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Archive for the 'book review' Category

25 October
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Book Review: Enemies: A History of the FBI

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I didn’t have high hopes Enemies: A History of the FBI, I thought it would be dry based on its topic and thickness. However, I really like how the book was laid out, covering an era at a time and what was going on in the nation and how the FBI reacted to it. It made the book very easy to follow and a nice read. While I was not very excited about the story, it was not the first book I picked up when I had time to read, it was well written. It did have some fairly excited parts for me like when discussing spies especially. I wish there would have been more discussed about spies as that is very interesting to me. However, I realize that this would have left the book astray of its intended topic.

I learned a lot about the history of the FBI so the book succeeded in its goal. I had no idea that Hoover was such a large part of the agency. For the first 2/3 of the book I felt like I was reading his biography.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the FBI. I now feel I have a better understanding of one of our nations super secret agencies.

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02 July
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History Book Club

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This will be a quick post to tell you about the great book group I found on goodreads.com.  It is for people who like to read history books.  Every month the book group reads different books.  You can choose to participate in all group reads or just in the ones that are reading books you are interested in.

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch

The best part is the free books.  Ever once and a while the group leader will receive free books from publishers.  Around 30 copies are usually sent to him.  He then ask who would be willing to read the book and participate in the group discussion online.  If you agree you are put in the running to receive the book.  No shipping fees, nothing.  Just a free book with the understanding that you will participate in the discussion once it begins.  I did this already once for Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch. It was a great read and the discussion was wonderful.

Enemies: A History of the FBI

If this sounds like something you would like to do head on over to Goodreads History Book Club.  Joining Goodreads is free and joining the history book club is free.  Right now the free book that we are all reading is Enemies: A History of the FBI. It is not too late to join in the discussion on this book if you want to pick up the book yourself and join in the conversation. Everyone is welcome.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

On July 9, we start reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. You still have plenty of time to pick this one up. There are also other book readings going on in this group at the same time. So, have a look around and see if there is anything you are interested in. The Catherine read has already maxed out on the free books available, but join the group now so you don’t miss out on the next free book group read.

If you start reading the FBI or Catherine book as part of the online group read, please let me know on the goodreads discussion boards.  I’d like to know if some history podcast listeners are out there.  I will be reading the books right along with you.

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02 June
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Book Review: Lost in Shangri-La

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I recently read Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff. This was a great history book. It has all the things I look for in a history book. Zuckoff is not a historian but a journalist so he tells a story. It is not a dry retelling of facts in chronological order. The book is about an obscure military base that is very remote. I love obscure history, I hate re-reading what I already know about with just a few new facts thrown in here and there, or worse yet someone else’s “new” observations.

Zuckoff writes in a way that is very readable especially for those with no interest in history. There is action, adventure and drama in this great book. It all happens during WWII but there is very little about the war in this book, it all about a small group of people stranded after a plane crash. I don’t want to say anything more because this book is very much worth your time if you decide to read it. I really enjoyed this book and I think any reader of this site will too. If you have read it please let me know what you thought of it in the comments. Happy reading!

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12 May
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Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

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I recently listened to the unabridged audio production of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book. If you don’t mind a completely basic run through of how the three subjects have impacted human history you might be okay with this book. I however, thought this book was extremely dry and often found my mind wondering while I listened to it.

I should mention that I am one of the few people who did not enjoy this book. It has a 3.94 out of 5 star rating on Goodreads with 3,186 reviews. It has similar ratings on Amazon.com, 4 stars out of 5, with 1,201 reviews.

Here is the publishers blurb about the book:

Explaining what William McNeill called The Rise of the West has become the central problem in the study of global history. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond presents the biologist’s answer: geography, demography, and ecological happenstance. Diamond evenhandedly reviews human history on every continent since the Ice Age at a rate that emphasizes only the broadest movements of peoples and ideas. Yet his survey is binocular: one eye has the rather distant vision of the evolutionary biologist, while the other eye–and his heart–belongs to the people of New Guinea, where he has done field work for more than 30 years.

My final word on this one is to save your money and time, read something else. Like Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II which I am listening to now and enjoying immensely.

Click here to watch a C-SPAN video of Mr. Diamond discussing his book.

