Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Books 2019

All books below are audio unless noted as 'read.' There are no books listed that have less than three stars. If they aren't good enough they are set aside. I believe there were two 'did not finish' books this year and they are not included in this post.


The Wife's Tale*** by Aida Edemariam: Ethiopian woman's story written by her granddaughter. Because of the foreign culture and foreign names here, it was hard for me to keep track of who was who, and what the events were. In Western writing we are used to an easy narrative: this happened to so and so, that happened to so and so, then this happened. But once I stopped thinking about chronology and separating every single character, I got into the rhythm of this woman's hard, challenging life.

The Shetland Bus***1/2 by David Howarth: This is the second of Howarth's books I've read. This is a first-person account of the World War 2 anti-German operations in Norway, staged from Shetland Island near Scotland. This small group of men used whatever boats were available to them to thwart the Germans, sometimes through raging storms in the Norwegian and North Seas. They did their part well.

The Residence by Kate Brower***1/2: The rewarding, prestigious, but sometimes difficult lives of the White House staff is chronicled. Butlers, maids, engineers, cooks and so on work long hours and have to be very flexible based on the schedules of the most famous family in the world. Many of the jobs sort of pass down in families, which is interesting. I liked the book a lot but the author bugged when she made it sound like these people are the only ones who work long hours and can't take vacations. Sounds like a lot of engineers, traveling sales people, and other working stiffs I know.

Quakeland***1/2 by Katherine Miles: We all think that major earthquakes in the US only occur in California, Alaska, and Hawaii, but that's not so. Almost our entire country is plagued by earthquakes. Are municipalities prepared? No. Do we understand the dynamics of plate tectonics? No. The book is full of important information and so interesting to me, as one who has experienced large quakes. 

Pale Rider*** by Laura Spinney: The subject matter--the Spanish flu epidemic--is of great interest to me, but the book kind of plodded along. Full of fascinating, valuable information, scientific and otherwise, it made me wish I had asked my grandparents more questions about the effects of the flu in their lives. One of my grandmothers wished for death while she endured it--it lasted over three weeks, and she lost a 1-year-old to influenza in the fall of 1918.

Red Notice***1/2  by Bill Browder: This precocious author became Russia's largest post-cold war investor, then discovered the cost of doing business in Russia. His life and the lives of those he worked with became perilous as his company refused to join the racketeering and corruption that is rampant in the country. It got worse as the company decided to speak out against the abuses not only allowed by the government, but practiced by officials at the highest level. I found Browder's stance inspiring.

Ice Ghosts*** by Paul Watson: If I was even more interested in the lost Franklin expedition than I am, the book would have received a higher rating. It's extremely detailed which is a good thing, but I got lost in the plethora of names and who did what and when. What was super fascinating was the second part that covered the search to find the ships. It involved many people too, yet piecing all those clues together was an amazing accomplishment. 

50 Great American Places*** by Brent Glass: Road trip! For what it was, I enjoyed this book. Though I've traveled to probably 3/4 of American States, some of them many times, somehow I have missed some important sites. It would never occur to me to go to a museum about computers in Silicon Valley, because it's . . .  computers in Silicon Valley. But rethinking that after reading the book, I can see it would be worth the effort. Many of the 50 sites (of which I've already been to 12) are not the prominent ones touted by their states. For instance, Jonas Salk's lab? Who even knew it is open for visitors? Yet Salk's work is one of the most necessary and remarkable developments ever accomplished.

 Sarajevo, A War Journal****1/2 [read] by Zlatko Dizdarevic: About a third of this I read during a recent trip to Sarajevo, and wish I had gotten through it while there. Zlatko is a journalist who wrote numerous very short journal-style commentaries during the first 18 months of the siege of Sarajevo 1992-93. His bitterness toward a world that ignored the starving and dying residents of Sarajevo is justified. His frustration was toward UN forces who did nothing, toward higher-ups who said there were no good guys in the fight. In other words, the Bosnians dodging bullets to obtain water, and who killed pets for food, were just as guilty as the well-fed Serb snipers surrounding the city.  He is bitter toward the celebrities who publicly espoused the cause of Sarajevoans yet only did what could be seen by others. The only down side of this book is that it does not stretch to cover the entire 4-year siege.

