Friday, September 29, 2023

Just Like Home (Sarah Gailey)

Ahh, it's almost October -- my favorite time of year. As soon as Labor Day is over, my thoughts turn to spooky reads. I thought that's what I was getting with Sarah Gailey's Just Like Home. Instead, I got a book that seriously missed its mark by the end.

One day, Vera receives a phone call from her mother, Daphne. Daphne is dying and wants Vera to come home to sort things out in the Crowder House. The problem -- beside the fact that Vera has long been estranged from Daphne -- is that this is a house where her serial killer father murdered his victims. 

This is all that happens for the first 2/3 of the book, and actually, I found this part really interesting and suspenseful. It's the ending that's a bit of a mess, and I think I figured out why. At least for me, even the most far-fetched horror book has to have some semblance of reality in it. Think of Stephen King's It -- the way it is written, I truly believe that a deranged clown could be in the sewer. But by the end, Just Like Home goes beyond far-fetched into the ridiculous, which ruined the book for me.


Monday, September 25, 2023

In Sardinia: An Unexpected Journey in Italy (Jeff Biggers)

The Mediterranean island of Sardinia is one of the more unique places in all of Europe with a fusion of Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian, Phoenician, and North African influences having blended into the island over its rich history. While Sardinia has been a part of Italy since the country’s unification in 1861, it maintains a very distinct identity much like its Sicilian neighbors to their southeast. 

Author Jeff Biggers embarked on a long journey around the island to experience its cuisine, its literature, and its history. In Sardinia: An Unexpected Journey In Italy is the culmination of those travels. What I appreciated the most about In Sardinia is that the chapters are short and generally focused, and I felt that the book took me on both a geographic journey around the island and a journey through time. While I was a bit disappointed in the lack of pictures within the book, Biggers’s descriptive writing was a very apt substitute and helped my imagination capture what Biggers experienced in his time in Sardinia.

The author’s storytelling and ability to paint the picture of a beautiful island has helped ensure that In Sardinia will not be the last travel book I read anytime soon.


Saturday, September 2, 2023

Just Like Mother (Anne Heltzel)

The creepy doll face on Anne Heltzel's Just Like Mother tells you all you need to know about what's inside these pages. This is a disturbing, spine-chilling story for the most part, but falls flat in some places.

Maeve and Andrea are close cousins who grew up in a cult run by "mothers." After Maeve escapes, she is adopted by a loving family and tries to have a normal life. She always wonders, however, what happened to her cousin. When they're both adults, Maeve is happy when Andrea finally contacts her. Andrea is a wealthy woman who made her money in the fertility industry. But childhood memories run deep -- this book doesn't have the aforementioned creepy doll face on the cover for no reason. 

While the story itself was horror personified, I felt it didn't go deeply enough into the cult aspect. Who were the mothers? What was the purpose of Boy? There were a lot of questions that left me wondering. 

That being said, it's been a long time since I actually gasped while reading a book, but Just Like Mother made me do so in many places. It's scary, and above all, one could see a story like this happening in real life (but let's hope not). 


Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Travelers to Unimaginable Lands: Stories of Dementia, the Caregiver, and the Human Brain (Dasha Kiper)

Taking care of loved ones with dementia is emotionally draining on the best of days. The caregiver tries in vain to help that loved one with basic day-to-day recollection of events, place, space, and all things living as the loved one’s memory slips and their behavior changes. Dasha Kiper’s book Travelers to Unimaginable Lands: Stories of Dementia, the Caregiver, and the Human Brain examines not so much the loved one with dementia but the caregiver, specifically how the workings of the caregiver’s “healthier” brain prevents them from adapting to and understanding the loved one that is suffering from dementia.

Kiper highlights several stories of parents and children along with husbands and wives: A man believing his spouse is an impostor, a woman who has imaginary friendships, and a woman whose childhood trauma emerges to torment her son. These are all too common examples of dementia in various forms, not just Alzheimer’s Disease that many of us are more familiar with at a high level. Despite “knowing better” that one’s memory is suffering, all too often the caregiver will slip up and resort to confrontation and taking these symptoms personally. Kiper’s book showcases these struggles.

