Tag Archives: history

Review: American Agriculture: From Farm Families to Agribusiness (Mark Wetherington)

American Agriculture traces the very beginning of agriculture in America from the earliest days of settlement well into the current giant agribusiness outfits that control the vast majority of American farmland.

This is not, however, just a dry recitation of facts and figures and graphs about farming. Wetherington also goes into social, economic, and political considerations that trailed along ag (and later, Big Ag), through periods off boom – wars, foreign markets -and busts – Dust Bowl, collapsing markets, and movement of rural people to cities, looking for work off the farm.

We also get to see how the addition of heavy machinery, subsidies, and chemical pesticides helped boost production per acre to astronomical levels, to better feed the US and the world. On the downside of that, if the market for a particular commodity collapses, the government can and does step in to help offset the losses farmers experience and to make it worth their while to simply not plant the next round of crops.

If you’re curious about the evolution of agriculture in the country, or how it affects people and policy, it’s a good read.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Rowman & Littlefield and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Iron Women: The Ladies Who Helped Build the Railroad (Chris Enss)

Having enjoyed Chris Enss’ Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West some years ago, I had high hopes for Iron Women. However, the title is a bit misleading, and I didn’t much care for the writing, what there was of it. It seems more like notes made in the course of research, or verbatim transcribing of quotes, and women didn’t actually work on laying the the physical rails.

Their contributions were in rail-adjacent items: engineering better bearings on axle wheels, designing the interior of the cars, creating refrigerated boxcars, and so on. All these things, of course, are incredibly important to rail travel overall, for both people and goods. There were other women, from the bad side of the tracks, as it were, as well: prostitutes and train robbers also plied their trades. I don’t see, however, how these women contributed anything to “building the railroad”, and the text didn’t enlighten me to see how they were.

I was disappointed in this outing. Two out of five stars. Sorry, this was a miss (ha!) for me.

Thanks to Rowan & Littlefield and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster 1874: Heroes, Victims, Survivors (Phyllida Scrivens)

In 1874, a momentary lapse – in protocol and in communication – at a railway station in Norwich led to the head on collision between two trains on a single trail rail line at Thorpe St Andrew, in Norfolk, England. Almost two dozen people died; scores more were injured.

The book begins by introducing us to some of the people aboard the train. for some, we get two or three paragraphs. For some, we get two or three pages (especially if they are part of the aristocracy or are involved in the actual running of the train). I do usually enjoy this, but after awhile I found myself skimming them – it became a little tedious, and very difficult to remember all of them, especially given the sheer number of Johns and Roberts and Marys and Anns, and all the other quite common names primarily given in that place at that time.

The most interesting art of the book is the breakdown of the accident and just how a series of errors, boiled down to one single lapse, can have disastrous results. In this case, the trains were running late. At the time, the station agent had to give he telegraph clerk a written slip – signed – so the clerk could transmit the authorization to proceed down the line. In Norwich, the clerk had a group of friends in the office, against protocol, and the station agent, aggravated by this and by the lateness of the train, failed to sign off on the authorization. The telegraph clerk transmitted it anyway, which set the trains on the collision course toward one another. Although the engineers on both trains saw each others’ trains coming and attempted to brake, it was too late for the crash to be avoided.

After the crash, people from towns on both sides of the crash flocked to the area to pull people from the wreckage. The engineers and firemen (coal stokers) in both trains were killed instantly, as were a number of people in first class at the front of the trains. Other people suffered rather gruesome injuries, ranging from severed limbs to burns from the boilers spewing uncontrolled steam.

For the time, the response was remarkable, in my opinion. Constables went door to door in each town looking for doctors and nurses to help the wounded, and a response train, loaded with supplies and more medical professionals, ferried wounded from the crash site to yet another town, moving back and forth through the evening.

We get the details for many of the people we met a the opening of the book, dead or alive/wounded, but again, without flipping back to the beginning, I couldn’t place about half of them. Quite a number of the doctors get their chance to shine here as well. working doggedly to save who they could.

