis that the Apollo 8 photo of the Earth rising above the Moon taken on Christmas Eve of 1968 was "the photo that changed the world," I do consider this young children's book a worthy read. 1968 had not been a good year for the USA. It was the year that North Vietnam, breaking a truce for the end-of-January Tet holiday, showed the USA what they were truly capable of and what they were willing to sacrifice to unite their country. 1968 was a leap year, but the US took far too long to make that leap. It was also the year of the Prague Spring and Earthquakes in Sicily and the Philippines.

It was the year of the Olympics, and the year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both shot and killed. It was the unfortunate year that that idiot Pope Paul tried to tell women that he, and not they, owned their bodies. It was the year that France detonated its first hydrogen bomb. It was the year that 150 members of New York Radical Women protested about the 'bombshells' being exploited in the Miss America 'Pageant', which no matter how they try to tart it up by labeling it a pageant and not a beauty contest, is still about shallow skin-depth looks.

It was the year the Boeing 747 jumbo jet was unveiled, a plane that allowed terrorists to kill more people at one time in an air crash than ever before. It was the year the Beatles released the White album and United Artists banned the 'Censored Eleven' - eleven cartoons deemed to be racist. And it was capped when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders looped in a figure of eight around the Moon becoming the first humans to see the far side of it as well as traveling further away from Earth than any humans ever had before. The photos they took showed how tiny and undivided Earth is in terms of political boundaries: it's a planet we all have to share because there is nowhere else to go.

That's what this book is about, and it is well illustrated by Christy Lundy (and I have to add, commendably showcasing human diversity), and bright and colorful. I must say that the pages were sometimes awfully slow to load on my iPad. At first I thought this was because it was relatively old, but my wife's new iPad also took the same time to load, give or take, so it's the book's pages or it's the app (Bluefire Reader), not the iPad.

Anyway, the book tells the astronaut's story from liftoff on the venerable Saturn 5 rocket through their trip to the Moon (where we apparently leave them stranded because there's no return to Earth or splashdown!). Mostly it's about this one photograph that Bill Anders took, first of a black and white Earth on the way there, and then in color, of Earthrise, with the Earth half-illuminated by sunlight, the other half in darkness, creeping up above the bleak, gray, inhospitable Moon.

This wasn't actually the first Earthrise photograph taken! The first was taken by a robot in 1966 and showed much the same image, but the color image taken by humans is the one remembered. It was photographer Galen Rowell who made those hyperbolic claims for it being such a crucial image, but when you look at the actual Earth and how it progressed into 1969 and beyond, it's quite clear that this photograph ultimately influenced nothing.

There was no sea-change, only more of the same, so like I said, I do disagree with the author's assessment, but it does no harm to expose children to stirring imagery like this, and hopefully, in the long term, their astonishment and love of such imagery really will lead to an improvement among humanity in time! We can hope! I therefore commend this book as a worthy read.


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Day One Before Hiroshima and After by Peter Wyden


Rating: WARTY!

If you love Tom Clancy, then you may well like this: it's full of tedious detail. The book was two-thirds rather boring and one third distressing. I took a long time reading it because I was constantly interrupting it to read library books which unlike my own book, had a return date on them. The most recent time I got back to it, I realized how boring it was with a host of unnecessary detail about people.

You can tell it was written by a journalist: always going for the so-called 'human interest' angle, boring the pants off the reader rather than telling the story. Do we really care what kind of a side-arm a general carries or what kind of a drink a scientist likes? I don't, so I skimmed a lot of the middle third. The last third, about the dropping of the bombs and the aftermath, I read thoroughly, but this book could have been less than half its length and told a better story. I feel bad for the trees which gave their lives for this ungainly tome.

Did the book offer anything no other book has offered? Nope. Unless you count the oodles of extraneous personal details. For those interested in the real human interest - what it was like for those how were bombed, it doesn't actually get to that until it's almost over. The descriptions of what happened are horrible to read, but should be required reading. Nagasaki, the almost forgotten bomb victim, is mentioned, but it gets nowhere near the coverage Hiroshima does.

Nagasaki wasn't even a target to begin with. The beautiful Japanese city of Kyoto was a primary target, but was cancelled for religious reasons, and Nagasaki added. In the end, it came down to Kokura and Nagasaki and the weather decided on the latter. They didn't bomb Tokyo because it had been so badly damaged by conventional bombing that it was considered redundant to go after it again.