Travelers to Unimaginable Lands is thoughtful and insightful. Dementia not only directly impacts the individual suffering from it but it also produces downstream, indirect impacts on the people who care for and support the loved one. While Travelers does not answer the question “how do you easily fix that,” it does help the caregiver sense that they are not alone and that they can and should find support and solace with others who are going through the same situation.


Thursday, August 17, 2023

A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, the Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South (Peter Cozzens)

A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, the Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South by Peter Cozzens details the impact the Creek War of 1813 had on American history. The Muscogee, as the Creek nation is more properly referred to as, had lived in what is now Alabama and Georgia for centuries. Many Muscogee accommodated and adopted White customs, including individual property rights and even slavery. Some Muscogee intermarried with Whites, and factions soon developed within the Muscogee nation between traditionalists, who wanted to purify their land and rid it of increasing White influence, and those who were willing to adopt and adapt to the encroachment of Americans.

Cozzens weaves two histories into A Brutal Reckoning. First: The Muscogee’s own history and its eventual cessions of land throughout the American Southeast through the course of unfair treaty and warfare with militias. Second: The rise of Andrew Jackson and his tendency for brutal reckonings and high capacity for violence. Jackson’s nickname, “Old Hickory,” was a devotion to his steadfastness under harsh conditions; he also earned the name “Sharp Knife” from Indian allies because of his ruthlessness.Both of these histories, complex in their own right individually, are woven together effectively throughout the book. 

The Fort Mims massacre and the Battle of Horseshoe Bend were not large battles in the annals of American history, but Cozzens highlights the importance of these battles. Within 25 years of these battles, the whole of the Southeast was effectively cleared of tribal nations thanks to a successive series of land grab treaties and forced relocations, with the result being millions of acres of land that could support agriculture (and thus slavery). A Brutal Reckoning highlights this lesser known war, which raged while the War of 1812 was capturing the nation’s attention, but was arguably much more significant than “Mr. Madison’s War” in the course of American history.


Monday, August 7, 2023

Easy Money: American Puritans and the Invention of Modern Currency (Dror Goldberg)

Paper currency has existed in various forms since the 7th Century, having first been developed in China. Within European realms, the first paper banknotes were developed by the Swedes in the middle of the 17th Century as a means of payment. The system lasted three years before the central bank that backed the notes went bankrupt. However, the concept that currency could be backed by the faith of the government eventually was tried again.

Dror Goldberg’s Easy Money: American Puritans and the Invention of Modern Currency traces the development of currency in Massachusetts in 1690 to help finance a frontier war the colonists were fighting against the French. In this book, Goldberg explains the mix of circumstances that allowed this experiment to take place, including political instability in England, a lack of coin-based money in Massachusetts, and the economic heft that the colony had within New England and the rest of the developing American East coast.

Goldberg does a wonderful job explaining the evolution of money and the early stages of modern economic thinking in the 17th century and how Massachusetts' actions helped keep the peace domestically but also helped shape how money was thought about and used in the centuries to come.


Friday, July 28, 2023

Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues (Jonathan Kennedy)

Conventional historical wisdom suggests that human progress has been due to intellect and technological superiority, ably outfoxing and outsmarting any threat to its existence from neanderthals to foreign powers. Author Jonathan Kennedy, however, argues that microbes win wars, topple empires, and hellp change the course of history.  

Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues tracks human history from the development of homo sapiens through COVID-19, diving into eight major outbreaks of disease that shaped the modern world. From the demise of the neanderthals to the Black Plague in the Middle Ages to European conquests of the Americans, viruses have often played a critical role in shaping the outcome of history. Kennedy notes how religions have become mainstream because of pandemics on more than one occasion, and also talks about the role of economics in shaping modern pandemic outcomes.

In general, Kennedy makes a lot of good points about how viruses and bacteria have been an unseen and, until now, underrated force in shaping our history. While little attention is given to improving human health in the future, Pathogenesis offers a strong case to show us that human health has had a strong role in shaping our overall story.