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Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The: A Novel (P.S.)
Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The: A Novel (P.S.)
by Ron Hansen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.18
155 used & new from $0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting focus but needs better pacing, August 21, 2016
As the title suggests, this work of historical fiction has a distinctive take on the Jesse James story, giving his killer Bob Ford his own voice and story. I liked this approach a lot.

Moreover, Hansen is a very talented writer. Pick a page at random and you’ll find some well-crafted gems - a turn of phrase, a distinctive word choice, a delightful sentence. He also manages to write in the oft-overwrought style of antebellum orators and journalists.

Step back from the page, however, and I begin to object. The book has an unremittingly languid pace that becomes tedious and outright boring. Much of the book consists of the James gang hanging out together in town or at home. That’s an interesting decision, and it certainly reflects how these people spent most of their time in real life. Hansen describes many simple details of the setting, people, or happenings, often in novel and interesting ways.

For hundreds of pages, this approach drags. The book cries for variation in pacing. The simple way to do this would be to speed up the action scenes like robberies, but I’m sure Hansen would have more interesting ideas than I do.


Speaking of Indians
Speaking of Indians
by Vine Deloria
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.50
51 used & new from $5.18

5.0 out of 5 stars A classic work that holds up today, July 9, 2016
This review is from: Speaking of Indians (Paperback)
This is a classic work that has aged remarkably well. Deloria begins by talking about American Indian cultures in general before moving to the Dakota, mostly the Teton Dakota. She describes traditional life, both material culture and spiritual life. She emphasizes the fictive kinship system as a core organizing principle that has persisted through the reservation period. Her praise of Christian missionaries is a bit jarring in terms of what we now know about Indian schools, but it seems authentic coming from a member of her family. Her nephew, Vine Deloria, Jr., wrote an introduction for this edition that addresses Christianity in terms of their family traditions and his own later beliefs (see _God is Red_).

Deloria’s approach reflects her mentor, anthropologist Franz Boaz, and the concerns of 1944. For example, she describes the lives of Indians in the armed forces or who moved to the cities to work in defense industries. Her speculations on how their return will affect Dakota society hold up fairly well.

Her writing style is lively, and the book is concise at about 150 pages. A classic book that is still worth reading today.


The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground (The Penguin Library of American Indian History)
The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground (The Penguin Library of American Indian History)
by Jeffrey Ostler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.99
66 used & new from $2.38

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A concise retelling of a familiar stories, July 6, 2016
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There are many books on the Lakota nation and the Black Hills, especially if we include books on General George Custer that necessarily include these stories. However, many of them sprawl across wider topics – like those Custer books. Many others view the stories from the standpoint of westward expansion or fail to bring the story up to the present.

In contrast, Ostler does his best to view these events from the Lakota perspective. He also stays (mostly) focused on the Black Hills, and he does take the story to 2010. He’s particularly strong on the legal claim that ended with the Supreme Court finding that the U.S. had illegally seized the Black Hills, and that the Lakota had a right to monetary compensation.

All those features make this book a good introduction if you don’t know about the Lakota and the Black Hills, and a quick reintroduction for those of you who have heard these stories before.


The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Issues of Our Time)
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Issues of Our Time)
by Louis Menand
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.09
71 used & new from $0.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Generalists and specialists in the American university, June 15, 2016
This collection of essays provides an eclectic history of the American university, build around four themes. Menand focuses on general education, changes in the humanities, interdiscipinarity, and why professors all seem to think alike. These connect to each other, and help him unpack several features of the American university. For example, general education raises questions of professional schools, pre-professional undergraduate majors, and the liberal arts. Changes in the humanities reflect the focus on research in the Cold War university and shifting professorial identities from college to discipline, as well as being influenced by student and faculty demographics. However, those themes are less well integrated than they might be. This is less an argument than a group of essays.

