Get Mad, Then Get Involved


I try to space out my political reading, especially during an election year. I often find it equal parts enraging and frustrating and I wind up in a funk for several days after reading. What’s great about Naomi Wolf’s book is that it doesn’t just make you mad, it tells you how and where to channel that anger into something constructive. Give Me Liberty is exactly what its title suggests it is. But it is also a guide for us as citizens to re-involve ourselves in the political process.

Ms. Wolf starts by dissecting the Declaration of Independence. She parses the most quoted and misinterpreted passage regarding “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and then moves on the the rest of document which states that it is our duty as citizens to be active, involved and constantly vigilant for governmental abuse. She then goes on to tell about how citizens were encouraged to be involved in government until very recently. They were even given a citizens handbook that explained to them their rights and responsibilities. This all changed with the political unrest of the 1960s when politicians became what she described as a “priestly caste” who cloaked their procedures in legalese that is unintelligible to the average citizen. After that the book explains the ways in which government has slowly eroded our rights over the decades and what we have the right to do in response. The final chapters I skimmed somewhat. They detail all the ways in which you can take action and become involved; everything from starting a petition to running for office.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone frustrated with the current political landscape. Even if you are not a dyed-in-the-wool liberal like Naomi Wolf. Everyone should get involved in the political process; conservatives, liberals and everything in between. It’s our duty as Americans to be an informed and involved electorate.



Pants Waits for Next Book in Series



I’m fairly picky about which mystery series I follow. They are formulaic by design so if there aren’t engaging characters and interesting stories, I tend to lose interest pretty quickly. The story of Constance Kopp and her sisters: Norma and Fleurette caught my interest immediately and is that start of what I hope will be a fun, somewhat historically factual mystery series.

The story takes place in 1914 New Jersey. On a rare outing into town, the somewhat reclusive sisters’ buggy is run down by a reckless silk factory owner in his automobile. Constance attempts to get the man to make restitution and she and her sisters are quickly subject to threats, intimidation and harassment in the form of bullets and bricks aimed at their farm house. Constance, whose height and ambivalence toward romance and domesticity set her apart from the average woman in 1914, takes it upon herself to resolve the situation. There’s tension, family secrets and a picture of domestic life in the early 20th century.

There are a lot of things I appreciated about this book. First of all, Constance and her sisters, the silk factory owner and the dispute over the buggy are all real people and events that happened. Though Ms. Stewart obviously fills in the blanks that the public record leaves. The relationship between the sisters whose personalities are distinct and dynamic. Though Constance herself has no interest in the typical trappings of 1910s domestic life, she in no way scorns it and has a great friendship with her sister-in-law who is practically a model 1914 housewife. Also, the imagery of the three German sisters living a rural life in the early 1900s made me nostalgic for my grandmother, who came from a similar background (though I’m reasonably sure Grandma Schneider never shot a revolver at anyone). The second novel in the series was released today. I’ll refrain from giving the title as at does give a bit of a spoiler about Constance’s fate.

History, Political Intrigue and a Little Bit of Magic

the stockholm octavo


This book contains lots of things I love (history, political intrigue and magic) along with some great character development throughout the course of the story. If I found out HBO or AMC decided to make this book into a miniseries I’d squeal and clap my hands like a little girl. The result, if done well, would be an exciting and colorful ride through late 18th Century Sweden.

The story centers around Emil Larsson, a bureaucrat living in Stockholm during the reign of King Gustav III. Emil is living a happy bachelor’s life until a tarot card reading promises him a golden path toward love and connection. In his attempt to follow the path set forth by the spread (called an octavo by its inventor), Emil finds himself a player in a conspiracy involving a potential revolt against the king by the nobles who resent him taking much of their power and giving it to the citizenry.

There’s so much to enjoy about this book. If all the history, political intrigue and magic don’t appeal to you, there’s also so much beauty in the clothing and accessories of the major players and the town of Stockholm itself all of which is described in sumptuous detail by the author. The winter scenery makes me want to reread it during the dead of winter while curled up in front of a fireplace with some hot cider.

Help I’m Alive, My Heart Keeps Beating Like a Hammer

kitty genovese


If you know the name Kitty Genovese, you’re almost certainly aware the story associated with her. She was stabbed multiple times over the course of a half an hour while 38 bystanders watched and did nothing. Her name has been associated with urban apathy for over 50 years and her case helped give rise to Good Samaritan laws across the country and the 911 calling system. But in truth, only two people saw and comprehended what was happening to Kitty; others only heard a scream and then nothing. Some saw the attacker run off and assumed the danger was over. At least one person did call the police but calls weren’t logged in 1964. Kevin Cook’s book show’s us the complexity of the case and of Kitty herself, who was more than just a murder victim.

