Book Review: The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena

Carlos Magdalena is a botanist at Kew Botanical Gardens in London with an eye towards resurrecting endangered and extinct plants. This book is a memoir of Magdalena’s life and a look at the plants he holds most dear. From tiny islands off the coast of Madagascar, to the Australian outback, to the jungles and arid mountain deserts of South America, Magdalena introduces us to plants, endangered or outright extinct in their natural habitats, some only still surviving through one or two specimens kept in institutions like Kew.

This is a fascinating book. Magdalena’s passion for his subject shines through in every line. And he doesn’t limit himself to environmental concerns, either. The thorny questions about ownership and repatriation in a post-colonial world are also addressed, and highlight just how difficult it can be to save and propagate some of these species. How do you balance local concerns with scientific study? If a native plant is found to have medicinal or commercial uses, who owns the rights to said plant? What about those plants which were “collected” by naturalists during the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of colonialism, do they still belong to their native people?

Any one with interest in botany, plant life, conservation, and/or environmentalism will enjoy this book. In The Plant Messiah, Carlos Magdalena reminds us multiple times that our very existence is dependent on the health of the flora around us. It behooves us to treat them as essential parts of life on Earth.

An advance 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 Life of Death by Ralph R. Rossell

The Life of Death: The Bare Bones of Undertaking by Ralph R. Rossell

Ralph Rossell grew up in his family’s Funeral home, helping his father and uncle in the day-to-day of the business. After most of a lifetime in the business, Rossell inadvertently started on the path to this book by joining a facebook group where residents of Flushing, Michigan could share reminisces of their town. Unsurprisingly, Rossell’s stories found a ready audience and The Life of Death was born.

Rossell makes this clear from the beginning that these stories are his recollections and not to be taken as a scholarly endeavor. But many academic books have been written on the subject, and the more personal touch lends a bit of fun to the subject. The stories do have a mid-20th century gloss over them , with the positive and negative connotations of that viewpoint. The stories are by turns poignant, humorous, educational, sad, and joyous. Rossell gives us a good, solid, inside look at at profession many don’t (or don’t want to) know much about. The stories are separated more-or-less by type, and each takes the form of a self-contained vignette. As a result, the book is highly readable and quite entertaining.

Anyone looking for a book about the business of death, told in the reader-friendly format of a personal blog, should check out this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley 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: Shallow Graves by Maureen Boyle

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Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer by Maureen Boyle

In 1988, the bodies of women began to turn up along the highways outside of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The town had begun as a whaling hub, then changed its industry over to textiles when whaling began to wane. Frederick Douglass had once been a resident of the town, and Moby Dick was based on whaling ships heading out of town. By the 1980s, however, New Bedford was struggling with that near universal blight: drugs and crime. Many of the victims (eleven in all) were troubled women, drug addicts, prostitutes, or both. The pool of potential suspects was vast, from fishermen to white collar workers to itinerant truckers. Nearly all the victims were found months after their bodies had been dumped, and modern forensic science as we now know it was in its infancy.

This is a mystery that remains an ongoing puzzle to this day. Boyle, one of the reporters who first broke the story in 1988, presents the facts to us in an organized, thorough manner. You can tell that this mystery has remained on her mind and in her heart for thirty years. Boyle generally leaves herself out of the narrative, focusing on the investigators, the victims and their families, the suspects, and the local politics. This is a true crime story written against the backdrop of a town in decline, but trying desperately to reinvent itself amidst its troubles. This should resonate strongly with many of us in this day and age, as the specter of heroin abuse and urban/suburban decay continue to blight many communities in this country.

Fans of true crime will enjoy this strong entry to the genre. Even if you don’t usually gravitate towards crime novels, Boyle’s portrayal of New Bedford in the 1980s is worth reading in and of itself.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher 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: The Comic Book Story of Video Games by Jonathan Hennessey and Jack McGowan

The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution by Jonathan Hennessey and Jack McGowan

Is there anyone left who doesn’t believe that video games are a legitimate form of entertainment? Advances in graphics and animation, and a focus on storytelling and character development have made video games a truly creative and unique medium. Yet, it seems to be easy for some to dismiss video games as time wasters, or simple orgies of violence, and overlook the artistry involved in their creation.

From the electric innovations of the 19th century, to the sanity consuming Angry Birds and Minecraft, The Comic Book Story of Video Games provides a complex and entertaining look at how we arrived where we are today. Told in an immensely fun graphic novel format, the book sails through the early days of oscilloscopes and simple gameplay, through the silicon valley book, the rise of arcade games and home consoles, the birth and death of Atari, the ridiculously long-lasting success of Nintendo, and the fierce battles in the console wars. 

Graphic novels are a great way to present a nonfiction story. They allow the drier, less flashy bits to be glossed over in a few images, letting the “meat” of the story shine through. Though by necessity less in-depth than a full-length book, they nevertheless provide an accessible and detailed way to tell a story. I would love for more nonfiction to be presented this way.
Most in the gaming world will find this book fascinating. The book is sprinkled with enough gaming Easter eggs to delight gamers, but even more casual gamers (or nongamers) will find this story incredibly interesting.