COLD*****: Utah's KSL radio presented this months-long podcast concerning Susan Powell, a Utah woman who vanished in 2009 and was presumably murdered by her husband, Josh. Much of the facts and evidence presented has not been made public before. If you polled a thousand people familiar with the case, or 10,000, 100% would agree that Josh did it, the (circumstantial) evidence is that intense. Josh was never arrested so the case never went to trial. He killed himself and his and Susan's two children two years after her disappearance by axing the boys and then blowing up the house. The podcast is fascinating and tragic and sometimes makes me want to strangle Josh and his father for the horrible people they were (his father is now dead as his brother). 

For starters, Josh's dad Steve plied his own children with pornography when they were young. Steve had a sicko crush on Susan, his own daughter-in-law, and imagined she returned his feelings,  eeeewww. Josh threatened to kill his mother when he was a teen. Susan realized too late that she had missed the red flags that everyone else could see, but never told her about. And then, there's the actual disappearance of Susan. Josh's story is that he took the boys on a camping trip, at midnight, in a raging blizzard, out to Utah's remote west desert. Yeah. Anyone who is a parent of small children would rather die a horrible death than wake them up in the middle of the night to go on camping in a snowstorm. Seriously, did Josh think anyone would believe that? If there had been no other evidence against him, we would all still think he was responsible for her disappearance. But I digress. When he returned from the trip, he said Susan was gone. And for the next two years he had to keep patching up his story. But he never ever spilled the beans, and died without resolution of the case.

The Spy and the Traitor****1/2 by Ben McIntyre: A fascinating story of espionage at its best. A KGW agent adopts the precarious life of a double agent for the British M16, and then lives the next years wondering if each day would be the one where he would have to send the secret message activating his escape from Russia to save his life. What a nerve-wracking life! And what a page-turner!

 Death of An Heir*** by Philip Jett: Adolph Coors III, heavily involved in his family's beer empire, was kidnapped and murdered in 1960. Or I should say, murdered and kidnapped. Book details investigation and eventual arrest and incarceration of the guilty party. Just as w/ any other death of this type, the tragic tendrils reach far and wide in the family, the business, the community. The actual story of the murder and kidnapping isn't as gripping as some, yet still interesting to read.

Empty Planet***1/2 by Bricker and Ibbitson: Though the authors have a liberal bias, even to the point of gushing out trite mantras, the book feels well-researched and comes to plausible conclusions. Their main point is that under-population, not the brain-washing 60s and 70s fear of over-population, is going to bite us in the butt in another generation. Most developed countries have a lower fertility rate than is required to keep populations healthy and dynamic, and Africa and Latin America are tending in that direction also. When too few children are born there will not be enough people to support aging populations. The authors feel the UN is way off in their predictions of the earth's numbers heading toward 11-13 billion. They feel it will top off at about 9 million before dropping to catastrophically low levels. This book is very readable and evens the balance between the fear-inducing tirades about over-population that I grew up with. 
NOTE: next time someone complains about my "huge" family of 5 children, I'll remind them who is going to be paying their social security benefits.

A Square Meal***** by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe: A history of America's eating habits and how they deteriorated during the Great Depression. Fat and calories were "in" until they weren't, "in" meaning necessary in the days that people did extreme manual labor. When the Great Depression rolled around, jobless families were in danger of starvation. Hoover's government said that charity should and could take care of these people, but the problem was so deep and widespread that wasn't possible. Roosevelt rolled out helpful federal programs of assistance, but later the responsibility was turned over to local entities, and families once again were starving. Farmers dumped surplus food that cost them more to market than what they would take in. By 1940 when the US military was beefing up for future action, nearly half of recruits could not pass health exams. The decade of eating poor food and not enough of it, was evident.

The book touches on the era of canned and frozen foods taking precedence over fresh (even when available). This takes me back to the early years of our marriage when we might open a can or jar of peaches to eat with dinner, a common practice.** Now we know better, and eat fresh fruit multiple times during the day, rather than hold out for syrupy canned fruit at dinner. The book briefly addresses the puzzling practice of removing all nutrients from wheat, then artificially adding them back in, an issue that sticks in my craw. I make good use of my own personal wheat grinder. What a shame to see people consuming simple carbs containing nearly zero food value.

