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:

 

Book Review: Age of Daredevils

Book Review: Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

This book covers two generations of the William “Red” Hill family of Niagara Falls, Ontario.  They were river men, swimmers, rescue workers, boat handlers–and some of them were driven to perform dangerous stunts.  And around Niagara Falls, the most daring stunt imaginable was to go over the Horseshoe Fall in a barrel.  The Hills, father and sons, were involved in most of the attempts at this feat until the 1950s.

Age if Daredevils

Parts of the story are fascinating; the first survivor of a deliberate attempt to go over the falls was a woman in her sixties, Annie Taylor.  And there’s quite a bit of family drama, particularly in the sibling rivalry of Red’s sons “Junior” and Major.  I found the contrast between the acceptance of ultimate risk and the careful shaving off of every bit of lesser risk that could be managed a fair assessment of the character of a daredevil.

The author is a local newspaper reporter who knew the Hills in his youth and has extensively interviewed several of them over the years.  This means that certain details are covered in great depth (and often repetitively), but others are given short shrift–later attempts to go over the falls alive that didn’t involve the Hill family are summarized in a paragraph or two, despite sounding just as fascinating in their backgrounds.   The book also engages in mind-reading from time to time, reporting what a person who did not survive likely felt during certain events.

There’s an extensive sources section and chapter notes, but no index.  This is more of a memoir than a formal history.  I should note that there is discussion of suicides related to the Niagara River.

Recommended for those who have a fascination with daredevils and especially those who have an interest in the Niagara Falls phenomenon.

Book Review: The Killing Moon

Book Review: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

The city of Gujaareh worships Hananja, the goddess of dreams.  Their entire culture is centered around the power of narcomancy to draw magical power from dreams to heal and perform other wonders.  The most powerful of these “humors” is dreamblood, which is only produced by a person’s final dream.  Thus a small group of holy men called the Gatherers are dispatched to bring gentle death to the aged and incurable–and sometimes those that would threaten the peace of the city.

The Killing Moon

Ehiru is considered the most skilled of the Gatherers, in much demand to bring surcease to the suffering.  But his most recent Gathering has gone horribly wrong.  He has condemned a man to eternal nightmare, and threatened his own sanity.  Why, Ehiru is even seeing what looks like a Reaper, a mythical corruption of the Gatherers that has not existed for centuries.

Sunandi is the Voice of Kisua, an ambassador from that ancient land to Gujaareh.  She is suspicious of the magic that pervades the entire city; to her euthanasia and assassination are evil.  Sunandi is investigating the sudden death of her predecessor (and foster father) Kiran.  Is the Sunset Prince of Gujaareh up to something even more sinister than she expected?

Nijiri is a faithful follower of Hananja, whose long loyalty and training are rewarded when he becomes a Gatherer-Apprentice under the tutelage of Ehiru, his personal hero.  However, this is not an auspicious time to become a Gatherer, and Nijiri may end up having to do the unthinkable to remain true to his vows.

This fantasy novel is the first in the Dreamblood series by N.K. Jemisin, who recently won a Hugo Award for her book The Fifth Season.  The geographical setting and other details are evocative of Ancient Egypt, but this is very much not Egypt, or even Earth, as is quickly made clear by the existence of the Dreaming Moon.  Ms. Jemisin’s introductory note mentions that one of the difficulties was coming up with names that sounded right, but didn’t mean anything in Egyptian.

Many of the cultural details revolve around Gujaareh’s unique form of magic; for example, the equivalent of temple prostitutes don’t have sex with the worshipers, but instead guide them into erotic dreams from which healing “dreamseed” can be extracted.  The Gatherers are central to this story; they have great power and special training, but must devote themselves to self-control–losing that control makes them vulnerable to becoming Reapers.  Unfortunately, someone has found a way to pervert the system and use it for their own purposes.  Peace is the will of Hananja, but whose definition of “peace” will it be?

There’s quite a bit of world-building, and it’s nice to see a fantasy setting based in ancient African civilizations.  It’s also quite pleasant that it’s not “good vs. evil” as such, either.  Gujaareh’s use of magic does a lot of good for its citizens, but Kisua’s worries about the ethical problems of narcomancy and the dangers of collecting dreamblood are not unjustified.  Is denying a painless death to someone who cannot be cured of their constant pain who might live on for years yet unable to move worth holding to a principle?  But if you allow this “good death”, who is there to stop all deaths that serve Hananja from being declared “good?”

Some of the characters fell a little flat for me, and a map would have been nice at a couple of points to make it clearer why certain journeys had to be made in a specific way.  On the other hand, there’s a glossary, and in the paperback edition I read, there’s an “interview” of the author by the author that explains a great deal of the reasoning behind details of the setting.

