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T.E. W. (terez93) - Reviews

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13 Ghosts: Strange But True Stories
13 Ghosts: Strange But True Stories
Author: Will Osborne
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
Review Date: 6/5/2021

This was one of my first forays into mystery (or horror!) literature when I was a kid. It came from the Scholastic Book Club, probably when I was in seventh grade or so, having been published in 1988, I believe. It's regrettably short, only about 85 pages, and the stories are fascinating, so I would have liked to have had a bit more information about them. Ranging in period from ancient to modern, it offers short vignettes about some well-known encounters with the paranormal. Definitely kid-friendly, but intriguing enough to make even adults want to learn more about each of these fascinating cases.

The Age of Witches
The Age of Witches
Author: Louisa Morgan
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
Review Date: 6/30/2023

"When women have little power that is not granted to them by men, to be a witch is a very good thing."

And thus the likely origins of witchcraft itself - the exercise of power by women over their own lives, and those of others, when needed, in a world where power has routinely been denied to them. That's also the story herein, in two different eras, in some ways, not so different. Annis, a girl born to wealth and privilege in Gilded-Age New York City, is a descendant of a genuine witch, in this story, Bridget Bishop, who has become something of a folk heroine in recent years for her flouting of Puritanical mores which resulted in her being hanged for witchcraft in seventeenth-century Salem. Annis is unaware of her abilities until she meets a distant relative, herself a descendant of the Salem witch, but the account takes a dark turn with the discovery that Annis's stepmother has designs for her as well.

I had to give this one a five-star rating because, as in the case of the author's first book, I simply couldn't put it down, and read it cover-to-cover, all 400-some-odd pages of it. Her stories are so rich and engaging, the characters so believable and relatable, and the prose so vibrant and descriptive that time flies by without even noticing. The author, in short, just "gets" and can write women, and her novels reflect her deep insight, which is a rare gift. I don't want to give away too many spoilers - I would agree that much of the plot is predictable, as other reviewers have noted - but it's so well-written and engaging that I didn't mind. How the elements played out is far more interesting than the eventual outcome, which is also rare. As in the case of the other book, it's not an altogether happy ending for everyone, which is also realistic: women are often faced with difficult choices which never entirely work out in their complete favor - just about every aspect of their lives demands a sacrifice.

Have requested her other books, and am happily awaiting their arrival. Highly recommended if you enjoy the genre and just thoroughly excellent stories about powerful women discovering their inner strength.

The Alchemist
The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho, Alan R. Clarke (Translator)
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
Review Date: 6/5/2021

Almost as soon as I began reading, the famous Haruki Marukami quote came to mind: âWhatever it is you're seeking won't come in the form you're expecting.â That's true for both the characters in the novel, but it's also true for the novel itself.

Many state here that this much-praised novel is simplistic, and poorly written (which can sometimes be a difficulty with translations), but that's simply not so: it's brilliantly written in that regard. The beauty is in its seeming simplicity, but it is replete with powerful yet subtle messages which have almost universal application. In the same way as the character, the book demands that the reader do a fair bit of the work, in deriving meaning from some quite abstract text. In other words, you have to read between the lines, as it doesn't spell it out for you, but that allows each individual to interject their own personal journey into the story.

On the surface, The Alchemist tells the story of an Andalusian shepherd boy, who experiences a dream, or vision, which prompts him to contemplate selling his flock and leaving his relatively secure life, the only existence he has ever known, to travel across the sea and the vast, unknown desert, to see the Pyramids of Giza. Santiago encounters many people on his journey, which The Divine intends for him to meet, while in search of his own Personal Legend. As in our own lives, those we encounter, seemingly by chance, but perhaps not, affect us, and direct us down a particular path.

The message here is, each person is traveling their own path - curiously, however, most don't know, or acknowledge, that they're on a journey, and that their decisions affect the outcome, as well as the personal journeys of those whom they encounter. Perhaps that's a message to those on that particular life course, a journey of discovery: as the text states, most people have given up, and settle for a life of relative safety, comfort, and ultimately, complacency, until death takes them, and their energies again return to the Universal whole, the Voice of the World.

The Alchemist refers to both the character, the person who has learned the secret of turning physical elements into gold, but it also refers to Santiago, who, through his travels and experiences, learns the secret of transformation, not of lead into gold, but the mundane, into the extraordinary. We can all be an alchemist in that regard: learning the secret of transformation, through study and personal experiences spent in the world, in encountering others, and by learning from our mistakes as well as our triumphs. Santiago, as well as the readers, also learn, at the end of this particular phase of his journey, that things often come full circle, but that we don't or can't appreciate them until we have traveled beyond the confines of the comfortable and familiar. Not until we have traveled the path and learned to listen to the Voice of the World, as well as our inner voice, do we become aware that the treasure that we week often lies right beneath our feet. As with so many other stories: the true value and goal is the journey itself, not the destination.

I won't go so far as to say that it's a life-changing book (maybe life-affirming!), but this beautifully composed, esoteric, cathartic and inspiring work is a definite must-read. What is alchemy, after all: this modern fable tells us that it is simply the process of transforming one element into another. It also assures us that although the path may be difficult, anyone can do that with their life, too, as an act of sheer will and faith. The book is valuable for that reason alone: introspection is its own reward.
------------------NOTABLE PASSAGES---------------

"The famous alchemists... were men who had dedicated their entire lives to the purification of metals in their laboratories; they believed that, if a metal were heated for many years, it would free itself of all its individual properties and what was left would be the Soul of the World. This Soul of the World allowed them to understand anything on the face of the earth, because it was the language with which all things communicated."

"They spent so much time close to the fire that gradually they gave up the vanities of the world. They discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves."

The most mundane tasks, when undertaken with positivity and the expectation of goodness, can lead to one's purification and becoming one with the Soul of the World, an understanding of all things, by mastering the one. "The boy thought about the crystal merchant. He had said that it was a good thing for the boy to clean the crystal pieces, so that he could free himself from negative thoughts. The boy was becoming more and more convinced that alchemy could be learned in one's daily life." Even a small piece of this refined material can transform the most common and mundane elements into the rare - pure gold. That's true of the elements of life, as well. That's the point of the book, really: transform one's mundane existence into the expectation of treasure, by refining mundane things, with the proper mentality. Very zen.

"Everyone has his or her own way of learning things... His way isn't the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we're both in search of our Personal Legends, and I respect him for that."

All Hallows
All Hallows
Author: Christopher Golden
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.4/5 Stars.
Review Date: 5/16/2023

"Nothing in these woods could be more dreadful, more terrifying, than the selfish cruelty of ordinary people."

That statement pretty much sums up this book in a nutshell. If there's any real horror, it's the descriptions of the messed-up people in the messed-up neighborhood where most of the events take place - and the realization that at least that aspect of this story isn't really that far from fiction. Aside from that: I wanted to like this book, as the premise started off as an interesting one. Halloween night, 1984: in an ordinary neighborhood, in an ordinary town, full of seemingly ordinary people, the inhabitants prepare for seasonal fall festivities, which, this night, turn out to be anything but ordinary.

A father and daughter go all-out prepping for their annual Halloween event, the "Haunted Woods," a haunted-house-style neighborhood attraction full of campy props and scares for local thrill-seekers. In another house, a block party in the making is being hosted by a competing clan which almost seem to be their rivals. And in another house, a family is unraveling completely: a philandering-drunk husband, his fed-up wife, and a daughter who is questioning her own identity come to blows over events which will spell the end of their family. And then there are the mysterious children, who appear seemingly out of nowhere, who are scared out of their wits of someone they only refer to as "The Cunning Man," and who beg neighborhood residents for sanctuary "until midnight." Add in a couple of other assorted characters - a scarecrow, a clown, Raggedy Ann - and you have quite the extensive, varied cast.

An 80s neighborhood seems an odd setting for a modern Halloween tale... and it is. And, as much as I tried to like this one, the pieces were just too disjointed for me. They do come together at the end, mostly, but not really in a way which makes the effort worthwhile. Perhaps the greatest sin was how incredibly SLOW the plot dragged on. It's not poorly written, per se, but it's just, well, frankly, BORING. Absolutely NOTHING really interesting happens for at least the first half. Sure, some neighborhood creeps get their comeuppance, but not really in a creative way, or one that is even clearly defined. Some undefined monster gets them. Big deal. Then some more thick description of totally ordinary events which are just not very engaging or compelling - not enough to really keep going.

The chapters are short vignettes told from the perspectives of the extensive cast, so the book jumps around a lot, making it quite disjointed and hard to follow. This literary technique seems to be trending for modern horror novels, in fact, as I have encountered it more in the last four or five books I've read than I ever remember seeing previously. In short, there just wasn't enough of the horror or mystery element to keep this one interesting, which was a real let-down, as I was expecting a lot more, considering the number of positive reviews. I was expecting something on the order of the novel version of a good ole' fashioned 80s-style slasher movie, but this just didn't deliver.

As the first sentence notes, the most disturbing aspects of this uninspiring novel were the actions of many of the characters, but that belongs more in a drama than a horror or mystery novel. I think it would have been preferable to choose one over the other: focusing on the people rather than the almost out-of-place paranormal events and almost-afterthought monster would have been more effective, in my view, but I'm not interested in the former. I did force myself to finish it, as I am committed to doing for all books I start for the reading challenge, but it was honestly a chore. Final answer: not terrible, per se, but it wasn't good, either. It started out with a certain degree of promise, but it just didn't meet expectations or reach its potential.

Amadeus : A Play by Peter Shaffer
Amadeus : A Play by Peter Shaffer
Author: Peter Shaffer
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
Review Date: 5/16/2023

Why I will always remember this play: FOUR YEARS AGO, Nov., 2016, on election night, I went to see a production of it at a small local theater in Southern California with my mother. We were talking about it just a couple of days ago because of the election, recalling where we were when Donald Trump was elected president. I think that there was even more fervor then, when the shock descended in realizing that he had indeed been elected. I remember quite distinctly two rather aged women sitting behind us, decked out in their sequined gowns, furs, dripping with jewelry, the whole bit, discussing in hushed tones their lack of surprise, really, that Trump had been elected. I remember one of them saying, in a totally grand-dame voice, "well, I voted for him, you know... I just cannot abide that woman. She is just so... obnoxious!"

Well, knock me over with the weather!

Back to the play: yes, it's a good one, although it's somewhat difficult to visualize scripts, for me, at least, but you have something to go on. Even more famous was the immortal motion picture version, which hasn't really aged at all, because it was so well done, even though it's not entirely faithful to the theatrical version. The entire thing is a work of historical fiction, of course, and it always irks me when people start talking about Mozart in these terms, as there's no evidence (rumors aside) that any of the major plot lines are accurate. Mozart was really the first modern "rock star," and suffered all the maladies which accompany fame, if not fortune, in his case.

