book beginnings on Friday: Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

severed

This one is eye-catching, no? The first few lines follow suit:

Josiah Wilkinson liked to take Oliver Cromwell’s head to breakfast parties. The broken metal spike which had been thrust through Cromwell’s skull at Tyburn, 160 years earlier, provided a convenient handle for guests to use while examining the leathery relic over their devilled kidneys.

It gets a little more gruesome from here, as you might expect, but gratuitous gore it isn’t. It looks (early on) to be a thoughtful examination of the heads in our history, from an anthropological standpoint. And assuming you’re up for, you know, severed heads – I think it will be quite good.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Wawahte by Robert P. Wells

Wells tells a haunting tale of three Canadian Indians and abuse during their forced schooling in government institutions.

wawahte

In Wawahte, Robert P. Wells sets out to tell the story of Canada’s First Nation children who were taken from their homes and their parents by the Canadian government and installed in Indian residential schools. For more than one hundred years, from 1883 to 1996, generations of children were subjected to physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, racism, and denigration in these institutions, and were punished for speaking their native languages or practicing their beliefs. As told to Wells by three Indian residential school survivors, these haunting narratives are a familiar but gripping story of Western imperial dominance. While the writing is unpolished, the accounts are nonetheless harrowing and important.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on August 27, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews. 8-29-2014 10-30-23 AM

did not finish: Wall, Watchtower and Pencil Stub: Writing During World War II by John R. Carpenter

When is it fair to criticize a galley for its mistakes?

Full disclosure: I was sent a pre-publication galley copy of this book. The errors I am about to complain about may be corrected in the final published product. However, I am doubtful. This is a well-finished, glossy-covered galley, and my observation is that such copies rarely undergo massive revamps, which is what this one would need to satisfy my complaints. [Even when I have received unfinished copies, including typed manuscripts on loose pages, I've found far fewer errors than this.] I have found the odd typo in ARCs and galleys I’ve been sent, or the odd note clearly intended for someone in the editorial process (“need caption here” or “photo credit?”). What I see here looks to me like more of a consistent stylistic choice. Still, it’s only fair to point out that the final publication will be different from this one in some ways. I definitely like the concept, so I hope corrections are made… many of them.


pencil stubI read through the preamble, the preface, and chapter 1, which concludes on page 15, and I couldn’t take any more. I found distracting multiple uses of a comma to connect two independent clauses, as in:

The outcome is no longer in doubt, the names of the victors and defeated are well-known.

Correct grammar would demand either a semicolon or a conjunction to connect these two clauses, or alternatively, they could be two sentences entirely.

The outcome is no longer in doubt; the names of the victors and defeated are well-known.

The outcome is no longer in doubt, because the names of the victors and defeated are well-known.

The outcome is no longer in doubt. The names of the victors and defeated are well-known.

A few more:

Hillary was a pilot, in the first chapters of the book he presents himself as arrogant and immature.

Hillary did not survive the war – he died in January 1943 – but he was unequivocal, his whole act of writing and his book were an act of communication with his readers: a call to end delusions.

Again, I read 15 pages, and these are just a few examples I chose out of many.

Other usage oddities:

It could have ended entirely different.

(Differently, I’m sure he means…)

The realization by a civilian he could be treated as an insentient thing often came suddenly.

This is the only one that strikes me as possibly a simple mistake, the omission of a word that would have made the sentence flow easily and understandably, so the reader could pay attention to content and put away her red pen.

I feel like I read this concept somewhere, or maybe I made it up, but it seems a good rule of thumb to me that a galley should not be judged negatively on the basis of a few errors throughout, that one assumes will be corrected in final publication. However, at the point where those errors are prolific enough to be distracting, they must be addressed. After all, publishers send out galleys to promote the upcoming book, don’t they? It would seem to be very counter to that cause to send out a copy so full of errors that I can no longer pay attention to the purpose of the book. That was the case here, and I couldn’t continue.

For those interested in the quite attractive topic of “writing during WWII,” you might still want to check out the final version of this book. But maybe browse its pages first to see if this consistent misuse of commas is corrected. Or maybe you’re less sensitive than I am…

did not finish: Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter

shadowsFull title, Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine. Briefly: I was excited about the concept of this book. History; true crime; alcohol!; and a strangely-spooky-but-real tale of apparent insanity, set in a vineyard, of all places. I recognized in this book the spirit of The Inheritor’s Powder and The Remedy, among others. (I may also have a burgeoning interest in amateur botany, based upon A Garden of Marvels, The Drunken Botanist, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.) Additionally, the author is an accomplished journalist, which I thought promising.

