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.)
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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.

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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.

May 7 & 8 in book history

This post is part of a series.

Today we are celebrating my birthday, and tomorrow, Husband’s. I thought I would turn to Tom Nissley’s A Reader’s Book of Days to see what exciting things have happened on these two auspicious dates.

reader's book of daysFor myself on May 7 I am mostly disappointed (in my ignorance, I suppose). Born on this date were Gene Wolfe (The Book of the New Sun) and Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda). I vaguely remember a movie adaptation of the second, I think. Died on this date were Sir James George Frazer (The Golden Bough) and Clement Greenberg (“Avant-Garde and Kitsch”). These are all mysterious to me. In events there are mentions of Camus, Faulkner (bleh), Herman Wouk, and Ginsberg.

Tomorrow, May 8, Husband’s day, does slightly better. Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow, etc.) shares his birthday, and we lost both Flaubert (the book offers Sentimental Education for him, but I would say Madame Bovary!) and just recently & sadly, Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen). There is also a Hunger Games reference & others, but most importantly – and again sadly – May 8 was the day on which Ed Ricketts was hit by a train and received injuries that would end his life. Ricketts was John Steinbeck’s co-author for Sea of Cortez, which waits on my shelf for me to find time for it; and he inspired the character of Doc in Cannery Row, a book that moved me deeply in Mrs. Smith’s high school English class.

Hm, sad things for these birthdays. Sorry about the downers, friends. Have some birthday cake!

The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz

The compelling connection between Sherlock Holmes and the search for a tuberculosis cure.

remedy

Thomas Goetz’s The Remedy achieves a rare feat: serious, accurate scientific writing that is also engaging and entertaining.

In the mid-1800s, the practice of medicine largely resembled groping in the dark. Patients came to doctors “with the hope of a cure but never the expectation of one.” The final decades of that century, however, were marked by extraordinary advances in science, technology and medicine: “germ theory” was developed, infectious diseases were better understood, and more-modern notions of hygiene and sanitation began to catch on. Robert Koch, a provincial German doctor, pioneered experiment design and research standards, and in 1882 he identified the bacterial cause of tuberculosis–the most deadly disease in human history.

Koch attempted to develop a cure for TB, which he presented in Berlin. Despite meticulous empirical methods he had established, Koch’s zeal for his remedy led to his downfall, as his treatment was unprovable. An obscure British doctor and sometime writer, also provincial, was the first to pen an appropriately skeptical response. Despite his criticism, Arthur Conan Doyle was a great admirer of Koch and appreciated his scrupulous observations; in fact, Goetz asserts that without Koch, “there may never have been a Sherlock Holmes as we know him.”

The intersection of Koch and Doyle brought the spirit of scientific discovery to crime detection, and the spirit of investigation to scientific research. Goetz’s exploration of their lives and their impact on the world as we know it is both historically significant and enthralling.


This review originally ran in the April 18, 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 dead rabbits.

In addition to my shorter review, above, I’d like to add a few more details. A big part of what I loved about this book was the breadth of scope. For example, to provide his readers with an accurate view of what Koch, Lister, Pasteur, and other scientists of the day were up against, Goetz describes at some length the state of medicine in their time. He warns us against coming too easily to the idea of germs and microbes as self-evident; and funnily enough, I was talking with a friend about this book, and she said just that: isn’t it obvious that surgeons would wash their hands beforehand?? But as Goetz so carefully points out, no, not obvious at all; when first presented as a theory, germs were as ridiculous as the idea that the earth might be round. Etc.

Along with medical background, we learn about the common practices of farming and domestic life; we learn about the lingering national hatred that would have pitted Pasteur and Koch so strongly against one another in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War; and about the social constructs that led Arthur Conan Doyle to work so hard at being a doctor when he really wanted to be a celebrated author. (I was reminded of other authors I’ve read about, like Louisa May Alcott: Doyle was always frustrated by the great success of his detective stories in the face of the failure of his more literary novels, just as Alcott was annoyed by the success of Little Women–a book she didn’t like very much. And you know, Doyle killed off Holmes, only to be pressured into his resurrection.)

I suppose I’m a sucker for breadth of scope. Nonfiction that covers history, science, social issues, and literature – and does it in fine literary style, to boot – will always win my heart. Back to the theme of synchronicity that I’m written on before: the older I get and the more of this interdisciplinary study that I encounter, the more I am convinced that this is way we should study history. How many of us found history boring in high school? I did. But once you link music, literature, fashion, politics, science, military conflicts… on and on, once you link all these threads so that the world of the past comes alive – who could not be fascinated? I think we do our kids a real disservice by not embracing this kind of study in their regular schooling.

The Remedy is both a good read, and an examination of a piece of world history whose importance really can’t be overstated.

Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill

Vaill’s story of three love affairs, set against the Spanish Civil War, yields a nuanced perspective on war journalism and romance.

