Archive for ‘History’

September 22nd, 2014

Deja Book~2 Short Reviews of Books I Feel Like I Have Read Before

by Gwen


Charles Darwin: Destroyer of Myths by Andrew Norman

I have read many books about Darwin, even though I find his natural science so boring that there better be some caffeine involved.  I get my kicks from the controversy that his work created and that is ultimately keeps coming back year, after year. The whole big bang, bible/God, we came from monkeys debate never gets old for me and is a great way to check for compatibility in friends and lovers. What I am saying is that I could use one or two questions, relating to him, that would easily let me know if there is even a small chance that we will get on.

1st Question ~ “How do you feel about the Scopes Monkey Trial?” (If they don’t even know what that was, they can leave, they do not pass go, cya wouldn’t want to be ya.)

2nd Question ~ “Does the Origin of Species conflict with your religious values? Please explain in detail.

See? Two questions and if the person is fairly intelligent, ready to be honest, and open; you would have a really good preview of your compatibility.

Andrew Norman covers much of what has been done before, but I enjoyed it for two things that he chose to cover and covered well. Norman included more of Darwin’s childhood than I remember reading in past works.  Yes, the most important parts of his life were his journey and then Origin of Species, but how did he get to the point that he was doing these big things? Norman tells us.

Norman has a nice way of explaining things to laymen without talking down to his readers. For example, the passage on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was interesting; it didn’t fly over my head or put me to sleep.

Read it if you have never read anything regarding Darwin.

Charles Darwin: Destroyer of Myths by Andrew Norman

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (April 1, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 1628737255
  • ISBN-13: 978-1628737257

Vanish Smile

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti


Oh, Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you…

Great art heists or fabulous forgeries are fun to read, I think. At least I never pass them by, fiction or non-fiction, they are great ways to learn about not only the art, but museums and the cities they are in as well.

However, you have to either tell me a story, like maybe Chasing Mona Lisa by Carson Morton or you better cover more facts and do it in an engaging way than the last few books. Scotti isn’t able to pull this off and there were times that it read as if had been pulled word for word from other books I have read before. (not saying plagiarism, just fatal lack of creativity)

Pass on this one for another. Chasing Mona, while fiction, covered the same material and was a more entertaining narrative.

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1ST edition (April 7, 2009)
  • ISBN-10: 0307265803
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307265807


July 13th, 2012

The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head by Todd Pliss

by Gwen

Hole In His Head


The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head by Todd Pliss

Phineas Gage changed the world in 1848. Unfortunately, it did take the world a while to notice. Don’t know who Phineas Gage was? You may remember him from that Psychology course you took way back when. While  blasting rock for the railroad in September of ‘48, he blew a tamping iron clean through his head, destroying most of his frontal lobe. Now workplace accidents happen, but what was amazing about this one is that Phineas survived. He lost an eye and he wasn’t quite the same man anymore, everyone said so. Still, he was alive, walking around with part of his brain gone.

His doctor, Dr. John Martyn Harlow, spent years trying to get the medical establishment to even believe that Gage had been injured as badly as he was. He spent years trying to get everyone to understand just how little we actually knew about the brain and its functions. Gage’s accident changed his life as well.  This book is just as much his story, maybe even more so than it is Gage’s.

Todd Pliss has made both men’s jump out of the pages in his book. Reading about Gage in textbooks, you were never able to get a bead on the man. Sure, they give you the basics, but by taking the facts and wrapping it up with some nice historical fiction wrapping, both men become human. So deftly done, there were times that I totally lost myself and needed a reminder that the book was indeed historical fiction.

As part of the tour, I asked Todd Pliss a question or two.

1. What was it, besides the obvious, that drew you to Phineas Gage?

I have always been a history buff and possess my teaching credentials in the social
sciences. My mom sent me a newspaper – printed up like an old-time paper from
the 19th Century, with stories included from that time. One of the stories was about
Phineas Gage and the doctor who had treated him, Dr. John Harlow, who had
been ridiculed by his colleagues for his published findings on the case. Like most
people, I was vaguely aware of the case, having learned about it in science class,
but didn’t really know the whole story and the aftermath of the accident. The more
I researched it, the more I was convinced it would make a gripping “based-on-a-
true-story” novel.

