Joint Review: Discovering the Mammoth by John J. McKay and Woolly by Ben Mezrich

Format read: hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genre: science history, nonfiction
Length: 264 p.
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Date Released: August 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Today, we know that a mammoth is an extinct type of elephant that was covered with long fur and lived in the north country during the ice ages. But how do you figure out what a mammoth is if you have no concept of extinction, ice ages, or fossils? Long after the last mammoth died and was no longer part of the human diet, it still played a role in human life. Cultures around the world interpreted the remains of mammoths through the lens of their own worldview and mythology.

When the ancient Greeks saw deposits of giant fossils, they knew they had discovered the battle fields where the gods had vanquished the Titans. When the Chinese discovered buried ivory, they knew they had found dragons’ teeth. But as the Age of Reason dawned, monsters and giants gave way to the scientific method. Yet the mystery of these mighty bones remained. How did Enlightenment thinkers overcome centuries of myth and misunderstanding to reconstruct an unknown animal?

The journey to unravel that puzzle begins in the 1690s with the arrival of new type of ivory on the European market bearing the exotic name “mammoth.” It ends during the Napoleonic Wars with the first recovery of a frozen mammoth. The path to figuring out the mammoth was traveled by merchants, diplomats, missionaries, cranky doctors, collectors of natural wonders, Swedish POWs, Peter the Great, Ben Franklin, the inventor of hot chocolate, and even one pirate.

McKay brings together dozens of original documents and illustrations, some ignored for centuries, to show how this odd assortment of characters solved the mystery of the mammoth and, in doing so, created the science of paleontology.

 

Format read: eARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science history, nonfiction
Length: 304 p.
Publisher: Atria Books
Date Released: July 4th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Science fiction becomes reality in this Jurassic Park-like story of the genetic resurrection of an extinct species—the woolly mammoth—by the bestselling author of The Accidental Billionaires and The 37th Parallel.

“With his knack for turning narrative nonfiction into stories worthy of the best thriller fiction” (Omnivoracious), Ben Mezrich takes us on an exhilarating true adventure story from the icy terrain of Siberia to the cutting-edge genetic labs of Harvard University. A group of young scientists, under the guidance of Dr. George Church, the most brilliant geneticist of our time, works to make fantasy reality by sequencing the DNA of a frozen woolly mammoth harvested from above the Arctic circle, and splicing elements of that sequence into the DNA of a modern elephant. Will they be able to turn the hybrid cells into a functional embryo and bring the extinct creatures to life in our modern world?

Along with Church and his team of Harvard scientists, a world-famous conservationist and a genius Russian scientist plan to turn a tract of the Siberian tundra into Pleistocene Park, populating the permafrost with ancient herbivores as a hedge against an environmental ticking time bomb. More than a story of genetics, this is a thriller illuminating the race against global warming, the incredible power of modern technology, the brave fossil hunters who battle polar bears and extreme weather conditions, and the ethical quandary of cloning extinct animals. Can we right the wrongs of our ancestors who hunted the woolly mammoth to extinction—and at what cost?

When I started reading Woolly, I remembered that I had another book about the same subject in my TBR pile. I thought about reading both, but couldn’t quite manage the time. Then I had a brilliant idea – why not have Galen read the other mammoth book and then do a joint review? The two books are not as close in content as I originally thought, but they do dovetail quite nicely. And here’s the result.

Our Review:

Ossip Shumachov’s mammoth—the first pulled mostly intact from the Siberian permafrost and deposited in a museum, represents the culmination of centuries of debate about the meaning of the strange, large bones found in all the places modern elephants do not live. John J. McKay’s book, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science, explores how the process of scientific discovery is often not so much about seeing something for the first time—but figuring out how to name it and where to place it in its historical setting.

As McKay explains, the story of discovering the mammoth is in part the story of remembering them. After all, there was a time when humans drew pictures of living mammoths and mastodons. However, a few centuries ago it was not at all clear (except, presumably, to a handful of hunters ln Siberia) that mammoth fossils came from anything resembling an elephant that had become extinct. Various explanations were tried over the years. For example, mammoths bones were sometimes thought to have come from human giants of biblical myth or Roman legends. Alternatively, it was thought that they were scattered by the Biblical Deluge or left behind by invading armies (though there was a big objection to the latter: why would armies bury dead elephants in such quantity but never think to hang on to the ivory?).

In the course of exploring the rediscovery of the mammoth, McKay covers a lot of ground, including the development of the sciences in a westernizing Russia; how the discovery of mastodons with unexpected teeth in the Americas unsettled a nascent consensus that Eurasian mammoths were just elephants out of place; and how scientific communication developed over the centuries. Unfortunately, an unusually high number of typographical errors mar the text.

McKay also acknowledges the part that people who were not scientists, diplomats, and monarchs had to play in his tale. Mammoth bones are often found not fully mineralized; when an unearthed bone crumbles, it is so very often the unnamed workmen who get blamed. Ossip Shumachov was the Eveki hunter who found the thawing carcass the mammoth that is more commonly known as Mikhail Adam’s, after the botanist who collected it and sent it on to St. Petersburg. While Adam’s role in helping to describe should not be discounted—we should also not discount the fact that due to his high-handed way of impressing local labor to pack it up during an important hunting season, the Evenki never forgot—and became much more reluctant to share knowledge of their finds.

McKay closes his book with an expression of gratitude to the mammoth:

We followed mammoths. We learned from them. We learned about them and created a new science. We miss them so much that we want to resurrect them from extinction more than any other animal.

So we are.

And that’s the story in Ben Mezrich’s Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures.

There are currently multiple efforts going on, in different countries using different methods, to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, and bring back the ultimate in charismatic megafauna.

Woolly does its level best to turn a story of sleep-starved post-docs, chilly laboratories far-fetched cloning and meticulous gene splicing experiments into edge-of-the-seat adventure, and it very nearly succeeds.

The quest to rescue one of the most iconic of extinct species from the dustbin of history is certainly worthy of a great story. And like any great story, it needs heroes. In the case of Woolly, that hero is Dr. George Church, the leader of an ever-expanding cadre of researchers who are fully invested in the number one rule at Church Labs – that nothing is impossible.