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During the Spanish Civil War, Madrid’s Hotel Florida was a meeting point for war correspondents, press officers and foreign intellectuals. Amanda Vaill (Everybody Was So Young) uses the hotel as a focal point to examine the war through the lives of three men and three women. These six individuals–all leftists of various stripes and pedigrees, converging on Spain from all over Europe and the U.S.–allow Vaill to range freely through the history of the war, which raged from 1936 to 1939.

Vaill follows her subjects chronologically, shifting locations through Francisco Franco’s rebellion against the Popular Front government and the events that led up to the Spanish Civil War. Arturo Barea of Madrid serves as a censor for the Propaganda Department, finding his leftist politics and commitment to truth well matched by his new assistant Ilsa Kulcsar, who comes from an Austrian resistance cell and speaks many languages. Meanwhile, Ernest Hemingway feels stifled in Key West; a new war to cover provides him with an excuse to get away from his wife and find fresh material to revive his stagnant writing. The attractive young journalist he’s just met, Martha Gellhorn, is also eager to get to Spain. Finally, a young man named Endre Friedmann is exuberantly pursuing his passion for photography in Paris when he meets the charming Gerta Pohorylle. They set off for Spain together with their ideals on their sleeves. Taking new names–Robert Capa and Gerda Taro–they will find fame and love and change the face of war photography forever. One of them will die on Spanish soil.

In addition to explaining the complexities of the Spanish Civil War, Hotel Florida lives up to its grand subtitle. Vaill examines the meaning of truth as conceived by each of her six players–writer, journalist, translator, censor, press officer, photographer. Their romances, all born of war, and the deaths to which they bear witness bring emotion and heartbreak. Buttressed by plentiful research, Vaill’s prose exhibits touches of Hemingway’s own writing style and a gift for narrative that keeps Hotel Florida accessible and engaging.


This review originally ran in the April 15, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 ideals.

John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire by Kim Heacox

The carefully researched and engaging story of John Muir, Alaska’s glaciers and the movement they built together.

muir ice

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire is neither a straightforward biography of Muir nor a simple study of the global significance Alaska’s glaciers. Rather, Kim Heacox (The Only Kayak) is concerned with the relationship between Muir and the glaciers that rivaled Yosemite in his affections, and the impact that pairing had.

From a humble background in Scotland and Wisconsin, and between stints as a surprisingly apt businessman, Muir lived as a self-described tramp, ardent nature lover and student of flowers, trees, mountains and–upon finally reaching Alaska–glaciers. His famed role as author and activist came late in life, and not easily: he found writing hard work and political activism distasteful, though necessary. However, Muir made perhaps the greatest impact on conservation of any individual in United States history.

Heacox meticulously researched and lovingly describes Alaska’s rivers of ice and Muir’s path toward them, his emergence as writer and preservationist, and his far-ranging influence in legislation, literary legacy and new traditions–including the birth of the conservation movement as we know it. Though often descriptive rather than persuasive, Heacox lends his own voice to the cause in his final chapters: “To debate [climate change] is to give credibility to an argument that shouldn’t exist.” He closes by adding the arguments of Aldo Leopold, Bill McKibben and Derrick Jensen to Muir’s, in the interest of preserving our wild spaces–thereby continuing Muir’s work.


This review originally ran in the April 11, 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: 8 little dogs.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm

An accessible study of Seneca, adviser to the appalling and scandalous Roman emperor Nero.

dying every day

Classical historian James Romm tackles Nero’s Roman Empire, and the controversies and contradictions of the moral philosopher Seneca, in the appropriately titled Dying Every Day.

Nero became emperor in 54 A.D., at the age of 16, under the thumb of his overbearing mother, Agrippina. Like his uncle Caligula–who had also come to the throne at a young age–Nero scandalized Rome with debauchery, exhibitionism, violence and terror. Romm’s chapters are tellingly named: Fratricide, Regicide, Matricide, Matriticide and Holocaust are bookended by two Suicides, the whole capped by an epilogue entitled Euthanasia.

Nero’s legacy is fairly straightforward, but the tutor brought out of exile to prime him for autocratic rule is a more complex character. Seneca was a Stoic who admired Socrates and Cato, prolifically produced moral treatises and scorned wealth. In his role as Nero’s teacher, mentor and trusted senior adviser, however, he colluded in murders within the royal family and amassed a personal fortune. His prose and drama leave behind a contradictory image, and historians from his contemporaries through the present day have puzzled over his true character. Ascetic Stoic moralist or conniving courtier? Romm (Ghost on the Throne) doesn’t claim to settle the centuries-old mystery, but sheds light using ancient sources and occasional references to modern critics, joining his readers in marveling at a regime remembered by history for its shocking excesses.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 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: 7 bloodlines.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900′s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

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