The inevitable lawsuits begin, and most of the blame is found to lie with the station agent (and the railway, of course).

The book ends with a sort of “where are they now” look at what happened post-Thorpe to many of the wounded and the doctors who treated them.

If you can get past the first part, it’s a four star read. The beginning, though, just gets a two. I’m spitting the difference and giving it three stars.

Thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men, and Fraudsters (Railey Jane Savage)

I generally love books about swindles, cons, and assorted grifters, no matter the time period – after all, Bernie Madoff is just Charles Ponzi with internet access.

Neither of those men play a part in this book. Not including Ponzi was an interesting omission, as the book covers selected people and incidents between 1850 and 1950 and Ponzi was active within that period, but perhaps that’s because so much has been written about him that having another swindler in line to step up to the spotlight was a good call.

While the book covers other con men and women and their schemes, the most fascinating one for me was the one that leads the book: Gordon Gordon, the supposed Lord of Glencairn, from Scotland, once he flees England to America, first trying to swindle people with land deals in Minnesota, and moving from there to New York This is mainly due to him interacting with many of the biggest power brokers of the gilded age. Among them were Horace Greeley (“Go west, young man!”) and shady mogul Jay Gould, whose was up to his eyeballs in his own scandal in the Erie Railroad, and who was so desperate he went along with what could only be termed a fantastical scheme cooked up by Gordon Gordon, and wound up just another mark. As Gordon Gordon’s con plays out, another figure pops up, although briefly: Diamond Jim Fisk. This was at a time when those various power brokers were trying to corner the gold market via claims in Alaska. Why did this please me? Because I have read and reviewed a book solely about that attempt called A Most Wicked Conspiracy (I gave it five stars, it’s excellent).

The others, comparatively, didn’t grab me the way the Gordon con did, but that were all readable and interesting in their own way – and likely things most people have never heard about. The last chapter, dealing with the faked Drake disk – supposedly set by Francis Drake as he circumnavigated the globe, came in second for me, and I felt rather badly for the man who was basically pranked by so-called friends. I thought that was rather nasty work.

I realize the ebook version sometimes has its issues with ARCS and their formatting, but the formatting was atrocious., with giant, bold text at random places, giving the publisher name, but also sometimes containing a piece of a sentence, and in the middle of the page. The beginning of each chapter gives the date, place, amount of the con and the things it involve (free hotels, jewels, cash, etc), and the main assorted players. These were also often formatted poorly, and I hope that is repaired prior to publication.

Overall: four out of five stars.

Thanks to Rowan & Littlefield, Lyons Press, and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Watching Darkness Fall: FDR, His Ambassadors, and the Rise of Adolf Hitler (David McKean)

Decades after WWI, the US people, and most of the US government, truly believed in Woodrow Wilson’s insane and unworkable isolationism stance. I understand the wish to not be dragged into some war that’s not yours to fight, but the US and everyone else on the planet have been globalists almost as soon as (most of) the map had been tentatively finalized. Backbiting Ambassadors too interested in their own machinations on higher office don’t help.

Watching Darkness Fall is primarily the story of FDR – both a Wilsonian politician and charged with pulling the U out of the Great depression – and four of his Ambassadors, posted to offices in Europe. Of the four included in this book, only one seemed to understand the threat posed by Hitler in Germany, and the great conflagration he would cause: William Dodd. He warned FDR, early and often, that Hitler was going to be a problem to our allies (especially Great Britain and France) and potentially the world at large. The others – Breckenridge Long in Italy, William Bullitt in Russia and subsequently in France, and Joseph P. Kennedy – either heaped praise on a fascist while acting like a tourist (Long), wrote what amounted to love letters to FDR (seriously!) and constantly painted a pretty picture for him, even while things were falling apart, and had the audacity to think he could speak for the US or French(!) government when the leaders fled France, all the while angling for a job as head of the war department (Bullitt), or were anti-Semites, particularly uninterested in the plight of Jews in Germany (Long and Kennedy).