One aspect of this book I enjoyed is that it shed light on my own mother's food philosophy. She was big on eating a minimum of one green leafy vegetable daily, and trying to make me eat liver, which I boldly refused to do (the punishment was to sit at the table until bedtime, then go to bed hungry).  A dozen times during this reading I wished to ask Mom questions about what they ate and how they survived during the tough 1930s. She once mentioned to me that there wasn't enough meat to go around, and adults got first crack at it. I take that to mean her childhood diet was too low in protein. Dad talked about Mr. Erdely, a farmer-neighbor, who in the 1930s loaned my coal-mining Grandpa a small plot of land on which to grow food. Without that generous act, their family of 9 would have been worse off than they already were.

The book explains that government nutritionists encouraged people to eat cheap foods, including organ meats, and the discussion of that is almost nauseating. Just for fun, here's one cheap dish that could hardly feed a fly, let alone a family:

Pea Roast
1 egg well beaten
1 T sugar
¼ cup melted butter
½ cup pea pulp, canned or dried
¼ cup finely chopped peanuts
¾ cup whole milk
¾ cup stale bread crumbs
S and P to taste
Blend butter, sugar, eggs. Mix together pea pulp, peanuts, seasonings, bread crumbs, milk and mix w/ first mixture. Put in greased pan, bake 350 25 minutes. Serve w/ tomato sauce or chopped pickle. Serves 4 generously [!!! they never met an appetite like my husband's]   Cost: 17 cents [in 1930 dollars] 

**I didn't grow up doing this but my husband did, so I adopted the habit

 Rogue Heroes**** by Ben McIntyre: A young aristocratic soldier successfully organized the Special Air Service to battle Nazi forces in Africa behind their own lines. The risk-loving men in this force fought a more guerilla-style war than ordinary troops could do. Many lost their health and their lives engaging in exploits such as blowing up Nazis planes on their own airstrips. It took a particular type of man to fit in this group. Some were almost misfits in regular society. It's a great true account of the good they did for the Allied war cause.

Death of the Banker***1/4 by Ron Chernow: Author explains the rise and power of financial dynasties beginning in the late 1800s. By the end of the 20th century the phenomenon of the all absurdly wealthy all-powerful banker had all but disappeared. The J.P. Morgans of the world played a pivotal role in the development of capitalist economies, and when their role was no longer necessary, a giant meteorite blew them into oblivion. Good to read and understand how and why they came and went, and how the small private investor came to be.

All Creatures Great and Small****1/2 by James Herriot: A well-loved story, I first read All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and All Things Wise and Wonderful, all on a Christmas Day about 1980, when Craig gifted me with a boxed set. The kids ran amok and destroyed the house, and I didn't care a whit. Listening to Herriot's lovely stories these many years later was fun and nostalgic.

Blood and Ivy*** by Paul Collins: In the mid 19th century, 'old money' Harvard students and former students, then as now, looked down on the rest of us and wouldn't think of tainting their social circle by mixing with underlings. One of Harvard's wealthy benefactors strangely disappeared and was eventually discovered dead, in gruesome circumstances. Blame was immediately placed on a janitor, but eventually one of the Harvard professors was arrested and sent to trial. That trial is famous for legal terms used for the first time, such as 'reasonable doubt.' It took a while for me to get into this book as the first part was about the Harvard life and attitude, which is pretty dull. 

 Fascism: A Warning***** by Madeline Albright: Albright was the Secretary of State for four years under Bill Clinton. Her family left their native Czechoslovakia when Albright was about four. She is highly educated, has been an ambassador and a college professor. In the book Albright goes through the rise of fascism in the 20th century, beginning with its two best known examples, Hitler and Mussolini. She continues through current world leaders who are oppressing their citizens, the very people they claim to represent. Her point in the book is to warn (see title), because fascism doesn't just spring up in a day, it gradually develops in a populace that is dissatisfied and sees a new way of thinking as refreshing and superior to the old. It's entirely possible that is what is developing now in the US, since the election of Donald Trump. 

