Tag Archives: nonfiction

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 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.

Review: War of Shadows (Gershom Gorenberg)

If you’re interested in WWII, and specifically, the North African Theater battles between the Desert Fox himself and British forces, this is a book for you.,

Gorenberg helpfully provides a listing of all the players at the front of the book, so if you’re not intimately familiar with everything that was going on in the chaos of North Africa, you’ll find that handy, The story, at its heart. is about people: their victories, but also their great failures. Both are abundant here – it is a war, after all.

It’s a dense book, and requires attention. Here and there, it strays a little outside the lines (and it is clear the author is both very familiar with and very passionate about the period examined during these periods). However, it is a worthy read, an these occasional ramblings are worth it in the overall scheme of things.

Four and a half stars out of five, for the rambles, rounded up to five for a well-written and entertaining (as entertaining as war can be) book.

Thanks to Perseus Books/Public Affairs and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Maniac (Harold Schechter)

Maniac: The Bath School Disaster and the Birth of the Modern Mass Killer

In 1927, a disgruntled and very pettily angry Andrew Kehoe detonated explosives he had planted under the Bath Consolidated School, killing 38 children and five adults (including himself). Kehoe had also set the buildings on his farm ablaze after killing his wife, as well as destroyed his equipment and tied his horses’ legs together so they were unable to escape the fire.

In the meticulously researched, quite detailed, and well-written Maniac, Harold Schechter provides the details leading to Kehoe’s destruction of the symbol on which he focused his rage and the man who ran it – in fact, the entire history of how the township of Bath came to be in the first place comprises the opening chapters.

Eventually, we get to Andrew Kehoe and his wife, Nellie, who move into Nellie’s family’s homestead after her parents die. By all accounts, Kehoe is quick to lend a hand when people need it, and asks nothing in particular in return. He is an upstanding member of the community, attends church, and in general never strikes anyone as anything other than what he is.

This changes, though, when the Bath Consolidated School is constructed and a tax is levied for its upkeep and the salaries of those employed there, from teachers to janitor. After a bad year on the farm, Kehoe’s rage is directed toward the school, the tax, and the head of the school. He manages to get himself elected to the Board, and immediately begins micromanaging what he can, attempting to torpedo the raise and vacation time of the head of the school, and instead of hiring someone to fix the issues that come up in the school – wiring, installing boilers, plumbing, and so forth – Kehoe, being a mechanically-minded man, does them instead. In his mind, he is saving the school money. In the process, he is also learning details he will use later in his nefarious plans.

When elections for the board come around again, to his shock, Kehoe is not supported by his party, having burned too may bridges with his aggressive and controlling ways. This fuels even more resentment.

By now months behind on his mortgage, Kehoe stockpiles 500 pounds of pyrotrol, an explosive used widely in WWI and manufactured in the millions of pounds by chemical companies in the US. He also purchases dynamite, which seems odd to us today, but both were considered normal ways to deal with things like boulders and tree stumps when clearing land for farming.

From this point, we get a ticking timeline of witness statements: from someone seeing Kehoe take crate after crate into the basement of the school, to movements of student and teachers in the school, to people who first notice Kehoe’s farm on fire.

As the clock ticks to 9:45AM, the destruction begins, with more details of where people were, inside and outside the school. Warning: there are some gruesome descriptions of injuries as the people of Bath start digging through the rubble. Included in this part of the narrative is how, after sufficient rubble had been cleared and the dead and injured counted, the men who went into the basement made the horrifying discovery that Kehoe had packed all of the pyrotel he’d purchased in various parts of the basements, all wired to the same ignition battery. The battery was apparently not strong enough to detonate all of the explosives – had it been, the school would likely have been just a crater in the ground, and much of Bath and many of its inhabitants would have been killed.

This takes about half the book. The second half is a discussion of mass (and not so mass) murders and how they are viewed by the public, including bringing up previous mass murders like Bath when subsequent mass murders make the news. It’s also a discussion about how atrocities like Bath can be readily forgotten because of other news – Schechter uses Lindbergh’s solo, nonstop flight from New York to Paris, for instance, as an example. But, he always returns to Bath. From Columbine to Whitman in the Tower to the Alfred Murrah bombing in Oklahoma to Virginia State to Parkland, he hammers on stories about those hearkening back to Bath, one of the earliest known intentional mass murders in our collective history.

The first half is definitely stronger than the second, and – and this is a point he makes – likely more interesting, because of human nature. The second half, however, is worth the time to read. While the book is geared toward US readers, it would likely be of interest to readers in other countries who take an interest in the history of mass killings (not serial killings; this is not the story of a serial killer).

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Little A and NetGalley for the review copy.