2. So much of a historical event isn’t just about the event itself,
but how it changes the outcomes of the participant’s lives. I think
that is what I appreciated about your book, that it was also about Dr.
Harlow and how Phineas changed him. Was highlighting his dealings with
Phineas and how his life turned out in your original plan/outline or did
it grow organically?

Going into detail about Dr. Harlow’s experiences and how having Phineas as a
patient changed him was always part of the plan and what originally helped draw
me to the project. The story was not only about Phineas, who died in 1860, but
how in the aftermath of Phineas’s death, John Harlow was able to find redemption.

There are so many times that we learn the basics of a story, but don’t get to know the people involved. The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head brings you out of the text book and allows you a pretty good look directly into Gage’s good eye. (couldn’t resist the pun)

Somewhat OT, but this book reminded me of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin . Both books bring the human factor into their subjects so strongly that you run to see if there are any other books about them.


The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head by Todd Pliss


  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: S.B. Addison Books (February 21, 2012)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0983868170



June 17th, 2012

The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush by Howard Blum

by Gwen

The Floor of Heaven

Three men collide in the Yukon.
*A cowboy, still grieving the loss of his wife, searching for new frontiers now that the west has been won joins the Pinkerton Agency.
*An orphaned Navy deserter, hoping to do what his father couldn’t do, becomes an Indian in the process.
*The King of Con Men, looking for a town big enough for it to be worth his while, fleeces everyone and anyone on his way there.

There is a story in my family that no one still living has really ever bothered to investigate. Supposedly, my great-great-grandmother, a widow, drug my very young great-grandmother up to the Klondike to run a laundry during the gold rush. Part of me thinks, That’s so cool and the other part of me wonders…. did any women go to a gold rush town and remain, um, just a laundress? You tell me, if you heard this story about one of your grandmothers, would you want to do the research and possibly air some dirty laundry?

Never the less, I have always been curious about what it was like to be searching for gold in such a forbidding place, so I snatched this one up. I didn’t find any family members. What I did find was a compelling story of three vastly different men and how their vastly different lives intersected in Alaska.

Told in a narrative style, The Floor of Heaven kept me turning pages and staying up until the wee hours. The Klondike was filled with hopes, dreams, heartbreak, horrible winters, and unique characters.

Here’s part of the blurb that hooked me….

In a true-life tale that rivets from the first page, we meet Charlie Siringo, a top-hand sharp-shooting cowboy who, after futilely trying to settle down with his new bride, becomes one of the Pinkerton Detective Agency’s shrewdest; George Carmack, a California-born American Marine who’s adopted by an Indian tribe, raises a family with a Taglish squaw, makes the discovery that starts off the Yukon Gold Rush – and becomes fabulously rich; and Soapy Smith, a sly and inventive predator-conman who rules a vast criminal empire.

As we follow this trio’s lives, we’re led inexorably into a perplexing mystery. A fortune in gold bars has somehow been stolen from the fortress-like Treadwell Mine in Juneau, Alaska, with no clues as to how the thieves made off with such an immensely heavy cargo.  To many it appears that the crime will never be solved.  But the Pinkerton Agency has a reputation for finding the answers that elude others.  Charged with getting the job done is Charlie Siringo who discovers that, to run the thieves to ground, he must embark on a rugged cross-territory odyssey that will lead him across frigid waters and through a frozen wilderness.  Ultimately, he’ll have his quarry in his sights. But then an additional challenge will present itself.  He must face down Soapy Smith and his gang of 300 cutthroats.  Hanging in the balance: George Carmack’s fortune in gold.

If you are a fan of narrative non-fiction and want to learn a bit more about the Yukon Gold Rush, this just might be your book. The tension that Blum builds reminded me watching a train wreck; you know it’s coming, but you can’t take your eyes off of the spectacle. I promise, you won’t find any dirty laundry in this one.


