Book Review: Caesar’s Last Breath

Caesar’s Last Breath
Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us
Sam Kean
Little, Brown, and Company
(c) 2017 by the author

In the kingdom of non-fiction books, there’s a land that can be described as “commodity biographies”. Here, the authors take an item or substance of great familiarity, and write about how it has influenced and has been influenced by human history. (e.g Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky). Given air’s ubiquity, it’s kind of hard to write a biography for it. Kean’s book can be better described as a collection of independent essays that together tell a history of Earth’s atmosphere and our understanding of it.

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Book Review: Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times

Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times
by H.W. Brands
Doubleday
(c) 2005 by the author

The current president likes to compare himself to Andrew Jackson, choosing Jackson’s portrait to hang in the Oval Office. Jackson is going to be removed from the $20 bill, to be replaced by Harriet Tubman. All the hubbub over Jackson has many people in a lather about him; essentially he’s seen as the Anti-Christ for his slave ownership and the “Trail of Tears”.

I thought it might be a good idea, then, to read a biography of our seventh President, and learn something of what all the fuss is about.

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BOOK REVIEW: Time Travel

Time Travel
James Gleick
Pantheon Books
Copyright 2016 by the author

If you were looking for someone who could explain all the ins and outs and forwards and sideways of time travel, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better writer than James Gleick. He’s previously tackled topics like chaos theory and the life and work of Richard Feynman. So a history of the idea of time travel seems like a natural subject for him to present to the average intelligent reader.

Gleick starts by taking us back in time to when H.G. Wells was penning “The Time Machine”. He discusses early drafts of the novel, and mentions some of the problems that reviewers noted – what happens if solid objects are in the space the Traveler is passing through, for one, and how do you account for the fact that the earth is both rotating and moving through space (the latter is one that time travelers always seem to forget).

From there, he moves forward in time through physicists treating time mathematically as a dimension, philosophers grappling with the concept of time, and even lexicographers trying to simply come up with a definition of the term that doesn’t wind up spinning in circles: “Time is what clocks measure”; “A clock is a device for measuring the passage of time.”[1]

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Book Review: Infected

Infected: A Novel
Scott Sigler
Crown Publishers
(c) 2008 by the author

There’s this syndrome out there called “Morgellon’s Disease”. Its symptoms, such as they are, are primarily an unexplained rash accompanied by the usual aches, pains, and tiredness. Occasionally, sufferers have found odd fibers coming out of the affected area. Others have reported the sensation of something crawling around under their skin.

No research to date has come up with a cause (aside from “I told you to stop scratching that, you’ve only made it worse”). The mystery fibers turn out to be bits of cotton, most likely from clothing. That hasn’t stopped people from blaming everything from nanotech to aliens to a government conspiracy.

Sigler’s novel, adapted from a popular series of podcasts, asks and answers the question: “What if Morgellon’s Disease was real?”

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BOOK REVIEW: Heaven’s Ditch

Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal
Jack Kelly
St Martin’s Press, NY
Copyright 2016 by the author

It was the nation’s first big infrastructure project. A canal connecting Lake Erie (and thereby the Great Lakes and the Northwest Territory) to the Hudson River (and thereby New York City and the Atlantic Ocean). A project vital to the growth and development of the United States, it also brought a palpable sense of excitement to upper New York…. an excitement that would have significant effects not only on individuals, but on the nation as a whole.

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Book Review: Dark Matter

Dark Matter
by Blake Crouch
Crown Publishers
(c) 2016 by the author

Since at least as far back as Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time” (1934), science fiction writers have been penning tales of traveling through the “multiverse” of alternate histories. So despite what some of the reviewers might be saying, there’s nothing really novel about Crouch’s novel in that regard. But what is new is that instead of positing another world where the Confederacy won the War Between the States or the Nazis won WWII, Crouch makes it personal.