Fear***1/2 by Bob Woodward: This book doesn't much editorialize about the disaster the Trump White House is. It's a series of interviews about those who do and have worked close to POTUS. It's meant to shock, and it does. Obviously the author has an agenda, but still. It's hard to listen to because of the foul mouths--namely Trump and Bannon. The author declares Trump "a professional liar." He bounces from one task to the next with no continuity or plan. He arbitrarily decides to do this or that, or cancel this or that, etc. He does not know history, nor understand the treaties and organizations that have been in place for decades. In one incident there was a paper on his desk meant for him to sign (I can't remember right now what it was about) and his staff knew that signing it would be a consequential mistake, so one removed it from Trump's desk and he never missed it. Yeah, this is the supposed leader of the Free World.

The Road to Jonestown**** by Jeff Guinn: Wow, I remember the Jonestown event so well, and now have the whole context of the massacre engineered by Jim Jones in Guyana, 1978. Over 900 Americans died within a few hours by suicide or forced ingestion of cyanide, and by gunshot. Jones's ministry began with the best of intentions. He lobbied hard for racial integration, began programs to feed, clothe, and shelter the needy, and because of his success was on the radar of prominent people and municipalities. I don't know if ego is the right word, but perhaps ego combined with a mental illness element caused his movement to be more and more about him (the author does not mention mental illness). He broke the rules that he forced his followers to obey. He turned to drugs and sex and extreme control over his followers. The book is actually as good as it could be about such a distasteful person who came to a violent end, and took his adherents with him.

Destiny and Power**** by Jon Meacham: The life of George Herbert Walker Bush. My first thought after reading is, why can't we have more leaders like him? People of right and integrity, people out to make the world a better place. He was bred for a life of public service. Biographies chronicle people in the context of historical events and I learned a lot about a time I lived through from my teen years and beyond. Very readable. 

Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite***1/2 [read] Michael Ghiglieri and Charles Farabee: I have read the similar books about Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. This one is very detailed about what must be the most dangerous National Park, Yosemite. People fall off of El Cap, off Glacier Point, down waterfalls, off random cliffs, into the rushing icy Merced, become fatally lost, and some are victims of natural events such as rockfalls. The book divides the deaths into categories and reviews the human error involved, which is helpful. I'm not a big risk-taker but I confess to doing things that in my youth did not recognize as dangerous. After reading this, go watch Free Solo. That guy's days are numbered and he doesn't worry about it. El Cap may host his demise. 

Educated**** by Tara Westover (second reading): I've given this book four stars because the facts are disputed by the author's family, yet she has a gift for expression. The content is tragic and shocking, but even so, I couldn't put the book down. This is Tara's book, so these are Tara's memories. Every person in her family has a very different recollection of the events she describes, but the others can write their own book if they want to be heard. What is the value of being a voyer into a stranger's life? Initially we come away realizing what a great childhood we had compared to Tara's. We're shocked, appalled, angry. Then we wonder if similar things are happening to children within our own realm. That's where we can personally make a difference. Be an observant, caring, friend or even a confidante when appropriate. Tara had people around her that stepped up. And that's the value of a book like this.

Rocket Men****1/2 by Robert Kurson: I liked this book a lot. Though a little overly-dramatic (if that's even possible when writing about the first flight to the moon), the book details the miraculous development of Apollo 8 in 1968, in just a few months time, for the purpose of beating the Soviets to the moon, and fulfilling JFK's pledge to reach it before the decade was out. Be aware that this flight did not land on the moon, but it was the first to reach and orbit it. The author puts the events of the quest in context of the year 1968, which is the most weird and terrible year in recent American history (I used to think it was just me who thought this, but no, it's a fact). He also spends a lot of time on the families of the three Apollo 8 astronauts--Borman, Lovell, Anders. Having lived through the thrilling years of the space program, I appreciated and loved the look back in time. This flight was memorable in other ways besides reaching the moon. It was from Apollo 8 in space that verses from the Book of Genesis were read on Christmas Day 1968, and it was from this capsule that the famous shot of earth-rise was taken.

My favorite quote is this: "Congratulations to the crew of Apollo 8. You saved 1968." Here is a link that talks more about Apollo 8 in the context of a difficult and tragic year.

 Burned***1/2 by Edward Humes: A young mother lost 3 children in a house fire, and is convicted of arson and murder. 25+ years later The California Innocence Project takes her case. The impetus is that fire science has changed since JoAnn was convicted. This is still controversial, but in essence, what used to be considered an exact science actually came about "Sherlock Holmes style," developed by those who engaged in determining how a fire began and spread. Apparently much of the technique has been debunked. Anyway, this woman has been in prison for decades and hoped for a new trial, which did not occur. It's a sad and heartbreaking story, especially considering that the fire could have been accidental. Much evidence in the case has been lost.

