Standalone Sunday: Into the Heart of Tasmania

Review: Into the Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquity

Author: Rebe Taylor

Themes: race, anthropology, class, human evolution, culture

In 1908 it was widely accepted that the last Aboriginal in Tasmania was dead.  Enter Englishman Ernest Westlake, who planned to write about Stone Age implements and tools. Instead he wound up in the middle of a controversy he did not appreciate as he found living history all around him.

I have to admit that I really struggled with this book at first. If I hadn’t agreed to read it for Net Galley, I would have given it up. But I stuck with it, and somewhere around 10% I found it getting interesting. Westlake is not a sympathetic character. He struck me as a rather typical stuffy, pigheaded Victorian gentleman of the time. But the author, Rebe Taylor, was much more engaging when she allowed her personality to come through.

I think this could have been a more interesting book, but as it was I found it difficult to follow and rather dull. I’m not sure who the was intended for, but I doubt it was for average readers like myself. Thanks for the chance to read it.

Review: Dead Wake

Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Author: Erik Larson

Setting: NYC and Atlantic Ocean, May 1915

Story: The RMS Lusitania was one of the top luxury liners of the day, filled with the bright and beautiful (and a bunch of 2nd & 3rd class passengers too.) Millionaires, actors, writers, debutantes and spies all crowded aboard this ship. Besides the passengers, the ship was carrying beautiful paintings by Van Gogh and other masters, editions signed by Dickens and Thackeray, gold bullion, and lots of ammunition. So when it went down, the news traveled fast, and eventually resulted in the United States entering World War I.

Review: I knew a little bit about the Lusitania, but I’d never heard the whole story. I’ve read other books by this author, so when I found this one on audio at the library, I couldn’t wait to check it out.

The numbers are pretty sobering. Out of 1962 passengers and crew, only 764 survived. But what makes it more interesting than the statistics is the way Larson tells the story. By using journals and letters that survived the voyage, he lets you get inside the ship and travel right along with them on their final voyage. I had my favorite people and I was trying not to skip ahead, but I admit that I couldn’t stand it and had to look up who survived and who died.

I have a couple of criticisms about the book though. The first is that he spends all this time talking about President Woodrow Wilson’s courtship of Edith Bolling. Wilson’s state of mind and his love life weren’t really relevant to the story. His reluctance to enter the war was relevant and didn’t get enough discussion.

Also, I was left wondering about the passengers who survived. What percentage of them were first class? Did it matter where their cabins were? How many were women and children? Maybe he answered these questions, but since it was on audio, I could have missed that part.

It did definitely get me interested in the story. It was all so sad and so pointless. Why wasn’t the ship more protected? Why hadn’t Wilson done more to help with the war already? I was totally involved in this story. I’m giving it 4.2 stars out of 5.

 

Book Review: City of Scoundrels

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Title: City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Author: Gary Krist

Setting: Chicago, Illinois, July 1919

Themes: Race, Politics, Labor Relations, Crime

My parents moved to Chicago after I graduated, but I would visit them during my summer break from college. It was a great place to be single. The food, the energy, the shopping, the cultural events, and most of all, the people – I loved it. It’s still one of my favorite cities in the world.

So this book really caught my eye. I have read about New York’s history, and about New Orleans, but I didn’t know much about Chicago. This was an eye opener. So many historic Chicago figures are in here. And like the title promises, the events in this brief period really did affect the shape of the city for years to come. The roots of racial tension, of political corruption, of the rise of Al Capone – it’s all here.

The action starts with the first documented air disaster when a hydrogen-filled dirigible crashes into a bank. Yeah, who saw that one coming? But that’s only the beginning. Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson soon has to deal with broiling racial tensions, a looming transit strike, and the widely publicized disappearance of a little girl. By themselves, none of these incidents would have been that difficult to resolve. But with them all occurring in a two week period, the problems just built on one another until there were riots in the streets and hundreds left dead. The press didn’t make matters better, by whitewashing the whole the thing and inflaming the crowds.

I would definitely recommend it if you love Chicago, or if you are interested in politics or 20th century racial tensions. I liked the pictures that were included, as well as the map. They really helped set the scene. Toward the end of the book, I felt a little overwhelmed by so many names to keep track of, but it was worth my time.

 

Book Review: The Radium Girls

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The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Setting: New Jersey and Illinois, early 20th century

A horrifying look at at why we have work place regulations.

In the early 20th century, a girl couldn’t get a much better job than working at a watch factory. The girls got paid by watch and their take home pay was better than anything else in town. The only drawback – and it was a big one – was that the job was killing them. Literally. Sometimes it killed them quickly, with virulent oozing sores and crumbling bones, sometimes slowly, but it always, always killed.

This book was by turns fascinating, horrifying, and disgusting. I was a little overwhelmed by all the names, but it made sense in the end. Thanks for the chance to read this one.

I received this one in exchange for an honest review from Net Galley.