Book Review: Jefferson’s America

Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster

In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans.  That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French.  France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory.  But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.

Jefferson's America

President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in  the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there.  And so he chose the men of Jefferson.

This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures.  Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country.  William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist.  George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune.  Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C,  And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.

It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices.  Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.

Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text.  We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone.  Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical.  Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse.  And many others.

The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time.  But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.”  There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments.  The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds.  At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion.  He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.

While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello.  I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.

The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through.  There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land.  Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.

There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes.  There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.

The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs.  It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory.  (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)

I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, more about Sacajawea:

 

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

Book Review: Dark Waters

Book Review: Dark Waters by Michael Merriam

Disclaimer:  My copy is an uncorrected proof; there may be changes in the final product (I am hoping for many less spellchecker typos.)

Many years ago, Richard Martz ran afoul of the law forbidding children who have both mage and fey blood from being born.  His lover and her unborn child were executed in an overreaction by the local magical community, and he overreacted in turn, wiping them all out.  Now he is cursed, his magic crippled and longing for death, but unable to die.

Dark Waters

Richard’s buried himself in an electronics repair job in Minneapolis.  His employer died recently, and Richard is surprised when that man’s daughter, Holly Ellefson, turns up in his apartment that night.  It turns out that she herself is a mage/fey combination, her powers and heritage hidden by her mother’s spell…which was tied to her father’s life.  Now that Holly has no blood relatives, her disguise is fading, and her powers emerging.  She need magical training, and protection from those who would murder her to keep the law.

Richard accepts, but his price is that if he saves her life, Holly must take his.

“Urban fantasy” is a subgenre of fantasy that is generally set in something like the modern day, in real world places (usually cities) and has a theme of magic co-existing with technology and mundane life.  Often, the magical world is hidden from  normal people (see for example the Harry Potter series.)  In this case, the story takes place a century or so in the future, after the magical community suffered a disaster that exposed it to the normal humans.

To protect themselves, the magical community provides magical technology that does not rely on the now nearly exhausted fossil fuels.  Only the wealthy can fully afford this, so much of the rest of society is reverting to earlier technology.  General Mills and the Basilica still stand, but Nicollet Island and the Sculpture Garden are ruins.  There’s a magical Council that polices their own community, and has considerable influence over the normal human government.

This book was sparked by a random premise generator, and that origin peeks through the cracks from time to time.  As the cover suggests, it follows the standard Hollywood formula of middle-aged looking male lead, twenty-something looking female lead; though he’s over a hundred years old, and she’s in her forties chronologically.  (Also, the cover is early in the story–Holly is less conventionally attractive by the end.)  There’s also something of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, as the free-spirited Holly helps Richard overcome his deep man-pain.

The Mississippi River plays a fairly large part in the setting of the story, and provides the title.

Content advisory:  There’s several gruesome deaths, a couple of which are basically shrugged off by the end (they’re only non-magical humans after all.)  Late in the book, there’s a on-screen sex scene.

It’s an okay book, but mostly of local interest.  The setting could use more thought, and a less formula plot.

Note:  I have reviewed another book titled Dark Waters; there is no resemblance or connection beyond the title.

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad by E. Randall Floyd

American history is full of offbeat people, some downright weird.  The author was (like many a lad) fascinated by their stories when he was young.  Then he got to interview Erich von Daeniken (Chariots of the Gods) and decided to make writing about unusual people a full-time hobby.  This book is one of the results.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

It contains 37 mini-biographies of interesting people in American history, arranged alphabetically from Jane Addams (social worker and pacifist) to Wovoka (Native American mystic and the leader of the “Ghost Dance” movement.)  There are the really obvious candidates, like “Emperor” Joshua Norton of San Francisco and Nikola Tesla (eccentric inventor.)  But there are also more obscure figures, like Giacomo Beltrami, who didn’t quite discover the source of the Mississippi, and Bernarr MacFadden (health nut.)

The writing is okay, but these are very short biographies, and some of the subjects have had entire (and much better) books written about them.  There are no illustrations, no citations or bibliography, and no index.  Your college professor isn’t going to accept this as a source!

While written for adults, I think this book would best serve as a gift to a bright teenager who can then look further for more information about any person that catches their fancy.  It’s a good book for a quick read, and some interesting historical moments.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

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