It isn’t an easy read, particularly to start; there are names and history and political dealings thrown at the reader in order to set the stage. Presumably anyone reading this would have a basic understanding of the runup to WWII. If you do not, it will likely be fairly rough sailing, at least until all the characters are in place.

Once that’s complete, however, it’s easy to see – through letters, diaries, newspapers, and official government issues – just how ready some were to allow Europe and possibly even Russia go up in flames because no one really wanted to hear any bad news from abroad, much less help our own allies fight against a maniac. It’s especially troubling to read Bullitt’s missives. He was grossly unqualified and unprepared for the duty he accepted. Equally disgusting was Long, who deliberately held up visas for those fleeing to the US, especially Jews and even children, and Kennedy, who urged FDR to make people with Hitler.

The book ends rather abruptly, but by that point, I was tired of all of them and quite glad of it.

Five stars, no doubt in my mind.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Dirty Gold (Jay Weaver, Nicholas Nehamas, Jim Wyss, Kyra Gurney)

Dirty Gold explores illegal (wildcat) mining (mainly) in Peru, and the dubious ways gold brokers – such as those detailed in this book – manage to sell or obtain that gold to be recycled and sold to other entities or made into consumer goods.

I’ll say this right off the bat: writers of narrative nonfiction could use this as a textbook. It is intelligently laid out, the cast of characters not only denoted before the book begins, but named and described in the text in a way that does not require constant flipping to the beginning to see who is who, the history of illegal mining given (but not in an overwhelming way) along with the sociological, economic, corruption, and political ties to it, and how the various schemes worked to get the gold out of South America. It’s masterful.

At its base, this book is about three men in Miami – Juan Pablo Granda, Samer Barrage, and Renato Rodriguez, dubbed the three amigos – working on behalf of a larger company, manage to bring an astonishing $3,6 billion worth of mainly Peruvian gold to their company. In doing so, both they, and their primary local buyer in Peru, go to a great number of steps to obscure the actual origin of the gold. Those steps include the creation of fake/shell companies, smuggling Peruvian gold to other countries in order to export it to the US, and failed or too-loose vetting of the supposed exporting companies in Peru that declared the gold obtained in a legal manner.

If you’re interested in anything related to gold, money laundering, smuggling, political and law enforcement corruption, sociological, ecological, and health impacts of illegal mining, and the utter chasm between those riding high on the backs of those in abject poverty, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Absolutely a five out of five star read. I’d also recommend “A Most Wicked Conspiracy”, about the Alaskan gold rush, another five star read.

Thanks to Public Affairs and NetGalley for the review copy.

 

REVIEW: The Ravine (Wendy Lower)

In 2009, Wendy Lower (author of Hitler’s Furies , another worthy book to add to your TBR list) comes across a photo from Miropol, Ukraine: a woman, toddler in her arms, baby at her feet, being shot by a Ukrainian collaborator during operations in that country during WWII. The title refers to the ravine into which people fell after being executed for no reason other than they were not part of the so-called “master race”.

What follows is an excellent, although horrifying read, of Lower’s investigation into this photo. This entails records retrieved in various countries – the US, Ukraine, Germany, and Israel – talking with people and/or potential witnesses, and eventually spans ten years to finally identify the doomed family as well as the Slovakian photographer who was not supposed to be taking pictures of these operations.

If you’re at all interested in the Holocaust or the European Theater of Operations during WWII, you’ll likely be as engrossed in this book as I was, even given – or especially because of the book’s subject, something no one should ever forget.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Nine (Gwen Strauss)

Full title:

The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany

How do people withstand the most horrific abuses performed by a nation led by a madman?

There are many books about soldiers surviving what were basically death camps when they were taken prisoner, about well planned and executed escapes, about spies hanging on, in hiding, while an entire militarized police force look for them.