Everyone has made important decisions in their lives. What college to attend, what job to take, to break up or not to break up with a lover…. Crouch pens a fast-paced action-adventure story based around the individual “alternaties” that spring from the many choices we make.

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BOOK REVIEW: Here is Where

Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History
Andrew Carroll
Crown Archetype
2013

It’s a fairly non-descript row house on Brooklyn’s Ryerson St. It only stands out because it’s a three-story building surrounded by two-story homes. But underneath the bland siding is a house that goes back to the 1850s. And in 1855, it’s where Walt Whitman lived while he was between newspaper jobs, and where he wrote and self-published Leaves of Grass [1].

There’s no plaque on the door; presumably the current residents – if they even know about their former tenant – don’t want to be besieged by Whitman groupies or harassed by historical tours. But in a city where all the other Whitman-related buildings and locations have been torn down or built over or otherwise lost over the many decades, shouldn’t it at least be worthy of a sign on the sidewalk?

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Book Review: Floodpath

Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles
Jon Wilkman
Bloomsbury Press
(c) 2016 by the author

What Robert Moses was for New York City, William Mulholland was for Los Angeles. Both were immensely powerful and influential in their cities, despite not holding an elective office. Both earned their positions by being very hard working, and extremely good at their jobs. Both indelibly shaped their cites forever, both for good and for bad. But where Moses’ gradual fall from power was the result of a growing realization that his roadbuilding was no longer what New York needed, Mulholland’s fall happened literally overnight.

Documentarian Jon Wilkman has written another fine book on the collapse of the St Francis Dam outside Los Angeles, on the night of March 12-13, 1928. I say “another fine book” since this is not the first volume on the subject – but it is the first I’ve read. And it really is a very fine work.

The flood from the collapse of the dam blasted down the Santa Clara river valley, leaving millions of dollars in damage, and over 400 dead. It is one of the worst civil engineering disasters in US History – but is barely remembered outside California.

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BOOK REVIEW: Famous Works of Art – And How They Got That Way

Famous Works of Art – And How They Got That Way
John B. Nici
Rowman & Littlefield
Copyright 2015 by the author

Ask a hundred people what is the most famous or greatest work of art in the world, and ninety-nine of them will most likely say it’s the “Mona Lisa”. Ask them to explain why, and most of them will mumble something about the smile. Nothing about da Vinci’s technique or composition or anything else that one would usually expect to hear when discussing a masterpiece, just an opinion that they are no doubt parroting from someone else.

What is it that makes a famous work of art famous? Art historian John B. Nici has taken time out from teaching art history at Queens College in New York to delve into the matter. As often as not, Fame comes from things external to the artwork itself.
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Book Review: Iran-Contra

Iran-Contra:
Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power
by Malcolm Byrne
(c) 2014 by The University Press of Kansas

Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when Communism was on its way out as the #1 Global Threat and Radical Islam was quickly climbing up the charts….

On October 5, 1986, a Sandanista soldier fired off his SAM-7 at a Fairchild C-123K cargo plane that had just crossed into Nicaraguan airspace from Costa Rica. He got really lucky – the missile hit, and knocked down the plane. Three of the crew died in the crash – but Eugene Hasenfus survived. He confirmed to his captors what documents found in the crash revealed: the plane was on a covert mission on behalf of the CIA to supply the Contra rebels with arms – in direct contravention of US laws.

A few weeks later, a news magazine in Lebanon published a scoop. Representatives from the Reagan administration had been meeting with Iranian government officials in an effort to purchase the release of a couple of Americans who had been kidnapped by Hezbollah. This was a big deal; the stated position of the American government was “We will never negotiate with terrorists”. And Iran, now that a theocratic Islamic government had kicked out our friend the Shah and then allowed a bunch of radicals to capture the staff of our embassy in Tehran, was considered the number one terrorist-backing government in the world.

This was all Very Bad News for the Reagan administration, especially when it was found that the profits from the arms sales to Iran were being used to pay for supplying the Contras without the knowledge – nevermind the permission – of Congress.
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