The story of the quest to de-extinct the mammoth travels from the death of the last remaining mammoth herd on remote Wrangell Island over 3,000 years ago to a point about four years from now, when Church’s experiments have succeeded. The quest also shifts in time from George Church’s earliest years to the present day, and all over the globe from Harvard to Wrangell to Siberia to Seoul.

It’s a dizzying ride, moving back and forth in both time and space over the life of the project, its quirky and charismatic director, and its possibilities for saving both the mammoth, and ourselves.

But as fascinating a story as Woolly is, and as good a job as the author does in breaking its cutting edge science down into chunks that a non-scientist can understand, it also has plenty of frustrations.

The narrative sweeps back and forth in time, from that misty point four years from now to the 1950s and every point in between – and not in any order that the reader, or at least this reader, can discern. Each of the building blocks of this story are individually compelling, but they don’t gel together into a whole. Just as I got invested in one person or one project, the perspective would shift and we would suddenly be years earlier – or later.

The device of setting both the beginning and ending of the tale in that misty “four years from now” adds a nice bit of dramatic framing to a story that already has plenty of drama in it. But it also detracts from its veracity. That frame is science fiction, where the rest of the book purports to be science fact. And most of it is. But I can’t help but wonder where that dividing line really is.

Galen’s Reality Rating for Discovering the Mammoth: B

Marlene’s Reality Rating for Woolly is also a solid B.

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, espionage, history, nonfiction, World War II
Pages: 320
Published by Dey Street Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Joining the ranks of Hidden Figures and In the Garden of Beasts, the incredible true story of the greatest codebreaking duo that ever lived, an American woman and her husband who invented the modern science of cryptology together and used it to confront the evils of their time, solving puzzles that unmasked Nazi spies and helped win World War II

In 1912, at the height of World War I, brilliant Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the "Adam and Eve" of the NSA, Elizebeth's story, incredibly, has never been told

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, who played an integral role in our nation's history for forty years. After World War I, Smith used her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition, then accepted a covert mission to discover and expose Nazi spy rings that were spreading like wildfire across South America, advancing ever closer to the United States. As World War II raged, Elizabeth fought a highly classified battle of wits against Hitler's Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German spies. Meanwhile, inside an Army vault in Washington, William worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma--and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.Fagone unveils America's code-breaking history through the prism of Smith's life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence.

Blending the lively pace and compelling detail that are the hallmarks of Erik Larson's bestsellers with the atmosphere and intensity of The Imitation Game, The Woman Who Smashed Codes is page-turning popular history at its finest.

My Review:

Once upon a time in the West, a wealthy and charismatic man whisked a young woman off to a luxurious life on his expansive estate.

And even though that sentence is true, this is not that kind of story. Although it is a love story. And a war story. And a spy story.

The man was George Fabyan, a wealthy businessman who had created a kind of scientific and technical utopia on his estate at Riverbank, outside of Geneva Illinois. The town of Geneva still exists, and its location, and its horrible winters, are still exactly as described.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman

The young woman who was carried from the steps of the Newberry Library in Chicago to Riverbank was Elizebeth Smith, later Elizebeth Smith Friedman. Elizebeth’s career took her from Riverbank to Washington, as she became one of the foundational figures of cryptography and cryptanalysis in America.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman is also one of the many women who played pivotal roles in World War II on both sides of the Atlantic, whose contributions were lost to history. In her case, that loss occurred out of a combination of factors. Sexism certainly played a part. Both Elizebeth and her much more famous husband William were the premier cryptographers of their time. But popular beliefs about women’s brains and women’s places caused many to assume that she was the lesser light, supporting his career, even having some career of her own, but never quite equal.

Her biggest contributions, like those of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England, were shrouded in top secret classifications for decades after the war ended, and have only been de-classified in the 21st century.

And finally, while Elizebeth (and William) worked in secluded, top secret government offices, J.Edgar Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI, was under no restrictions about what he said and did, or more importantly, what he said that he and his agency had said and especially done. Hoover was more than happy to take the credit and the accolades that the Friedmans’ could not claim for themselves.

(I have yet to read anything that touches on Hoover and written after his death that does not have plenty of nasty things to say. He clearly had a gift for alienating anyone who had to deal with him in person, while capable of doing a splendid job of what we now call “spin doctoring” with the press and the general population)

Like the women in Hidden Figures, Elizabeth Smith Friedman is an important figure in the history of science in particular, and the history of U.S. in general, whose contributions deserve a giant spotlight.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was the woman who broke the Nazi Enigma machine code during WWII, which allowed the nascent U.S. intelligence forces in South America to prevent Nazi Germany from creating strongholds within easy reach of the U.S. She, with her pencils and paper and absolutely amazing mind, helped to end the war.

She deserves to be remembered, and this account of her life, pulled together from her own archives and collected correspondence, is a fantastic start.

Reality Rating A+: The Woman Who Smashed Codes is nonfiction, It’s all true and it all happened. But the life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman is also the stuff of which great stories are made. And this particular account of her life is so well-written that it reads like the most compelling piece of fiction. But it’s a true story.

The story reaches out and grabs the reader from the first page, when George Fabyan breezes into the Newberry and asks the young Elizebeth if she will come and spend the night at his estate. It does sound a bit like a romance cliche. But it’s not that kind of invitation.

Instead, Fabyan invites her to join a rather strange project. One of the many scientists working at his estate is a woman who was convinced that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. While she was (and is) not alone in that particular.theory, her application was a bit different. She was convinced, and had convinced Fabyan, that the truth was revealed in code in the typography of the First Folio. Elizebeth was recruited to assist in breaking this code.

While she eventually came to believe that this particular Bacon/Shakespeare theory was a load of bunk, it did teach both Elizebeth and her future husband William the art and science of codebreaking. A science that they spent the rest of their lives building, expanding, cataloging and most importantly, practicing.

Elizabeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman

There is a love story here. And what makes the story so interesting, and so relevant, is that the love story between Elizebeth and William is a marriage of equals, and always acknowledged as such by both of them – if not always by the outside world.

And also that the story of Elizebeth’s accomplishments is never overshadowed by that of her husband or her family obligations within the course of this narrative. This is her biography and the tale of her accomplishments and never descends into a family saga. Not that she didn’t also raise two children and often help her husband, but it is refreshing to see a biography of an accomplished woman written in the same manner as that of a similarly accomplished man, with the focus on her career and intellectual achievements.