Overall, this is an excellent book, well worth searching out if you’re looking for something different in your fantasy worlds.

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2 edited by John Denning

Quick recap:  In the 1970s, Marvel Comics started doing larger magazines for newsstand distribution, most of them in black and white.  One of these was The Rampaging Hulk, which originally featured adventures taking place between the Hulk’s appearances in the first year of his existence.  But then it was renamed just The Hulk and retooled to more strongly resemble the then-hot television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, as well as now being published in color.

The Rampaging Hulk Vol. 2

This volume continues the run with issues #16-27, which were published 1979-81.  It’s a curious mix of the television series and the comics continuity.  The usual supporting cast is not seen or mentioned outside of a brief flashback to the Hulk’s origin, and a mention of Doctor Strange in the narration.  Nor are there any of the usual supervillains–the closest we get is Rypel, who is more of a Bond villain type that wants to trigger World War Three so his underwater utopia can inherit the Earth.  Most of the time, it’s just Robert Bruce Banner wandering from town to town and getting involved with relatively ordinary people’s problems.  Interspersed with the Hulk smashing things, of course.

The opening story, “Masks”, has Dr. Banner lured from New Orleans (the night after Mardi Gras, just to be different) to the Florida Keys to participate in a wealthy eccentric’s treasure hunt.  Of course, the eccentric has ulterior motives,  The final story in the volume, “One for My Baby…and One More for the Hulk!” takes place in Las Vegas, as a past-his-prime crooner tries to get out from under the mob with the help of his new green bodyguard.

This is a real nostalgia blast for me, not just because I read many of these stories when they first came out, but because the writers couldn’t use their usual costumed weirdos to move plots, and thus tended towards topical stories.  Three Mile Island, snail darters, the last days of the Cold War, Native American  struggles, Hare Krishnas…takes me back.

Of course, not all of these stories have aged well.  “A Very Personal Hell” by Jim Shooter has the notorious gay panic scene where Bruce Banner is threatened with rape by a lisping stereotype at the “Y.”  (He saves himself by informing the would-be rapist that he is, in fact, Bruce Banner, y’know, the Hulk, you wouldn’t like him when he’s mad?)

And sadly, the ambitious color usage in some of the stories is completely ruined in black & white reprint–it looks muddy, and some of the captions are borderline unreadable.  Artists like Gene Colan, on the other hand, make it work.

A couple of the stories deal with attempts to cure Banner of turning into the Hulk, or at least lessen the rift between them.  The most striking of these is “Master Mind” in which the Hulk persona winds up in Bruce Banner’s body and goes on a rampage–which could be deadly to the much more fragile scientist.

A couple more stand-out stories:  “Heaven Is a Very Small Place” with great art by Herb Trimpe and John Severin is a sad tale of the Hulk finding a peaceful place at last, only to have the illusion fade.  “Dreams of Iron…Dreams of Steel” has Bruce Banner getting a job at a care facility for children with developmental disablilities (back then the word “retarded” was acceptable, but the shortened form is also hurled as an insult) and the Hulk bonds with an adult graduate of the facility that works at a steel mill.

Recommended with reservations for fans of the 1970s Hulk show and Hulk fans in general–check your library unless you’re a completist who has to own every Hulk story.

Book Review: Snuff

Book Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Duke of Ankh-Morpork and Blackboard Monitor, has been aware in a general way that his wife Sybil owns some property in the countryside.  But now that their son Young Sam is six, Sybil has decided that it’s high time that the family take a holiday to visit the ancestral manor.   And she’s somehow convinced Sam’s boss, Lord Vetinari, to sign off on this.

Snuff

So Sam Vimes finds himself on vacation for the first time in ever, stranded far from the smell and sounds of the city he knows so well, and at a loss how to handle himself in a rural area where he’s not got jurisdiction as a cop.  But as Sherlock Holmes remarked in “The Copper Beeches”, the countryside is not free from vile sin.  When Vimes discovers that there’s been a murder on his land and the oppressed cry out for justice, he’s willing to bend the definition of jurisdiction to bring the villains to heel.

This is one of the last Discworld books (only two after this one) and the last of the City Watch sub-series.  While Vimes is front and center for most of the story, we do check in with many of the other continuing characters for at least a sentence.  (This is one of the few Discworld books to miss out Death as a character, but that does not mean that no one dies.)