This book first shows us the life of Kitty herself. She was an independent young woman who chose to stay in Queens when her family pulled up stakes and moved to Connecticut. She was also a closeted lesbian who was going home to her partner the night she was stabbed (a fact kept out of the papers and court trial for fear of the victim becoming unsympathetic). We also see the life of Winston Mosely, the troubled man whose path would cross with Kitty’s in the early hours of March 13, 1964. Cook also puts the crime in context. New Yorkers in the early 60s avoided calling the police, who were often unresponsive and unhelpful. He also notes that the street where the crime occurred was home to a bar that was open until 4AM and was often the source of rowdy drunks and domestic disputes that would spill out onto the sidewalk at night. This certainly caused many of the witnesses the night of Kitty’s murder to ignore her screams and go back to sleep.

Kitty Genovese may be the most well known crime victim in American history. The details of her murder were embellished while the truth of her life was hidden from the public. While this led to many positive changes in how we report crime and how we view the responsibility of bystanders, Cook’s book gives much needed nuance and depth to the story. He also gives voice to Kitty’s partner who, by choice and necessity, has kept her life with Ms. Genovese and the pain of her loss private for half a century.



Land of the Free, Some Restrictions Apply

the buddha in the attic


I could have easily read this book from cover to cover in a day if I’d had the time. Not only is only a short 149 pages but the writing flows so beautifully that I hated having to put it down and deal with my real life (I mean, more so than when I’m reading normally). The writing is lyrical and the scope is both intimate and simultaneously sweeping. The Buddha in the Attic would make excellent supplementary reading for a college or high school American History course.

Julie Otsuka chronicles the lives of Japanese immigrants to the US in the first half of the twentieth century. She focuses on the women who came to the states in the early 1900s as “picture brides” and follows them through their marriages which often came at a very young age to much older men. They work, have babies (sometimes while working) and establishing themselves in communities only to have it all taken away at the onset of the second World War. (spoiler?)

Though there is some adult content in there, I’d highly recommend this to a teen or young adult (possibly with some parental screening) it’s a beautiful glimpse of a part of American history that was forgotten until very recently.

I’m breakin’ through, I’m bendin’ spoons, I’m keepin’ flowers in full bloom



This book was book club read and it really wasn’t something I would have picked up on my own. Ultimately I’m glad I did. I’m not particularly sentimental about my remains so I’ve always said I’d either be cremated or donate my remains to science. Being less than halfway through my life (if the women in my family are any indication, I may live to be over a century) I didn’t think much about it beyond that. Reading Mary Roach’s book is a detailed an engaging account of our lives after death and some of the strangest things humans have done with the remains of their fellow man throughout history

Though this should go without saying, one should probably avoid reading this if they’ve recently lost a loved one. My grandmother passed while I was reading this book and while I’m not typically squeamish I found the chapter on embalming and prepping a body for a funeral rather unsettling. Otherwise it was a great read about a subject most people would rather avoid speaking about. What I found most interesting was the many uses for human cadavers. The most obvious would be in anatomy labs, but they are useful in the study of forensics, auto safety and investigating the causes of plane crashes (to name a few). If you can get past the idea of your loved one’s remains being hit in the head with a hammer or left to rot in a field, the idea that they are aiding mankind after death is pretty cool (at least I think so).

The biggest hurdle in reading this book is getting past your squeamishness about human remains. Once you can do that, it’s really fascinating. It also gave me some really great advice in dealing with a loved one’s funeral arrangements: regardless of their wishes, you are the one that has to live with it. So maybe have the memorial even if they didn’t want one. Funerals are for the living.

Come to my Cocktail/Garden Party y’all!

the drunken botanist


I come from a long line of German farmers who emigrated to Missouri. As such I feel strongly compelled to grow things in the dirt and turn those growing things into tasty consumables. Conversely, I love drinking and spouting nuggets of alcoholic wisdom. The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart was right up my alley. She guides us through many of the plants, and parts of plants that make up our favorite cocktails. As I read this book I was simultaneously planning a backyard garden and a fancy cocktail party.

Stewart’s writing is engaging and doesn’t read like your average Botany text. Despite the somewhat repetitive nature of the subject matter, the book rarely drags or feels overly long. It’s a nice blend of botany and mixology with a little bit of history thrown in for good measure. I only wish I’d purchased it as a paper copy rather than a Kindle book. I’d highly recommend it.