Confederates in the Attic***** by Tony Horowitz: Author journeys through the American South to discover that the War Between the States is still alive and well at the dawn of the 2000s. Wow, I had no idea just how alive the war still is, even to the point of some thinking slaves happily served their masters and their descendants have been ill served by their black ancestors' freedom. Yikes. I love that Horowitz interviewed scores of regular folks of all types, and even participated with them in Civil War reenactments. All this gives his writing a feeling of thorough-ness and genuineness. Even though it is dated, the book is a must-read in order to "get" the South. Unfortunately, the author died suddenly the same week I was listening to the book. His newest work is also about the South.

My Southern Journey**** by Rick Bragg: Author's Alabama drawl in the audio version brings this book to life. He tells stories from his years in his native South, on topics from food and cooking to football to weather to race to his clumsiness in a family skilled in ways he will never be. He has a way with words and is clearly honest in his writing. I loved it. In this case, author as reader is super.

The Hundred-Year Walk*** by Dawn MacKeen: The subject of the book is the Armenian genocide of 1915-1919, something all should be familiar with. The author discovered her Armenian grandfather's writings about his experience as a refugee. He was continually forced out of wherever he tried to find peace, came near death multiple times, and survived to become successful in business and in life. The personal details the author is able to provide are shocking and necessary. The reason I give it only three stars is because the audio version's narrator could be somewhat annoying sometimes. Her expressiveness at times seemed to be over-the-top.

Men to Match My Mountains**** by Irving Stone: The story of the settlement of the American West is like no other. Immense deserts, hazardous river crossings, mammoth mountains snowy and rugged, treacherous oceans, hostile natives--all stood in the way of brave and foolish Easterners searching for space, for land, for adventure. And there were those who had run out of options at home and felt they had little to lose but their lives in starting over in the big empty. Explorers and pioneers had gumption we cannot fathom, and they came and came and came. John Sutter, Brigham Young, John C. Fremont, Kit Carson, Mariana Guadalupe Vallejo, The Big Four, and others are the stars in the book. The author doesn't forget the average man or woman though. Some triumphs and tragedies of the everyday man's variety are included. 

This book was written more than 60 years ago, thus some of it sounds dated. In 60 years research has proved or disproved the stories of Western pioneers. Yet it is an exciting and uplifting foundation for understanding the American West.

A Spy Among Friends*** by Ben McIntyre: For some reason I am attracted to non-fiction spy novels, but then find them a little dull. So many names to remember and which side they were supposed to be on and which side they were actually on, and lots of details about how they were found out, etc. Am giving this 3 stars when really it deserves more than that. It didn't help that I was listening to it while driving 12 hours to my daughter's house while striving to stay alert. Then a week passed w/out listening, and then finished it on the 12-hour drive back.

Last Hope Island****1/2 by Lynne Olson: Britain became the locus of operations during WW2 for exiled leaders of other countries in their fight against the Axis, including Charles de Gaulle. Leaders rallied their people through radio broadcasts, and military from other places used Britain as a base to carry on the fight to save their homelands. One focus in the book is on the Poles who assisted the allies militarily and in code-breaking. It's frustrating to learn that many special undercover agents were lost because British arrogance created a casual attitude toward folks from the 'lower classes.' Really good book!

     One particular lovely passage [long so abbreviated below] relates the return of a British airman (named Hackett) to the family in Holland who had sheltered and cared for him for months as a wounded soldier during the gloom of war, at the peril of their own lives. On a return trip to Holland he brought with him letters from his own family to this 'other' family. Before him was the white fence "whose gate I had opened so often, the shape of whose latch I can still feel in my fingers." There was the little house with the tidy curtains to the sitting room below, and there was Aunt Neim standing in the doorway and smiling broadly. . . The others crowded around: Aunt Ahn, Aunt Cor, Marie, Johann, everybody laughing and crying and talking at once.. . . In the house Hackett drank from the mug that had been his months before. . .  Like a small boy he embarked on a thorough exploration of the house. Everything was neat and spotless, just as before. . . . In the barn he picked up the ax and saws he had used to cut wood, feeling again "the sharp cold in my hands," and smelling the fresh pine sawdust. Later they read the Bible again together . . . . Everything was as it had been before, but somehow a hundred times better. . . That night Hackett slept soundly in the familiar little bedroom upstairs with its treasured emblems of the love and security he had found in this house: the lace curtains, the neat white counterpane on the bed,  and Sleeping Beauty on the wall. 

