Book Review: Fly Girls by Keith O’Brien

Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O’Brien

The Blurb:

The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s — and won

Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit. Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.

O’Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high‑school dropout who worked for a dry cleaner in Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcee; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue‑blood family’s expectations; and Louise Thaden, the mother of two young kids who got her start selling coal in Wichita. Together, they fought for the chance to race against the men — and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.

The Golden Age of Flying, and especially the lives of female flyers has intrigued me ever since I read Laurie Notaro’s fantastic Crossing the Horizon. The golden age of the ’20s and ’30s was characterized by a huge upswing in popularity for flight, an increasing availability of aircraft, and the very real danger of disaster from less-than-reliable machines. This was a time of new records to set and to break, exploration and pushing limits. Of trans-continental races, and no-holds-barred competitions. It was a time when a man or woman with enough gumption, talent, and luck could set their name in the history books as a first, or fastest, or farthest.

O’Brien’s book features five outstanding female pilots. Big names and big stories in their day, but only one (Earhart) is still remembered today, ironically for her presumed death, and not as much for her accomplishments in flying.

This is a fascinating story, in a fascinating time in aviation. O’Brien has captured the glamor and the drama of his subjects. We get to go along with them as they try to break into an arena that was (and largely still is) considered to be men’s territory. You will laugh and cheer, gasp and shudder, you will shake your head and your fist. O’Brien has done a fantastic job at bringing these exceptional women back to life.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Escape Artists by Neal Bascomb

The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War by Neal Bascomb

The Blurb:

In the winter trenches and flak-filled skies of World War I, soldiers and pilots alike might avoid death, only to find themselves imprisoned in Germany’s archipelago of POW camps, often in abominable conditions. The most infamous was Holzminden, a land-locked Alcatraz of sorts that housed the most troublesome, escape-prone prisoners. Its commandant was a boorish, hate-filled tyrant named Karl Niemeyer who swore that none should ever leave.

Desperate to break out of “Hellminden” and return to the fight, a group of Allied prisoners led by ace pilot (and former Army sapper) David Gray hatch an elaborate escape plan. Their plot demands a risky feat of engineering as well as a bevy of disguises, forged documents, fake walls, and steely resolve. Once beyond the watch towers and round-the-clock patrols, Gray and almost a dozen of his half-starved fellow prisoners must then make a heroic 150 mile dash through enemy-occupied territory towards free Holland.

Drawing on never-before-seen memoirs and letters, Neal Bascomb brings this narrative to cinematic life, amid the twilight of the British Empire and the darkest, most savage hours of the fight against Germany. At turns tragic, funny, inspirational, and nail-biting suspenseful, this is the little-known story of the biggest POW breakout of the Great War.

So have you seen The Great Escape? The 1963 film is a virtual who’s-who of ’60s movie stardom (including Steve McQueen (yay!), James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner). The movie is a dramatization of a real-life mass prison break from a Nazi prison camp during World War II. The Escape Artists tells the story of the men who laid the foundations of such escapes.

World War I brought warfare into a brutal, modern era. The trenches, the gas, the aerial dogfights were new and terrible realities of battle. In addition, the imprisonment of enemy soldiers occurred at a rate previously unheard of. The systems surrounding these mass incarcerations, and the rules of engagement between prisoner and jailer were new and largely untested.

It was drilled into British soldiers and officers that their duty, if captures, was to escape and rejoin the fighting force as soon as possible. Beyond bringing experienced fight men back into the fold, even unsuccessful escape attempts diverted critical enemy resources from the front lines.

Bascomb has given us a lively, riveting history of some truly remarkable men. The sheer ingenuity of their escape attempts (which were many) is something to behold. These men displayed bravery under pressure, creativity in the face of hardship, and an unflagging determination to escape from their captors. When WWII began, the most successful of these escape artists would go on to tutor a whole new generation of soldiers in the art of prison break.

This is a history book for military buffs, but also for anyone who enjoys a good adventure story. The fact that all this really happened only makes it that much more enthralling.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Adrift by Brian Murphy and Toula Vlahou

Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell About It by Brian Murphy and Toula Vlahou

This is the story of a small packet sailing ship, the John Rutledge, which set off across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York in the winter of 1856. The ship, carrying cargo and Irish emigrants, struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic, and only one soul would live to tell the tale.

There are quite a few best-selling narrative non-fiction books about famous shipwrecks, such as Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Heart of the Sea, and numerous books about the sinking of the Titanic. These ships have become legend, and the stories have a great deal of primary information and research behind them.

In Adrift, Murphy has given us a smaller tragedy. The sinking of the John Rutledge is one of many tragic stories lost on the shoals of history, and the careful research needed to bring it back into the light should be commended. Murphy has delved into private journals, newspaper clippings, family lore, and shipping records. What is more, he has compiled this information into a gripping, narrative story.

