Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck That Shook America by Michael McCarthy

Profiles of the central personalities involved in the career of the SS Eastland help to bring this compelling tale to life.

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After more than a decade of research, journalist and Chicago resident Michael McCarthy shares a heartbreaking history in Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck that Shook America. McCarthy gives this little-known Lake Michigan tragedy a thorough and compassionate telling and covers the media frenzy and indictments that followed.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on November 27, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 6 inches.

For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw by Nancy Marie Mithlo and the Smithsonian Institution

Arresting images of his community, taken by a Kiowa photographer, enriched by commentary.

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Horace Poolaw (1906-1984), a Kiowa Indian from Oklahoma, was an avid photographer who never made a living from that passion. For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw is the first major collection of his work, and serves as companion to a 2014 exhibition under the same name at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Poolaw’s own photographs of his family and community, many never before published, are accompanied by related artwork in a collection of more than 150 images; these striking, vibrant images are not the only appealing aspect of this beautiful book. Essays and interviews by scholars, natives and non-natives, artists and activists and Poolaw’s family put his work in artistic, political and historical context, and portray him as documentarian of his time, place and people. These diverse contributors express Poolaw’s intention to preserve his piece of the 20th century, and complement the richness of his vivid work.


This review originally ran in the November 28, 2014 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 feathers.

Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest by Ian McAllister

Beautiful photographs of the Great Bear Rainforest, at risk on the west coast of Canada.

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Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest is an impassioned plea for the conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, photographed and written by Ian McAllister (“talk to anyone in the Great Bear about wildlife and eventually Ian’s name will come up,” writes Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., in the foreword). This distinctive coastal region is threatened by pipelines, oil tankers and liquefied-natural-gas transport; environmental groups and First Nation people are coming together in the fight to protect the enormous biodiversity, cultural heritage and immense beauty at stake.

McAllister, an accomplished photographer and longtime resident of the Great Bear, has local connections and a deep understanding of the issues at hand. Readers can flip through his work solely for the breathtaking photographs–of bat stars, spirit bears, sea wolves, salmon and many other remarkable creatures–but this accomplished collection also begs to be consumed chapter by chapter, for its ardent, beautifully written, informative prose.


This review originally ran in the November 28, 2014 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 herring eggs.

Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt

The historic quest for naval navigation measurements, heavily illustrated and enlightening.

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For the tercentenary of Britain’s Longitude Act of 1714, the Royal Museums Greenwich offers an exhibition and accompanying book, Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude. For centuries, longitude, which locates a place on the Earth on an east-west basis, was impossible to track at sea, posing not only economic but safety challenges. This issue was eventually solved in the 1700s, largely by British scientists and philosophers, including astronomers, inventors and clockmakers. The story of quest for a solution–first define the question, then ascertain a reliable way to determine longitude while out in the open ocean, then build reliable and consistent tools–is one of innovation, cooperation and competition, as well as science. Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt, both researchers and museum curators, relate the quest for longitude in accessible prose, complementing the text with more than 150 images, maps and artwork. While the ample notes will be welcomed by academic readers, the intriguing and varied illustrations and lively subject matter–a first-class adventure tale–will entertain anyone who dreams of travel and exploration.


This review originally ran in the November 28, 2014 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 degrees.

Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman

mausI have heard about this book for years, and am glad I finally picked it up.

Art Spiegelman’s father was a survivor of Auschwitz. Subtitled (excellently) “My Father Bleeds History,” this book tells the elder Spiegelman’s story, as told to Art, complete with the dialog between father and son that constitutes Art’s research. The action therefore switches back and forth between late-twentieth-century New York City and 1930’s Poland. The father-and-son interview portions are humorous, although with a sad note: Vladek Spiegelman is unhappily married following the suicide of his first wife (Art’s mother), Anja. The flashback parts are, naturally, disturbing, as they tell the story of Polish Jews as Nazi Germany pushed into Poland.

There is also a love story, that of Anja and Vladek, and the family story of Art and Vladek, father and son, getting to know one another and setting boundaries (as in the question of calling in the middle of the night about fixing downspouts). As Art himself laments, Vladek makes for quite a stereotypical – or racist – image of an older Jewish man: he is stingy with his money, manipulates his son using guilt, and speaks in a broken English dialect that I found quite charming, actually. But the story itself is killer, of course. There is a part II, and why do I not already have it here in my hands?

I am no connoisseur of comic (or cartoon?) art (I don’t even know what to call it). I will say that the art is fine, good: lots of black, easy to read (remarkably easy to read – I don’t do many graphic novels, and this one flew by). Spiegelman plays with symbols by making Jews mice, the Nazis cats, and non-Jewish Poles pigs. When the Jews try to blend in with Polish society after they have been removed, they wear pig masks over their mouse faces.

I was reminded of Alison Bechdel, most obviously because of the graphic format, yes, but it doesn’t stop there: Are You My Mother? also dealt with a parent, and framed the parent’s story with the interview process (and the familial tensions that came with it). That framing, that in-and-out of the story by way of the interviews, was familiar, and it’s a technique I like.

I have a feeling that there is quite a bit here to be studied from a more academic angle. I raced through this read in a quick evening, and it probably deserves more time & attention, but I need guidance. Happily, I have not only Maus II to look forward to, but MetaMaus (if I can find it?) with background material. Stay tuned.

Any graphic format fans out there? What have you enjoyed?


Rating: 9 chandeliers.

Maximum Shelf: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 25, 2014.


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“It’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal. Mortal and alone.”