The Pioneers**** by David McCullough. This isn't my favorite DM book, yet true to form he tells a detailed story about the chosen subject. These pioneers are those who settled the Northwest Territory and created Ohio from scratch. One remarkable emphasis is that the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery from the territory. The Ohio River became the northern boundary of the area where slavery was permitted. The book is well-worth reading. I was in Ohio just last week (August 2019) and wish I had known about its pioneer settlement.

How to Invent Everything**** by Ryan North: The craziest book ever. Based on the premise that the reader has taken a time machine back to the past, and the machine has busted, stranding the traveler. All the instructions necessary for survival in a previous time are detailed in this book. It is read by the author and I found myself bursting out laughing over and over. And learning stuff.

When Character Was King**** by Peggy Noonan: True, it's a Ronald Reagan love-fest, but Noonan (who knew him well) points out faults and the president's egregious errors, Iran-Contra for one. Every time I think about Reagan I think, "why can't we have him now?" Or at least, why can't we have a decent, dignified, thoughtful law-abiding someone in the White House?"

The Fleet at Flood Tide**** by J. Hornfischer: I really should stay away from intricately detailed war histories. My brain can hardly keep track of all the people, equipment, places and maneuvers. Yet once I get deep into them they do become fascinating, as this one did. Author details naval exploits in the Marianas Islands, how that hastened the end of the war. He gets into some depth on the Enola Gay, and how almost random the chosen location was. My secret motive for reading about WW2 is to better understand my father's experience at sea in 1944 and 1945.

Assad or We Burn the Country***** by Sam Dagher: Journalist traces history of Assad regime which is a huge help in figuring out why Bashar is hanging on at the cost of a half million lives and the destruction of Syria's precious ancient heritage. The short story is that he was not the designated heir to his ruthless father's regime, but had to step in when his older brother was killed. He took the crash course in Horrible Dictatorship 101, striving to overcome personality defects and a childhood full of derision at the hands of his own siblings. He's striving to prove to his family, his country, the world, and even to his father, 20 years in the grave, that he can fill the shoes left behind by dead Middle Eastern tyrants,  and  compete with those currently plying their ghastly trade. This is a must-read for Americans in order to fully comprehend the Syrian refugee crisis. Bashar and Asma ought to be locked up in a room with a group of rebels, to be dished upon as they have dished awful-ness on their own people.

Say Nothing**** by Patrick Keefe: The most depressing, tragic book I've ever read. It's bad enough that a widowed mother of ten children was kidnapped and murdered for being a (supposed) informer, and shameful that Gerry Adams will never admit being in the IRA and ordering executions, and terrible that people were dying in hunger strikes, used as pawns to advance political purposes, but possibly worse is that average people were just hated and murdered for being on the wrong side, or religion. Author discusses Boston College's project to make audio tapes of those active during the Troubles, with the promise that the tapes would not be released until the subject's death. But when a subject died, they still couldn't release the tapes because he or she incriminated others who are still living. Then the existence of the tapes was made public, the tapes were subpoenaed, and it was hell for those involved. Sheesh, what an atrociously appalling time for Ireland.

The Five****1/2 by Hallie Rubenhold: Tons has been written about Jack the Ripper's crimes, but as far as I know, no book has delved into the lives of his five victims. All I knew about them is they were prostitutes in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now I find out that is not exactly true. The meticulous detailed research that went into this book satisfies me like nothing else (besides dining on a delicious steak w/ all the fixings). As a researcher myself, I can see the author delving into court records, almshouse records, police, land, property and every other type of record, snatching scant details that she used to build a framework about each life. It's great, it's refreshing, and it's a tribute to the tragic lives of these women.

