Tag Archives: nonfiction

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.