The story of those achievements is a thrilling ride. She may have fallen accidentally into the field of cryptography, which, after all, did not exist when she began. But once in, she swam strong and swift up the steam, breaking the codes of the organized crime bosses running rum during Prohibition and the Nazis attempting to take over the world in World War II. Her cracking of the Enigma cipher in the U.S. occurred simultaneously and independently of the British crack of the same cipher at Bletchley Park.

She was an amazing woman, and she led an amazing life. She was the founding mother of cryptography in the U.S., and one of the pioneers of all codebreaking in this country, including the creation of the NSA.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is a marvelously told story of a fascinating life that should be widely read. Anyone who has an interest in the lives of true unsung heroines and/or in the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis in the U.S. will get sucked right into Elizebeth’s story.

I certainly was.

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Review: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey KlugerApollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger
Format: audiobook, eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher, publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: nonfiction, science history
Pages: 320
Published by Henry Holt on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The untold story of the historic voyage to the moon that closed out one of our darkest years with a nearly unimaginable triumph

In August 1968, NASA made a bold decision: in just sixteen weeks, the United States would launch humankind’s first flight to the moon. Only the year before, three astronauts had burned to death in their spacecraft, and since then the Apollo program had suffered one setback after another. Meanwhile, the Russians were winning the space race, the Cold War was getting hotter by the month, and President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade seemed sure to be broken. But when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were summoned to a secret meeting and told of the dangerous mission, they instantly signed on.

Written with all the color and verve of the best narrative non-fiction, Apollo 8 takes us from Mission Control to the astronaut’s homes, from the test labs to the launch pad. The race to prepare an untested rocket for an unprecedented journey paves the way for the hair-raising trip to the moon. Then, on Christmas Eve, a nation that has suffered a horrendous year of assassinations and war is heartened by an inspiring message from the trio of astronauts in lunar orbit. And when the mission is over—after the first view of the far side of the moon, the first earth-rise, and the first re-entry through the earth’s atmosphere following a flight to deep space—the impossible dream of walking on the moon suddenly seems within reach.

My Review:

Anyone who has lived in Chicagoland knows that while expressways may be designated official numbers from the DOT, no one ever calls them by those numbers. Highways in Chicagoland have names; the Ryan, the Kennedy, the Ike. And if you travel through Northwest Indiana, the Borman.

The Borman is named for Frank Borman, the native Hoosier who was one of the first three people to see the far side of the moon with his own eyes, up close and personal. Frank Borman was the commander of Apollo 8, the first mission by any country to send humans around the far side of the moon.

They may not have landed there, that honor was bestowed on Apollo 11, but they were the first humans to leave not merely the Earth, but to entirely leave Earth’s gravitational field and become temporary residents of a different celestial body, in orbit around the Earth’s moon.

Apollo 8 is the story of not just that one mission, but of as much as possible of everything that came before it. Frank Borman was not one of the original Gemini astronauts. He just missed inclusion in that celebrated group with the “right stuff”. He was, however, part of the second class of astronauts, merely referred to as the “next eight”.

It’s always the ones who get there first who get all the good names.

So this is the story of not just the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, and of their lives and careers in NASA up to that point, but it is also the story of NASA itself. Now that’s a story of “big science”, where there are many, many people who give significant portions of their lives to work together for what they hope (and in this case they were right) is a cause greater than themselves.

There are heroes here, too. Names we’re familiar with like Gene Krantz and Deke Slayton. (Krantz was the Mission Controller who helped bring Apollo 13 back from the brink.) But there are plenty of both sung and unsung heroes among this early corps of NASA movers, shakers and believers, and the author does a skillful job of weaving the parts that they play into the narrative of this one, singular mission.

It is also the story of America in the 1960s. While this book does not attempt to portray the entirety of that tumultuous decade – nor should it – within its narrow scope it does set the missions of NASA in general and Apollo 8 in particular into their historic context. Not just the story of what was done, but why it was done and how it felt to be a part of or even watch as it was done.

And to show why the space program was so important. What it did, and what it celebrated. And just how much was accomplished and how many people around the world celebrated with it.

Reality Rating A: I have a very soft spot in my heart for anything to do with NASA and the space program. I was a child during the 1960s, and the space program, its successes and its tragic failures, formed part of the backdrop of my earliest years.

We accomplished so much. We went so far, and we showed such promise. And now it seems to be gone. Not just the adventure itself, but the promise of the future it provided and the surprising amount of unity it engendered.

(Readers interested in a bigger picture of exactly what it means that we don’t go into space much anymore should read Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean)

Apollo 8, the book, does a terrific job at showing the importance, the risks and the rewards of Apollo 8, the mission. By focusing on the smaller perspective of the three astronauts, and particularly Borman, it allows the author to paint the broader picture in a way that allows readers to empathize with the people and to grasp the size and scope of NASA’s operation and how it worked – and how it occasionally didn’t with disastrous results.

So while the focus is on Borman, Lovell and Anders, this is also very much a book about “big science”. And like The Interstellar Age by Jim Bell, it does a good job of making that “big science” comprehensible. And makes the reader wish they could have been there.

I found Apollo 8 to be compelling reading, to the point where I began by listening on audio and then switched to print to see what happened faster, even though I already knew what happened. I was absorbed in the details and the perspectives. As glad as I was to have the crew get back safely, theirs was a journey that I never wanted to see end.

But it did. As did our journey with them.

I leave you with this iconic photograph taken from Apollo 8. Earthrise.

Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence

Review: Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie SpenceDear Fahrenheit 451: A Librarian's Love Letters and Break-Up Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, libraries, nonfiction
Pages: 288
Published by Flatiron Books on September 26th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A Gen-X librarian's snarky, laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving collection of love letters and break-up notes to the books in her life.

Librarians spend their lives weeding--not weeds but books! Books that have reached the end of their shelf life, both literally and figuratively. They remove the books that patrons no longer check out. And they put back the books they treasure. Annie Spence, who has a decade of experience as a Midwestern librarian, does this not only at her Michigan library but also at home, for her neighbors, at cocktail parties—everywhere. In Dear Fahrenheit 451, she addresses those books directly. We read her love letters to The Goldfinch and Matilda, as well as her snarky break-ups with Fifty Shades of Grey and Dear John. Her notes to The Virgin Suicides and The Time Traveler’s Wife feel like classics, sure to strike a powerful chord with readers. Through the lens of the books in her life, Annie comments on everything from women’s psychology to gay culture to health to poverty to childhood aspirations. Hilarious, compassionate, and wise, Dear Fahrenheit 451 is the consummate book-lover's birthday present, stocking stuffer, holiday gift, and all-purpose humor book.