The military-science complex was interested in how a plutonium bomb would stack up against the uranium bomb they'd just dropped, so this was as much of a consideration as anything else. As it happened, the damage was far less at Nagasaki despite the bomb being more powerful, because there were not the raging fires that Hiroshima had suffered, and the terrain confined the bomb's effects to a limited area which consisted of many waterways.

Conversely, Hiroshima burned fiercely, and the book describes depressingly how hot it was because of the fires, and how people were desperately thirsty. They were also short of food to the extent they would eat dead irradiated fish floating in the river which wasn't wise, but there was very little food to be had. The fact that the bomb had been exploded well above ground (around two thousand feet) meant that the ground was not irradiated to a significant degree, which in turn meant that the city was habitable afterwards, and after the winter was over, plants grew, whereas it would not have been endurable had the bomb exploded significantly lower than it did.

The Hiroshima bomb killed an estimated 80,000 outright. They were the lucky ones. Another 40,000 died subsequently from burns and radiation poisoning. The grand total included an estimated 20,000 Korean slave laborers along with other non-Japanese in lesser numbers. Many survived and lived long lives. These were known as the Hibakusha and included a Navajo who was imprisoned in Nagasaki who was apparently protected by the concrete walls of his cell.

It turns out that there were some 165 people who survived both bombs. The book mentions this group of about nine guys who were in the military and were sent from Nagasaki to Hiroshima to do some work. After the bombing at Hiroshima, they returned to Nagasaki in time for the bombing there. Talk about bad luck, but they survived both bombings! That's pretty impressive, being nuked twice and living! The first of these double-survivors to be recognized was, according to Wikipedia:

Tsutomu Yamaguchi [who] was confirmed to be 3 kilometers from ground zero in Hiroshima on a business trip when the bomb was detonated. He was seriously burned on his left side and spent the night in Hiroshima. He got back to his home city of Nagasaki on August 8, a day before the bomb in Nagasaki was dropped, and he was exposed to residual radiation while searching for his relatives. He was the first officially recognized survivor of both bombings. Tsutomu Yamaguchi died at the age of 93 on January 4, 2010, of stomach cancer.

There were some lucky escapes, too: people who had been disturbingly close to the epicenter, but who happened to have been behind concrete walls or in basements when the bomb detonated. There was a school teacher who was about six hundred yards from the epicenter who survived it because she was in a concrete basement of the school where she taught, She'd gone in early that morning otherwise she would have been killed on the way in as many of her colleagues were.

The thing most people there didn't get about the bomb was that the shockwave traveled faster than sound, so that hit them before the sound of the bomb did, which is why, I guess, many people said they never heard a bomb go off. That's pretty bizarre in itself. The guys in the airplane that dropped the bomb were turning and flying away before it went off because it had a delay of about 45 seconds before it detonated. They felt a double shockwave because after the initial one of the bomb going off, they felt the rebound of the wave that hit the ground and bounced back to them. That's pretty weird to think of, too.

Americans were in denial about the effects of radiation poisoning, but the Japanese doctors, most of whom had no idea what this was, were seeing people die from it daily. It was a long time before many people realized exactly what the bomb had been, and even longer before Americans realized what they had really done. But the bomb ended the war; at least it came a sudden conclusion after Nagasaki bomb.

Was it worth those civilian lives to save allied soldier's lives? Those were the lives they thought it would cost the allies in an invasion of Japan, but was an invasion of Japan necessary? Was it necessary to take every single island one by one on the way to Japan? Would a fleet of warships showing up off Japan's coast have triggered a surrender without the bomb? Would a test of the bomb off the coast of Japan have ended the war without erasing two Japanese cities? These are questions this book doesn't address. Perhaps they never can be addressed.

I cannot commend this book unless you really, really, and I mean really enjoy reading excruciating detail. There are better sources for this material.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

Anne Frank by Isabel Sánchez Vegara, Sveta Dorosheva


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This tells a story everyone should know. Like Jane Austen, Anne Frank was a writer from a young age and she also died tragically young, thereby robbing the world of yet another worthy voice, but other than that, her story was radically different from that of Jane Austen.

Escaping Nazi Germany to live in Holland, the Franks thought they were safe, but they were not. They spent endless months in the middle of the war living hidden in a factory, but they were betrayed and split-up, and taken to concentration camps. Anne died just a few weeks before the camp was liberated. Her father was the only one of the family who survived those horrors. Her diary, mercifully, had not been destroyed and her father saw to it that it was published so that everyone might know her story. This book tells that story admirably, and I commend it.


