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The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush
The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush
by Howard Blum
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Exciting account of the last gasp of the American West (in Canada), April 11, 2011
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Howard Blum's "The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the American West and the Yukon Gold Rush" is a rivetting account the Yukon gold rush in the final years of the 19th century. Blum constructs his tale around the intertwined lives of three men: George Carmack, a rather romantically inclined deserter from the US Marines who had "gone native" before making one of the key discoveries that set off the Yukon gold rush; Charles Siringo, the famed Pinkerton Agency "cowboy detective"; and Jeff "Soapy" Smith, con man and gambler (although Smith once argued that the way he ran his gambling establishment, there was no real gambling involved -- every bettor was a sure loser.

Blum admits that his reconstruction of events rests on less than solid bedrock -- the first-hand accounts he used probably all contained some elements of tall tales -- but what a reconstruction it is! The result is a real page-turner that is rich with details and atmosphere. The old American West had not died -- it just took a little side trip to the Rockies of Western Canada, where bbom and bust mining camps and a near absense of law guaranteed a steady diet of violence and deception.

The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington
The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington
by Paul Douglas Lockhart
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.03
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4.0 out of 5 stars The first major battle and the first armies of the American Revolution, April 10, 2011
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Paul Lockhart's "The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington" is a thorough history of the Battle of Bunker Hill, near Boston, in June of 1775. Although fighting had occured earlier at Lexington and Concord, it was this fight at Bunker Hill (or, rather, nearby Breed's Hill) that made a full miitary confrontation between Britain and her American colonies inevitable -- there was simply no more room for negotiation and compromise.

The battle -- not large in comparison to others later in the war -- was quite bloody, and it demonstrated the flaws of both contending armies. The Americans of course well ill-equipped and poorly trained, almost without any military discipline, while the British were well-equipped and well-supplied and well-drilled, but with almost no recent practical battlefield experience, leading it to perform far below its commanders' expectations.

In general, Lockhart is carefull to correct the old. popular myths -- such as the Americans being naturally good marksmen and the British commanders merely indolent dolts (in fact, Lockhart is openly sympathetic Gage, the overall British commander, who faced truly insurmountable obstacles). Perhaps Lockhart's central hero is the little-known Artemus Ward, the Massachusetts militia officer who commanded the ragtag american force (basically an ad hoc gathering of New England militia) -- surely no inspirational, dashing military figure, but a cautious organizer who, dspite the odds, built just enough of an army to keep the British pinned down while events unfolded. As Lockart puts it, "The army that fought at Bunker Hill kept the Cause alive until America could decide just what the Cause was, and precisely what it was that they were fighting for." It was not much of an army, but it provided a foundation upon which George Washington, arriving shortly after Bunker Hill, was able to construct a more formidable instrument of war, one eventually able to take on and defeat the far more capable British Army that emerged with more combat experience.

Bullet Work
Bullet Work
by Steve O'Brien
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.95
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4.0 out of 5 stars Solid racetrack thriller, April 2, 2011
This review is from: Bullet Work (Paperback)
I claim no paticular knowlege about horseracing, but "Bullet Work" certainly seems to carry a strong air of authenticity. This is not the world of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, but rather small-time racing where everyone -- owners and trainers and jockeys and betters -- live on the edge, always one win away from solvency or or onr loss from ruin.

The mystery elements are competently done -- there is an extortion plot, but it is not immediately clear who is behind it-- and a nice touch is that the secondary characters are more complex than often happens in mystery novels. Sometimes they turn out to be better or worse than they appear to be on the surface.

The Akhenaten Colossi of Karnak
The Akhenaten Colossi of Karnak
by Lise Manniche
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $29.95
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable statues of a remarkable pharaoh, from every angle, March 17, 2011
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Early in the 20th century, archaeologists began finding at Karnak (Luxor) remnants of colossal statues of the "heretic" pharaoh Akhenaten, evidently erected early in his reign and subsequently dismantled. At one time, it was fashionable to contend that these giant statues (there are more than 30 known, although an exact count is impossible, given their condition) had been destroyed in a spasm of of counter-revolution following the death of Akhenaten, but Lise Manniche presents a persuasive picture that the statues, for the most part, were dismantled with considerable care (although the is a subset of the statues that do show deliberate mutilation that appears to reflect real animosity).