My Review:

There’s a song in this book, or at least a subtitle, “To All the Books I’ve Loved Before”. And that observation also nicely encapsulates the level of snarky librarian attitude displayed throughout.

And this is also a terrific book to highlight Banned Books Week this week, as so many of the classics (and definitely less than classics) that the author pens her virtual missives to have been banned or challenged at one point or another.

Her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is every bit as meta as it should be. This absolutely timeless story about banning books has itself been banned multiple times in multiple places. Reading it reminds all of us librarians and our allies what it is we fight for when we fight for the freedom to read. And it’s a damn good book.

But the letter I particularly loved was her love letter to To Kill a Mockingbird, which has also been banned and challenged for decades. She loves it, because To Kill a Mockingbird is responsible for her lifelong love affair with books and reading. Not because she herself has read it, but because it is the book that turned her older sister into a lifelong reader. And it is her older sister who passed that gift that keeps on giving, to her.

There are love letters, and sometimes hate letters and snark-filled letters, to some other books that may not be classics, but still get regularly challenged. Like Twilight, which is as far from classic as it gets. Many people loved it, but that does not mean it will survive the test of time that makes a classic. Its derivative, Fifty Shades of Grey, also comes in for its fair share of that same attitude.

They’ve both been banned, Twilight for its witchcraft, and Grey for its sexuality. Having read both, these are books that I personally will be happy to see fall into the scrap-head of history – or the weeding pile of many libraries, but not as banning. They’ll always, and they should always, be available to whoever wants to read them. Which doesn’t mean that I’ll ever think they’re great lit – or even terribly entertaining lit. And yes, I read them both.

While her letter to Fahrenheit 451 is the author’s chance to talk about book challenges and book bans, many of her other letters and comments get into some of the nitty gritty of being a librarian surrounded by books. And involves some of the things that librarians have to do to maintain the libraries that surround them. Her letters to and about books that she is weeding, and the reasons that it may be time for some books to go, speak directly to the librarian in all book lovers.

And last but not least, of course, she makes book recommendations. It’s something we all do, because none of us can resist trying to matchmake every reader (and non-reader) with the perfect book for them.

Reality Rating B: I didn’t expect to read this cover to cover. It looks like the perfect book to dip in and out of. But the letters are like potato chips, you can’t read just one.

At the same time, I found myself wanting to quibble and argue with the author – as all book lovers are wont to do about what books they love best – and least. And it does have a bit of a feeling of “insider baseball”. I enjoyed Dear Fahrenheit 451 because it spoke directly to me as a librarian and reader. I have to wonder whether it will have that same effect on someone who is not both.

Except for Agatha Christie, who has definitely transcended her genre and become a “Classic”, the author doesn’t seem to be big on genre fiction. So if you’re looking for letters to science fiction, mystery or romance books, you won’t find much here. (If you’re looking, let me help. I’d be thrilled!) However, there are plenty of YA books that get a mentioned. Which is good, because there are plenty of challenges to YA books.

But the book does say a lot about the book lovers love of reading. And for that it’s awesome. And her letter to The One Hour Orgasm will absolutely leave you in stitches.

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will Bardenwerper

Review: The Prisoner in His Palace by Will BardenwerperThe Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid by Will Bardenwerper
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 272
Published by Scribner on June 6th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the haunting tradition of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, this remarkably insightful and surprisingly intimate portrait of Saddam Hussein lifts away the top layer of a dictator’s evil and finds complexity beneath as it invites us to take a journey with twelve young American soldiers in the summer of 2006. Trained to aggressively confront the enemy in combat, the men learn, shortly after being deployed to Iraq, that fate has assigned them a different role. It becomes their job to guard the country’s notorious leader in the months leading to his execution.

Living alongside, and caring for, their “high value detainee” in a former palace dubbed The Rock and regularly transporting him to his raucous trial, many of the men begin questioning some of their most basic assumptions—about the judicial process, Saddam’s character, and the morality of modern war. Although the young soldiers’ increasingly intimate conversations with the once-feared dictator never lead them to doubt his responsibility for unspeakable crimes, the men do discover surprising new layers to his psyche that run counter to the media’s portrayal of him.

Woven from first-hand accounts provided by many of the American guards, government officials, interrogators, scholars, spies, lawyers, family members, and victims, The Prisoner in His Palace shows two Saddams coexisting in one person: the defiant tyrant who uses torture and murder as tools, and a shrewd but contemplative prisoner who exhibits surprising affection, dignity, and courage in the face of looming death.

In this artfully constructed narrative, Saddam, the “man without a conscience,” gets many of those around him to examine theirs. Wonderfully thought-provoking, The Prisoner in His Palace reveals what it is like to discover in one’s ruthless enemy a man, and then deliver him to the gallows.

My Review:

Today is September 11, 2017, the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, otherwise known as 9/11. As though nothing else ever happened, or ever will, that will ring through history the way that September 11, 2001 did. And that’s possibly true. Even the historic hurricane currently sweeping through Florida, while momentous, isn’t quite as earth-shattering. 9/11 was a day where the universe changed, where before and after are sharply and irrevocably separated.

While Saddam Hussein was not one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks, it is certainly possible to trace a direct line from the events of 9/11 to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled his dictatorship.

This is not a book about the war. Not the U.S. invasion of 2003, nor about the the Gulf War of 1990. Although in some ways it’s about both. A part of me wants to say that the book is about the “banality of evil”, but if there is one thing that Saddam Hussein never was, it is banal.

Instead, this feels like a book about the faces that humans wear, and about one particular human being who wore the face of evil, but only among many, many others. That evil face, the one that the world righteously condemned him for, is not the face that his guards saw. They saw a charismatic and kindly old man. While they were all aware of the evil that he had done, and none ever believed that he was innocent or should be freed, they still guarded someone who was much different. They all went in expecting a monster, only to discover that he was just a man.

The story here is about the twelve young American soldiers, the group that self-deprecatingly named themselves the “Super Twelve”, who had the duty of guarding Saddam Hussein in one of his own palaces during the lengthy course of his trial, right up to his inevitable execution.