But where the concept hooked me, the text failed. I found a profusion of sentence fragments. And sometimes this works, for dramatic effect – although I think it still works best in limited dosages, because for gosh sake, sentence fragments are the breaking of a grammatical rule and should be used sparingly and with respect for the rule being broken. (I still recall Mrs. Smith, my sophomore and junior year English teacher, and her lecture about Hemingway’s use of the passive tense, wherein Cohn “was married by the first girl who was nice to him.” She taught us that you have to be a Hemingway-caliber writer before you get to go messing about with the passive tense like that.) And Potter has a tendency to tell his reader what character thought, felt, did or said in rather distant history, which I found off-putting and untrustworthy in a journalist. As intriguing as his story looked from afar, I found it insufficient to keep me on board through these difficulties. Oh, and there were rather too many references to God in the opening pages for my personal taste; if these were going to be drawn together and made relevant to the story, it didn’t happen in time for this reader.

Better luck next time.

guest review: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan, from Mom (audio)

Thanks Mom for sending these reading notes.

I’m reading a Playaway version of Worst Hard Times. I picked it up because it’s a World Book Night item, on display at the library when I went to pick up my box of Catch 22 to give away. I was most interested in this audio player-book just sitting on the shelf. (Add earbuds, battery, and stir.)
worsthardtime
It’s a pretty grim picture. Worst Hard Times is the dust bowl story, and follows people’s stories in several of the farms & towns of the worst areas. Egan writes for the NY Times, and recently wrote a scathing attack on the idea that the landslide in Oso was one of those “acts of God” that are so unfortunate but . . . . (Actually there was lots of warning by geologists, an earlier landslide in the last decade, with the logging of the hilltop as the coup de gras).

The Dust Bowl is called the worst man-made disaster of the U.S., and easily understood in hindsight as a tragic result of lack of understanding of natural forces, as well as grasping for even more wealth when the land was giving its riches reliably during the wet years of the Twenties. He gives more details than can be born, almost: the dust swirling, no plates set out until time to use them, wet bedsheets hung up over windows every night, people dying of “dust pneumonia.” The old cattlemen said it was a crime to uproot the prairie grass, and that the land would be ruined – more importantly, to them, even than the loss of the land for cows.

This area, which was called the Great American Desert, was given to the Apaches. When the government decided to give the land to settlers, Texas, especially, made every effort to eradicate the buffalo in order to drive off the Indians.

So, a good story. The reader, not so much. (He’s “an accomplished actor, director and combat choreographer” according to the audio blurb. Huh?) He put a little too much hick into the voices when he quotes them, and, like some readers I’ve noticed, makes women’s voices especially irritating, with a too-high intonation. The most irritating, though – a subjective reaction, I know – is his pronunciation of Boise City as /boyZAY/. Really?

Oh, Mom, I do so get it! The pronunciations from my recent read of Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods are fresh in my mind – unfortunately the only one I can cite specifically is urinal as “your-RYE-null” (very strange!) but there were others, equally odd & distracting. I think I’m more upset by the overly hick accents and the obnoxious women’s voices, though.

Does Egan overtly make the comparison between our hubris & lack of foresight with the Dust Bowl, and same with the recent mudslide (etc. etc.)? Or leave us to figure it out? If the latter, readers like yourself make the connection without difficulty; but I always appreciate the former. If you have a statement, go ahead and make it, please! Stand up for what you think.

I would say yes. I’m not through yet, but he lets a lot of characters say this. He also writes of the preachers who said that people are being punished for some sin, or that prayer & positive thinking will make it all better.

The sodbusters are all from the devil, according to the cattlemen. The saddest part of that is not that they are right, but that the dust dunes and drought ends up killing even the grass that remains.

There’s a scientist who explains it perfectly, and after Roosevelt’s election, he gets put in some government function to help solve the problems. There’s a town where the people agree to follow this guy’s recommendations for saving the land. Don’t remember the details, but hope to see this followed up in a later chapter.

There’s a newspaper owner (Dalhart or Boise City) who stops reporting all the bad stuff. Then he decides the people just need to embrace the situation. Look at the black clouds, the wind, the dead earth, and see the majesty of nature. Nuts! He doesn’t mention embracing all the death.

So I think Egan will have a strong conclusion to this effect.

The roaring boom of prosperity and the miracle of turning land into wheat (=$$) is a big theme. Plain people learning that they could have become rich if they planted every acre. They couldn’t tear up the prairie fast enough. We even have what he calls suitcase farmers, entrepreneurs who come to town and pay someone to rent their land and plant wheat. They just wait around for the harvest and the profits. After the bust and the drop in wheat prices, off they go, with no more interest in the land they have mined. How much hubris can you stand?

This does sound like a good story – though decidedly grim, as you say. I’d like to put it on the (long) list… Thanks for sharing!

The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

The Great Barrier Reef is both easily understood and awe-inspiring in this history of its discovery, exploitation and beauty.

reef

With The Reef, Iain McCalman (Darwin’s Armada) has composed “a passionate history” of the Great Barrier Reef, opening with his own long-awaited voyage (part of a reenactment of Captain Cook’s original trip). Following the prologue, he withdraws to the role of historian rather than participant, and chronicles the Great Barrier Reef as known to Western society over the last few centuries.