I would be happy to write an extensive history lesson here, because he's a figure I've been fascinated with since childhood (I started violin at age five, partly because I had been raised on a steady diet of classical music since birth!), but that's probably out of place here. I will just summarize by stating that we are so fortunate, indeed, to have had him with us for any time at all, really, because he was such a frail and sickly child, who was read the last rites and expected to die, on multiple occasions, as both an adult and a child, before his actual untimely demise at age 35. I've been to both Salzburg and Vienna, so I've been fortunate to see many of the actual places associated with him.

Mozart is a fascinating historical figure, but I'm not sure how accurate the portrayal is in the play, though it works, somehow. This is essentially Shaffer's vision of an innocent (though he hardly was in real life) prodigy, who is caught up in the murderous machinations of a jealous rival, whom he essentially unseats from his place of prominence in the City of Musicians, which leads to the former's unfortunate demise at the hands of the cunning killer. I think the play does accurately highlight some of the Mozarts' struggles, financially and personally, and the rather ambivalent relationship that he had with his overbearing father, Leopold, who seemingly dragged his frail and frequently-ailing kid all over Europe, vicariously living through his famous son for his own self-aggrandizement. Nor is much made of Mozart's almost equally talented sister, of whom there is little if any mention.

Notwithstanding the issues, it's great to have access to the original script of the play, for comparative purposes, if nothing else. I also highly recommend seeing this production, if it's being shown anywhere, although its popularity seems to have waned somewhat in recent years.

America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks
Review Date: 10/10/2019

Am I happy? YOU BETCHA, after reading this book! Finally, a self-book which actually HELPS! 100% SUCCESS RATE!! (see below)

I'm slowly wading through it, but, admittedly, it's taking me some time... 'cause I'm incessantly being interrupted from laughing so hard I can't breathe. Check out this gem:

"I head next door to try out a couple of the 'hosted conversations,' smaller round table discussions, each on a specific theme, with a self-appointed host leading the conversation... The host is an executive coach, and, as he explains to the assembled group, a highly successful man. 'I'm a rock star in my field,' he tells us: 'I've reached a point in my life where I never have to say "I can't afford it."' ...He opens the discussion up to the group. 'What are you all curious to discuss with others to support you in conscious prosperity?'
'I want abundance,' says one of the women, clearly not sold on the idea of scarcity.
'Do you mean money?' I ask her.
'Yes,' she admits. 'But abundance sounds more Buddhist.'
I try another table. At this one the discussion topic sign reads 'The Most Important Principle in Business-I Love You.'
The host is a trim-looking man in his late forties, wearing the name tag Mark. He glances at my own name tag as I sit down.
'Hi Ruth: I love you,' says Mark.
I must look slightly taken aback, so he explains, 'Imagine a world in which every conversation started with "I love you." I go into businesses and run workshops on this principle. I have a hundred percent success rate.'
'At what?' I ask, confused.
'At breaking down barriers around "I love you." Can you imagine a world in which that happened?' he continues. "In which every time the president addressed the American people he started with "I love you"? In which every debate in Congress started with "I love you"? Every conversation in business?'
'Don't you think it might start to lose some of its meaning after a while?' I ask.
'I couldn't disagree more.' The woman sitting on the other side of Mark, who has been quiet up until this point, leaps to his defense. 'Let's not use this precious time for him to have to defend an idea that clearly doesn't need defending.'
Mark looks happy. He and the woman start talking to each other animatedly, and ignoring me. I suspect they no longer love me.
'"I love you'" is a can opener and catalyst,' says Mark. The woman nods enthusiastically. I try to inject myself back into the conversation.
'Is there anyone you don't love?' I ask.
'No,' says Mark. But after a moment's reflection, he reconsiders. 'Well, there are people that I f***ing hate and I wish God would take them. One of them is my business partner. I say to myself several times a day, "I love you."'
I think this might be unplanned, but he recovers his sales spiel quickly.
'Imagine, Ruth, if you started your next business meeting with "I love you." How would your boss feel?'
'I don't have a boss, but if I did, I imagine he or she would probably be a bit uncomfortable if I did that,' I say.
'But that's exactly my point. It's not about him. It's about you.'
'Don't you think that when you say something you should take into account how it will make the other person feel?' I ask.
The women steps in to answer on Mark's behalf, with the slightly pained tone of the enlightened trying not to lose patience with an obvious idiot. 'I just don't see the world that way,' she says. 'I take care of myself; you take care of yourself.'
'What do you do for a living?' I ask her.


The rest of the book isn't as laugh-out-loud funny as this passage, but it's a pretty great exploration of the American concept of Happiness, and our seeming-obsession with how to achieve it, even if the process is making us miserable. Author Ruth Whipmann takes on the various facets of American happiness, from the self-help industry, to happiness in the workplace (or lack thereof), to parenting and misery to Mormonism and the "put-on-a-happy-face" façade of actual happiness (to judge from the number of defectors).

With a sharp wit and enviable insight, RW explores the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness, in life and business. She addresses the multi-billion dollar self-help (so-called) with humor and insight. Indeed, much of the book, which I GREATLY appreciated, demonstrated that, yes, Brits are frequently right when they start off on every journey assuming that everything is rubbish, and this is the most preeminent example. See the passage above: enough said for this topic. LOL

The chapter on parenting and happiness is likewise revealing, and sometimes brutally honest, as it is a forthcoming discussion on the issues surrounding happy kids and parents. Whether having children, as is often claimed, is instrumental for women to be truly happy and fulfilled depends heavily on the individual, as she notes. My favorite passage from this chapter is one of the most profound in the entire book, at least from the perspective of a childless spinster with multiple graduate degrees. It reads: "Most parents would agree that parenthood has opened up an otherwise inaccessible capacity for joy in their lives... No one wants to feel that they have made an irreversible life choice proved empirically to be a one-way ticket to misery. These studies laugh in the face of the eternal social bargain between parents and nonparents: they get freedom, we get joy. They get cocktails, we get meaning. Without the coziness of that emotional certainty, parenthood becomes just guilt and feces."

The chapter on happiness and religiousness centers on the author's time spent with a Mormon family, often cited in studies as the single happiest group in America, in the happiest city in America, Salt Lake City, Utah. It is very shortly clear, however, that not all that glitters is gold, and that LDS adherents face many of the same problems as everyone else, including self-doubt as to their life choices and frequently depression, despite the overwhelming community support they often enjoy that is lacking in other places. Again, I think the lesson is that happiness is such a highly individualized concept that it differs for each person, but "forced happiness," or the demand for outward expression of happiness and contentment is almost ever-present, whether it's at work, at church, or on social media, the subject of the next chapter.

In the same vein, the author explores the outward projection of happiness that Facebook and similar platforms have provided for people, who seemingly also hide behind a veil of happiness and contentment, concealing any unpleasantries behind the idealized photos they frequently post. Her own experiences also highlight the dark side of social media, that is, the tendency to foster an almost addictive desire for validation in the form of likes and comments on postings, which leads to ever greater unhappiness and stress when such feedback is perceived to be lacking. This is a dramatically under-acknowledged source of unhappiness in the modern world, in my opinion, which is why I personally eschew daily social media usage. I think it's most effective when it's used as a kind of an electronic journal that is intended to enhance your life, perhaps affording an opportunity to reflect on the things that you did or thought at a certain time in one's life rather than an outward display of a faux persona intended to impress people.

In sum, this was a very worthwhile book, with many moments of insight and introspection. I don't know if it will actually serve to enhance happiness on a broad scale, but it certainly provides readers with the opportunity to think about their own definition of happiness in a meaningful way.

American Hate: Survivors Speak Out
American Hate: Survivors Speak Out
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.3/5 Stars.
Review Date: 6/21/2020

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
-Frederick Douglass

One statement in the first few pages really set the tone of this book, for good or ill: Sethi writes:

"We must begin by acknowledging that this country was built on a hate crime. The Native people of this land were displaced and exterminated to make room for Christians and Europeans."

Different than many of the other books I've read about recent times, this one is a compilation of interviews collected by the editor, who has had his own brushes with discrimination. It chronicles individual stories of a diverse group of people who describe their struggles in living in their own American communities. Nigh on the third decade of the twenty-first century, the realization of how little we've really progressed toward equality, and, more generally, simple respect and a basic sense of civility is disheartening. The book also not only includes the stories of the persons affected, and how hate has impacted their lives and communities, but it also describes the tools used to propagate hate, which increasingly involves social media.

I'm glad I read the stories of the individuals who have been directly affected, but the book was excessively political for my taste. I might have rated it higher had it not really sought to focus specifically on what people believe "Trump" has done to the US. I appreciate that the interviewees describe how things have changed for them, but, to me, most poignantly, the accounts demonstrate how things have NOT really changed all that much, frankly, as most of these brave souls describe discrimination throughout their lives, both in and outside the US. Most also point to gruesome violence in their own homelands as well, which is just another type of hate, something there is globally just too much of.

One interviewee stated their belief that a particular hate group "now act[s] with impunity, and think they have license to hurt others," but this has been much the situation for the history of the US, sadly. I recall with dismay one report which stated that the threats against a black president had increased some (?) 400 percent, which suggests that it isn't really the current administration which is inciting further hate and violence. I remember the climate in the US just after 9/11, which many younger people just *don't*. I think, similarly, a series of world events and terror attacks have affected people's outcome toward certain groups in general, misguided though it may be, so it may well have to do more with world events endlessly paraded and sensationalized by mainstream media rather than a single individual.

For example: the editor states that "boys and men are parroting the President," with the result that one in six girls now complains of being groped in school. There are a couple of ways to conceptualize this statistic, however: I think we also need to look at the incidence of reporting. In an era where kindergartners can sexually harass, the changing definition might have something to do with the dramatic increase. I'm not so certain that this hasn't been the case previously, but it was so much more normalized in the past that no one really thought to report inappropriate touching as sexual assault or harassment.

Example: I've had two friends who experienced what I think would be called today "precocious puberty" in junior high school, and were subjected to what I would legitimately call almost incessant sexual harassment and even occasional assault (i.e., "groping"), but no one at the schools (in two different states, mind you, one of them California, a liberal bastion extraordinaire) took it seriously or really took any action at all, having the attitude that "boys will be boys." One teacher (!) even told my friend that "if you don't let it bother you and they see that it doesn't bother you, they'll stop doing it." Fortunately, I think that this type of attitude has changed, which is the first step to changing attitudes and behavior at large. At least it's now being called out.