The process took well over a year. That’s plenty of time for a group of people to gradually shift from guarded adversaries to respectful acquaintances, if not friends. And that is what happened. Unlike the common perception of “the rich and powerful”, which Saddam certainly was, in his incarceration and forced proximity to these soldiers he acted as a respectful and respected guest, and was treated for the most part accordingly. What small freedoms and little comforts could be provided to the old man, they did. And he appreciated them.

This book is about the relationship that formed among this isolated group. The Super Twelve, the medic who monitored Saddam’s health, the interrogators, and Saddam Hussein. Their camaderie with the prisoner seems odd to the reader, but yet it makes sense. Not only were they all stuck with each other, but they were prohibited from telling anyone what their duty assignment was. The only people they could talk to were each other.

And their prisoner.

Reality Rating A-: This is a hard book to describe, but a surprisingly easy one to get lost in. There are a lot of things packed into this slim volume, and all of them are thought-provoking in one way or another.

It is not really a surprise that the guards became friendly with the prisoner. Or not as the story turned out. If Saddam had been a demanding dictator within the limits of his confinement, the guards would probably have maintained their distance even over the extended time period. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he treated his guards with respect and even affection, and both the respect and affection were returned. They all knew what he’d done, but it didn’t have an effect on his treatment of them or theirs of him.

Instead, many of the guards felt as if this was the first time in Saddam’s life when he was safe. Ironically so, but still, safe. Whether or not he deceived himself about the inevitability of his execution, he was absolutely certain that none of his guards were going to kill him in his sleep – something that had not been true for his entire life. That lack of paranoia led to a lot better rest and attitude – possibly for everyone.

The author does detail enough of Saddam’s atrocities, and there were many, to make the reader certain that the man was the author of countless heinous acts. Even though he may not have seen them as anything more than necessary to cement and maintain his power, there is never any doubt that he was a brutal dictator who used fear and cruelty as potent and effective weapons.

Which does not affect the doubts of any of the soldiers, or of the reader. Not that he deserved death, but, to quote another influential character, “Deserves [death], I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Even as the trial is being conducted, the sectarian violence in Iraq not only continues, but escalates. Even from the soldiers’ limited perspective, there does not seem to have been a plan for what was to happen after Saddam’s capture. And the manner of his execution only feeds the violence. One of the questions that lingers is whether or not the invasion made anything better. War is easy. Hell, but easy. Regime change, on the other hand, while it is also hell, is damn hard. Especially on the people whose regime is being changed.

What we’re left with is the aftermath, not just for the country of Iraq, but on a personal level for those men who guarded and lived with Saddam Hussein in his final months. Watching a man that they had all developed relationships with go to his death punched an unexpected hole in all their lives. Being forced to stand by while his corpse was desecrated made them all sick and heartsore.

Saddam may have died, but none of them recovered. And their reaction haunts me.

Review: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

Review: Forty Autumns by Nina WillnerForty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: autobiography, biography, history, nonfiction
Pages: 416
Published by William Morrow on October 4th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.
In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.
A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.
Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs.

My Review:

Forty Autumns is a very personal story. It is one woman’s account of the history of her own family, separated by the Iron Curtain that fell across Europe in general and Germany in particular post-World War II. While it may be possible to generalize from this one woman’s family to the history of East Germany as a Soviet-bloc country and to the circumstances of many families that were kept apart over those forty years, the power in this story comes from that personal touch. We feel for the author, her mother, and her family because it is easy to see ourselves in their shoes. On both sides of that impenetrable wall.

This is a story of courage across generations. It is easy to see the courage of the author’s mother Hanna, a young woman who took her life in her hands and literally ran across the border before it turned into deadly barbed-wire – with gun towers. But there was also courage in staying. Hanna’s mother, Oma, exhibited that kind of courage, as she strove to keep her family together and keep them from turning on each other, as so many families did, during the long dark years when the Secret Police seemed to have a spy in every house and every factory.

And it is, in the end, a story of survival. Because the family, on both sides of that once formidable divide, remained intact in spite of the dictatorial regime’s best and worst efforts. This is their personal story of that long, twilight struggle. And it’s marvelous.

Reality Rating A: Forty Autumns turned out to be a book that I just plain liked. I fell into the author’s story, and found myself picking it up at odd moments and sticking with it at points where I only intended to read a chapter, which turned into two, then three, without my being aware of it. The prose is spare, and it simply works, even though I’m having a difficult time articulating exactly why.

Forty Autumns also reminds me of two books I read recently. The history it contains reads like a nonfictional account of the history that is also covered by the marvelous, but fictional, On the Sickle’s Edge. Both are stories about families that are separated by the Soviet regime, and detail the ways that those trapped behind the Iron Curtain manage to survive even the harshest repression with just a little bit of hope.

It also touches a bit on the history in Sons and Soldiers. It felt obvious, at least to this reader, that the American G.I. that Hanna marries, the author’s father, was one of the “Richter Boys” whose history is outlined in that book.

This is very much a story about women – their courage, their tenacity, their perseverance. In this family, it is the women who cling to love and hope when all seems lost, as it so often does. This is a story that takes the political and makes it compellingly personal. Through the author’s story of her family, we get a glimmer of understanding of what life was like during those very dark years.

Part of what made this so readable is the way that the author managed to bring out the experiences of both sides of this struggle. So often, this kind of story is told only from the perspective of those who made it out, while those who were left behind recede into the shadows.

That is not the case here. Instead, we see Hanna’s struggle to make a place and a life for herself alone in the west, while the family she left behind struggles equally if differently to survive repression and stay together, with the State always looking over their shoulders, not just because that’s the way it was, but especially because Hanna’s defection left the rest of her family under a life-long cloud.

I found this story to be eminently readable. The author’s prose is spare, but she does a terrific job of telling the story without inserting additional drama or melodrama. There was plenty of both without needing to manufacture any!

In the end, the reader feels for this family, and joins in their triumphant celebration that they made it through, and were reunited at last.