In 1717, the Swedish Laplands are home to indigenous nomadic Laplanders and a mere sprinkling of Christian settlers. A new family has just arrived, fleeing an enigmatic unpleasantness in their native Finland, to take over a vacant homestead on the shoulder of beautiful but harsh Blackåsen Mountain. Frederika is 14, Dorotea six; their mother, Maija, is strong and resourceful, while their father, Paavo, is so crippled by vaguely defined fears that he seems to disappear even in the ever-present light of summer. In the opening pages of Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut novel, Wolf Winter, the girls discover a dead body on the mountain: a man, with his torso torn open. Maija rushes to the scene and is told by other settlers he was killed by wolves, or a bear. But the cut is long and clean, nothing has fed upon the corpse, and she wonders. She picks up a small item off the ground nearby.

The settlers do not live close to one another; it requires a purposeful hike to visit with a neighbor. Nonetheless, there is a priest in the village–a place generally vacant, where the settlers gather for Christmas and several weeks after, as required by the King–under whose purview a murder might fall. Just as Maija feels compelled to investigate the death of a man she never knew, the priest has his own orders, and his own secrets as well.

In the autumn, as the days in this far northern land shorten, Paavo leaves to find work far away. Maija capably runs her remaining household, and frustrates her neighbors, who feel that a woman should not speak at meetings. Frederika is haunted by the dead man she and her sister found. She begins to discover certain strengths, or powers, taught by her great-grandmother. Is she being haunted, or is she calling the dead? Frederika seeks guidance from the Laplanders, who used to commune with the spirits, but they have been (nominally) converted to Christianity by the Swedish king. And the priest remains a figure of mystery: Why investigate the death on Blackåsen Mountain? What is he hiding? While always told in third person, the perspective shifts subtly, between that of Maija, Frederika and the priest.

As winter falls, there is a palpable feeling of danger on the mountain and in the scattered, tenuous community. Paavo does not write home, the cold intensifies, food is scarce. Maija feels a continuing urge to solve the mystery of the murdered man on Blackåsen, which makes her no friends, and the priest clearly has motives of his own. War looms in the background, frostbite in the foreground. Maija cannot be sure which of the Swedish settlers she might be able to trust; each time she turns to a new acquaintance, she receives a cold shoulder or an alarming intuition. Even her daughter Frederika feels unreachably distant in their tiny, draughty house. Both Frederika and Maija attempt alliances with the nomadic Laplanders who move through their lives, but each gets less than she’d hoped. And Dorotea, seemingly too small to engage in adult machinations, is in danger from the obvious as well as the most surprising and sinister of threats.

Wolf Winter‘s scope is enormous. Maija struggles to keep her family afloat; struggles for autonomy and reason in a community ruled by secrets, fear and corruption; and seeks a voice as a woman in her own fate. Several levels of organization push and pull against one another: the household, the loose network of homesteads, the village which is only inhabited in darkest winter, the church and state, the King’s decrees and the wars he engages in–all will eventually supply tension in a story set on a sparsely populated and apparently cursed mountain.

Ekbäck imbues her tale with a sense of foreboding from the very start, and her austere writing matches the landscape: occasionally colorful but often in muted shades of gray, stark, cold and unforgiving. The range of topics touched upon–women’s place in society, isolation and community, political corruption, family, the power of superstition and fear–is daunting, but Ekbäck never attempts too much. Instead, the questions her characters ask themselves do the work of the novel’s examinations. Frederika struggles with her ability to see things that others do not; Maija resists such a possibility, to keep a grip on her family’s survival; and the priest strains to maintain the appearance of well-being.

The strengths of Wolf Winter clearly begin in its atmosphere, masterfully chilling with its literal weather–particularly a deadly snowstorm–as well as the isolation and withdrawal practiced by almost every character. Ekbäck’s pacing is expert as well, tension building as the snow rises and the settlers gather together. The characters’ secrets are many, and are revealed slowly throughout, up to the final pages. Even the characters more sparingly described are engaging; the central characters are deeply, thoroughly captivating. In the end, multiple faceted mysteries add to the allure of a debut novel that is both frigidly unnerving and wise, and ultimately satisfying in its resolution.


Rating: 7 toes.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Ekbäck.

Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction by Jules Howard

The sexual habits and workings of the animal kingdom described in decidedly entertaining fashion.

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Jules Howard is a well-established zoologist, but you wouldn’t know it from the self-deprecatingly droll tone he takes in his first book, Sex on Earth: A Celebration of Animal Reproduction. The subtitle is slightly misleading; far beyond simple reproduction, Howard is intrigued by sex in all its forms and purposes. Inspired by captive pandas saddled with a reputation for sexual failure (unfairly, he thinks), he pursues diverse and myriad questions. He is specifically interested in getting beyond issues of who has the largest penis (the blue whale, if you must know) or exhibits the most outrageous behaviors–matters he finds, frankly, slightly pornographic–and instead examining the everyday as well as the eccentric. The heartwarming monogamous habits of the jackdaw, the incredible asexual abilities of the rotifer, homosexuality in penguins and iguana masturbation are just the beginning. And while the outlandish is indeed presented, Sex on Earth likewise narrates basic mechanics and relates them to evolution and animal life in the face of human impact.

Howard approaches his many expert consultants with a wide-eyed respect bordering on awe, and this is just one of the charming personality quirks that win his readers’ hearts. A comic (and overwhelmingly British) tone borders on the silly, but Howard’s science is solid and the overall effect is positively winning. In Howard’s capable hands, the sex habits of diverse creatures such as dinosaurs, hedgehogs and caddisflies are engrossing (not gross), and the language is accessible. His debut achieves a fine balance to which all popular-science writing should aspire.


This review originally ran in the November 25, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 macaques.
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