Fans of narrative nonfiction and tales of maritime derring-do will find a lot to admire in Murphy’s careful research and close attention to detail. History buffs cannot help but rejoice when another largely unknown story is pulled from the depths of the historical record.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt is a noted Shakespeare scholar and here turns his analytical eye on Shakespeare’s treatment of tyrannical rulers in some of his most famous plays. Greenblatt brings us in-depth, yet highly readable, analyses of Macbeth, Richard II, Richard III, Julius Caesar, King Lear, and others. Greenblatt provides us with historical context for both the figures the play was based on, and the political and social (and religious) context of the years during which Shakespeare was writing.

As Greenblatt points out, the late Elizabethan era was a frought time, do I an aging and heirless monarch on the throne, increasingly violent religious fundamentalists threatening terroristic attacks and assassinations (if you guessed Roman Catholics, you would be right), and a society fraying apart in the face of external and internal strife.

While unwilling (or possibly simply unable, due to censorship) to speak directly to events in his lifetime, Shakespeare was a master of taking past (or legendary) events and people and creating a story that nonetheless spoke to his audience.

Greenblatt also brings this scholarship to bear on modern events. While he never names names, it is very clear which individual he is referencing in terms of a modern world leader with decided tyrannical propensities

This, to me, is both good and bad. Good because Greenblatt makes quite a few good points and parallels not just to Shakespeare’s work, but also to the historical events which inspired them. Bad because I feel like this book appeals to a certain kind of person, who I will collectively call “the choir,” and it is not them we need to preach to.

Ah well. This is a wonderfully researched book, well written and readable even to those who aren’t Shakespeare scholars. The subject matter is incredibly interesting, and Greenblatt’s treatment ofnthe material is refreshingly entertaining.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

This is a love story to a once-great city, told by a native son. Maraniss here chooses to focus his attention to 1962-1963, banner years for auto capital Detroit. Ford was on top of its game and looking to revolutionize the American sports car with the Mustang; Motown was hot and setting off a string of number one hits by artists who would become legends; the struggles of the civil rights movement were bolstered by a forward-looking local government and strong black community. Everything seemed poised to keep Detroit on top for decades to come.

Of course, today we know the realities of its current incarnation. But Maraniss here delivers us a loving, lingering look at a city that was a beacon for many across the country. Maraniss’ tales weaves in and out of politics, industry, music, religion, civil rights, law and order, and crime, we see how the biggest and smallest players of Detroit lived their intermingled lives, how small connections and deep alliances helped to shape the city of Detroit. This book is all the more fascinating considering the depth of the city’s fall from grace. Seeing such a vivid portrait of the city in its heyday makes it all the more obvious what has been lost.

This book is great for both history buffs and for those interested in current events. There is quite a bit in this book which echoes modern day issues and struggles. This book makes you want to root for Detroit, to hope that it’s future could hold even a fraction of the vivacity of its past.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Cadaver King by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

In the early 1990s, two young girls were taken from their Mississippi homes, raped, and murdered. Two men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were separately arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes (Levon Brooks for the rape and murder of Courtney Smith in 1990, and Brewer for the rape and murder of Christine Jackson in 1992). Their convictions were won largely on the back of forensic testimony from coroner Dr. Stephen Hayne and self-styled bitemark expert Dr. Michael West. The problem? Both men were using extremely flawed (and some would say fraudulent) methods in their analyses. Michael West’s reputation as a huckster is so bad that he was featured in John Oliver’s exposé on the flaws of forensic testimony. Rather than striving for truth and justice, both doctors gained a reputation for helping to put away the person the police decided was guilty, no matter the flimsiness of the case.

Both men were eventually exonerated, but not before they had spent a combined 30 years in prison. Cadaver King (the authors are associated with The Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Brooks and Brewer) examines the highly flawed coroner system in Mississippi, the faith placed by judges and juries on forensic methods which have not been scientifically evaluated, and a justice system which is reluctant to address and rectify its mistakes, even at the cost of keeping innocent men imprisoned.

This book examines the historical and racial roots that formed the justice system in Mississippi into what it would become. The book runs through the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras–when the coroner system was used to enable and hide racial violence–to the turn of the twenty-first century, when lack of training, funding, and oversight allowed old habits to merge with modern science.

This book is horrifying and thought provoking. Faith in our justice system is one of tenets of our society. We should strive for the ideal that ojustice in this cointry rises above petty prejudices, that it demands accountability and accuracy from expert witnesses. That any person walking into a courtroom will leave with the verdict they deserve. While I’m certainly not naive enough to think that our system is infallible, seeing just how far we are from that heady ideal is devastating. This book serves as a reminder that the system is a creature of habit, and change will come more quickly if we begin to sit up and take notice.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Life and Death in the Andes by Kim McQuarrie

Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries by Kim McQuarrie
The Andes mountain range in South America runs down the west coast of the continent. The stories and histories of the place are as varied as the peaks themselves. In Life and Death in the Andes, Kim McQuarrie gives us a travelogue and a history book, a sweeping epic and an intimate portrait. 