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Review: The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Review: The Great Quake by Henry FountainThe Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction, science, science history
Pages: 288
Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY) on August 8th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the tradition of Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, a riveting narrative about the biggest earthquake in recorded history in North America--the 1964 Alaskan earthquake that demolished the city of Valdez and obliterated the coastal village of Chenega--and the scientist sent to look for geological clues to explain the dynamics of earthquakes, who helped to confirm the then controversial theory of plate tectonics. On March 27, 1964, at 5:36 p.m., the biggest earthquake ever recorded in North America--and the second biggest ever in the world, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale--struck Alaska, devastating coastal towns and villages and killing more than 130 people in what was then a relatively sparsely populated region. In a riveting tale about the almost unimaginable brute force of nature, New York Times science journalist Henry Fountain, in his first trade book, re-creates the lives of the villagers and townspeople living in Chenega, Anchorage, and Valdez; describes the sheer beauty of the geology of the region, with its towering peaks and 20-mile-long glaciers; and reveals the impact of the quake on the towns, the buildings, and the lives of the inhabitants. George Plafker, a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey with years of experience scouring the Alaskan wilderness, is asked to investigate the Prince William Sound region in the aftermath of the quake, to better understand its origins. His work confirmed the then controversial theory of plate tectonics that explained how and why such deadly quakes occur, and how we can plan for the next one.

My Review:

The heart of the book The Great Quake, is literally the great quake itself. The narrative, based on interviews with survivors and with the geologist who ended up making the quake his life’s work (and a bit vice versa) come literally at the 50% mark of the book.

What comes before and after is a layperson’s guide to the geology that causes earthquakes and the development of the scientific theories that surround earthquakes in specific and the movement of the continents in general. For those of us who remember “plate tectonics” as being settled science when we were in high school, it’s a revelation to discover that it wasn’t settled at all until after the scientists did their deep dives into the study of this particular quake, and all the destruction it left in its wake.

And for those of us who have ever lived in an earthquake zone, the building standards that make it much more likely that we will survive an individual quake, even if all our stuff knocks off the walls, owes its research and development to the study of this particular quake as well.

The Good Friday Earthquake, as it is still sometimes referred to, especially in Alaska, was the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded. While the loss of both life and property was relatively small in absolute terms, thanks to Alaska’s rather small population in 1964, it still destroyed two towns completely (Chenega and Valdez) and wrecked parts of Anchorage, Seward, Cordova and many others. The tsunamis it generated wreaked havoc along the Pacific coast on both sides of the ocean, down to California on the eastern side and all the way to Japan on the western shore.

And in some ways, its aftershocks are still being felt today.

Reality Rating B: I picked this book up because I lived in Alaska between 2002 and 2005. We lived near Earthquake Park, the land that is left after everything closer to the water dropped and fell in. I worked for the University of Alaska Anchorage on Alaska’s Digital Archive, a statewide project to digitize photographs of the history of Alaska, and if there was one thing that both the UAA collection and the Anchorage Municipal Museum had lots of pictures of, it was the results of that earthquake.

The book itself packs a lot of information about geology and the development of the theory of plate tectonics into settled science into layperson’s language, and wraps it around the story of the quake and its aftermath.

A lot of things changed in Alaska because of the Good Friday Earthquake. The town of Chenega was wiped out. Valdez was too, but because Valdez was on the mainland, and on the road system, and because it is one of the few ports in Alaska that is warm-water all year round, it was rebuilt inland.

The survivors’ stories from both of those places, particularly their accounts of the earthquake itself and the immediately following events, are harrowing and traumatic, and keep the reader riveted to the page.

However, the first third of the book is mostly scientific discussion. It’s all understandable to the non-scientist reader, and it definitely serves as background for what comes later, but there’s not a lot of human interest in that section. It does however talk a lot about the development and eventual proving of, among other things, plate tectonics, and that first third moves at about the speed of, well, plate tectonics.

Once you hit the story where the pork and beans are flying like shrapnel, it’s a wild and rollicking ride from there onwards, and completely absorbing. Readers who have any interest in geology, natural disasters, earthquakes and/or Alaska will find The Great Quake to be a fascinating read.

There’s a stand of trees on the Seward Highway that used to be up on the cliff above. The earthquake dropped the entire stand into the saltwater of Cook Inlet, where they stand today. They are dead, killed by the saltwater they now stand in. But they remain as ghostly sentinels to the power of that quake.

Review: Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

Review: Four Princes by John Julius NorwichFour Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe by John Julius Norwich
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press on April 4th 2017
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In Europe, 1491 to 1500 was an exciting time to be alive. The entire continent was overshadowed by four rulers, all born within a ten-year period:
King Francis I of France, the most interesting of the quartet, bursting with energy and swagger, was a great patron of the arts and the personification of the Renaissance.
King Henry VIII of England—who was not born to be king but embraced the role with gusto—broke with the Roman Catholic Church, and made himself head of the Church of England.
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, the most powerful man in the civilized world, obsessed with the religious disputes of Europe, was leader of the Spanish and then Roman Empire.
Suleiman the Magnificent, the richest of them all, stands apart as a Muslim, who brought the Ottoman Empire to its apogee of political, military, and economic power, as well as to the golden age of its artistic and architectural prowess.
Never before had humankind seen such giants coexisting. Against the rich background of the Renaissance, they laid the foundation for modern Europe. Individually, each man could hardly have been more different. Their mutual relations shifted constantly: often they were actively hostile and occasionally they were friendly. There was a healthy respect between them; never did one make the mistake of underestimating another. And together, they dominated the world stage.

My Review:

I know that this isn’t quite my usual, but, once upon a time, back when I was about 12, I saw the movie Anne of the Thousand Days. It was a very, very fictionalized account of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. And for some reason, I was absolutely fascinated.

Not by the so-called tragic romance, but by the time period. I was just old enough to develop an intense fascination with history, and for years after seeing that movie I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on about the Tudor period, eventually expanding into the Plantagenets and the early Stuarts.

I also wasn’t too particular about whether the book was fiction or nonfiction. If it was within my reasonable comprehension, I comprehended it. It was also during this time that a friend’s mother gave me a copy of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, one of those book relationships for which I will be forever grateful.

It was my abiding interest in all things Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart that led me to both Dorothy Dunnett’s sprawling, compelling, immersive Lymond series and eventually to Outlander. For a movie that wasn’t actually all that good, at least according to the critics, it cast a surprisingly long shadow over my reading life.

But I digress.

It’s been a long time since that deep dive into English history, but when I saw Four Princes up on Edelweiss, it just called to me. This was that period, and it looked like a bit of “once over lightly” of both the English history that I remembered so fondly and the greater European history that it touched on but generally did not explore.