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26 April
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Book Recommendations

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I received an email from listener Stephen lately. He is looking for book recommendations on the topic of Kent State Shootings. While I don’t have any recommendations for that specific topic I do have some of my favorite US history books that I thought I would share in this post. If you have a recommendation for Stephen please put it in the comments below, both Stephen and I would appreciate it!

When I am looking for good history books on a subject, I usually look to my local library. Stephen can’t do this as easily as he mentions in his email, he is in the UK and finds it difficult to find US history books. I would try amazon.com and look at the star ratings and reviews, but even better than that try out goodreads.com. I’m on that site every day. There readers just like you are reading, rating and reviewing thousands of books every minute of the day. It is a great site to discover new books. There are many different books groups on the site. One I found today is called “The History Book Club”.  It has over a thousand members and is very active. You can join the group for free.

As for my favorite US history books in general, my all time favorite is A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present by Howard Zinn who sadly passed away this year.

Another great book, that discusses history as well as the difficult of even American’s getting a good education in history is called Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Lowen.

These two books will form a very good basic knowledge of American history. These are my two favorite and I will continue to do book reviews on the website as I have time.

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12 April
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Book Review: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

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I read The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood mostly because it was on the non-fiction bestseller’s list and I thought it might be interesting to read about the history of information. But this book is not just the history of information but also the communication of that information. Actually, I think the book might be miss named. Maybe it should be named the History of Communication. After all, the author first starts out with discussing the use of drums to convey messages, then he moves on to smoke signals and this theme is returned to throughout the book. He even covers (quite extensively) the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which I had just read a full history of and will have to post a seperate review here later.

After the OED, he covers the interesting history behind the telephone, computers, Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), wikipedia, domain names, photography, printing press, email, microfilm, twitter, and google. During all this discussion he also takes time to discuss information theory, information overload, and too much information (TMI) e.g. noise.

All these topics and more are covered extensively in the book. I found that in places he was a bit over verbose, but that may be because I had just read all about the OED and was really bored through this section, because I already knew the history of this monumental work.

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31 March
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Book Review: Churchill: A Life

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I don’t read a lot of biographies like Winston Churchill: A Life, mostly because I find them a little dry even if the person themselves was interesting. As a historical figure Churchill is very interesting. The man did have one of the most famous quotes about history:

Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it. – Winston Churchill

On with the review though. Churchill was raised mainly by his nanny not his parents. That was the way it was for his generation and class. His mom had lots of affairs throughout her life. His dad was just as ruthless in politics as he was. He must have received his political ambition from him. He had poor grades, but Keegan attributes this to Churchill not being a good test taker. The one thing at school that he was good at was fencing. One of the places he did the worst in his studies was in languages, he just couldn’t get them. He did however (yea!) like history. He got around a lot when he was younger and even dated Ethel Barrymore of the famous Barrymore’s. Ethel would have John, whom had John Jr. who had the famous Drew Barrymore that we are all familiar with.

I liked this biography and thought it did a very good job covering the life of Churchill. I could tell that Keegan had a genuine interest in in Churchill. The came across in his writing. If you want to learn about Churchill this is a good book to start with.

Thanks to youtube here is a whole movie on Churchill. There are at least 6 parts, so you will have to follow the links on youtube if you want to watch the whole thing.

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22 March
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Book Review: Unsolved Mysteries of History

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I picked up Unsolved Mysteries of History: An Eye-Opening Investigation into the Most Baffling Events of All Time (n avery long title!) off the discounted shelves at Barnes & Noble on a whim. It sat for probably a year before I got to it. I was interested in it because I was hoping it would have some obscure historical mysteries in it. The book is divided up like this, each chapter covers a topic. Each one is presented as a question. For example, the first chapter is called “Were the Neanderthals our Ancestors?” It does cover some interesting topics, but each one is covered very quickly. Not enough attention is paid to each topic. Like the first chapter, you could write a whole book about this topic, but the author only covers this topic as a chapter. The book as a whole is very short making it impossible for the author to give the right amount of attention to each topic. The book is only 225 pages.