The Nine has all of that, and more. It’s the story of nine women, resistance fighters in WWII, captured and interrogated by French police before being sent off to Germany for interrogation by the Gestapo and ultimately imprisoned at a work camp.

The primary focus is on the author’s great aunt Hélène Podliasky, who ultimately became the de facto leader of the group as they met one another in their journey from freedom to prison and back to freedom again.

Where this book shines comes after all of that – after the beatings, the torture, the forced work, and all manner of atrocities. As Germany was facing defeat, some of the camps, including the one housing The Nine, were sent on forced marches, to move prisoners from outlying areas about to be overrun, to prisons closer to what was left in German hands. During their march, they took a chance and fled the march, running into the forest, heading for France.

This journey, free of guards and the wire of prisons, wasn’t any easier than that. Along the way, they found both people willing to help them, and people who had no interest in doing so, preferring to turn them in. They also found those who wanted to use them for their own ends – soldiers, for instance, who thought the Allies would look more favorably on them if they were found assisting a group of former prisoners.

The author is a poet, and it shows. It’s a fantastic piece of narrative nonfiction, although I would say that if you’re just dipping your toes into the water of the cruelest parts of WWII, or if you’re just learning about it, you might want to start with a broader history first, to understand the whole of the war, then narrow to the final days of the European theater before reading this. Doing so will better inform the reader about that particular point in the war, and how the engineered system developed by the German leadership was breaking down.

Much like Night (Elie Wiesel, another must-read), The Nine captures the sense of how it was to live with daily atrocities, and how people came through them.

Highly recommended – a five star read.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy

Pub date: May 4, 2021

Review: Heroes of the RNLI (Martyn R Beardsley)

Almost 200 years ago, Sir William Hillary was key in forming the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – an organized rescue service made up of people fearless (or scared but willing to do it anyway) enough to head out into gales and storms and anything else the sea could throw at boats and ships to rescue anyone who could be rescued. In his time, of course, those rescue attempts were often just people oaring their way out into the sea. These days, the rescues are more high tech, but no less hair-raising at times.

This book is not so much just a history of the service, but a book of many of the more exciting/dramatic/history-making rescues, with the history of the service woven in here and there as the summaries of those rescues move forward in time. Some of them (Grace Darling) are more well known outside the UK than others – most others, I would say. They all, however, encapsulate quite well the deeds of people willing to risk their own lives to save others.

If you like real life rescue stories, and derring-do on the sea, you’ll likely enjoy this collection of stories and the history sailing underneath them.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to Pen & Sword and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization (Roland Ennos)

I’m a sucker for a single-item “history of” books. The best books of this nature, I’ve found, are those that are telling a *story* of the history versus those that are simply a history. Books like Salt (Mark Kulansky) or Longitude (Dava Sobel) are terrific examples of the narrative nonfiction that will pull the reader in to the world of the subject, riding along like a time traveler following a single strand of history.

There were instances where I felt that same tug from The Age of Wood, but unfortunately, I found them to be rare. The book is still quite interesting, chasing down the use of wood over the centuries and to the current day, assuming you’re interested in a rather dry overall tone.

Those with an acute interest in wood, or people just looking to learn something on the subject will likely be more willing to get through an almost textbook-like reading than the casual reader, and it’s worth it, in my opinion. It’s relatively short, which brought to my mind the question of whether the storytelling was not enough to push it to a longer page count and more relaxed narrative, or whether the publisher or author decided about 300 pages was all they were willing to venture into the subject. Either way, the book suffers for it.

There are numerous discussions of things built with wood versus metal, and a somewhat questionable (to me) passage about Amazonian deforestation, and into the modern time period, quite a bit of page count given over to metal – not what I was here for.

Overall, it isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, for a book about a resource indispensable to humans ancient and modern, which I’d think is a fascinating topic.

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the review copy.