As such, I think it's simplistic to blame any one person or group, and we need to look much deeper at the roots of hate, in order to also understand the perspectives of the people who are perpetrating it, to try to avoid more people becoming like them. Sethi likewise argues that the solution must come from the bottom up, rather than the top down in the form of a leader serving as an example, but that wouldn't hurt either: it was discouraging to see the rather laissez-faire attitude of my fellow Americans during the Clinton sex scandal, where a known rapist attained the office of the president and continued to perpetrate misconduct, literally inside the Oval Office, with very few repercussions. Clearly, misconduct among those in high places isn't going to improve for the foreseeable future, but We the People should at this point be able to regulate ourselves, and empathizing with people brave enough to tell their stories is a good way to go about it.

The American Revolution (Landmark Books)
The American Revolution (Landmark Books)
Author: Bruce Bliven Jr.
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.1/5 Stars.
Review Date: 5/16/2023

This is another offering in the comprehensive Landmark series I'm steadily working my way through. As I wrote elsewhere, these brief but usually capable introductions were formerly a staple of junior high and high schools throughout the US, but, owing to a number of factors, they have fallen out of favor over the last couple of decades. They now find the most popularity with homeschoolers, as they are quite accessible for intermediate readers. They are legitimately somewhat dated, however, as almost all were written in the 1950s and 60s (this one in 1958), so updated additional material and more recent scholarship should also be included, as they do tend to be one-sided and omit important, albeit historically marginalized voices. Their great strength, despite the fact that they sacrifice depth for breadth, is that they are a capable introduction to the subjects they address, and this one is no exception.

It definitely says something about our nation that most of the prominent figures featured herein were once "household names," such as Benedict Arnold (for the wrong reason, in his case), Sam Adams ("isn't he the beer guy?"), John Hancock, Paul Revere, and several of the major figures of the Revolutionary War, including the British high commander Cornwallis, and US and ally generals Gates, Rochambeau, Lafayette and the unsung hero of the war, Nathanael Greene. It's also dismaying how few people have even basic familiarity with the most significant of the events of the war, which shaped the course of human history.

I don't know too many who today know the significance of even The Boston Massacre or The Boston Tea Party, let alone Lexington and Concord, or what "the shot heard 'round the world" means, or any of the major players or events - in some cases, turning-point battles - such as Bunker (Breed's) Hill, the Trenton Campaign, or why Washington crossed the Delaware (I usually get, "wait, that's a river? I thought it was a state!"), Saratoga, Valley Forge, or Yorktown. Admittedly, most people haven't heard any of this material since their elementary or perhaps junior high school days, but many young people today don't hear much about it at all. School children everywhere could once at least give a brief description of most of these, but not anymore, to judge from those I know.

This admittedly cursory introduction to the American Revolution, starts with events leading up to the conflict. It does an admirable job of demonstrating how protracted an episode this actually was: as John Adams, the second US President noted, "The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed." In short, as Victor Hugo noted, "No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come." The war lasted six years, formally ending on September 3, 1783, with the surrender of the British. It was also a "world war," in some ways, as many of the great European powers who had been fighting since time immemorial (even the Spanish got involved: they had been engaged in hostilities with the British since the sixteenth century; recall the Armada from the first book, under Elizabeth I) played their hand to advance their own interests, most prominently, the French, who for years had been granting aid to the colonies in their fight for independence. Indeed, the colonists would likely have not been successful without the financial assistance of the French.

Many don't realize that the British themselves had been pushing toward self-governance for many years, as well, and that unhinged George III was only one factor among many. As the book notes, for more than a century, since Charles I was beheaded in 1649 and his son James II was deposed in 1688 for attempting to rule without Parliament, the common people had steadily been gaining power at the expense of the monarchy. George III, not wanting to follow in the overt footsteps of his predecessors, attempted instead to control by corruption - bribes and nepotism, to supporters in Parliament by granting select men favors who voted his way, which involved the ouster of Prime Minister Wiliam Pitt.

And, of course, much of the initial conflict was over money, as the book wisely addresses at some length. Causes of the outbreak of armed conflict are many, but this was a principal one. Essentially, British elites were using the colonies, the American ones among them, as cash cows to fund wars against other European powers. Upon encountering resistance, the British enacted increasingly harsh and then punitive measures against the American colonies, which quickly became intolerable. This included measures to limit manufacturing to force the colonists to purchase expensive finished goods from overseas instead of making their own, restricting where American ships could sail to sell their cargo, and taxing everything and everything: from molasses, which affected the production of rum (that may have been the final straw, rather than the later Boston Tea Party), to officials documents (the hated Stamp Act), to import duties on critical common goods and foodstuffs such as tea, paper, paint, and glass.

Hence, the cry of "no taxation without representation" was heard everywhere, as the financial strangulation became ever more burdensome, and infuriating. This lead to widespread boycotts of British products, and an ever-increasing degree of hostility against the Crown and Parliament. "The King and his ministers were blind in not understanding that the colonies, every time they kicked up a fuss over British taxes, were as interested in liberty as in money - perhaps more so." There were also irreconcilable ideological differences: for example, Prime Minister Lord North reportedly stated once that "I can never acquiesce in the absurd opinion that all men are created equal." The narcissism of George III didn't help: he reportedly once blustered, "I wish nothing but good; therefore, everyone who does not agree with me is a traitor and a scoundrel." Treason was punishable by death.

When the British began engaging in direct intervention, such as seizing ships, arresting protestors and, on the night of March 5, 1770, firing into a crowd of citizens angry about an assault on a boy who had been taunting a group of British sentries (the infamous Boston Massacre), things reached a boiling point. Every subsequent action taken by the British enraged the colonists even more. And the colonies banded together: punishments against one were seen as a slight and retaliation against all. The First Continental Congress, held in September, 1774, was the first to attempt a peaceful solution, to petition their government for a redress of grievance, but that concept hadn't been realized yet.

It should not be lost on the present day that the outbreak of the war formally began with an attempted gun grab: British troops under General Gates, loyal to the crown at that point, was ordered to seize gunpowder and arms being stored at Concord, and to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, but Paul Revere got there first: alerting the colonists to the plan, both men escaped, and battle lines were drawn. Famous Captain Jonah Parker, with a force of 130 militia men, against about 600 British troops, formed a line and reportedly stated, "don't fire unless fired upon. But if they want to have a war, let it begin here!" and, indeed it did; the fight was on. No one knows which side fired first, "the shot heard 'round the world," but there was no turning back.

I'll leave readers to peruse the rest of the book, which discusses at least the major engagements of the war and the actions of prominent individuals. The one thing I wish the book included more of was the effects the war had on the people who survived it. What does "all gave some; some gave all" mean in this context? Many survived, but did give next to all, which affected generations. Signing the Declaration of Independence was open treason, potentially punishable by death. It was a mutual pledge by the signers to sacrifice their lives and fortunes for the cause of liberty. Of the 56 who signed the declaration, all but a dozen or so faced severe consequences, either having fought as members of militias, facing capture and imprisonment; many more lost property, and, indeed, entire fortunes. as a result of their taking a stand against the crown.

Signer Thomas Nelson, Jr. of Virginia became a brigadier general and commander of the Virginia militia, but spent nearly his entire family fortune to support the war effort. He cosigned a $2 million loan to support a French fleet coming to assist the colonists. He reportedly also ordered troops to fire upon his own home, which was being occupied by General Cornwallis. Robert Morris did similarly, spending an estimated $1 million (at the time!) of his own money to supply the colonial militia, as did Carter Braxton, of the Virginia delegation, who incurred significant personal debt, which resulted in bankruptcy by the end of the war. Another signer, Richard Stockton, from New Jersey, had his entire estate seized by the British, who burned all his personal effects, including his private papers, upon their departure.

Others faced mortal dangers in addition. George Walton and even his wife were imprisoned, the latter on an island in the West Indes. Francis Lewis had a more difficult time of it: the wife of this New York delegate was reportedly arrested, imprisoned, and even tortured for two years, until she was returned in a prisoner exchange. Lewis's Long Island estate was destroyed as well. Other men, such as Joseph Hewes, was even forced to renounce his Quaker religion due to his support of war efforts. The point here: these men were all in, committed to personal ruination in order to advance the cause of liberty, and many were called upon to make immense personal sacrifices.

Despite the shortcomings, this and the other books in this series are a great introduction to a variety of topics, with highly accessible terminology and prose, encouraging additional reading and inquiry and introducing new generations to the major figures and events which led to the founding of our country.

âLoyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.â
-Mark Twain

America's Forgotten Pandemic : The Influenza of 1918
America's Forgotten Pandemic : The Influenza of 1918
Author: Alfred W. Crosby
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
Review Date: 6/30/2023

See, kids, this is why we need history.

It's also a devastating example of what happens when we fail to recall it, or learn from it. As said George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" ("The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress" (1905-1906), Vol. I, Reason in Common Sense). A similarly famous sentiment, perhaps because it's so accurate, goes like: "People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors" (Edmund Burke, "Revolution in France"). What follows here is perhaps the most prototypical example in the last century.

I'm going to let Professor Alfred Crosby (1931-2018), sometimes referred to as "The Father of Environmental History," one of my all-time favorite scholars, speak for himself, as he did in the preface to this edition. Thirty years after this book was first published, it's become prophesy fulfilled. He writes as follows:

"When I wrote this book at the beginning of the 70s, its subject matter, the 1918 pandemic, seemed more of academic than immediate interest. Insofar as I could see 15 years ago, neither influenza nor any other disease was among humanity's greatest immediate dangers. War was still running free, but the other traditional killers, symbolized by the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, were under a tight rein, at least in the advanced societies. For instance, a person died of infection only if very young, very old, weakened by alcoholism or physical injury, or extremely unlucky. The loss of a 20-year-old to communicable disease in the US seemed as likely as his being hit by a falling tree.... Tuberculosis and polio were only bad memories for citizens of the advanced societies, and smallpox was well on its way to extinction everywhere. The characteristic sin of the time vis-a-vis public health and medical science was hubris.

"Now hubris had given way to anxiety. Seekers after Lyme disease need only don shorts and sandals and scuff through a New England or New York meadow; and of course we all quail before the world-wide pandemic of AIDS. Scientists know amazingly more about molecular biology, pathogens and immunology than they did 15 or 20 years ago, but the bad guys, the pathogens, particularly the newly recognized ones, seem to the general public to have become nastier faster than scientists have become smarter. Whatever may be the truth of that, it is certainly true that unthinking confidence in our public health officials and medical scientists is in sharp decline. Anyone still swelling with hubris simply has not been paying attention....

