Monday, January 29, 2018

Patrick Henry (Jon Kukla)

Jon Kukla’s Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty devotes nearly 400 pages to the life of one of the unsung heroes of the independence movement in America. Henry, known primarily for the quote “Give me liberty or give me death," never held federal office and spent the vast majority of his life in Virginia, serving his home colony and state in many different capacities. Kukla’s book documents Henry’s long and winding road as patriot, moderate, and devotee to his ideals of liberty.

This account is arguably one of the strongest biographies on this founding father, bringing to light how much leadership Henry brought throughout a several decade career in service as legislator, governor, attorney, and champion for the colonies as they struggled to break free of British rule. Kukla shows Henry’s leadership through the embryonic phase of America’s independence, both in his strength of moderation (such as in advocating for a strong bill of rights being attached to the Constitution despite his initial opposition to the document as it was written) and his occasional weakness in dealing with issues that would continue to plague the new country for decades to come (such as slavery and the divide between northern and southern states around economic policy and the role of the federal government in addressing issues).

Kukla brings out Henry’s eloquence of speech at various points throughout the book, whether addressing the issues of his day or addressing his opponents as they took challenge to what he would say. That eloquence shaped a man who was passionate about liberty and freedom, helping to spark the independence movement in this country beyond mere tavern talk. This thoroughly researched book is well worth reading, especially given Henry’s moderation and relative “maverick” spirit in comparison to much of our modern politics.


Monday, January 15, 2018

The Hunger (Alma Katsu)

The doomed Donner Party mixed with elements from The Walking Dead -- what could go wrong? Be sure you don't have a fresh manicure as you're reading Alma Katsu's The Hunger because you're sure not to have any nails left by the end.

Most readers will already know the horrible story of the ill-fated Donner Party, so I won't rehash it here. Katsu's characters include those people that are historically accurate, as well as a few fictional characters to flesh her story out. The Donners' dreams of going West are dashed as they must survive brutal weather and diminishing rations. Before long, things begin to happen that are unexplained, and their party has an uneasy feeling that they are being stalked. But by whom? And how will this contribute to what is known as one of the most horrific episodes in American history?

Katsu builds almost unbearable suspense, and it is almost made worse by the fact that as readers, we know at least part of what is going to happen. The middle of The Hunger was a little slow for me, but once things started to happen, I raced through each page to get to the ending, which included one terrible event after another. A truly original read!


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Bunk (Kevin Young)

In Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Phonies, Plagiarists, Post-Facts, and Fake News, author Kevin Young dives headfirst into the rich tradition of American fascination with everything fake. Covering 200 years of history, from Barnum to Trump, Dolezal to The Bearded Lady, forged works to forged “reality”,  Young’s thoughtful, candid research into the history of carnival-barking phonies and fraudsters is a fascinating read.

Not getting into too much detail, Bunk provides a candid timeline of the weaving of race, class, gender, and occasional criminality of several case examples.  Given our current environment in politics, news, and entertainment, Young delivers a reminder that America’s “been here, done that” many times before when it comes to putting show before substance, hype above honesty, and chicanery in front of correctness.

Young’s perspective and African American roots are woven effectively for context at key moments throughout the book and provide additional sources of perspective for students of history and of current events. I found myself captivated, yet shaking my head at the number of examples throughout history where we the people have truly been duped by sensationalism and outright fraudsters. My only wish is for Young to have crafted some sort of argument for us to get out of our sucker mentality; however, there’s enough history there for us to be able to realize that it may ultimately be on all of us to be more effective filters of “bunk” in the future.