The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush by Howard Blum

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway; Reprint edition (March 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307461734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307461735


June 16th, 2012

The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor

by Gwen


Lady in Gold

The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is a painting that stays with you. What will haunt you is the story behind the painting and the Bloch-Bauer family, from its creation in Belle Epoque Vienna to how it landed in New York’s Neue Galerie in 2006.

“Repentance was scarce. Austria was awash in self-pity. Vienna was a ruin.”

Vienna was blooming with culture and mainstream acceptance of Jewish citizens in 1907 when the painting was completed. Artists catered to the emerging upper class Jews and broke the accepted boundaries with their styles, as well. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was seen by many as the pinnacle of fashion and modernism.

Adele herself passed away in 1925, leaving the painting to her husband until his death, when she wished that it would be displayed in the Austrian National Gallery. Then the Nazis came and threw Vienna into a tailspin that would take decades to recover from. Anti-Semitism meant that everything was stripped from the Jews: their art, their homes, often their lives. Great works of art were bounced from hiding place to castles to shows, where they often had their original titles “Arayanized.” The people fled into hiding or death camps. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became the Lady in Gold, losing the Jewish name and celebrating the Austrian painter, Klimt.

The war ended, but the governments kept the paintings. The heirs were left to battle in multiple courts to prove ownership and in the case of The Portrait, didn’t get it back until 2006. The lives lost and the stories that flow from this one painting will haunt, sadden, anger, and stick with you indefinitely.

The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Anne-Marie O’Connor


  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (February 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307265641
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307265647


This books was provided to me by the San Francisco Book Review.



March 5th, 2012

The Irish Way by James R. Barrett

by Gwen

The Irish Way

Have you ever read a blurb of a book, thought you knew what it was about and then read the book and realized that you were totally wrong?

Somehow, when I read the blurb about The Irish Way, I thought I was going to learn about how my Irish ancestors grabbed hamburgers, started playing baseball, and became “American” when they got here. Wrong. Not even in the right ballpark.

The Irish, by being the first massive wave of immigrants to America, paved the way for everyone else. They were the ones that lived in the slums first, took the worst jobs, imported Catholicism, and basically, took all the heat that later groups of immigrants faced. They even had to fight to be considered “white”.

Still, through sheer numbers, their being literate, dedication to education, and willingness to help others, they succeeded in carving a path to their own definition of what being an American meant.  When the next wave of immigrants came, mostly from Eastern Europe, those Irish were the people they saw every day on the street. They were the cops, their neighbors, the fireman, the small business owners, etc. To the newcomers, they were the Americans. They followed the Irish Americans lead and slowly but surely, created their own definition of American.

The Irish Way was so much more than a story of how the Irish became Americanized, it is the story of blazing trails, of hopes and failures, of good guys and corruption, of one path that became the yellow brick road of many.The structure of the book makes it interesting as well. Barrett separated the sections in the ways that all immigrants would see them, The Street, The Parish, The Workplace, The Stage, The Machine, & The Nation.

The chapter on Catholicism (The Parish) blew me away. Call me naive, but I always thought that being Catholic was pretty much the same across the board; that it didn’t matter where you came from. Not so much. While the priest, to an Irish Catholic, is pretty much a direct line to God, for the Italian Catholic at the time, they were not as connected to or trusting of the clerics. For good or ill, if you were a Catholic in America, you were going to be an Irish Catholic, no matter where you hailed from.  I always took that as a given, because there were so many of us. No, it was because we Irish-ized all Catholics. Not really nice.

The picture of the Irish American isn’t always pretty. It’s complicated and the terrain is rocky along the path. There is one thing that stands out though, they came, they saw, they changed the face of America, and they showed others how it was done. Pretty cool if you ask me.

Years ago I read, How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. Both that one and The Irish Way made me proud and humble at the same time for my heritage. We ain’t perfect, but we do have a certain panache that keeps the world smiling.

This book wasn’t what I thought it was; it was so much more. From Minstrel shows to unions, or Tammany Hall to nuns running orphanages, Catechism to the Fighting 69th, Irish Americans carved a niche, no make that a wide gap, through which everything is possible. There might not be a pot of gold, but it is The Irish Way.

The Irish Way by James R. Barrett

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (March 1, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 1594203253
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594203251


I received this book from TLC Book Tours