"The last such experience took place in 1918, when influenza killed tens of millions, rolling across continents and oceans so swiftly that public health institutions were still preparing for the onslaught after it had passed. That pandemic baffled science and reduced the experts to recommending mass adoption of ineffective gauze masks, and even to inoculating thousands with vaccines that were no better (and with luck, no worse) than useless. If we want to know how we react to calamitous surges of disease, we should take a look at the 1918 flu. And if we went to avoid a reprise of that ordeal, we should reexamine it, because we still do not know why it was as bad as it was."

Prophetic indeed.

Crosby was a historian in some respects generations ahead of his time - he was a groundbreaking scholar who utilized a multi-disciplinary approach well before it became fashionable, and now, even essential. His primary areas of research focused on the cultural and biological changes which occurred in the wake of the (re)discovery of the New World. Synthesizing methods from history, geography and biology, as I strive to do also in my own research, Crosby was a true pioneer in the field of interdisciplinary history. According to a New York Times article, his fascination with environmental history stemmed from a near-obsession with Christopher Columbus in boyhood, a still-much-revered figure during his upbringing in the 1930s and 40s.

As a result, Crosby realized early on the biological consequences of New-World, Old-World contact. As a result, his research spawned an entire sub-field based on what is now termed The Colombian Exchange. In a 2011 interview, he stated regarding this novel approach intended to fill what was then a gaping hole in scholarship: âWe were thinking politically and ideologically, but very rarely were historians thinking ecologically, biologically.âAs an environmental historian who studies ancient agriculture and resource use, Crosby has been one of my inspirations since I began my academic journey decades ago, now, not least on account of his writing style, which speaks to a far broader audience than the academic specialists who are the usual focus of these fields.

"America's Forgotten Pandemic" is still a technical academic monograph, but it is highly accessible to a more-than-typical general audience, even if it's somewhat statistic-heavy, another of Crosby's hallmarks. He has also been called a "demographic historian," for that reason, as data are also his forte. That doesn't entail pages and pages of charts and graphs, however; they're used herein rather sparingly, as Crosby has a great talent for making reams of data accessible as a comprehensive and intelligible narrative, which is an enviable talent. This book proceeds both chronologically and geographically, looking at the various waves and phases of the pandemic, as well as the responses, or, rather and often, the lack thereof, in particularly hard-hit areas, such as Philadelphia, the most devastated city in the nation, Chicago, and other densely-populated urban centers.

So, what was the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919? It's a forgotten pandemic no more, as it's been frequently referenced during the modern COVID-19 pandemic of the last three years. I often wonder what Crosby would have said about our present predicament, had he lived to see it. The 1918 pandemic was caused by an unusually deadly influenza virus, now identified as an H1N1 influenza A variant (rather than a coronavirus variant), which first appeared in the US in what appears to be March, 1918, in Kansas, with additional cases identified in France, Germany and the UK by April. Two years later, nearly a third of the global population, or half a billion people, had been infected.

It has been described as the deadliest pandemic in human history, at least in terms of numbers, if not percentages. That dubious distinction probably belongs to The Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague in the fourteenth century, which may have killed a third or more of the world's human population. As even in the modern day, death reporting during the Great Pandemic of 1918 was spotty and uncertain, however: even with modern technology, one of the primary criticisms of the current death toll has been that doctors are often less than accurate about who has died FROM COVID-19, or WITH it. The same was true a century ago, to an even greater extent, which the book admirably describes; as such, death estimates remain unknown, and controversial, but typically range from 17 to as high as 50 million; some wildly exaggerated estimates claim that the eventual death toll topped 100 million. In reality, the figure probably lies somewhere around 20 million, more than the entire death toll caused by WWI.

In essence, the Great Influenza epidemic was the result of a perfect storm of unfortunate factors, mostly as a result of the Great War. Propaganda czars on both sides concealed evidence of the deadly outbreak, other than in neutral Spain, whose reporters were free to publish accurate reports - hence the name, Spanish Influenza, although it certainly didn't start there, nor was it the epicenter. This strain had a particularly high mortality for young adults, rather than what is normally seen, that is, among the very young and very old. As in the present day, this virus triggered a cytokine storm, which devastated the immune systems of even young, healthy adults. Responsible for the appalling death toll were, again, a perfect storm of factors: wartime mobility and particularly overcrowding, malnourishment, poor hygiene and a lack of modern medicine, especially antibiotics, which is likely what kept the modern-day pandemic from being much worse. Modern drugs and ventilators are largely what has kept the death toll from being much higher.

As in the present day, however, once the virus became entrenched in the population, there was almost nothing to stop the spread. All efforts, including, again, the useless masking, closing of public places and businesses, and efforts at quarantining entire swaths of the population did absolutely nothing to stop it. What else hasn't changed? The ignorance and arrogance of impotent doktor-gods, was manifest for all to see: they devastatingly underestimated the danger of the disease, and, worse, their ability to contain it. "On the same day that flu was made reportable, the news broke that ... the director of the laboratories of the Phipps Institute of Philadelphia, had indicated the cause of Spanish influenza: Pfeiffer's bacillus [wrong]. This, the "Inquirer" stated, has 'armed the medical profession with absolute knowledge on which to base its campaign against this disease.'"

Even worse, others made proclamations in the vein of "with such confidence among medical men, why shouldn't the rest of the community go about what it considered the most pressing business of the day?" including a kickoff wartime parade which drew some 200,000 people into the Streets of Philadelphia - with lethal consequences. The case was similar in Chicago, where health officers dramatically underplayed the seriousness of the disease, with one even stating that "There is no special reason I know of to fear an outbreak of disease in our city," Chicago, because "we have the Spanish Influenza situation well in hand now," even before, as Crosby notes, the situation had really even developed. Philadelphia became the hardest-hit city in the nation, with Chicago and other major metropoleis not far behind. As in our present day, Philadelphia and other major cities shortly thereafter closed all schools, churches and other public gathering places - too little, too late.

The moral of the story is really in the preface. I wish that public health officials had read this book prior to the present pandemic, but not surprised that most probably hadn't. It was thought that something like this just couldn't happen in the present day, because modern medicine, including its reliance on an early warning monitoring-tracking system, had advanced to the degree that something like the pandemic a century ago just wasn't possible - see by way of example the gratefully short-lived and limited Ebola outbreak, which for the first time in history reached the United States... but we were wrong.

Diseases are, simply put, smarter than us, and some are more genius than others. I know it's kind of an old-fashioned notion that we can "learn lessons" from history... but, as in this case, we can't afford not to. Acknowledging what had failed in the past may have had a positive impact in the present. But, now, as then: too little, too late. Maybe we'll be better prepared, with less hubris, for the next go-round... because there will, without fail, be one.

The Amityville Horror
The Amityville Horror
Author: Jay Anson
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.7/5 Stars.
Review Date: 6/30/2023

I have to say that I'm surprised that I haven't read this before now, as I'm a confirmed horror fan, and, whether this account is even marginally "true" (doubtful, at this point), it certainly fits the bill. And the story of the story is as fascinating, and, in some ways, appalling, as the novel, which readers can decide for themselves if it's fact or (largely) fiction.

Even if it's just a novel (and that's part of the allure - is it, or isn't it?...) it's a good one. Told from a documentary-style, journal-piece perspective, this thoroughly terrifying book recounts one of the most famous haunted house stories in American history, one which has spawned an untold number of similar ghost stories and a seemingly-endless stream of stupendously awful movies and books featuring "Amityville" in the title. Most of them died out with the 20th century, but one still manages to pop up from time to time, so the far-reaching influence of this story can't be overstated - the last iteration (remake) was in 2005. The author reportedly based the book's title on an H.P. Lovecraft novel, "The Dunwich Horror," published in 1929, so even that isn't exactly original.


The sinister-looking, almost-black Colonial-style house with the curious "eye" windows is one of the most recognizable horror icons in the world. It's especially striking in the black-and-white photos of the period, which were widely publicized after the gruesome murder of the DeFeo family. The background for this whole woeful tale: in the early morning hours of November 13, 1974, Ronald "Butch" DeFeo, a 23-year-old ne'er-do-well auto mechanic reportedly slaughtered six members of his own family with a high-powered rifle as they lay sleeping, and possibly drugged, all face-down in their beds. He apparently first shot both his parents, twice each - and then killed his 18-year-old sister Dawn, 13-year-old Allison, 12-year-old Mark and 9-year-old John, all but the parents with a single rifle shot in the back.

Questions remain, but regardless of how the killings actually occurred, the origins of the Amityville Horror were born.

Who knows where this notion even originated, but DeFeo, probably desperate to escape the death penalty, and his defense attorney claimed that Ronnie had been driven to his dark deeds by some kind of demonic presence in the house - subsequently, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in a kind-of "the-devil-made-me-do-it" defense (which was later the subject of one of the Conjuring movies, actually, although that involved yet another event). The jury didn't buy it, but DeFeo did eschew execution, receiving six consecutive life sentences. He died in prison in 2021 at the age of 69.


Perhaps part of the story's perpetual allure is that it at least purports to be BASED on actual events, which is a terrifying prospect in and of itself. As the book notes, some of the names of the individuals were changed, so tracking them down pre-Internet for follow-up was something of a challenge. Father "Mancuso" in the book, for example, is actually Father Pecoraro, the priest who first comes to bless the house, and has some unsettling experiences himself upon entering, eventually developing blisters on his hands reminiscent of some type of demonic stigmata.

This novel is reportedly based on 45 hours of tape-recorded testimony recounted by the Lutzes, who claimed to have experienced the events firsthand. If you've read this far, you know the bare bones of the story, pardon the pun: the house is real, located on Ocean Avenue in quaint Amityville, an affluent suburb located on Long Island. The story goes, after the grisly murders, the house sat vacant for 13 months, until it was sold at a rock-bottom price to George Lutz and his wife, Kathy, along with her three children from a previous marriage. The family lasted a reported 28 days in the house before they fled, never to return, not even to reclaim their personal possessions.

The day the family moved in, just before Christmas, the couple had a priest come to bless the house, as a matter of course, as practicing Catholics. That may have been the first mistake: as the book notes, Father "Mancuso" reported that immediately upon entering the home, he heard a vicious voice yell at him to "GET OUT!" He also reported that he was slapped by some unseen force in Kathy Lutz's sewing room. Further, he continued to be plagued by a flu-like illness and other paranormal happenings even after leaving the house - like the phone erupting in deafening static every time he attempted to contact the hapless family.