Jane Austen by Isabel Sánchez Vegara, Katie Wilson


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This is another in a series aimed at making well-known historical people well-known to young children and as such is an admirable effort, if sometimes misguided as my previous review made clear. This one, however was a better offering. Austen needs no introduction which is presumably why this book gets right down to it!

It tells of her childhood (she was born only a hundred fifty miles or so from where I was born!), as a young girl in a large family of mostly boys, her listening in on her father's tutoring classes, and her love of reading. Jane Austen took up writing at an early age and made some interesting and amusing efforts at it. Her The History of England, which I read and reviewed last month as part of a review of her minor works, was hilarious.

The book, perhaps because it is aimed at children, mentions nothing of the tragedy of her death at such a young age (she had barely entered her forties), right in the middle of writing a new novel. But the story this does tell is positive, and empowering for your girls, and hopefully at least a few who read this will be moved to become writers themselves.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Behind Every Great Man by Marlene Wagman-Geller


Rating: WORTHY!

I did not expect great things from this book because of the nature of its construction: potted 'biographies' of women 'behind' much better known men (or behind a slightly better known woman in one instance), so I can honestly say it met my expectations. I felt it was worth reading though because whenever I read something I always have in mind whether it can be employed in some way to enhance my own writing, and histories and insights like the ones contained here are wonderful for that kind of thing - making characters more real and filling them out somewhat, or even for giving you an idea about a character you could make a novel out of.

Most of the forty stories here were interesting in their own right though, despite being so very brief, but I have to take issue with the word 'great' as used in the title. Some of these people weren't what any rational person would call great. Infamous was a better term when it came to historical characters like Hitler, the Rosenbergs, or Wagner (the racist German composer, not the actor).

The list was, as usual, heavily biased towards white couples (90%) and heterosexual couples (nearly 100%). On the other hand, these people are historical and many of the famous people that are typically recalled from history were white and cis, so maybe the problem was the available and already biased selection rather than selection bias.

Less understandable was the heavy bias toward the arts. Fifty five percent of these 'great men' were from such career pursuits as film, literature, stage, music, etc., with the vast bulk even of those from literature and to a lesser extent, music. Does this mean that those couples are more likely to have weird relationships or just that it was easier to dig dirt on those people without working too hard?

It certainly seemed like digging dirt was a major criterion for including a couple, since most were quite scandalous in various ways (although not by today's standards). Only two of these 'great' men were scientists and none engineers. There were no mathematicians, monarchy, biologists, inventors, astronomers, explorers, gymnasts, and only one each from the military, sports (surprisingly!), and from architecture. There were almost no really historical couples (most were from the last hundred years or so), and fifteen percent were in politics in one way or another.

The book didn't seem to have any sort of organization to it; it simply listed them out in apparently random order. Predictably, almost half of them were American, suggesting that half the great men in the world are necessarily born in the USA. I disagree. The next biggest chunk was from the UK, and the bulk of the rest European. This was a truly sorry bias.

The wives/partners covered were those of:

  • Karl Marx
  • Richard Wagner
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Mohandas Gandhi
  • Albert Einstein
  • Gertrude Stein
  • Bill Wilson
  • Alfred Hitchcock
  • Simon Wiesenthal
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Oskar Schindler
  • Salvador Dali
  • Adolf Hitler
  • Douglas McArthur
  • Julius Rosenberg
  • Ian Fleming
  • F Scott Fitzgerald
  • Billy Graham
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Gerald Ford
  • Aldous Huxley
  • CS Lewis
  • Stephen Hawking
  • Bernie Madoff
  • Jim Henson
  • Malcolm X
  • Samuel Beckett
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Arthur Miller
  • Timothy Leary
  • Jerry Garcia
  • Jim Morrison
  • Lech Walesa
  • Larry Flynt
  • Stieg Larsen
  • Gordon Sumner
  • Robin Gibb

Some of these men were truly despicable - and I am not necessarily referring to Hitler. Yes, Einstein, Hitchcock, Wagner, Wilson, and so on, I'm looking at you! Their wives put up with hell in many cases, although not in all. The story of Simon Wiesenthal and his wife was one of going through hell, but had a happy ending. Some of the other stories were equally fascinating. Some were boring, some a dismal mess. I only considered it a worthy read because I got it from the library. I wouldn't recommend buying it since you can probably get the same information from Wikipedia or elsewhere online if you wish to find it, but if you're interested in this sort of thing, it's worth a read.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen Minor Works


Rating: WORTHY!