And so it proved. I expected to kind of “dip into” Four Princes for the parts I recognized. Instead, I found myself absorbed, reacquainting myself with history I knew, and filling in so much that I glossed over back then.

One of the reasons that history often fascinates, at least part of why it fascinated me, was that it seemed like the right person (sometimes the wrong person) in the right place at the right time could have an immense impact on present and future events. That has often seemed less true in our times, although recent events have shown that the wrong person in the right place at the right time can still have an immense negative impact on the world. But in this very accessibly written history, we see that impact, not just how it occurred but also what it accomplished – and what it failed to accomplish.

We tend to think of kings (and queens) and historical personages in general as old and grey, not because they were born old, but because by the time they are famous and their portraits got painted, they generally were, as the saying goes, in the autumn of their lives, if not downright close to midwinter. As the play Hamilton hints at, while we may remember the U.S. Founding Fathers as old men in white wigs, at the time of the Revolution they were, for the most part, young. Except for Benjamin Franklin – he HAS always been old. 😉

What Four Princes brings to the fore is that in the first half of the 1500’s, the monarchs of the four great powers, England, France, the Holy Roman Empire (which, as we know, was neither holy nor Roman nor exactly an empire) and the Ottoman Empire all came to power within a decade of each other and were all, in fact, born within a decade of each other. Which means they were all young together, all took their thrones young and together and spent all of their respective reigns dealing with each other in particular, and not just that their countries worked for or against each other with different people at the helm each go around.

And for the most part, they all knew each other. Henry of England, Francis of France and Charles of the Empire had all met and were all related to one degree or another. Suleiman the Great was the outlier, most mysterious and least known in Europe – no matter how much or how often he threatened it.

And they each had outsized and long-lasting impacts on their respective countries, if not on each other. In their half century, Henry created the Church of England, Francis began the religious persecutions that stained so much of its history, and both Empires reached the heights of their powers – heights they never attained again.

Reality Rating A: If you have an interest in European history, or enjoy reading history in an accessible style (or honestly, if you know a student who needs to read a relatively short history book that is actually good to read) Four Princes is excellent. It made me remember why I was so fascinated with this period, and has gotten me hooked all over again.

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas PrestonThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, Bill Mumy
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: adventure, archaeology, history, nonfiction
Pages: 304
Published by Grand Central Publishing on January 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A five-hundred-year-old legend. An ancient curse. A stunning medical mystery. And a pioneering journey into the unknown heart of the world's densest jungle.
Since the days of conquistador Hernán Cortés, rumors have circulated about a lost city of immense wealth hidden somewhere in the Honduran interior, called the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Indigenous tribes speak of ancestors who fled there to escape the Spanish invaders, and they warn that anyone who enters this sacred city will fall ill and die. In 1940, swashbuckling journalist Theodore Morde returned from the rainforest with hundreds of artifacts and an electrifying story of having found the Lost City of the Monkey God-but then committed suicide without revealing its location.
Three quarters of a century later, bestselling author Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a groundbreaking new quest. In 2012 he climbed aboard a rickety, single-engine plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, tantalizing evidence of not just an undiscovered city but an enigmatic, lost civilization.
Venturing into this raw, treacherous, but breathtakingly beautiful wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, quickmud, disease-carrying insects, jaguars, and deadly snakes. But it wasn't until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted in the ruins a horrifying, sometimes lethal-and incurable-disease.
Suspenseful and shocking, filled with colorful history, hair-raising adventure, and dramatic twists of fortune, The Lost City of the Monkey God is the absolutely true, eyewitness account of one of the great discoveries of the twenty-first century.

My Review:

The road to The Lost City of the Monkey God begins with a high-tech Indiana Jones and ends with Guns, Germs and Steel, with a couple of detours for pestilential diseases and “academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” Except that in this case the stakes are not small at all, and the story is fascinating from beginning to end.

This is a true story. It’s a story of obsessions both great and small. And a story about con men, soldiers and scientists. And ultimately, it’s a story about the price that we pay for the knowledge that we gain.

There have been legends about this city, whether under the name Ciudad Blanco or as the title describes it, the Lost City of the Monkey God, since the time of Hernan Cortes and the conquistadores. The Spanish conquerors of Central and South America came across many, many stories of fabulous lost cities of gold and jewels. One of the most well-known of those legends is that of El Dorado, the city of gold.

But a film producer named Steve Elkins was particularly fascinated with the legends of Ciudad Blanco, the white city that was supposed to be hidden somewhere in the Mosquitia province of Honduras. Honduras as a country in modern times has been through some very hard and violent times, and the Mosquitia province is infamous for its dangers, not just from the hazards of its jungle terrain, but from the guns of the narco-traffickers who make Mosquitia their home.

While the narco-traffickers have not always been the problem that they are today, the jungle has always been there. During the great age of European exploration in the 1800s, and even afterwards, there were multiple attempts to locate the famous “White City” but to no avail. Very few of the documented expeditions seem to have even gotten close to this mythical place, and one of the best documented was recently discovered to be completely fraudulent.

It seemed like an obsession that was doomed to never be fulfilled, but technology caught up to dreams. On the ground, the jungle swallows everything, but from the air it’s a different story. Or at least it is to LiDAR imaging, a combination of lasers and radar that can see through the dense ground cover to the remains of any structures underneath.

Initially, the story was first to discover, well, if there was anything to discover. It took years and money and grants and cooperation from multiple organizations and at least two iterations of the Honduran government to finally get permission to survey possible sites, and then even more money and permissions to get the still top-secret LiDAR on site to survey the possibilities.

Which turned out to be enormous, both literally and figuratively. The story in The Lost City of the Monkey God is about the author’s participation in these expeditions, both the original LiDAR mapping and the “ground-truthing” with archaeologists a few years later, to make the jungle yield up her long buried secrets.

And exact her toll.

Reality Rating A: The Lost City of the Monkey God is one of the most absorbing pieces of nonfiction it has ever been my pleasure to listen to. June is Audiobook Month, and I’m thrilled to have such a marvelous story to recommend. For a science fiction geek, that Bill Mumy, Lennier from Babylon 5 (also Will Robinson from the classic Lost in Space) read me a story just added to my enjoyment. His voice conveyed just the right tone of understated enthusiasm that seemed perfect for this story.