Shortly thereafter, the Lutzes also began to experience odd occurrences. These included tried-and-true, stock haunted-house and poltergeist fare such as objects moving by themselves, levitation, visions of apparitions and shadow figures (the red-eyed pig figure whom Lutz's stepdaughter calls "Jodie" is a novel addition), doors violently ripped from their hinges, cabinet doors opening and slamming shut, an unexplained black fly infestation in one of the room, despite the fact that it was the dead of winter, noxious odors reminiscent of feces emanating from various rooms in the house (which Mancuso also reported at his residence, indicating that the unseen force could even affect locales off-property), the discovery of a hidden well and a concealed room in the basement, and, even green slime ala "Ghostbusters" oozing from doors and which flowed UP the stairs. Curious that no one thought as Egon Spengler did to save some of it and analyze it!

George also reported disturbing personality changes in the whole family, including the family dog, almost from the outset. Even more disturbing, frankly, which I DON'T doubt, is the (apparent) admission, in the novel at least, by both George and Kathy, that they routinely beat their kids. George also claimed that he couldn't get warm while in the house, no matter how much heating oil and wood he burned, and that he would mysteriously awaken at 3:15 every morning, which is when the DeFeo murders were believed to have occurred.

And then, in addition to the sights, sounds and smells, the attacks started, with ever-increasing severity. Kathy reported numerous instances of being touched, and smelling perfume, especially while in the kitchen. Some of the encounters were almost warm and friendly, but others were frightening as she later reported being restrained and roughly squeezed. Both George and Kathy reportedly experienced hallucinations, on one occasion, with Kathy transforming into a hideous old woman. Both also allegedly experienced levitation, another horror film staple, paralysis from unseen forces pressing down on them, and strange injuries and marks on their bodies.

Even people loosely associated with the house reportedly experienced strange phenomena, including Father Mancuso, who developed a strange flu-like illness resulting in periodic bouts of high fever, as did a paranormal researcher who made arrangements to investigate the house, as well as the aforementioned strange bleeding blisters on Father Mancuso's hands. All these "symptoms" may seem familiar tropes in the modern day, nearly a half-century later, but it's important to recall that this book was largely responsible for establishing a mainstream horror "canon" for both books and film, large-screen and small, that developed in its wake: it set both the tone and the "rules" for hauntings and possessions for generations to come.

En fin, after a freak storm "trapped" them in the house for one last night, the family reportedly fled to Kathy's mother's home, but the demonic force had "attached" itself to them and followed, continuing to oppress them, resulting in more levitation and sleepless nights. It appears that they finally "escaped," not with an exorcism, but by moving across a body of water to California, which spirits apparently can't cross in pursuit of their victims.

The people who seemingly couldn't escape the "oppression" associated with the house, however... The new owners. The family who purchased it immediately after the Lutzes were also forced from the house - by rabid fans. They were so incessantly harassed by sightseers obsessed with the book and the movie - some of whom reportedly came right up to the door, even ringing the bell to ask for Ronnie DeFeo, and stole pieces of the facade, prying loose roof shingles and even chunks of the lawn, that they, too eventually became fed up, packed and left.

Another event which catapulted this story to global acclaim - or notoriety, depending - was the involvement of arguably two of the most famous paranormal investigators in the world, about whom yet another string of popular films have been made - Ed and Lorraine Warren. I don't have the space to go into it here, but the Warrens' involvement in this account, along with other paranormal researchers, brought it far more publicity than it likely would have garnered otherwise.


Despite initial assurances that they weren't looking for fame or fortune and could keep things on the down-low until paranormal investigators could conduct some pretense at an actual scientific inquiry, word got out pretty quickly about the Lutzes' experiences in the already-notorious murder house. The novel was published in 1977, becoming an almost-overnight sensation which shot to the top of the NY Times bestseller list. It has remained one of the most popular horror novels in history. Not surprisingly, Hollywood shortly thereafter came calling, and the first movie, which was at least decent, was released in 1979. Hate to say it, but, not surprisingly, considering the initial windfall, a spate of low-budget trash followed. To date, there are a reported 17 "official" movies, and hundreds of "copycats" which capitalize on the "BASED on a true story" byline.

Thus, one of the most famous ghost stories in history became one of the most financially successful ventures in entertainment history. The Lutzes reportedly earned an estimated $300k for their tale, which was the tip of a continent-sized iceberg. WAAAAY back in 1979, the film grossed some $50 million in theaters. The Lutzes eventually auctioned all their possessions left in the house, so it wasn't like they lost out completely. They also reportedly got a 50 percent share of the book money.

Despite the popularity of this whole franchise, however, decades later, most now accept that the whole account is the result of an elaborate hoax, and a lucrative one at that. That largely stems from the admission of DeFeo's defense attorney, William Weber, who eventually revealed that he and the Lutzes concocted the whole story over a few bottles of wine one evening. However, that was AFTER they had already fled the house, so something had to have been going on for them to abandon it, which they eventually surrendered to the bank, after auctioning most of the contents. That gave rise to the opinion that the family simply up and left after George's business ran afoul of the IRS, which the book mentions.

In short: the couple had become badly over-leveraged, with George's toys like the boats he couldn't afford, and likely concocted the whole haunting story as a way to make a quick buck to get back on their feet - with a little help. The couple had been looking for a home in the $30 to $50k range, but purchased the "DeFeo House" for $80k, double their initial budget. George reportedly thought he could save money by running his surveying business from home and by storing his watercraft in the boathouse to save on marina fees, but that apparently wasn't sufficient to keep the family financially afloat. And: what a way to get out from under suspicion of stealing your brother-in-law's money than to claim a demon did it! In the end, many skeptics have suggested that they just couldn't keep up with the payments, and needed an out. Maybe they took a page from Ronnie's playbook and found one.

There are clues throughout that not all is what it seems.

And, then, there's Weber. He had been scouting offers for a book deal based on the DeFeo homicides, and apparently hit upon a winning idea. He later stated on the TV program "A Current Affair" in 1988 that "we took real-life incidents and transposed them... in other words, it was a hoax." He claimed, for example, that a neighbor's cat would look into the window at night - the cat morphed into the red-eyed pig monster. The origin of the green slime story was similarly mundane: apparently Ronnie's father had once struck his wife one evening while she was holding a plate of spaghetti, which splattered all over one of the walls, which somehow eventually gave rise to the green slime that mysteriously materialized in the house. And they were collaborators: Weber gave the Lutzes details about the house only he knew, having spent countless hours with Ronnie, but the confabulators parted ways after a fight over how the money from their sweet deal would be allocated - keep reading.

George, who died in 2006, maintained to the end the alleged truth of the events, however, stating that he had just reported what he and his family had actually experienced. Riiiiight.

A couple of the other family members have also spoken out over the years, with conflicting reports about the veracity of the more salacious occurrences. Daniel, who was ten at the time he lived in the house, stated that most of the events, especially the more sensational ones, hadn't actually happened, but that he genuinely believed that his stepfather had invited, intentionally or unintentionally, malevolent forces into the home on account of his near-obsession with the occult, which the book alludes to in the couple's practice of Transcendental Meditation, which even their priest warned them about.

The other son, Chris, who was seven at the time, also stated that the events were largely fictionalized, but likewise attested that his stepfather harbored an interest in the occult, and that unsettling events had genuinely occurred during his 28-day tenure in the house. Chris reported that he did see a menacing shadow figure approach him and that his bedroom window would bang open and shut, but the frequent windstorms could at least account for the latter. Chris was adamant that the haunting was NOT a complete hoax, unlike some others, but admitted that his stepfather, at least, had fabricated many of the more outrageous events, like the appearance of the green slime and heavy doors being ripped from their hinges.

And, then there's the matter of the outright contradictions. As for "Father Mancuso:" the plot thickens. He allegedly reported that he had never even been to the house, according to "Newsday Magazine," and certainly never had an overwhelming stench of feces materialize at his home. He also reportedly just referred the Lutzes to a local parish priest, whom they never contacted. Another figure, "Zammatero" (Camerato), who was allegedly shown the garage door damage and the pig tracks, also denied that he was ever at the property. The book also states that George Lutz consulted the Amityville Historical Society about the property, which informed him that the house was situated on a site where Shinnecock Indians once housed their sick, dying and insane, and believed that the land was inhabited by "demons," but the curator of the museum states that the Shinnecock never resided anywhere in the region and that Lutz never even visited until after he left the house.

The most damning evidence that nothing was actually going on in the house is the fact that it has changed hands - and colors - numerous times since the Lutzes lived there - and no one else has reported paranormal activity. It's hard to believe that arguably the most renowned, even violent, haunted house in the country suddenly dried up like the defunct well concealed in its basement. The famous "eye" windows on the third floor have also since been altered, as has even the house number - reportedly from 112 to 108, although this could hardly deter curious sightseers. The house with the iconic "eye windows" is still world-famous.

One thing that did strike me: the punctuation. I think one of the "tells," of a perhaps "exaggerated" event, is when the passage is punctuated by an exclamation mark (!). Not sure if this is intentional, but it is somewhat thought-provoking. There are many other sensational events without one, so why do only certain happenings appear in the text this way... Let the reader use discernment.


As if this story couldn't get any wilder: unleash the lawyers. Good grief.

The first conflict over money erupted between old pals George Lutz and his collaborator, one William Weber, who sued him over how the money from their sordid tale was to be split, even as early as 1978. The matter was reportedly settled out of court, and the terms remained confidential. Even at the time, however, Lutz reported in federal court in Brooklyn that he had so far netted a cool $100k for the book and another six figures from the film. Lest you think that this is an example of an ambulance-chasing lawyer getting greedy: George Lutz had previously filed a ONE-MILLION-DOLLAR lawsuit against Weber, but that was tossed out by the judge.

And - to top it off: one of the policemen named in the book (ostensibly not the red-eyed oinker who left trotter tracks in the snow) sued BOTH the Lutzes AND the book publisher Bantam for the way in which the cops were portrayed regarding their official position on the "hauntings" and the murders. And WHY NOT? Everyone can get their piece of the pie! GOOD LORD.

And, lest you likewise think that was finis: NOPE. In 2003, George Lutz actually sued his STEPSON Chris in a Nevada district court over allegations of "trademark infringement and fraud" involving a future Amityville movie. Chris then filed a counterclaim. The family seemingly fell on hard times shortly after Amityville became a household name, with the younger stepson leaving home after repeated clashes with his stepfather, at age sixteen. George and Kathy also divorced in 1988, 'round about the time that he and DeFeo's defense lawyer admitted that they had made the whole thing up. Younger sister Melissa remains missing in action, apparently relishing her privacy and not wanting to get caught up in this $***show. Good for her.