As I mentioned in the previous review, I checked this out of the library at the same time as the other, only to discover that they pretty much contain the same material, so you takes your library card and you pays your respects, I guess. These can probably be found online these days so maybe a trip to the bookstore or library isn't necessary.

This volume contains very much the same thing the other did, but in a different order, this one being more chronological, and largely in reverse order of the other, strangely enough. Up front is young Jane's 'juvenilia' so-called, which consists of literary efforts preserved (and thankfully so) from her childhood which are amusing and very interesting for Austen fans. This is followed by Lady Susan a very short epistolary story which may have been written as early as the mid 1790's when Jane wasn't even in her twenties, but which wasn't actually published until almost a century later. Lady Susan is quite different from her other work.

There is also The Watsons (rather a prototype of Pride and Prejudice) and Sanditon, aka The Brothers, which was uncompleted at the time of her death. This book also contains quite a few poems written by Austen which make for interesting reading. I recommend this as a worthy read.


Sanditon and Other Stories by Jane Austen


Rating: WORTHY!

I got this from my local library out of curiosity. I got a companion volume to it also, but both volumes contain pretty much the same thing: the Jane Austen works that didn't quite make it big!

This volume contains what is commonly called Sanditon, which was the novel Austen was working on when she died. Her own title for it was The Brothers. Many people have pretentiously tried to 'continue' this novel since it was incomplete, but unsurprisingly, it has never taken off as her other major works did.

It contains Lady Susan, about a very aggressive and self-possessed older woman, which Austen finished right before she began work on "Elinor and Marianne" which came to be known as Sense and Sensibility, and following which she began her second full-length novel, "First Impressions" which is known today as Pride and Prejudice.

It also contains The Watsons - the story of Sherlock Holmes's famous companion before the two of them met. Just kidding! Seriously, The Watsons is about an invalid and impoverished clergyman and his four unmarried daughters. Sounds remarkably like Pride and Prejudice, doesn't it?!

Additionally this collection contains what's come to be called "Juvenilia" which is material Austen composed when she was a juvenile. Some of this is really quite amusing. It also contains Austen's tongue-in-cheek 'plan of a novel' and opinions she evidently collected, expressed by friends over her (then) recently published work such as Mansfield Park and Emma.

I recommend this for real fans of Jane Austen.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Comic Book History of Comics by Fred van Lente, Ryan Dunlavey, Adam Guzowski


Rating: WORTHY!

As someone who reads and reviews graphic novels from time to time (especially lately!), I could hardly overlook this, and having read it I can say I recommend it. It's pretty basic stuff with regard the artwork (drawn by Dunlavey, colored by Guzowski, and the text (by van Lente) is quite dense at times, so it makes for a long and detailed read, but overall it was truly informative and on occasion eye-opening.

It also features female contributors from history quite prominently, but on the downside, it does not seem to do the same thing for people of color. Whether this is because there were (historically speaking) none in the business, or because what they contributed was relatively little (which i doubt!), or if they were simply overlooked I don't know, but the fact that they're not given a look-in is disturbing. In a similar vein, it features only US comic book creators. It covers nothing of comic book activity outside the USA.

With those limitations in mind, it does seem otherwise quite comprehensive, and it goes into a lot of history, and quirks and fights, and how some aspects of the industry came to fruition, but it doesn't really go into the minutiae of any particular character's creation. This is more focused on the business itself and the key players historically, and some technical aspects of comic production, but it's not so much focused on the actual content the people and business created. For me, I enjoyed it and learned a few things, but I didn't feel it was an outstanding read. It was worthwhile reading though if you're interested in a behind the scenes kind of story, so this is how I rate it.


The Long-Lost Secret Diary of the World's Worst Dinosaur Hunter by Tim Collins


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a highly amusing book aimed at middle-grade readers. It's also quite short. I can't speak for middle-graders, but it amused the heck out of me! It seemed a bit far-fetched at first, all the bad luck this young girl was having trying to find dinosaur bones in the USA. Her first set turned into a crumbled mess in storage. She found more at a different location, only to be held-up at gunpoint by masked bandits and the bones were taken, and so it went.

Despite the far-fetched nature of the tale, I was willing to let this slide because it was a children's book, but then this girl figures out her expedition is being sabotaged, which I thought was a pretty good twist. The story is amusing, and the girl is plucky and smart: just my kind of female main character. She's also very patient with her opportunistic and rather avaricious father. The book is educational. Periodically there's a section which talks about the bones she finds and what kind of dinosaur it was and so on, and so I really liked this. I mean, what's not to like, especially since it's very loosely based on a real female dino-hunter?

