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: 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: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I adore Neil deGrasse Tyson. How can you not? The man has helped make science cool, and is a leading voice in promoting technological and scientific advancement and understanding.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is a collection of articles dealing with different aspects of the science of outer space. In each chapter, deGrasse Tyson’s wit is clearly on display, making this more of an intellectual chat between friends than a science lecture. deGrasse Tyson has the enviable talent for being able to explain complex phenomena in a way that is interesting, understandable, and yet not condescending. This gift, plus a clear love for his chosen field, has helped make him one of the most visible intellectuals of the modern age.

I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by deGrasse Tyson himself, and the read was quick, educational, and at times laugh-out-loud funny. If you’re looking for a fun way to brush up on your astrophysics as possible manned Mars missions and space tourism continue to make headlines, you should read this book (or check out the revamped Cosmos, also featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson doing what he does best).

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: 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.