And the story itself is fantastic. There’s something for adventure readers, history buffs and even science geeks. That’s a lot of groups to appeal to.

It’s not just that the author distills a lot of historical research into great reading, but that the research he has to distill is just so interesting. They say that all myths and legends have a grain of truth in them, and it’s that grain of truth that Elkins and his team are hunting for. But there’s a lot to wade through. Finding out that the best documented case was a complete load of bunk just added to the wild and crazy aspects of the story.

There’s a “you are there” aspect to the author’s story of the expeditions themselves, and it rings true because he actually was there, waiting out the rain and dodging snakes with the rest of the team. There’s a lot of emphasis on the dangers of the environment, the romance of its pristine nature and the changes and destruction that are made in the pursuit of this great archaeological treasure.

And it is a great treasure, not in the jewels and gold sense, but in what it adds to the knowledge of a lost people and their society.

This is also a story that reminds the reader that “nature bats last” on multiple vectors. Unlike so many discoveries of supposedly lost civilizations, the cities in Mosquitia really were lost. This is not a story where the locals know all about the place but it isn’t considered “discovered” until white men find it. In Mosquitia, the cities were abandoned in the early 16th century, the jungle closed in, and the remote nature of the valley along with the dangers of the few methods of getting to them meant that no humans went there. This was a place where you actually couldn’t get there from here, even when “here” was defined as the next province. Traveling through the dense jungle, as opposed to flying over it and dropping in on a helicopter, was too hazardous for anyone from any culture to attempt when there was no one to see and nothing that anyone knew of to gain.

But nature also bats last in the Guns, Germs and Steel sense. The devastating pandemics that obliterated the Central and South American civilizations in that same 15th and 16th century time periods were not the type of diseases that die without a human host. Oh no, these pathogens were quite happy to cook themselves into new and more virulent strains in animal and insect hosts, while patiently waiting for a new batch of humans to enter their lair. As the expedition members did, with life-changing and sometimes life-threatening results.

For the reader, this is a journey that will stick with you long after the final page. For the participants, its aftermath will shadow the rest of their lives.

Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey ToobinAmerican Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, nonfiction, true crime
Pages: 368
Published by Doubleday on August 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history
On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre "Tania."The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing -- the Hearst family trying to secure Patty's release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing "Tania" wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty's year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase "Stockholm syndrome" entered the lexicon. The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors' crusade. Or did she?

My Review:

The past, as they say, is another country. They do things differently there.

1974 is definitely the past. Which is something which also feels unaccountably “wrong” at the same time. I was a junior in high school when Patty Hearst was kidnapped. And it seems like a life-time ago – only because it was.

patty hearst SLAThe story of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, conversion, capture and conviction is so wildly improbably that it could only be fact. If someone tried to sell this saga as fiction, it would be rejected as too improbable to be believable. But it really happened.

It’s a very wild ride.

One of the things that struck this reader is just how inept both sides of the equation were. The cops, notably the FBI, come off as much more Keystone Kops than clear-eyed Eliot Ness. It’s not just that they couldn’t catch a break, but that they often didn’t know what break to catch. In hindsight, there were all kinds of clues that weren’t followed up on. This didn’t have to go on nearly as long as it did.

Especially since the criminals were no more ept than the cops. As you read the story, it’s impossible not to be struck but just how often the SLA just got lucky. They may have planned their individual operations down to the details, but there was no overall plan and no major goal to be accomplished. They seem to have been living in a bubble of their own making. And it somehow kept working for them.

Until it didn’t.

The central figure in this story is Patty Hearst herself. So much hinges on figuring out what she really thought and felt. And that’s an unknown, and always has been.

It’s difficult not to put myself in her place. At 19, if someone kidnapped you at gunpoint and locked you in a closet, what would you think when weeks later they offered you the option of walking away or joining up? Would anyone actually believe that walking away was a real option? I keep coming back to that over and over. Expediency says to play along.

The questions, both at the time and now, come back to whether or not she truly believed in the revolutionary cause she ended up espousing. But even if she did, how can anyone say that she truly gave unforced consent to anything that happened? How free was she to choose? We’ll never know.

Which is probably how she managed to receive both clemency from President Jimmy Carter and a pardon from President Bill Clinton. In the end, with Patty controlling the narrative, everyone saw what they wanted to see.

Something that Patty Hearst seems to have been very, very good at playing.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that this book does well is to set the stage. The 1970s are not that long ago, but they are also in some ways very far away. The optimism of the civil rights movement and the feminist movement had not yet faded into cynicism. At the same time, it was a completely crazy era, as the anti-war protests of the 1960s descended into revolutionary fervor and violence of all types. Including lots of bombings and home-grown terrorism.

The cops come off as almost completely inept. At the same time, the criminals were more lucky than smart. One of the things that the author makes clear, but is so hard to imagine today, is that there were no cell phones and no internet. Communication was slow and clumsy, coordination was incredibly difficult. Those are factors which made the criminals lives much easier, and the cops’ jobs much more difficult. Occasionally, that ineptitude feels like it drags the narrative down a bit. Because the bulk of the book is about Patty’s life on the run with the SLA, the length of time she remains free and the inability of the police and the FBI to find and apprehend her goes on and on, because in real life it did.  However, I would have liked a bit more on the trial and its aftermath than is present in the book.

At the end of the book, the questions are still unanswered. Both the question of just how willing a participant Patty Hearst was in the later SLA criminal activities, and also just how much will did she have at that point? It’s ironic that the phrase that most often comes to mind in reference to her case, Stockholm Syndrome, wasn’t in use at the time of her trial because the Stockholm event itself had just occurred in 1973. Was she formally brainwashed? Based on the book, it seems doubtful. Not that the SLA might not have tried, but that they never seemed to have it that much together. Did she have Stockholm Syndrome? That seems much more plausible.

That the questions from the book continue to haunt me says something about the writing. This is a good story. It always has been. There’s a lot of drama, a certain amount of melodrama, and a fascinating use of a kind of sin and redemption trope, as Patty is taken from her good girl life, becomes an outlaw, and then reforms. It’s also a story about where the rich really are different from you and me. No one else in history has ever received both clemency and a pardon. Money still talks.

American Heiress is a compulsively readable account of an utterly fascinating riches to rags to riches story of crime, punishment and redemption.