ALL that said: yeah, I did like the novel, even if that's ALL it is. And, you have to admit, this account, which *allegedly* occurred in 1975, essentially created the "possessed house" genre, setting the bar for MANY future, similar stories, and rocketed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren to fame and international renown, and, some would argue, infamy, or at least, ignominy all their own.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Creative Classic Series)
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Creative Classic Series)
Author: Ambrose Bierce
Book Type: Library Binding
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
Review Date: 11/29/2019

This short story took all of about 20 minutes to read in its entirety, but it was such a good story I thought I would give it a go. I admit, I've never heard of Ambrose Bierce, but he seems a master storyteller. Apparently, this one is also quite famous, but I have hitherto been unacquainted with it. Glad that I came across it in the library!

Bierce's personal story is worthy of a novel itself! He is a rather mysterious character. The tenth child in a brood of thirteen, Ambrose (all the kids had names starting with "A") attended the Kentucky Military Institute, and then joined the confederate army as a drummer boy. He was wounded and moved to San Francisco, to be cared for by his brother; it was there he began drawing political cartoons and became a rather well-known figure. He became an associate of writers including Bret Harte and Mark Twain. He married, had a few children, moved to England, and back again, and eventually became an employee of William Randolph Hurst. After some marital and family problems and the death of his two sons, he left California in 1913 on a trip to Mexico... and was never seen or heard from again. Most think that he was killed in the civil conflict of 1914, but no one knows for certain.

This story is one of his darker ones: a southern gentleman stands condemned to be hanged from the bridge he tried to burn down in support of the Confederate states; the rope breaks, and he is able to make his escape and return to his plantation and waiting family... or does he? Written in capable, lush and descriptive 19th century prose, this short story is representative of the type of folk tales that were so popular during that era. Apparently there has been a movie made about this short story.
Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.

Animal Farm (Centennial Edition)
Animal Farm (Centennial Edition)
Author: George Orwell
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
Review Date: 7/29/2019

The following constitutes much more a commentary than a review, as this is another book for which is almost impossible to perform the latter. I first read it in part when I was a teenager, as I was kind of fascinated with the Soviet Union, and then Russia, in the wake of the former's collapse, which occurred when I was still a teenager also. I read it with the intent of learning about the Russian Revolution from one of the world's greatest authors, and it didn't disappoint. What I probably like most about satire is that not everything is spelled out for a reader; you have to actually dig a little deeper to find what are essentially hidden messages, what we could call today "Easter eggs." That said, I admit that it was a bit confusing at the time, as I wasn't acquainted with all the key events (the book loosely follows the major players and phases of the Revolution, but doesn't fit exactly) or characters. The major players include:

-OLD MAJOR = probably a mixture of Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (AKA Lenin
-NAPOLEON = Stalin (b. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili), a cruel, depspotic figure (I won't call him a leader; kidnapper, hostage-taker, more like) who uses military force to consolidate his power and near-constant subterfuge and propagdanda, with interittent episodes of explosive violence and intimidation to maintain it
-SNOWBALL = the far more eloquent and idealistic Trotsky, a figure most people today have never even heard of, who becomes the scapegoat for the regime's failures and shortcomings, and who is blamed and then blacklisted even from memory
-JONES = the Tsar, but probalby more the idealized figure of a King of All the Russians, who was considered semi-divine, or, by extension, the entire system of the monarchy, rather than the singular individual of Nicholas II
-SQUEALER = the propagandist, who seemingly represents a whole cast of characters and dispersal media for Napoleon's message
-BOXER = the proletariat, working class, who is initially idealistic but ceaselessly exploited for the ends of the elites, too stupid and overworked to understand their own plight, and who are worked to death and then, despite their loyalty, disposed of when they are no longer of any use
-BENJAMIN = the wise but cynical elder who's seemingly seen it all; he refuses to take sides, believing, probably correctly, that nothing really changes; the more things change, the more they stay the same; the only history that hasn't happened yet is the history we don't know
-MOLLIE, the vain, attention-seeking, self-absorbed mare who defects from the farm, as did the minor nobility who fled Russia after the Revolution when it became apparent that their lot had worsened considerably and that they could do better elsewhere and the two figures of
-MR. FREDERICK and MR. PILKINGTON, largely considered to represent Hitler (in the 30s and 40s) and the British/American alliance, respectively.

There are several key morals to this story, and in the interest of time and space here I won't recount all of them. I will simply say this: to me, the most profound message of this book, which differs somewhat from the more famous 1984, is: the tongue is mightier than the sword.

The key theme herein is the power of language, both in its use and misuse, to manipulate potential allies and supporters, and to overcome one's opponent and to silence debate; this book is further support for my attestation that Orwell was a Prophet: the degree to which Orwell (AKA Eric Blair) anticipates the ability of elites to manipulate language to further their agenda and the power of mass media is staggering. I think it's far more applicable in our own time than in his, when mass media was still really in its infancy, and had not yet attained its pervasive intrusion into almost every facet of life. For example, Napoleon can simultaneously use language to manipulate his followers and to silence his dissenters, by spreading false narratives, primarily surrounding the figure of Snowball, who is made a scapegoat for all of Napoleon's own failings, and by tolerating and even encouraging the bleating of the sheeple, I mean sheep, "two legs bad, four legs good," and then "four legs good, two legs better" (which is all the simpletons are able to understand) to silence any dissent, along with the use of jargon which is little understood by the uneducated, unintelligent and overworked masses.

Orwell is one of my favorite authors, a prospect that has disturbed me since childhood. I may have written this elsewhere before, but if there are modern-day prophets, he's one of them. There have been throughout history those people who, for whatever reason, can, simply put, see the future. They somehow can peer through the almost-infinite threads of time and events to see and describe one singularity, and can then espouse and describe the major events along the way with startling accuracy. I have no doubt that many of his predictions will come to pass; the question is simply when, and what comes next.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl - The Definitive Edition
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl - The Definitive Edition
Author: Otto M. Frank
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
Review Date: 11/20/2019

"Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a novel about the Secret Annex. The title alone would make people think it was a detective story. Seriously, though, ten years after the war, people would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate and what we talked about as Jews in hiding."

And with those words, it came to pass. This diary, rather than a novel, is one of the most important works of the 20th century. That said, I have to confess that it is not a pleasant or pleasurable book to read; at least, it never has been for me. It's just important to bear witness, and to keep close in mind that perhaps ten million people were murdered in about a five-year period by the Nazi regime-each person had a story; this is but one of them. I read this book in high school, of course, but there is a fair bit of additional content in this edition. I understand, however, why some of the content was omitted from the original version, which was compiled and edited by the only survivor of the Annex, Anne's father Otto. It's far more complete and revealing however, but, back to the unpleasant bit, I feel excessively voyeuristic in reading it, despite its significance. These are the writings of a teenage girl, which include her deepest thoughts and secrets, which I don't think she would have revealed to the world even if she had published a book in time.

Ideally, everyone has their own takeaway messages from this remarkable testimony, but there are several themes I think are more prominent in this edition than in the others. First, which often surprises first-time readers, there is not all that much content about the war. Much of the text centers on conflicts between the eight members of the household: Anne and her sister Margot, two years her senior, her parents, the van Dann (Pels) family, and an elderly dentist, Mr. Dussel. Anne vacillates between gratitude for being relatively safe in hiding, when so many others were being slaughtered outside the walls which concealed her family, and abject misery, to the degree that death sometimes seemed a welcome release: at one point, she states, "I've reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die. The world will keep on turning without me, and I can't do anything to change events anyway. I'll just let matters take their course and concentrate on studying and hope that everything will be all right in the end."

Much centers on the great interpersonal conflict, arising from talk about everything, from politics to the work load, to whose turn it is for the bathroom or a particular area of the house, and from practicalities of their meager existence, particularly the hording of precious food items. Anne is constantly at odds with her mother, and some of the material she wrote was harsh sufficient to be left out of the initial edition. They clearly don't have a close relationship, with Anne preferring the company of her father to that of her sister or particularly her mother. It's curious to consider whether they felt the same way when they were separated. The passages which are highly critical of even close family members, indicative of the level of strain the assemblage is subjected to on a daily basis, are particularly difficult to get through, as readers know how the account ends.

Much of the conflict is certainly understandable, if not expected. The confinement is not unlike prison, and Anne frequently laments the inability to go outside, or even to open a window. Detection would mean certain death. Some of my favorite passages articulate this longing: for example, she writes that "the best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with he sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature's beauty and simplicity. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles." Confinement for nearly two years took a heavy toll on the occupants, but Anne was able to find small measure of happiness in her blossoming relationship with the quiet Peter van Pels.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking addition to this volume is the overt sexuality expressed within the pages of her diary, an intimate account which I still felt uncomfortable reading, as I know that Anne wouldn't have wanted people to read some of this content. It seems more than the musings and innocent discoveries of a sheltered teenage girl: for example, Anne writes: "once when I was spending the night at Jacque's [a friend's house], I could no longer restrain my curiosity about her body, which she'd always hidden from me and which I'd never seen... I also had a terrible desire to kiss her, which I did. Every time I see a female nude, such as the Venus in my art history book, I go into eustasy. Sometimes I find hem so exquisite I have to struggle to hold back my tears. If only I had a girlfriend!" The normalcy of exploring one's emerging sexuality and identity was, of course, stunted significantly by the severe isolation, and how her feelings would have developed in time is anyone's guess.

Perhaps most profoundly, the diary speaks to the juxtaposition of the human condition: the great humanity in the face of terrible risk and adversity, in the persons of Bep, Miep, Jan, and the others who concealed this family, at great personal risk, but also the inhumanity inflicted by those around them, both the Nazis and the collaborators, who were encouraged to report any Jews in hiding for a reward. No doubt someone actually did. It's also clear that even as of about 1943, people were well aware that Jews and others were being rounded up and shipped to their deaths; the occupants of the Annex were aware that people were being gassed, and say so. I have no doubt that Anne would have been an accomplished writer, had she survived the war, but the diary in its present form would not have come down to us intact. This remarkable account is, as I stated above, the story of just one person who tragically lost their life during this unprecedented period of history, which constituted some of the darkest days in the history of human civilization.

------------NOTABLE PASSAGES-----------
Margot and I started packing our most important belongings into a schoolbag. The first thing I stuck in was the diary... and some old letters. Preoccupied by the thought of going into hiding, I stuck the craziest things in the bag, but I'm not sorry. Memories mean more to me than dresses.

Fine specimens of humanity, those Germans, and to think I'm actually one of them! No, that's not true; Hitler took away our nationality long ago. And besides, there are no greater enemies on earth than the Germans and the Jews.

We're so fortunate here, away from the turmoil. We wouldn't have to give a moment's thought to all this suffering if it weren't for the fact that we're so worried about those we hold dear, whom we can no longer help. I feel wicked sleeping in a warm bed, while somewhere out there my dearest friends are dropping from exhaustion and being knocked to the ground. I get frightened myself when I think of close friends who are now at the mercy of the cruelest monsters ever to stalk the earth. And all because they're Jews.