From the cities of Columbia to southernmost Chile and Argentina, McQuarrie brings us stories of druglords and mummies, weavers and bandits, natives and revolutionaries. Mixing history seamlessly with his own travels, Life and Death in the Andes gives us a unique perspective of life in the Andes mountains. 

History buffs, world travelers, and the curious will find a lot to like in McQuarrie’s easy conversational style. Anyone who wants to go a bit off the beaten trail will enjoy the stories McQuarrie has to tell us.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: Maladies and Medicine by Jennifer Evans and Sara Read

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Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health & Healing, 1540-1740 by Jennifer Evans and Sara Reed

Europe in the 1600s was a strange place to be. Science and empirical data were beginning to subsume old superstition. The invention of the microscope opened up a whole new world to human sight. Discoveries in physics, medicine, and other fields slowly brought Europe into the modern age. But for a time, superstition and science existed as awkward bedfellows. Doctors tried to balance the ancient medical theories of Galen and Hippocrates with new, scientifically gathered data. It is this awkward stage that is front and center in Maladies and Medicine.

This is a straight-up history book. While the authors certainly inject frivolity and humor into the book, this is meant more for the dedicated history buff, and not for the casual reader. Evans and Reed, while admitting to the books limitations in scope (it’s a big topic), include a vast amount of information, conveniently divvied up by disease. The authors also delve into the differences between medical doctors, surgeons, midwives and other practicing women, and the unofficial medical practitioners. Each has their own origin and medical views, and it is curious to see when they agree, disagree, and borrow from one another.

History buffs will find a lot of great information (and a lot of cringe-worthy knowledge) in this book. If you’re interested in medieval history or medical history, this book is a great addition to your TBR. However, if you’re looking for a similar book for a more casual reader, you should check out Quackery by Lydia Kang.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Robin McCarthy

On June 9th, 1912, eight people, a family of six and two children visiting for the night, were murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The murder of eight people, six of them children under 12 years of age, rocked the small farming town of Vilisca, Iowa. But the Moore family were simply the latest victims of this violent perpetrator. Someone with an axe to grind (sorry, I really, truly couldn’t help myself) was traveling across the breadth of the country at the turn of the twentieth century, and leaving piles of corpses in his wake . . .

Bill James is a baseball guy. Specifically he is a baseball statistician, and he approaches this topic with a mathematical mindset. After all, the Vilisca murders, considered to be one of the most infamous unsolved mass murders in US history, are tentatively considered to be part of a series of serial killings at the turn of the twentieth century, but James expands on the widely accepted dimensions of the serial killer’s crimes. Rather than the several crimes most ascribe to the killer, James posits that the man from the train began his cross-country murder spree as early as 1898, and may be responsible for over one hundred murders.

Such a claim often precedes eye rolling and offers of tin-foil hats, but in this book, James provides the reader with carefully researched and sourced data to back up his assertions. Using newspaper records from across the country, combined with modern profiling techniques, James has unearthed a truly startling number of mass murders like the one in Vilisca. Like any good historian, James is careful to use primary sources where possible, and to document where the data available clash with his hypothesis. While several similar crimes are dismissed out of hand as being tied to our suspect, James makes quite a strong argument for adding several more murders to the ones traditionally ascribed.

Fans of history and true crime (lovers of Devil in the White City take note) should enjoy this book. But the casual reader need not despair. James’ writing style is accessible and engaging, and replete with dark humor and some truly monstrous puns.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock

Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock

The Revolutionary War is the origin story of the United States. Like every origin story, it carries certain expectations: a plucky underdog comes into power, or comes into the realization of their own inner power, and proceeds to upend the established order of things. The origin story reaches its climax when said plucky underdog is able to defeat the villain, who is the representative of the power of the old order.

That is certainly the popular narrative that winds through most histories of the Revolutionary War. But is this all there is? Hoock’s Scars of Independence seeks to add to the Revolutionary narrative, to complicate and humanize the feel-good legend most of us learn in school. Hoock has little time for the “immaculate conception” origin of the United States, which features a noble and forward-looking young colony rebelling and separating nearly bloodlessly from the stodgy and declining Britain. Rather, Hoock shows us the bloody underside of the fight for independence, a violent and cruel conflict regarded in its time not as a fight for independence, but as a civil war.

In Scars of Independence, Hoock takes us through the escalating violence on both sides of the conflict. We learn about tarring and feathering, prison ships, rapes, whippings, hangings and lynchings. We learn about petty grievances between neighbors turned into war crimes. About prison camps in mines, about the impossible position of Native Americans and of slaves, caught between two feuding (largely white) armies.

This is a fantastic, thoroughly researched history. A must read for any history buffs or Revolutionary War enthusiasts. Hoock has presented an aspect of the Revolutionary War that is seldom dealt with in popular literature. Though this is first and foremost a history book, Hoock’s writing style is accessible and clear, and Scars of Independence is highly readable, even for the more casual reader.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.