Over the course of the series, Ankh-Morpork has advanced from a parody of generic sword-and-sorcery cities that happened to share some geographical features with London to more or less a fantasy version of Victorian London–and most of this progress has happened within Sam Vimes’ lifetime.  Indeed, Vimes can be said to have facilitated much of this by his dedication to law enforcement that does what is right rather than what is convenient.  Another running theme of the books has been that people are people, regardless of their shape, odd customs or biological weirdness.  Dwarves and trolls and even vampires have become people, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that description.  And now it is the turn of the goblins.

Goblins are the lowest of the low, considered filthy creatures with no visible culture, and treated as vermin.  Enslaving them, taking their sacred objects, killing them–none of these are considered crimes by the majority of people or the written law.   But Commander Vimes’ previous experiences give him some unique ways of seeing the “humanity” of goblins.

And while his efforts do yield results, Sam Vimes would not be able to fully achieve the goal of bringing goblins under the protection of the law without the aid of his socially-connected wife, an author who has her own insights into goblin culture, and several goblins who step out of their stereotype to show their worth.  (Although there is some question whether Stinky is really a goblin…or something more.)

Much of the “humor” this time revolves around bodily excretions, as Young Sam has discovered the scientific wonders of poo.  For those of us not keen on toilet gags, this gets a bit tiresome.  There’s also a fair amount of swearing, and a discussion of “the dreadful algebra” of what to do with an infant that’s been born in a time of famine.  And not all sins are forgiven.

The general quality of the writing is excellent as always, but Sir Terry’s sentimental side perhaps overwhelms the sharper edge of social satire, particularly in the ending.

Recommended to Discworld fans; newbies should probably start with Guards! Guards! which is the first of the Watch sub-series.

Book Review: Creature from the Black Lagoon

Book Review: Creature from the Black Lagoon by Vargo Statten

When marine paleontologist Dr. Carl Maia’s expedition into the Amazon rain forest discovers a unique fossil, which looks like a webbed hand, he asks for a full expedition to the area by his colleagues at the Morajo Institute of Marine Biology.  He is joined by the institute’s money-conscious  director, Mark Williams, ichthyologist David Reed, research biologist Kay Lawrence, and Dr. Thompson, whose specialty is not obvious.  They engage Captain Lucas and his river boat, the Rita, complete with crew.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Back at Dr. Maia’s base camp, the expedition is shocked to discover that the guards have been killed, apparently savaged by a wild beast.  There’s no sign of the animal itself, and it does not seem to be around while they look for fossils.  Coming up empty, they decide to head down the nearby branch river, which the natives claim runs into a place called “the Black Lagoon.”  It’s supposedly a place from which no man returns.

As it turns out, there’s a bit of truth to that story.  For within the Black Lagoon lurks a creature, a surviving member of a species from the Devonian era.  And it’s not fond of visitors….

The 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon was a huge hit for Universal Pictures, spawning two sequels, the last of their monster franchises.  For the movie’s international debut in Britain, they hired Vargo Statten (pen name of John Russell Fearn) to write a novelization.   Unlike other novelizations, which generally have to work off an early script, Mr. Fearn was able to use the finished product, making the book very faithful to the film.  The book was considered a superior example of the type, and has become a collector’s item, running in the thousands of dollars.

This is the first American reprint, and Dreamhaven Books has done it up well, with a new cover, an introduction explaining the background of the film and book, many movie stills and production photos, and a biography of Vargo Statten.

The actual reprint part is relatively slim, as was the custom for paperbacks of the time, and sticks very closely to the movie with additional dialogue.  The plot works well enough, but you shouldn’t think about the science too hard.  Many of the scenes are cinematic in nature, and at times the reader will need to pay close attention to follow the action.

The book shares with the movie a heavy dose of Fifties sexism and gender politics.   It’s suggested to Kay, for example, that “science” and “feminine” are contradictory personality traits.  She’s constantly being told that things are too dangerous/tough/frightening for a woman.  And Kay seems to enjoy two handsome fellows quarreling over her.

Meanwhile, Dr. Williams and Dr. Reed suffer from toxic masculinity; fighting over Kay’s affections, competing over what to do about the creature, and rushing to the attack when running away would have been wiser.  Dr. Williams uses his position as Kay’s boss to pressure her into not completely rejecting his romantic advances.

And then there’s the poor lonely Gill Man, who wants Kay for…something, it’s not quite sure what.  If only these other dratted humans would go away!  Yes, the Gill Man is a monster that kills several people due to them invading its territory.  But we can sympathize with its wish not to be captured for Science! and put on display or vivisected.

This is a fun read with good extras, and I highly recommend it.  It’s a must-have for the Gill Man lover in your life.  Please consider buying it directly from Dreamhaven Books to support small press.

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