These Akhenaten Colossi at Karnak are among the most recognizable pieces in ancient Egyptian art with their huge elongated gaunt faces, fuoll lips, narrow eyes, and -- where preserved -- oddly swollen bodies. These statues originally produced strong feelings of revulsion among students of ancient Egypt, but others of us find them movingly powerful and hauntigly beautiful. Manniche explores the vexed question whether these statues were an effort to portray a physical reality (and, if so, what medical pathology could explain such an appearance?) or whether the statues were the product of a deliberate evolution in artistic style (something more intellectually accessible to a 20th century audience than perhaps to people in 14th century BCE Egypt.

Photographs (or at least sketches) of every known statue or fragment are presented in the book and they are catalogued in a logical fashion that greatly aids the comprehension of the project. A theme to which the author frequently returns -- but of course for which is unable to provide a final answer -- is why one subset of these statues (basically, those showing the head weaing the Double Crown of Egypt without nemes or khat headdress) were subjected to a very evidently non-random mutilation invoving smashing of the nose, mouth, chin, and eyes (while such a mutilation pattern is virtually absent from all the other statues). Manniche discusses the possibility that these mutilated statues were intended to represent Nefertiti rather than Akhenaten himself and that something in her later life (she may have become co-pharaoh, an elevation distasteful to some traditionalists) called forth such vehement violence.

All in all, Akhenaten Colossi at Karnak makes a real contribution to better understanding of the world of the "heretic" pharaoh Akhenaten.

The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 - April 2004
The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 - April 2004
by Major Douglas A. Pryer
Edition: Paperback
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Becaue it is the right thing to do, March 14, 2011
Major Douglas A. Pryer is an active duty U.S. Army military intelligence officer with extensive "real world" professional experience, not merely some sheltered academic professor or noisy journalist whose writings can be dismissed as overly idealistic and impractical. Thus, when he argues in "Taking the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom May 2003 - April 2004" that the application of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (the popular clinical euphemism for prisoner treatment at least bordering on outright torture) was a serious error in violation of our deepest held traditions as well as being against good professional intelligence practice, we owe it to ourselves to listen carefully to what he has to say.

Pryer's book originated as a Masters thesis for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College; as such, it is a work by a military intelligence professional aimed primarily at other military professionals. But it is a work also to be read and taken to heart by a wider audience who wishes to understand what went wrong (and what sometimes went right) during those months after the quick conquest of the Iraqi conventional forces. At times, the alphabet soup of Armyspeak acronyms can be something of a barrier to the nonmilitary reader, but there is nothing that cannot be overcome by diligence and occasional reference to the appended Glossary.

"Taking the High Ground" is a slender but deep-delving organizational history, not a dramatic firsthand personal account of military action (although Pryer's experiences as an Assistant MI Battalion Operations Officer and as an MI Company commander during OFI I certainly illuminate many portions of his analysis).

The author concludes that that the abuse of Iraqi detainees was a byproduct of the lack of adequate resources and a shortage of trained, experienced personnel and 0f poor preparation beforehand together with a failure at various points of ethical leadership; nonetheless, such abuse tended to be the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part, U.S. interrogators performed in a professionally and ethically acceptable manner. Pryer also asses the changes made since OFI I in U.S. Army organizational structure to better address in the future the observed shortcomings, and he points out where additional improvements would still be beneficial.

The "high ground" of the title is moral and ethical in nature - that mode of behavior towards which we should strive because it is the right thing to do. Pryer extends the metaphor powerfully in his concluding chapter, arguing that during "OFI I, there were two `cities,' or schools of thought, on the use of harsh interrogation methods. One of these cities was dark and subterranean, lying concealed as it were beneath the classification caveats of `TOP SECRET' or `SECRET NOFORN.' Those who dwelt in this city believed that the `ends justify the means,' that is, if the end were noble enough, then they were obliged to extend the limits of what was legally permissible in order to achieve this end ... During OFI I, the citizens of this `city' occupied the highest levels of command." But Pryer also points to a second `city' that ultimately prevailed and limited the damage inflicted by adherents of that first subterranean world: "... the ends-justify-the-means mentality of one school of thought never represented the vantage point of most school-trained interrogators in Iraq. Instead most of these interrogators resided morally within the `city upon the hill,' a city that had been first envisioned by John Winthrop in 1630 and then, more than a century later, given a firm foundation by America's Founding Fathers. ... American soldiers belong in this city upon the hill."