It seemed to me to be the perfect story for any middle-grader interested in dinosaurs or in science in general. I'd have liked it slightly better if the girl had shown that she knew that you don't just find random dino bones. You have to look in certain rock strata where the bones would have been fossilized, so that information would have been nice. The assumption here is that the fossil hunter who prepared her maps would have marked the right location to search, but a small clarification about rock strata would have been a nice addition. I liked that she consulted books, journals and maps to plan her forays. That was a good touch. Overall, I enjoyed this very much and I recommend it as a worthy read.


The Beatles on the Roof by Tony Barrell


Rating: WORTHY!

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

This was a short, easy read, full of interesting facts, informative asides, and rife with anecdote, detailing the rather depressing period leading up to the street-clogging Beatles "concert" on the roof of their Savile Row office building in London's toney Mayfair district. What they were actually doing is making a documentary about making an album, and they had ascended to the roof to record some songs, which is why they played some of them more than once - although the video release of the occasion doesn't make this clear. The film though, in many ways, became a documentary about the disintegration of the Beatles, and Let it Be became their swan song, even though they went on to record an equally famous (if not more so) album directly afterwards, called Abbey Road.

It was perhaps a fittingly cold day - especially on the roof where the wind blew across a London unfettered by the plethora of skyscrapers which have sprouted there more recently - to reflect the chill between the fab four, each wanting their own life, their own way, their own recognition. John was into heroin and even more into Yoko. He seemed completely lethargic, leaving it all on Paul to try and keep things moving, which made the latter seem like a drill-sergeant at times. George was disillusioned with being treated as third string after the internationally famous song-writing duo of Lennon-McCartney.

Ringo, whom the other Beatles called Ritchie - which after all was his name! - was annoyed by the constant bickering. He took off for a two week holiday. Later, George announced he was quitting and walked out. Eventually they all came back together, perhaps never more so than on the roof that day, when everything was forgotten but the band and the music, and they rocked out just like they had a mere half-dozen years before, at the start of their distress-flare career which arced so brightly over the sixties.

Paul really wanted to do a live concert and record that for the album. They talked about places they could do it - such as Tunisia or Russia, or even some venue in London, but George was dead set against performing live again. As each new suggestion was tossed out, one or other of them would veto it until the idea arose, parodying the words of a McCartney song, "Why don't we do it on the roof?" And after having people come in an put up scaffolding so the roof would not collapse under the weight of the people and equipment, they did it on the roof on a day that will be remembered in fame.

This book makes for a fascinating read (although I could have done without being reminded yet one more time that Paul's Höfner violin bass still had the playlist stuck on it from their last (real) concert in San Francisco's Candlestick Park from several years before.

The book had some ebook issues of the type which are common in Amazon's crappy Kindle app. In this case the issue was that the um was removed from the laut! I'm joking, but what I mean by that is that, the umlauts are off to the right of the letter they're supposed to be hovering above! I have no idea how that happened, but it was consistent throughout the ebook.

Presumably this will be fixed before the published version is released. I didn't even know it was possible to separate them like that, but I promise you if the Kindle-izing process can screw up an ebook, it will. You can't submit anything to this system except plain vanilla text if you don't want it mangled. My recommendation is to use the Nook format or a PDF. But note that I am highly biased against Amazon for its business practices and for personal reasons.

Apart from that, I really enjoyed this book and I recommend it as a worthy read.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Freaks by Kieran Larwood


Rating: WORTHY!

Sheba is a freak, so-called. She has some sort of wolfish traits in her that don't come out at the full Moon, but which do surface when she's emotionally disturbed. Fortunately that isn't often, since she's quite accepting of her freakishness and her lot in life which is as a lonely exhibit on a pier in an obscure Victorian seaside town.

This all changes one day when a rotund man from London shows up with his traveling freak show and buys her from her 'owner'. She finds herself in a wagon full of people like her - not wolfish, but each with strange appearance or talents, and unfortunate smells. Sheba's enhanced sense of smell is one thing which is always on tap, she's sometimes sorry to suffer. At other times it can be very useful.

This change isn't a bad thing as it happens, because she finds acceptance and companionship in this circus as they travel back to London and take up residence in their permanent quarters, as a freak show in a dismal London side-street in a ramshackle, run-down and dirty house, where Sheba has to sit each day in a room so people can stare at her. But it's just for a short time and then she gets to have a decent bed and not too horrible food, which is new to her.