Under a Flaming Sky****1/2 by Daniel James Brown: In September 1894, Hinckley Minnesota burned to the ground, along with some other nearby towns. A parched summer created such low humidity, that once the forests began burning, nothing could stop the disastrous firestorm that rolled through northern Minnesota almost without warning. Oxygen was sucked out of the wells and cellars where people took refuge. Some burrowed into muddy ponds but for most it wasn't enough to escape the scathing temperatures. Rails were bent and twisted by the fire while the railroad bridges burned, preventing the arrival of needed aid. Hundreds died, many of whom were not identifiable. Brown doesn't spare the ghastly details yet treats the event and the individuals with compassion and care. He lost ancestors in the fire.

The Indifferent Stars Above**** by Daniel James Brown: I find any work pertaining to the Donner Party to be fascinating, not in a voyeuristic way, but in a heartfelt effort to understand the choices made, and the consequences that could not be reversed. When I read that they rested a day here, then a week there, I want to grab them by the shoulders and force them to get walking.
     There isn't much new information in this book, but the author approaches the topic in a unique way. He focuses on Sarah Graves, one of those who, after being stranded in the snow for several months, struck out in what has become known as "the Forlorn Hope Party." By singling out one individual the author is able to flesh out 19th century pioneer life, detailing what the journey was like for a woman like Sarah. He delves into social mores and customs which helps the reader understand why emigrants did what they did. The ghastly hell these folks went through has made the term "Donner Party" a succinct phrase representing the greatest misfortune and clump of bad choices in Western American history. As survivor Virginia Reed succinctly put it, "Remember, never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can."

Nothing Like it in the World****1/2 by Stephen Ambrose: The building of the transcontinental railroad across America. Such a feat was unheard of, and the learning experience transferred over to Russia and Canada when they built theirs. What a fantastic, nearly un-doable venture this was! The Union Pacific built west from Omaha, and the Central Pacific east from Sacramento. UP's biggest challenge was bringing supplies and sustenance great distances to the absolutely empty areas of the country that they were covering. The CP drilled tunnels through the impenetrable granite of the Sierras, at times making only inches a day. They built costly snow sheds over the tracks to protect train movement from masses of High-Sierra snow. Both companies struggled to get enough men to do the work. The amazing "coincidence" of the ending of the Civil War meant men were finally available. Both lines courted Brigham Young for the labor of Mormons, as Salt Lake was the only settlement in the vast empty Intermountain West. There really was nothing like this feat anywhere in the world.

The Great Successor***1/2  by Anna Fifield: Kim-Jong Un's reign. My heart breaks for the oppression suffered by North Koreans, although the author states there are some improvements the past few years. But Kim-Jong Un is a scary dude. I'm disturbed that the American president has bought into the personas of multiple dictators, including this one. So what if he seems like a nice guy? He can still obliterate my home town with the push of a button, and wouldn't lose sleep about it. Along with Nothing to Envy, this book is well worth reading. I would give it more stars if the author was less snarky. The attitude is amusing but doesn't belong in a scholarly book.

Every Man In This Village Is a Liar***1/2 by Megan Stack: Journalist travels through war zones reporting on conditions and events that are often left out of news we receive in the US. The horrid-ness of war really comes through in this book, as she relies heavily on interviews with locals. It is valuable for that reason. On another level it is personally interesting to me due to some similar experiences I have had. She talks about how badly the Israelis treat Americans--I witnessed this twice entering Israel from the Allenby Bridge, and I saw them treat Muslims even worse. She discusses the Syrian pull out from Lebanon (which I witnessed in 2005).
     An unfortunate pattern comes out of this book. The author uses far-reaching metaphors that are so off the wall that while I'm listening to the book, my brain is trying to visualize the stretchy metaphor and it distracts me from the content. It's very annoying. I nearly put the book down, but glad I pushed through that.

Guest House For Young Widows**** by Azadeh Moaveni; The women of Isis. Author explores the lives of about a dozen women who joined Isis. The common pattern includes youthful disillusionment, desire to make a difference, and a romantic vision of what it would mean to support or even marry an Isis fighter. Many of the women eventually wanted out, yet found it almost impossible to escape Isis, or if they did, to be repatriated. Isis became repulsive to some of their women, who found the group had hijacked Islam, and had little respect for women. They were basically reduced to being "comfort women" for the fighters. Well worth reading.

