Monday, January 17, 2022

Travels with George (Nathaniel Philbrick)

Nathaniel Philbrick recreates the 1789-1791 journeys of George Washington through America’s original 13 states in Travels with George. Washington’s journeys through America were done as part of a discovery tour into learning the different customs and insights of the newly constituted republic but also to help unite the residents of these states into one country. 

Travels with George is a play on John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, which was written in the 1960’s about Steinbeck’s travels with his dog. Philbrick brings his wife and dog along for these trips with the intent of seeing what America has become 230 years after Washington’s travels, but he also addresses Washington’s legacy then vs. now.  Philbrick stops at various places Washington slept, dined, or spoke at and discusses the changing interpretations of history over time and how historians and tour guides have changed narratives based on new evidence, views, and perceptions.

I felt at times that some themes were drilled in and beat upon much harder by the author than necessary. Additionally, the one theme I wish Philbrick had spent more time on is the idea of the President as unifier, especially in today’s era when candidates of both parties have disparaged large chunks of the population while campaigning. Many of the divisions that have plagued us throughout our nation’s history were themes in the 1790’s, and whether it be based on race, geography, economic class, or philosophy on government, Washington felt it his obligation as president to bring the country together. Unfortunately, that ship has long sailed.


Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Transcendentalists and Their World (Robert A. Gross)

The Massachusetts town of Concord has served as the birthplace of two revolutions in America’s history - the first, its war for independence as the second battle of the war occurred in 1775 on the same day as the battle in nearby Lexington. The second was the revolution of thought and literature that developed in the 19th Century from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Throeau, and later Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts. Why was Concord the town where America’s literary and philosophical revolutions arose?  Robert Gross’s The Transcendentalists and Their World dives into that very question.

According to Gross, Concord’s role as a hub for thinking and writing comes about due to a few key factors. One was the establishment and support of community institutions within the town. These institutions encouraged debate and community service to better the community and, as emancipation efforts grew, the wider world. The second factor was the religious diversification as a result of the Second Great Awakening and changes at the state level regarding established religion. New denominations sprouted within the town and created choice for its citizens. The third factor was the technological changes (such as the railroad) that helped integrate the town to the wider world, not just nearby Boston. All of these factors created the perfect incubator for a world that sprouted tremendous writing and innovative technologies for the time. 

Gross’s dive into Concord’s 19th Century life is incredibly detailed, thought out, and balanced. Even with the depth and detail, the book reads quickly, and I found myself immersed in it. The Transcendentalists will open a door to understanding how America grew up and changed through the eyes of one town’s role and contributions to those evolutions.


Thursday, December 23, 2021

Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Guide (Cecily Wong, Dylan Thuras, et al.)

The talent behind Atlas Obscura has taken a geographic food tour with Gastro Obscura, a globe-trotting tour of all things uniquely culinary. Edited and written by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras (among others), Gastro Obscura offers a mix of short writings, recipes, and other stories about the world’s unique tastes. If you’ve ever read Atlas Obscura online, you’ll likely assume (correctly) that this tour will be on the odd side.

If you’ve seen “Bizarre Foods” on TV or watched any Anthony Bourdain shows, you’ll see similarities in this book. Parts of a cow that most Americans wouldn’t touch, fermented foods that you didn’t think could even be fermented, and regionally unique dishes all get featured. Hot dishes, hot peppers, hot dogs, and food cooked over hot coals all get mentions.

It’s a fun book for adventurous foodies that also serves as a travel guide, giving advice on finding things such as The Lunchbox Museum or various festivals that pay homage to local foods. As someone who likes to travel and see unique sites, although without the full curiosity in my palate for odd foods that this book has, there are a good number of places that I can still add to my “need to visit” bucket list.


Tuesday, December 21, 2021

The Santa Suit (Mary Kay Andrews)

Mary Kay Andrews's The Santa Suit is advertised as a novella. It's a quick read, and if you go in not expecting much of a plot, you might come away enjoying it. For me, it was just so-so.

Ivy Perkins is recently divorced and impulsively buys a farmhouse from afar without even touring it first. Not only does the farmhouse need a lot of work, but it's also filled with the previous owner's furniture. Ezra, the real estate agent who sold her the house, helps her with some of the work, along with other people she meets in the charming town. 

In a closet, Ivy finds an old Santa suit with a note from a child in the pocket. The child has one wish -- that her father will return safely from the war. Ivy tries to find out information about the child, like who she was and if she ever got her wish. 

I wish The Santa Suit focused a little more time on this mystery. It (and the book) is resolved rather abruptly, and it would have made for a richer experience if we could have learned more. But it's a holiday novella, so I might be asking too much.


Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: Naval Aviation in the Vietnam War (Thomas McKelvey Cleaver)

The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is Thomas McKelvey Cleaver’s detailed account of air warfare over the eleven years the United States was involved in the Vietnam War. Cleaver recounts this history from the Gulf of Tonkin incident through just after the fall of Saigon in 1975 in a descriptive, analytical account.

Much of Cleaver’s book details the evolution in aircraft and combat strategy, involving accounts from a number of Naval veterans who provided first-hand details of flying in helicopters or airplanes and the challenges they had with the aircraft, as well as in dealing with the Department of Defense’s strategy throughout Vietnam.

Given our recent exit from Afghanistan, one of the most powerful and appropriate statements in the book comes from the introduction. Cleaver answers a question about lessons being learned from our time in Vietnam by saying “a five minute examination of the daily paper can quickly lead to the answer...” 

Cleaver, a Navy veteran who commanded ships that had been involved in Vietnam, brings a personal connection to this book. While it is a highly technical account of the conflict in Vietnam, it is a book that military historians and individuals who have an interest in aviation would have an interest in reading.


Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Last House on Needless Street (Catriona Ward)

When Catriona Ward's The Last House on Needless Street first came out, it had tons of buzz. It's rare that you'll find a long synopsis of it anywhere, too. That's probably because it's nearly impossible to say a lot about it without giving anything away. So I won't be doing that here either.

What I can say is that the book alternates its narrators between Ted, Lauren, and Olivia (a cat). We also learn about a child who has been kidnapped and her sister who won't give up the search. But nothing is as it appears.

For me, I didn't really understand the buzz. Once you figure everything out (I didn't find it too difficult), you'll realize that this has been done before. All in all, The Last House on Needless Street is a perfectly fine read, but not an earth-shattering one.


Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories (Tadeusz Borowski)

Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish writer and journalist who survived time at Auschwitz during World War II. Borowski’s short stories about life in the Polish ghettos and Nazi death camps have been translated by Madeline Levine into a collection called Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories.

Borowski’s time in Auschwitz was harsh and brutal. He reflects on working on a railway ramp, witnessing Jewish victims arriving to their deaths in the gas chambers, being told to leave their personal effects at the train station as soon as they arrived. He also describes his time working in a Nazi “hospital” and the torturous experiments done on Jews and others. After the war, a small sampling of writings from Borowski discusses more of his time in Nazi camps. Silence, which is included in this collection, describes the aftermath of the liberation of Dachau. 

Here in Our Auschwitz is certainly not light reading. It is dark and not something that can be easily read. It will require reflection and likely will need some time to digest. Borowski’s stories are a reminder of how evil our worst side of humanity can be and that we need to remain vigilant to ensure the continuation of human rights and decency towards all.