The Reef is divided into three parts. Beginning in 1770 with Captain Cook and proceeding through later explorers who helped chart the reefs in the 1800s, “Terror” emphasizes the threat the reef posed to ships and their navigators, and the fear of cannibals and others thought to inhabit the area. In Part II, “Nurture,” the reef begins to offer refuge for those seeking to escape civilization or make a fresh start. Europeans are taken in by native islanders, or discover island paradise; naturalists arrive, captivated by the biodiversity and beauty of the area while beginning to realize that coral is a resource that can be exploited. “Wonder” sees the scientific community take an interest, disagreeing about the origins and biology of the reef. Ecology emerges as a new field of study, its proponents seeking to place the reef in the larger context of other natural environments, to study relationships and cause and effect. Individual activists work to defend the unusual and changing ecosystem from mining, oil spills, overfishing and the rough use of tourism.

At the end, we are introduced to nature-loving scientist J.E.N. Veron, nicknamed “Charlie” after Charles Darwin, an engaging character who communicates the final dire message of the Great Barrier Reef’s looming extinction. Returning to the personal nature of his prologue, McCalman’s epilogue speaks to the grim consequences of climate change but holds forth hope as well.

The few images in The Reef include portraits of the personalities involved but not the corals themselves (although McCalman refers his reader to books that offer the latter). This work’s strengths include a coherent structure, friendly narrative style and a reasoned culminating call to action that does not disrupt its primary role as a comprehensive history. Plentiful notes indicate strong research, but McCalman’s writing is accessible to any reader interested in the intersection of science, nature and history. From perceived threat to resource to paradise destination to climate-change indicator–Charlie Veron calls corals “the canaries of climate change”–the Great Barrier Reef is fully explored in this engaging study.


This review originally ran in the May 6, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dives.

The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel

(Happy birthday today to my handsome Husband!)

inheritorsWhat a juicy title and cover; right up my alley. True crime, history, some light (accessible) science, and a little murder mystery. Yes, please.

Sandra Hempel’s book about the arsenic poisoning epidemic of the early 1800’s, and the advances in forensic medicine and pursued it, is very much in the tradition of The Invention of Murder and The Remedy, obviously. To a lesser extent it also relates to The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable and The Devil in the White City. I don’t mean to say that Hempel’s work is unoriginal, you understand, but these are the books I’ve read that feed my interest in the subject, and can continue to satisfy yours.

Much of this story was familiar to me, mostly from The Invention of Murder. Britain in the 1800’s saw an increase in crime, particularly murder – or at least an increase in its recognition and efforts to curb it – and the birth of the police force and investigations. The early 1800’s also saw a wild increase in the use of arsenic both as a household solution to just about any ailment, and as a quick and easy way to dispatch one’s fellow human. It was called “the inheritor’s powder” because so many people apparently used it to gain an inheritance ahead of the natural schedule. The growing prevalence of cheap life insurance or “burial clubs” played a role here as well.

This background is conveyed easily and accessibly and, again, is also covered in The Invention of Murder; where The Inheritor’s Powder breaks new ground is in delving into arsenic more deeply, and specifically into one sensational case that illustrates the larger issues. In November of 1833 a well-to-do farm family fell ill after their morning coffee; the elderly patriarch would suffer several painful days before dying, while the others would recover. The local doctor suspected arsenic poisoning almost from the first, and conducted some investigations of his own, including saving samples of the coffee grounds in question and the old man’s vomit. (It was later noted that there was so much vomit around that there may be some question of whose vomit it really was…) “Investigations” and “evidence” were new concepts, and our modern understandings would be incredulous at the attempts, but for his time, this local doc was proactive and scientific in his methods. There was a police inquiry, an inquest, and eventually a trial in which a lazy grandson was acquitted (on questionable grounds); but various members of the family came under suspicion and we still don’t know exactly who or what killed George Bodle.

Hempel details the court case and the public interest that followed it. Charles Dickens gets some play here (again, as in The Invention of Murder), which adds to the macro-view of this issue in society and in history: the literary minds of the day were at least as interested in the arsenic epidemic as anybody else. Hempel also looks into the science of testing for poisoning, or specifically for arsenic. Medical science was at such a stage that it was very difficult to distinguish one malady (say, poisoning by arsenic) from another (say, food poisoning by rotten fish) – and of course this question is separate from the question of whether poisoning by arsenic was intentional and therefore criminal, or accidental. Again, I must stress as Hempel does, arsenic was pretty ubiquitous at the time; people mixed it up and applied or swallowed it in various forms for a wide range of complaints. Chemists (or as we see here, chymists) were hard at work on the issue of testing for the presence of arsenic and various substances; cases like the Bodle murder were influential in moving the science forward.

I found this topic rather fascinating, and it was a good way to get a look at what 1830’s English life looked like. For example, I was interested to read about the conflict over who would pay for the investigations and trial – the local parish? Bodle’s estate? his survivors, or the executors of his will? Nobody wanted to pay; but society couldn’t just let this murder go unpunished, either. This was an issue that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

Hempel’s writing and research are fine, but lack the quirky style, entertaining writing, or personality that make a work of popular history really stand out. For readers interested in the topic, by all means go forth. But this is not enough of a page-turner to convert the dubious.


Rating: 6 grains.
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