Furious Hours*** by Casey Cep: Alabaman Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in a very short period of time, and it became the number one must-read book of all time on many lists. Yet, she never published another, though Go Set a Watchman was published after her death. The author explores Lee's life to analyze why she was unable to successfully write again. Lee attempted to write a book about a complicated set of crimes that occurred in an Alabama town. A Reverend Maxwell was thought to have killed 5 of his relatives, and then at the funeral of the last one, he was shot dead by a relative of that victim. She researched the crime and the trial, yet felt there weren't enough facts available to make a book out of the case. 


The Cellist of Sarajevo**** [read]by Steven Galloway: A novel, but there really was a "cellist of Sarajevo." He witnessed a shell exploding on a line of people waiting to buy bread at a bakery during the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996). 22 were killed, and so for 22 days he played a particular number at the shell crater, in memory of those killed. He himself could have been shot by a sniper. This book shows the humanity displayed during the war. I have stood in his spot.

Flowers for Sarajevo***1/2 by J. McCutcheon: This is a children's book based on the cellist of Sarjevo. The author read the book, provided an interview, and even sang a song he wrote about Sarajevo. I liked it.

The Virginian***** by Owen Wister: I have read or listened to this book a ton of times. Sometimes I'm just in the mood for a thrilling and familiar story!

Ella Enchanted**1/2 by Gail Levine: A fairy tale based on Cinderella, it is quite fleshed out, characters are developed, and the protagonist is a nervy, courageous and also foolish gal. The story for me was rather dull though, yet it would appeal to a pre-teen.

The Lightening Thief*** by Rick Riordan: ADHD misfit and New York City schoolboy, Percy Jackson, shockingly discovers he is half Greek God and that other gods from that pantheon are out to get him. He finds allies among others his age who help him discover Poseidon is his father. He is sent on a crazy quest fraught with danger. It's an entertaining and fantastic story, the first in a series.

I Survived the Japanese Tsunami*** by Lauren Tarshis: Part of the "I Survived" series for children. It's a fictional account of the 2011 disaster, but based on fact. The experience of the main character felt very real. This is just one of the "I Survived" series.

Peace Like a River***** by Leif Enger: Second of Enger's books I have read and love this one too. His skill with words is refreshing. His books are about people, adventure, heartache and joy, and he does not refrain from chronicling faith experiences. And, he does not write smutty books! Yay! In this one a Minnesota farm family is upturned when one son defends his family from teenage predators. Their journey back to a new normal is amazing and fulfilling. Highly recommend.

We Were the Lucky Ones***1/2 by Georgia Hunter: A true family story is written as fiction in order to flesh out the experiences they had as Polish Jews from Radom, during WW2. The author does a difficult job just fine. She weaves the stories of many relatives together, although I have to admit sometimes forgetting who was married to who, and so on. I think the book is well worth reading. Its main failing comes near the end, when at the war's conclusion all of the family are trying to get back together. Maybe I got distracted, but it seemed they all managed to find each other and get back together so easily. For example, a walk over the Alps to Italy? Little problem, even for the elderly. I'm not even sure why they went to war-torn Italy (other than to reunite w/ their men who fought there). Where did they get the funds for that, and then funds for coming to the Americas? Millions spent months and even years in DP camps after the war, trapped in a situation where they had lost loved ones, livelihoods, and living quarters, not to mention their health and hope for a predictable future.

Where the Crawdads Sing***1/2 by Delia Owens: This book is fascinating and opens up a world I know nothing about. There's a plus to a book that makes you think after it's over, but on the downside, it feels too long. An abandoned girl who raised herself in a remote marsh learns to read and study, and becomes a well-known expert on marsh flora and fauna. Then she is accused of murdering a man who took advantage of her and even attempted to rape her. No spoilers; it does keep you interested until the very end. I was on the library wait list for four months to get this audio book just in time for the book group review. 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane**** by Lisa See: Another book I would not have picked up without it being a book group choice. See is a superb writer. She paints with words and it is hard to set down the book to tend to real life. It chronicles the life of a Chinese girl whose family is dedicated to raising tea. She later gives up a child for adoption which created pain on many levels. Later in the book the parallel story crops up about the life of the adopted child, which is an intriguing way to tell the story. It's really good. I'm just sorry the author stooped near the end to manufacturing a sexual encounter that is neither here nor there in the plot of the book.

Henry and Beezus**** by Beverly Cleary: Old-fashioned great story about the woes of childhood in a freer time. I don't know if kids still read books like this, but they should.