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

Book Review: The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain

On March 27th, 1964, at 5:36pm, the most powerful earthquake in the United States (measuring a 9.2 on the Richter Scale) struck Southeastern Alaska. The quake leveled large swathes of Valdez and Anchorage, tidal waves inundated native villages (and in fact killed people as far away as California), and fires destroyed several small towns. Roads and rail lines were ripped apart, isolating entire regions of the sparsely populated state. In the aftermath of the quake, scientists studying the event would uncover data which would change how geologists viewed the world, and bring a previously dismissed theory into prominence.

This is an incredibly readable telling of the effects of the Great Alaska Earthquake, and the aftershocks felt by the scientific community after the Earth stopped shaking. Fountain has written a history book in the vein of Erik Larsen’s Isaac’s Storm. You’re going to find far more than just a tale of an Earthquake here. Fountain provides background on the major players, as well as the history of Alaska, and the fields of geology and seismology. As a result, The Great Quake is a readable and informative story of an unimaginable disaster, and the science underlying the event.

Fans of narrative nonfiction will find a lot to like here. The 1964 Alaskan earthquake is largely forgotten in the Lower 48, but the data derived from this disaster continues to reverberate into the modern day.

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

Book Review: The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye: A Pittsburgh Story by Meredith Meyer Grelli

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The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye: A Pittsburgh Story by Meredith Meyer Grelli

I remember when I was first presented with the necessity of moving to Pittsburgh. I was a New England girl born and raised, but the possibility of securing a job in my field (probably a bad idea to major in anthropology) was enough to have me seriously considering the move to (in my New England mindframe) the middle of the country. But  . . . Pittsburgh, I said to myself. I pictured post-apocalyptic visions of smokestack-strewn horizons, coal blackened skies and landscapes, the dirty grime of hundreds of years of industry. The reassuring and vague “It’s not like that anymore” from my then-boyfriend (now husband) did little to instill confidence in our new home.

Then we arrived. And all my misgivings and preconceptions faded away. It was a clear, bright midautumn day, the leaves, though not as brilliant as those I’d left behind, marched in colorful ranks up and over the hills. The gleaming US Steel Tower (the locals refuse to call it anything else, no matter who owns it), the castle-like PPG building and the art deco Gulf building dominated the downtown skyline. Bridges of yellow and blue, constructed solidly from (local) steel and concrete sprouted along the rivers like crepe paper. And the hills . . . we were moving to the neighborhood of Mt. Washington (which is extra hilarious for New Englanders) and it seemed that no surface was too vertical to build on. Houses and shops hung from the side of cliffs, streets marched uphill and turned into staircases when the grade became too steep for cars. At night, the city spread out around us both horizontally and vertically, a sight one might associate more with a Rio de Janeiro than a mid-Atlantic American city.

Pittsburgh is a city rooted in its past. Rail lines, old factories, and other evidence of bygone industry haunt the landscape. But Pittsburgh is also one of the fortunate cities in the “Rust Belt” to largely avoid the economic crash so many other places still face. The natural gas and medical industries employ thousands. Google, Uber, and other world-class companies have headquarters here. The city may see itself as a hardhat-wearing, steelmill-working tough guy, but it is also a self-driving-car test ground, a farm-to-table giant, a craft beer haven, and a foodie paradise. These two disparate parts of Pittsburgh coexist, sometimes cordially, sometimes not, and those who have lived their lives here feel the pressure to decide which path the city will ultimately take.

Wigle Whiskey embodies this dichotomy. Started as a family enterprise in 2011, Wigle sought out Pittsburgh’s deep distilling roots (the city was once the rye whiskey capital of the country, before rye was superseded by Kentucky bourbon) while embracing the city’s future (the craft spirits revolution is proceeding quite similarly to the craft beer revolution a few decades ago). The name evokes Pittsburgh’s very beginnings, named after an actor in the Whiskey Rebellion, where local distillers (violently) protested a federal tax placed on whiskey stills.

The Whiskey Rebellion and the Rebirth of Rye (I was bound to get to the book eventually) is a love story both to the city of Pittsburgh and the craft of making spirits.  The book begins with a brief overview of The Whiskey Rebellion (for a more in depth look, you can check out William Hogeland’s The Whisky Rebellion), as well as the history of the Overholt family (Old Overholt Whiskey being one of the oldest whiskeys continuously distilled in the United States). The book then gives us an insight into the current state of craft brewing, and the challenges and niches that make distilling both difficult and rewarding. The book finishes with a number of drink recipes (huzzah!) for the dedicated liquor enthusiast.

Meredith Meyer Grelli, who is one of the founders of Wigle Whiskey, is a person enthusiastically in love with her work and her home city, and this loves shines throughout the book. Anyone who has heard her speak at one of the distillery tours knows the level of enthusiasm she brings to the craft, and she carries that enthusiasm over into the written word. Anybody interested in a quick, readable history of the Pittsburgh region and craft distilling should find this book entertaining and informative. And if you’re in the area, be sure to stop by the distillery for a cocktail, a flight, and a tour. The rich history of this city deserves to be celebrated.

A copy of this book was provided by the author 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.