When I think about our lives here, I usually come to the conclusion that we live in a paradise compared to Jews who aren't in hiding. All the same, later on, when everything has returned to normal, I'll probably wonder how we, who always lived in such comfortable circumstances, could have "sunk" so low.

I'd like to scream at Mother, Margot, the van Daans, Dussel and Father, too: "Leave me alone; let me have at least one night when I don't cry myself to sleep with my eyes burning and my head pounding. Let me get away, away from everything, away from this world!"

The atmosphere is stifling, sluggish, leaden. Outside, you don't hear a single bird, and a deathly, oppressive silence hangs over the house and clings to me as if it were going to drag me into the deepest regions of the underworld... I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage. "Let me out, where there's fresh air and laughter!" a voice within me cries.

I see the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we're standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter. We're surrounded by darkness and anger, and in our desperate search for a way out, we keep bumping into each other. We look at the fighting down below and the peace and beauty up above. In the meantime, we've been cut off by the dark mass of clouds, so that we can go neither up nor down. It looms before us like an impenetrable wall, trying to crush us, but not yet able to. I can only cry out and implore, "Oh, ring, ring, open wide and let us out!"

Why do I always think and dream the most awful things and want to scream in terror? Because, in spite of everything, I still don't have enough faith in God He's given me so much, which I don't deserve, and yet each day I make so many mistakes! Thinking about the suffering of those you hold dear can reduce you to tears: in fact, you could spend the whole day crying. The most you can do pray for God to perform a miracle and save at least some of them. And I hope I'm doing enough of that!

Whenever you're feeling lonely or sad, try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you'll know that you're pure within and will find happiness once more.

When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that's a big question, will I ever be able to write something great; will I ever become a journalist or a writer? I hope so, oh, I shop so very much, because writing allows me to record everything, all my thoughts, ideals and fantasies.

I don't want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that's why I'm so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that's inside me!

Armageddon in Retrospect
Armageddon in Retrospect
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
Review Date: 7/29/2019

This collection of short works by Kurt Vonnegut was released on the first anniversary of his death, and includes a poignant, if unconventional tribute, written by his son, the Doctor Vonnegut, who was an author in his own right. This eclectic collection includes letters, speeches and short stories generally centered around the theme of war, hence the title, but the last short story, written from the perspective of the future, bears this title as well.

This collection includes stories with a much more broad time frame than we are used to seeing from KV. It features scenes from the more familiar ones, but also one from a post-Hastings world, in the wake of the Norman conquest of England (the Unicorn Trap), and, as stated, the last one from the future, in a post-Armageddon world where war has taken on a very interesting form (time travel to a devastating battle during WWI). KV once said through one of his characters, "I would have given anything to die in a war that meaningful," and I wonder if he really meant it. As I have stated in other reviews, the trauma of Dresden never left him, but he channeled his clear case of PTS(d) into a prolific body of work which explored the human psyche in the wake of warfare. The message is clear: don't. And, from some things, there is no return. I think KV spent the rest of his life reading of others' experiences to try to comprehend his own.

That said, this volume may not resonate with those unfamiliar with KV's work, but, having quite a few of his novels under my belt, I'm very glad that this unpublished material was made accessible for his fans. The stories are short, but no less profound.

--------Notable Passages--------

In my early-to-mid-twenties he let is slip that he was afraid that therapy might make him normal and well-adjusted, and that would be the end of his writing. I tried to reassure him that psychiatrists weren't nearly that good.

Reading and writing are in themselves subversive cts. What they subvert is the notion tht things have to be the way they are, that you are alone, that no one has ever felt the way you have. What occurs to people when they read Kurt is that things are much more up for grabs than they thought they were. zte world is a slightly different place just because they read a damn book. Imagine that.

If anyone here should wind up on a gurney in a lethal-injection facility, maybe the one at Terre Haute, here is what your last words should be: "This will certainly teach me a lesson."

The physical anthropologists, who had studied human skulls going back thousands of yeras, said we were only supposed to live for thirty-five yeras or so, because that's how long our teeth lasted without modern dentistr. Weren't those the good old days: thirty-five years and we were out of here. Talk about intelligent design! Now all the Baby Boomers who can affod dentistry and health insurnce, poor bastards, are going to live to be a hundred!

My advice to writers just starting out? Don't use semi-colons! They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to college.

The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman
The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman
Author: Andrzej Szczypiorski, Klara Glowczewska (Translator)
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
Review Date: 2/27/2020

This heartbreaking yet moving story takes place primarily between 1942-1943, and recounts a series of tales of Warsaw's inhabitants as they attempt to negotiate their lives during what can be described as no less than the collapse of their civilization. The novel takes the form of a series of seemingly disjointed vignettes, which in actuality are joined by a single thread, in the form of the primary character, which brilliantly demonstrates the interconnectedness of the lives of the inhabitants of a vibrant city, which is in this case methodically dismantled by the forces of evil. As the author states, the Nazi regime is the "triumph of mediocrity," whose proponents have "no special gift except a willingness to unquestioningly follow orders."

The main characters are a teenage boy who becomes infatuated with a young widow, the "beautiful Mrs. Seidenman," who is Jewish, but whose blonde hair and blue eyes make her appear as a Pole. She thus lives, for a time, under false papers, but is recognized and outed to the Gestapo by a fellow Jew who betrays his fellows to their deaths in order to perpetuate his own survival. The story then becomes a race against time to save her, seemingly involving in some way the entire city, or what remains of it.

The novel jumps around from character to character, which also includes a judge (who survives the war) at the mercy of a war profiteer, two young friends, one a Jew, the other Catholic, "equals in every sense except in the eyes of the Nazis," only one of whom survives the cataclysm, to the minor characters, including a prostitute, two talented tailors - one a Jew, another a Pole, neither of which survive the war, to a brilliant Jewish lawyer who attempts to save his young daughter by relinquishing her to a friend.

It also moves back and forth in time, from events such as the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943, to the uprising in 1944, and even further into the future, such as the protests in 1970 and the election of a Polish pope in 1978, which likewise demonstrates the interconnectedness and overlapping events in the history of the city, little of which survived the war.

The resilience of its inhabitants is front and center, however, as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the collapse, but the novel also speaks to the disillusionment many survivors felt, as their relief was short lived. The suffocating grip of communism soon replaced what Warsaw's inhabitants had endured under the Nazi regime, which was little improvement.

The novel is actually quite complex, although not lengthy, but it attempts to take on a bit too much, and becomes rather haphazard in the loss of focus. The complexity is highlighted in the characters, most of whom are not what one would typically imagine. They are far from the stereotypical stock characters sometimes seen in holocaust literature; in this case, the author twists our expectations to demonstrate that desperation in extraordinary circumstances can lead anyone to depravity, but it also highlights their heroism and nobility, just not always in the manner expected.

The story initially focuses more on the personal accounts of the characters, any of whom could actually be real people, and may have been. About halfway through, it curiously changes tone to become more "political," concentrating instead on the events which occur in Poland after the war, which could be said to demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit, and the strength to endure whatever comes next, but it devolves a bit for me at that point.

The first half weaves a rich tapestry of details of the lives of the characters and the events they encounter, but the second half, less so. This is still a worthwhile read, however, and is a very moving and personal account, one which speaks of both pride but also disillusionment.

Before Columbus: The Leif Eriksson Expedition
Before Columbus: The Leif Eriksson Expedition
Author: Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3/5 Stars.
Review Date: 5/16/2023

Another in the Landmark series, but this is one of the more recent offerings, published in the early 2000s. It's also one of the shortest I've read, at just about 90 pages. One of the advantages over many of the older ones written in the 1950s is the inclusion of additional material, including a bibliography for further reading and several photos of artifacts, documents and drawings.

This short edition describes the life and voyages of Leif Eriksson, about whom, admittedly, facts are few. I think it could have included far more content about the source material, which is worthy of some discussion itself, in the form of the famous Icelandic sagas, about which I think there should have been more material in this short volume.

On account of the paucity of the source material, we don't even know definitively when Leif Erikson was born or when he died, which is usually stated to be around 970 to the 1020s. Also known as Leif the Lucky, he is believed to have been the first European to have reached continental North America, nearly 500 years before Columbus did - but the latter only made brief excursions to central and the very northern tip of South America, never actually setting foot in the continental United States or Canada.

The source material for much of Erikson's life is contained within the "Sagas of Icelanders," narratives based on more or less historical events which occurred primarily in the ninth through the eleventh centuries. The sagas were composed in Old Icelandic, a dialect of Old Norse. The specific composers or authors are mostly unknown. Most of the information about Leif Erikson is contained within the "Eiríks saga rauða: or the Saga of Erik the Red and "The Saga of the Greenlanders." Believed to have been composed in approximately 1200, the Erik the Red saga was probably written down initially in the thirteenth century, and it is preserved in two manuscripts, albeit in slightly differing versions, which date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, so the written accounts date to at least a century after the initial composition of the orally-transmitted sagas.

Leif Erikson was reportedly the son of famous chieftain Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild of Iceland. Leif reportedly had two known sons. The book attempts to reconstruct his early life based on what is generally known about Norse culture, but much of that also comes from the sagas, especially regarding pagan religious practices and their spiritual traditions. What is known is that at some point, Leif's father was banished from Iceland for a time, reportedly for murder, and therefore took his family along with other settlers west to what is now modern-day Greenland, where he established the first permanent settlement in 986. His son likewise became a famous explorer, but whether he was the individual who founded the Norse settlement at Newfoundland, known as L'Anse aux Meadows, which was occupied approximately 1,000 years ago, is unknown.

There are also conflicting accounts of how Leif Erikson came upon the North American continent, specifically the area called Vinland. In the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif reportedly discovered it accidentally when he was blown off course while returning to Greenland from Norway. In the second account, however, which is decidedly more detailed, Leif reportedly relies on the reports of Bjarni Herjolfsson who had sighted land to the west which was thick with trees, approximately fifteen years before Erikson made a formal voyage of exploration. The latter account also states that Leif had spent time at the court of Norwegian king Olaf, where he was first introduced to and converted to Christianity. Some later scholars assert, in fact, that the latter version was composed to highlight Leif's evangelizing efforts on behalf of King Olaf Tyrggvason, who is mentioned in the book. This story may have been invented by a monk who wrote a now-lost biography of King Olaf around the year 1200.