Like studying history; Mostly fun but sometimes boring

the doomsday book


My actual rating of this book is somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. It was an overall enjoyable read but certainly didn’t live up to all the hype surrounding it in the sci fi community. As a history nerd, I also enjoy a well told time travel tale. My two biggest quibbles are that a) the book drags for a hundred pages or so after the inciting incident b) The finale seems a little rushed after slowly building up to it.

The basic premise is this: the book is set about 40 years in the future. Time travel is possible and is used for academic purposes. A young grad student named Kivrin travels back to England in 1320 against the wishes of her mentor professor Dunworthy. Though things seem to go alright at first, the situation quickly goes pear shaped in both the past and the present. Here is one of the things I appreciated as someone who has studied history; as much as we’ve studied history, we don’t actually [i]know[/i] what it was like. Studying history is like shining a dim light on a dark landscape. We take what evidence we have and make our best guess. Despite being very intelligent and having prepared exhaustively, Kivrin can’t even speak the right version of old English when she arrives in the past. Unfortunately the action comes to a bit of a standstill after this as Kivrin tries to get her bearings and professor Dunworthy deals with catastrophes on his end.

Overall I enjoyed this book. Once things got moving I didn’t want to put it down. It was a nice blend of history and sci fi, two genres I enjoy immensely. When it was good it was very good and when it wasn’t, I felt like the guy in the old Dunkin’ Donuts commercial. “It’s time to make the donuts.”

The Real American Horror Story: Hotel

devil in the white city


This is actually a reread for me. I originally read it shortly after it came out in paperback several years ago. Since then my tastes have changed a little and I’ve gotten myself a history degree and it’s really deepened my appreciation for this book. Larson’s research is meticulous and his writing is engaging and reads more like literary fiction than a historical text. Word has it that Leonardo Dicaprio has bought the film rights to this book and I am super excited.

The book tells the parallel stories of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair and Dr. H. H. Holmes, the serial killer who lured fair goers into his specially designed hotel (for you American Horror Story fans, Evan Peters’ character in the Hotel season is based on Holmes). Both Burnham and Holmes were ambitious men for whom the fair would make their reputations. Though it is Burnham’s accomplishments that are move visible in the modern city, it is Holmes’ name and grisly works that people remember today.

What’s striking from Burhman’s chapter is how difficult the building process was in the late 19th century. Today we watch buildings appear seemingly overnight but even the task Burnham and his associates took on was Herculean. From Holmes’ chapters, what’s stunning is how easily he seemed to be able to get away with not only cold-blooded murder but fraud for so long. In fact, it was an insurance fraud case that finally brought the actions of America’s first urban serial killer to light. If you haven’t already picked up this book, I encourage you to do so soon, so you can nitpick the film when it eventually comes out.

CBRV Review #1 A People’s History of the United States-Howard Zinn

First of all I have to apologize. I actually finished my first two books in the first two weeks of January but haven’t managed to get my butt in gear and actually post about them.  I started with Zinn’s seminal work because, first of all I’m an aspiring historian with with a definite leftward bent and this book is pretty much required reading for us.  Additionally, I’ve been attempting to plug away at this tome for years and finally decided to restart it at the end of 2012 specifically planning to make it my first review for CBRV.  I took it with me on the MetroLink where I would be forced to read it rather than spend an hour a day avoiding eye contact with my fellow passengers.

Originally published in 1980, People’s History was a revolution in historical writing.  Rather than tell history from the perspective of the political and economic elites, he told it from the perspective of common folks. It was the beginning of what many neo-conservatives would decry as the ruination of American History.  In their version, history is a straight line of upward progress from our first landing at Plymouth Rock until the present. America has always been in the right and on the off chance that it was in the wrong, it was only with the best of intentions.  Zinn presents a version that is certainly non anti-American but in his own words:

“Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.”

My one regret in reading this book is that I did not read it sooner.  By now Zinn’s alternate histories are pretty commonplace.  So it came as no surprise to me that life for anyone poor, female, foreign or brown might have been pretty damned unpleasant throughout American History.  I’m glad I read this book but it was not the mind-blowing experience it could have been had I read it right out of high school rather than less six months away from a BA in History.  Furthermore, many contemporary historians have absorbed Zinn’s style to write a more balanced view of history.  That is to say rather than just telling the tale from the perspective of the haves OR the have nots, a good history combines both to create the complex picture that is our past.