It is refreshing to read a book that is so profoundly grounded in the belief that there are higher standards to which we should hold ourselves without being 21st century refugees from an old Jimmy Stewart movie.
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The Rogue Republic: How Would-Be Patriots Waged the Shortest Revolution in American History
The Rogue Republic: How Would-Be Patriots Waged the Shortest Revolution in American History
by William C. Davis
Edition: Hardcover
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Revolution on the early American frontier, March 7, 2011
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When the U.S. purchase the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, one of the technicalities left unresolved was the status of "West F;orida", that strip of land along the Gulf Coast running from Pensacola westward to Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River. France averred (and the US accepted) that West Florida was part of the purchased territory, but Spain disagreed, contending that West Florida remained a Spanish colony unaffected by the French sale. Although offically the U.S. held that West Florida was now American territory, on a practical basis the American Government made no effort to interfere with the Spanish status quo, not wishing to possibly provoke a war with Spain. With Baton Rouge and neighboring country in Spanish hands, this greatly limited the utility of the Mississippi River to American interests, despite the American ownership of New Orleans; the great river was not free for unhindered commerce, Moreover, Spanish possession of Mobile, further east in West Florida, largely blocked easy access to American territory in the South east of the Mississippi River.

West Florida in the early 19th century was a blend of cultures, partly French and partly Spanish, with a large part of the population -- especially in the western portion near the Mississippi -- American in origin, plus a considerable number of tories who had fled the US after the American Revolution,

In 1804 came a brief, abortive revolt on the part of some American settlers near Baton Rouge, fueled more by personal grievances and ambitions than high ideological concerns. The revolt quickly subsided, but six years later in 1810, with covert backing from the U.S. Government, a more substantial revolution broke out in the western part of West Florida, resulting in the very short-lived Republic of West Florida (which very quickly was taken under American protection, the U.S. Government contending that the territory had legally belonged to the U.S. already since the Louisian Purchase), although the more eastern parts of the Spanish colony (including Mobile and Pensacola) for the time being remained under Spanish dominance (a matter rectified a few years later as part of the larger events of the War of 1812).

William C. Davis has constucted a complex narrative of these obscure events based upon wide research, cfocuing his story in particular upon the person of Reuben Kemper, an American trader who was at the heart of the 1804 rebellion and later supported the 1810 revolt; in later years, Kemper became a friend of Andrew Jackson and a business associate of Jim Bowie.

In some ways, the 1810 West Florida revolt was a template for the later Texas Rebellion and even the American Civil War. It is a little-known story, now given due recognition by a distinguished historian. I do wish, however, that better maps were provided to make following the series of events easier.

The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union
The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union
by John Lockwood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.95
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well--told account of a neglected crisis point of the Civil War, March 5, 2011
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After the formation of the Confederacy in 1861, and especially after Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, it was widely assumed in both the North and in the South that the Confederacy would quickly move to capture Washington, D.C., and the leaders of the Federal Government. Of course, we now know that this did not happen, but at the time it seemed a real possibility, given the almost nonexistent defenses of the Federal capital until significant Union volunteer forces could come to the city's rescue. The story of this critical period has now been told in "The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days That Shook the Union" by John and Christopher Lockwood. John Lockwood is the NPS National Mall Historian and his brother Christopher is an architectural historian.

Although any student of the Civil War knows at least the broad outline of the story, "The Siege of Washington" nonetheless provides nail-biting suspense as it follows the faltering progress of Union relief forces and the obstacles imposed by Maryland secessionists. For a time, with railroad bridges burned and telegraph lines cut, Washington was virtually isolated from the North, seemingly ready to fall into Confederate hands.

Although in hindsight, a quick Confederate capture of Washington and the Federal leadership appears to be a missed opportunity and there were widespread rumors at the time that this was Jeff Davis's intent, at that moment the infant Confederate Government hesitated to take such drastic direct action, although undoubtedly would have been delighted if "unofficial" secessionist forces in Virginia and Maryland have undertaken the operation themselves.

"The Siege of Washington" is a worthy additional to the long, long shelves of Civil War histories.