One day a little girl sneaks in to the show and meets Sheba, before the interloper is discovered and tossed out. The two of them bond in that moment, so when Sheba later learns that this same girl - a mudder who scours the low-tide banks of the Thames for anything of value to sell to buy food for her family - has gone missing, Sheba is moved to act. In her search for the mudder, she is joined by Sister Moon, a ninja girl with almost super-human speed and accuracy, and Monkey Boy, who is frankly gross-out disgusting.

This for me was the first and one of very few false steps in this Victorian era novel with steampunk elements, which is aimed at middle-grade readers. Given that three of the main five 'freak' characters are female, it suggests that the novel is aimed primarily at girls, yet the toilet 'humor' if you can term it that, is aimed at boys, so it made little sense. Other than that it was fine and it featured some other intriguing characters too, such as the woman who trains rats and the gentle giant who writes romance stories!

The plot became clear pretty quickly, but for younger readers it may remain more of a mystery for a little longer, and the story is engaging, with a few thrills and spills to keep a young heart racing, so overall I liked it. In some small ways it reminded me of the Philip Pullman series 'His Dark Materials' and young Lyra Belaqua. Sheba isn't quite like that, and this novel isn't in that league or about the same subjects, but young readers who enjoyed that might like this, and vice-versa. It's educational too, about the horrific conditions under which children lived, and how they were exploited back then, especially if they were not like most other children, so I recommend this as a worthy read.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Beyond the Green by Sharlee Glenn


Rating: WORTHY!

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

Not to be confused with Beyond the Glenn by Sharlee Green (I'm kidding!), this book was pretty darned good. It addresses a controversial issue of which the author has had some direct experience judged from her note at the end. I rarely read author's notes, and never read introductions, prefaces, prologues, and so on, but this note was interesting.

In 1978 a law was passed regarding how American Indian children in need of foster care should be treated. As usual, white folk had in the past assumed that they knew best, and simply taken Native American children into white Christian foster care giving no consideration even as to whether there were any native American relatives who could do the job, let alone others, and no consideration at all was given to Indian tradition or culture. It concerns me that this law applied only to Native Americans and gave no consideration to other cultures or even races, such as black or Asian. It seems to me that what's good for the cultural goose is also good for the ethnic gander, but that's outside the scope of this novel so I won't get into that here.

The middle-grade novel, set in 1979, evidently in some way mirrors what happened in the author's life, and is told from the perspective of a young Mormon girl, Britta Twitchell, whose family fosters a native American child from the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah for about four years. Rather than use the child's native American Ute name, they inappropriately named her Dorinda, and then shortened that to Dori. The child's actual name is the much more beautiful Chipeta. Her mother, Irene Uncarow, is an alcoholic, but she has recovered now and wants her daughter back. This causes Britta, the main character, to react very negatively, and start scheming to prevent her 'sister' from being abducted by this alien woman - at least that's the kind of viewpoint Britta has.

Her reaction is rather extreme, beginning with kidnaping Chipeta herself and running away, and later scheming to ruin Irene's sobriety so she can't reclaim her daughter. But Britta isn't dumb, she's just young and naïve, and she grows and learns lessons from her ill-conceived plans. The book isn't dumb either: it tells a real and moving story with interesting and complex characters and it does not shy away from talking about prejudice and alcoholism. There is always something happening, and it's not predictable - except in that you know that Britta's mind is very active and she will for certain cook-up another wild-ass plan before long.

The only issue I had with it was that it was a bit heavy on religion, but then this was a Mormon family. There was a minor instance of fat-shaming by Britta, but again, young kids are not known for their diplomacy. It's a different thing for a character to say something than it is for an author to say the same thing. Some people don't get that about novels! What a character says isn't necessarily what an author thinks!

For example, at one point Britta describes a loved aunt thus; "I pretty much idolized Aunt Mariah. She was pretty and spunky and smart." Normally I'd be all over something like that - placing prettiness above all else when it comes to describing women, as though that's the most important thing a woman has to offer, way before smarts, courage, integrity, independence, or whatever. I've seen far too many authors do that - including female authors, and it's shameful, but in this case it's the character, Britta, who is saying that. That's a different thing altogether, although having said that, it wouldn't have harmed this story to have had Britta rank 'spunky and smart' before 'pretty'!

But overall I really liked this story a lot. It's a great introduction for middle-grade children to the potential problems inherent in a family of one culture taking charge of a child from another. Anything that serves to open minds and enlighten children that different doesn't equate with bad or scary is to be recommended, and I recommend this as a worthy read.