It is also in the second account, The Saga of the Greenlanders, that Leif reportedly approached Bjarni about his earlier discovery, and purchased his ship, before taking on a crew of approximately 35 men to mount an expedition to see if he could find the land populated with tall trees which Bjarni had reportedly come across accidentally years prior. It is this account which also describes his father Erik the Red's injury in a fall from his horse on his way to board the ship, which he took as a bad omen, and decided to stay behind. This account chronicles that the expedition reportedly landed on an unknown shore, after traveling for many days, where some of their party found wild grapes, wheat and maple trees. There are no reports of them encountering any native peoples there.

Despite the briefness of the narrative, this is a good introduction for young children, and includes a bibliography for further reading. I think it would have been good to also discuss the sagas in more detail, including a section on the conflicting information, which offered a good opportunity to introduce some textual analysis, and how what we think we know can change with additional discoveries, such as archaeological sites. It could also have discussed to some degree the difficulty of reconstructing historical events based on limited information, but overall, as with most of the other books in this series, it's an enjoyable read which hits the highlights and provides a good introduction to the subject.

The Beginner's Guide to Heritage Breeds: Rescuing and Raising Rare-Breed Livestock and Poultry
Review Date: 6/21/2020

As an agricultural and environmental historian, heritage genetics are something of a fascination for me. As a couple of the other reviewers have noted, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in heritage breeds, particularly in light of the farm-to-table movement and sustainable agriculture, which is highly encouraging. Animals with unique characteristics which appeal to individuals with different goals and tastes encourages more small-scale production, as opposed to the limited opportunities of raising commercial improved livestock strains.

The content sacrifices depth for breadth, but it's a good introduction and general information for novice to intermediate breeders, or for someone who wants to learn what's involved. It provides a good overview of both the unique challenges heritage breeders face in a commercial-dominated industry, and a description of the major heritage breeds in the US. It touches on both the breeds of livestock, as well as the practical aspects of management, including how heritage breeds feature into modern farming operations, the "art and science of breeding," and the community involved in the heritage movement. Each of the nine chapters, or at least the broad categories, could (and does) have a book on its own, but it provides some essential basic information for the novice, including which species is right and how to get started. If you're looking for information about animal care and management, however, you will really need to look elsewhere. It would be difficult indeed to include even a general overview of care when so many species are included; as such, there are just some general comments in this book, geared toward the unique aspects of heritage breed management.

My one difficulty was that the arrangement is somewhat haphazard; better organization would make it more accessible. Some of the information is also rather general, but it's definitely intended for a non-specialist. I would definitely recommend it for youth or for persons interested in what is involved in getting started in, especially, small-scale livestock production, geared toward an urban or suburban environment.

The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood?and America?Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Review Date: 9/13/2022

How the hell did we ever make it out of the twentieth century?

This curious book tells the dual story of the atomic bomb, in admittedly abbreviated fashion, juxtaposed with the account of a motion picture production recounting its deployment, and all the fateful vicissitudes involved in bringing a project of that magnitude to fruition. In short: when something of this magnitude emerged, (nearly) everyone and their brother wanted in on the action.

The title of this book, taken from the film, was inspired by a statement made by Truman himself: when meeting with film executives, he reportedly stated, "make your film, gentlemen, and tell the world that in handling the atomic bomb we are either at the beginning or the end," to which the movie executive replied, Sam Marx, "Mr. President, you have just chosen the title of our film."

Most readers will be at least somewhat acquainted with the controversy which ensued over the use of a weapon of this type, one with which, at least when entertainment denizens were bantering about the project, the public was little familiar, and, of those who were, few grasped the full weight of the implications of its development. The scientists, however, were among those who did understand what had just occurred, and many, their role in ushering in a new reality for a world just emerging from one of the most devastating conflicts in history. One even reportedly stated, "this bomb fulfills the third prophesy of the Old Testament... I hope your motion picture can work to avert such suicide. You had better hurry."

Nor were the religious implications, also reflected in the music of the day (check out the series "Atomic Platters"), lost on those involved with its development, if not necessarily its deployment. The book recounts the episode involving a Senator from Connecticut Brien McMahon, who had been informed that Archbishop Francis Spellman who had learned of the Manhattan Project from Roosevelt himself also flew to Tinian Island to bless the bomber crews after the destruction of Hiroshima. He reportedly stated to McMahon that his church opposed the use of a weapon essentially designed to kill innocent civilians, but in a time of war, any weapon that could end the war should be employed to bring a quick end to it. Clearly, the development of such a weapon, was going to cause some controversy.

But how to bring this new technology and the issues it raised to the uneducated masses... and sway public opinion about its use? The scientists seemingly embraced the motion picture project, at least at the outset, acknowledging that movies rather than books and newspapers were fast becoming the primary tool of mass communication (shortly to be supplanted by "television," which entered popular usage in the 1950s). The military was less than enthusiastic, concerned with national security to a greater degree than some other interests, but had to at least acquiesce when the project seemingly earned the approval of newly-installed President Truman.

Some of the book's more profound statements reflect a presciently accurate assessment of modern times, and how quickly mentalities changed. Barron reportedly stated: "it is our belief that only for solid entertainment does the world sit in theaters and listen. They go to school for education and to churches for sermons. We want them to come into theaters and be entertained." But sermons and "education," or re-education, tailored specifically to sway public opinion in wolf-in-sheep's-clothing garb wrapped as entertainment, would shortly become the norm. Films could become quite political, indeed, and leaders capitalized on their potential in short order. Barron's mentality would very shortly fade into history when both movie executives and politicians realized the full potential of the "entertainment" industry to communicate messages to the masses disguised as something else. The 1940s were still a time of great naivety in this regard, but that didn't last long.

To that end: the stories of how some movies get made (or not) are worthy of movies themselves. Projects of this magnitude, scale, and, in some cases, importance, just seem to take on a life of their own, especially when powerful entities attempt to showcase their aims and not infrequently, political aspirations, writ large on the silver screen. This is the story of an ambitious project which ultimately pitted competing interests against each other, which were simply a continuation of what had occurred with the bomb's development itself. That said, it finally ended up as something with promise unfulfilled. One of the major impediments was the efforts of filmmakers to get as many authentic characters involved as possible: Groves, Oppenheimer and some of the other scientists as technical advisers, and even the wife of Tibbets, the airman who piloted the Enola Gay to deliver its payload over the densely populated city of Hiroshima... but how many cooks does it actually take to spoil the broth? The answer? This many.

And then there were the Tinseltown types: this ambitious project, which started out with great promise, just kind of fizzled, ultimately becoming something that just really didn't work. It was a purely Hollywood production: the best example is the statement of one of the players, that in order to be successful, even a movie about the dropping of an atomic bomb and the incineration of hundreds of thousands of human beings wasn't spared from trope, specifically that "everybody knows you have to have sex in there somewhere," so the writers had to concoct some love story element to a story about ... dropping the atomic bomb and the possibility of the destruction of civilization ... ? Yep, it's in there: one even quipped on the difficulty in trying "to figure out a formula for mixing uranium and plutonium with stardust and moonlight." Oy vey.

The book itself is something of an odd mixture of elements. It attempts to combine the stories of the development of the bomb, the major characters involved, and the odd bedfellows involved in this motion picture project, ranging from some of the bomb designers to Hollywood icons to Ayn Rand. It's informative, but rather disjointed, and is somewhat dry at times. The jumping from topic to topic, even within the same chapter, often disrupts the flow. A chronological organization might have been more effective; it would allow readers to know who the players were, what role they had played in the development of the bomb and its deployment, and ultimately, their involvement on the movie project.

With the advent of a technology which would end civilization, if not just yet wipe out all life on earth, the world had become a much smaller place, seemingly overnight. Delphic, indeed. Whether we like to admit it or not, we live in the future World The Bomb Made, to a much greater degree than most are presently aware.

Between Good and Evil : A Master Profiler's Hunt for Society's Most Violent Predators
Review Date: 5/16/2023

After the kill, there is the feast.
And toward the end, when the dancing subsides
and the young have sneaked off somewhere,
the hounds, drunk on the blood of the hares,
begin to talk of how soft
were their pelts, how graceful their leaps,
how lovely their scared, gentle eyes.

This unsettling poem sets the tone for much of this book, which is essentially the autobiography of one of the founding members of the famous FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. I've read a few of these books in recent years, having inherited them among a collection of books given to me by a colleague who was moving overseas. This wasn't one of my favorites, as it admittedly focused more on the individual than the material, but it was still a worthwhile, if disturbing read.

A former marine, the author kind of went the long way 'round in getting to the FBI, having been in law enforcement previously, albeit in a rather small town. What I think I appreciated most was his candor in revealing his private thoughts about the subject matter, which, without rehashing or sensationalizing the cases, are some of the most horrific imaginable. It also describes how someone can deal with the absolute worst of humanity, and still make it through the day. I was still kind of irked by the focus on the perpetrators, my greatest criticism of books of this type, rather than their victims, whose courage and strength, even in their final moments, is what should be remembered, their lives celebrated, rather than those of the twisted freaks who prematurely ended them.

The twist in this book is the author's later career (calling), specifically a stint in seminary after the untimely death of his first wife from cancer, which is a unique take on how someone can cope with the depths of evil and travesty. Overall, as above, this wasn't one of the most detailed "profiler" books, but it's an interesting foray into a fascinating life, one rich with experiences, even the dark and tragic ones.
"look at the facts, gather absolutely as much information as was available, digest it all and then apply what he called the law of probability. In other words, the operate question should not be what MIGHT have happened, or what possibly COULD have happened? Instead, it should be In all likelihood, what PROBABLY happened?

The Big Book of New York Ghost Stories
The Big Book of New York Ghost Stories
Author: Cheri Revai
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
Review Date: 5/17/2023

Big is right! This exhaustive collection of stories, histories and documented accounts of hauntings throughout the Empire state will keep you busy for some time to come, if you're into ghost hunting or visiting the sites of well-known incidents, some of which are apparently still occurring on a regular basis. The author's extensive knowledge of her home state also helps, as the book also provides very informative and engaging local histories of the places in question, some of them quite tragic, which is an unusual bonus for books of this type, which mostly just focus on the paranormal occurrences.

This book was conceived from a reported 130 or so files and cases in the author's vast collection, so the variety is ample. Some of the locales are well known, such as the Vanderbilt mausoleum, New York University's Washington Square Park, where the graves of untold numbers - but possibly in excess of twenty thousand - of Yellow Fever epidemic victims lie, and famous haunted houses, but many more sites are known only to locals. It's an eclectic mix of travel book, local guidebook and ghost hunting guide, which keeps it interesting and engaging. It's also arranged conveniently according to area or region, so you can just focus on those areas you're planning to visit if you're short on time.

This is a fun read even if you're not planning to visit New York any time soon, but it would be indispensable for anyone who is planning a trip there, especially if you're fascinated with the paranormal.

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