The Ballad of Bob Dylan
The Ballad of Bob Dylan
by Daniel Mark Epstein
Edition: Paperback
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating portrait of the man and his music, March 4, 2011
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Daniel Mark Epstein was a young folk singer in the early 1960s when the enigmatic new artist Bob Dylan burst forth. Epstein has closely followed Dylan's long, varied career ever since.

Epstein anchors his account with detailed pictures of four Dylan concerts he has attended in 1963, 1974, 1997, and 2009. I am in no way a musician, so some of Epstein's comments regarding such technical matters as key changes and such largely escape me, but in no way did this lessen my enjoyment and appreciation of the book. The author amply demonstrates that Dylan is not only a poet but a formidable musician as well, a man much more centered on the stage than in the studio.

Epstein's book is not hagiography, but neither is it a mud-raking exercise in celebrity biography. Instead, it is a serious, thoughtful analysis of an artist who very much reflected (and formed) his times. Dylan is a very privated man, and some aspects of his personality remain elusive even after five decades in the public eye. Epstein has interviewed numerous associates of the singer, however, to illuminate Dylan's professional and private lives.

I have to run now, and listen to Dylan's early albums again, when such songs as "Blowin' in the Wind", "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", and "Times They Are A-Changing" remade the soul of America.

Turn and Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart
Turn and Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart
by Howard Mansfield
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars Gentle, meandering trip through time, March 2, 2011
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In "Turn & Jump" we are treated to a gently meandering exploration of time as measured by clocks, both literal and metaphorical. Actual clocks have not long been a feature of everyday life, and even after mechanical timepieces became common, time contiued -- and continues -- to be measured in other ways, time as related to individual lives and seasons and buildings and institutions.

The author draws inspiration for his meditations on time mostly from places and events near his New Hampshire home. I am a New Englander by birth, upbringing, and residence, and am old enough to remember life in a stereotypical small town, so much of what is in this books are things I can readily relate to on a personal basis.

The title "Turn & Jump" derives from the measure of time imposed by the institution of vaudeville, where performers took a "turn" or two one evening on stage and then would travel overnight ("jump") to the next vaudeville venue.

The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization
The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization
by Jim Lacey
Edition: Hardcover
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Lively Study of a Crucial Ancient Battle, February 5, 2011
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In "The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory of Marathon - And Its Impact on Western Civilization" Jim Lacey presents the 490 BC Battle of Marathon as a military milestone and cultural touchstone of world history. To quote the author: "Victor Davis Hanson ... has theorized that the Western way of war has been far superior to the war-making ethos of any other culture and society for the last twenty-five hundred years and marks the Battle of Marathon as the first example of that superiority. ... When I first read Hanson's writings on the topic, I was not entirely convinced. ... However, after years of reflection on the matter, I have become a convert and now stand in the minority of historians who find themselves in general if not complete agreement with Hanson."

Lacey brings a powerful combination of qualifications to the study. He is a former active duty infantry officer, with intimate practical knowledge of such diverse matters as logistics, field sanitation, and the physical conditioning of troops, and a professor of military history, with the scholastic expertise to delve into ancient primary sources.

Most of "The First Clash" is devoted to the development of the Persian Empire and the city-states of Classical Greece, along with examinations of the contrasting Persian and Greek methods of waging war, including an exploration and defense of Victor Davis Hanson's controversial theories of the `Western way of war' (a central characteristic of which is the aggressive pursuit of decisive battle). Only a single chapter is dedicated to a reconstruction of the Battle of Marathon itself between an Athenian hoplite army and the massive Persian invasion expedition (primary sources are quite sparse), along with another chapter placing Lacey's reconstruction within the history of the `great debates' traditionally associated with Marathon.

Lacey's writing style is fast-paced and lively, and he illuminates this study of ancient warriors with anecdotes from his own days of modern military service. Altogether, "The First Clash" is miles removed from stereotypically dry volumes of ancient history.

In the end, that author depicts the Battle of Marathon as not at all being a miracle, but rather the outcome of what a well-trained, veteran, professional military with intelligent leadership could accomplish in the face of superficially daunting odds. Although the Battle of Themopylae a decade later has largely displaced Marathon in the popular imagination, Carey reveals Marathon as a true foundation stone for the development and triumph of Western Civilization.

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