This books is one of those quick reads that you pick up for a short plane ride or something. Not something you are really going to get engrossed in. A quick history fix, if you will. I can’t recommend you to pick this one up, spend your time on something better that goes into the depth of a subject not something that briefly covers a large range. It has 3 stars out of 13 reviews at Amazon.com and 3.21 stars out of 28 ratings at Goodreads.com. Not a lot of people are reading this and they don’t really like or dislike the book.

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07 March
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Book Review: Lost City of Z

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I recently finished The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann.  This book is a little hard to describe, because it is not only an adventure book, but it also a kind of biography on Colonel Fawcett aka Percival (Percy) Harrison Fawcett , an adventurer who went deep into the Amazon in search of the lost city of Z.  Fawcett was a prolific explorer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his exploits as a basis for The Lost World.

The book moved along at a very good clip.  I never got bored or thought there was too much detail.  As the author tells the story of Fawcett he also tells the story of his research and his preparation to go into the Amazon himself.  It is a very interesting adventure/biography story.  I would recommend to any history buff and especially to anyone who enjoys a good adventure story.

Here is an excerpt from a review that John Grisham did of the book:

The great mystery of what happened to Fawcett has never been solved, perhaps until now. In 2004, author David Grann discovered the story while researching another one. Soon, like hundreds before him, he became obsessed with the legend of the colorful adventurer and his baffling disappearance. Grann, a lifelong New Yorker with an admitted aversion to camping and mountain climbing, a lousy sense of direction, and an affinity for take-out food and air conditioning, soon found himself in the jungles of the Amazon. What he found there, some 80 years after Fawcett’s disappearance, is a startling conclusion to this absorbing narrative.

The book has 3 stars out of a possible 4, with of 331 reviews.  I myself would give it a 3.5 to 4 stars.  I always like to use Goodreads to see the reviews, since a lot more people review books on that site.  There this book has 3.8 stars and over 1,578 reviews.

Further reading:

Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z by Percy Fawcett

The Ecology of Power: Culture, Place and Personhood in the Southern Amazon, AD 1000-2000 (Critical Perspectives in Identity, Memory & the Built Environment) by Michael J. Heckenberger, Grann meets Heckenberger towards the end of his journey.  Heckenberger is an expert on that area of the Amazon where Fawcett is believed to have been last seen.  He is also said to be the current day Fawcett.

Lost trails, Lost Cities by Percy Harrison Fawcett (Author), Brian Fawcett (Editor)

Here is a cool video where David Grann shows pictures from adventures in the Amazon and discusses his book:

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25 February
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Book Review: A Little History of the World

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I have been reading A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich. I wasn’t able to finish it. It was just too boring. It reads like a children’s bedtime story. So, while this may be a great children’s book, I don’t think it speaks to adults as well.

I wanted to like this book so much. It has great reviews on Amazon, 75 with an average of r 4.5 out of 5 stars. On goodreads, a social book readers website, the book has 755 ratings with an average of 4.01 out of 5. It is clear that people love this book. I just couldn’t get into it. First of all, it’s a book for children. It was originally published in German 70 years ago. It has been translated into many different languages. Also, Gombrich was never a historian. This is revealed in the story of how he came to write this book, which is in the introduction. It says that he was reading something from a publisher friend of his that was about to be published as a children’s history book, and he thought it was terrible. His friend the publisher challenged him to do better. He accepted the challenge and this book is the result of that wager.

As a children’s book I think this might be good. Hard to tell, since my little girl is only 2, I think it is too soon to regale her with this kind of content. But I will keep my copy and see how she responds to it in the coming years. There are lots of comments from amazon reviews like, “Wonderful Book for Homeschoolers” or “Bedtime Stories of History”. Some of those reviews say it is great for adults too, but I just can’t agree. To me there just is not enough there to keep me engrossed. I’m not looking forward to reading this when I’m away from it.

I think the goodread’s reviewer David Giltinan summed it up best in his review:

I can’t bring myself to jump on the warm and fuzzy bandwagon of approval of this deeply flawed book. It is what it is – a condensation of all of human history into sequential “stories” suitable for “children“. [my emphasis] Supposing for the moment that this is not an inherent recipe for disaster, what is baffling is the number of reviewers who claim to see something in this work “for adults”.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Please share your review in the comments section below. Better yet, if you have kids do you read this to them and what do they think about it?

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