Beneath all of these issues lies the academic discipline. The disciplinary community and its narrow specialists fight general education, oppose interdisciplinarity, and reinforce a homogeneity of political views. Menand would probably have a more effective overall argument, and a stronger conclusion, if he’d confronted the discipline head on.

That said, Menand has written a lively (and brief!) history of the changing American university. It occasionally provokes, and is worth reading for everyone interested in the university as an institution. It is probably worth about 4.5 stars, but I rounded up as a reward for brevity.


Here's Looking at Euclid: From Counting Ants to Games of Chance - An Awe-Inspiring Journey Through the World of Numbers
Here's Looking at Euclid: From Counting Ants to Games of Chance - An Awe-Inspiring Journey Through the World of Numbers
by Alex Bellos
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.45
105 used & new from $3.73

4.0 out of 5 stars A fun book about numbers, June 10, 2016
Bellos starts with an Amazonian people with few numbers but lots of things to count, and ends with modern number theory having far more numbers than the universe has things to count. It’s a very nice framing for a book on math in general, and numbers in particular. He’s a good explainer, and the book is a fun read.


Fools Crow (Penguin Classics)
Fools Crow (Penguin Classics)
by James Welch
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.62
89 used & new from $3.74

5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable guide into traditional Blackfoot culture, June 3, 2016
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From the first page, this novel slides you into the life and world-view of the Blackfoot tribe. Welch uses words like blackhorns or wags-his-tail for wildlife, names such as the Seven Persons for constellations, and the Blackfoot names for places like the Big River or peoples such as the Parted Hair People. In less-capable hands, this would be confusing. However, Welch has a perfect sense for how to use this shift in language to bring modern American readers into the Blackfoot world.

Welch also treats the spirit world, visions, and medicine in a perfectly natural and believable way. Some “supernatural” events defy explanation for moderns, but others have naturalistic interpretations. The overall effect is most similar to magical realism in Latin American fiction, where the supernatural fits seamlessly into a realistic story.

The protagonist, Fools Crow, undergoes several transformations in the novel. These are both personal and “political,” and part of a crescendo of events for his Pikuni band. If you know Blackfoot history, you already know where these events are leading; if not, I will let Welch guide you. And yet the book ends on a hopeful note after these dark events, a clear sense of how Welch makes sense of his people’s history today.

It’s an extraordinary novel, highly recommended for all audiences.


H Is for Hawk
H Is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.40
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Grief and falconry, June 2, 2016
This review is from: H Is for Hawk (Paperback)
This beautifully written book explores the English countryside, the history of falconry and austringing, and the life of T. H. White, among other topics. It also serves as a memoir for a difficult time in the author’s life, as she pulled away from human relationships after the death of her father. Fascinating at times, exasperating at others, it’s well worth a read.

Falconry books tend to reveal a more intimate portrait of the human most other genres, and this one is no exception. The book jacket makes much of how falconry helps Macdonald deal with the grief of losing her father. She decided to work with a goshawk, the most challenging of birds.

However, that’s incomplete. We gradually learn that Macdonald has more damage than just that loss, and that her relationships with her birds are more complex than the book jacket suggests. So, while you may learn quite a bit about flying hawks, you’ll also learn quite a bit about Helen Macdonald. After all, H is also for Helen.

Macdonald’s book often engages in dialogue with The Goshawk by T. H. White, an author best known for The Once and Future King. Macdonald reviews White’s demons, and how falconry fit into his troubled life. One can’t help but speculate about aspects of Macdonald’s life that she keeps a curtain drawn round. Despite moving to recovery through friends, family, and therapy, she seems to remain a loner.


Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History
by Don Yaeger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.59
324 used & new from $3.24

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, readable popular history but with errors of fact and interpretation, May 22, 2016
This is a fast-paced review of the first war the United States fought after independence. As the title notes, it’s a “forgotten” war. The war also “changed American history,” but so does everything else.

Unfortunately, the book is less compelling than its predecessor (“Washington’s Secret Six”). One reason, which the authors note, is that they know less about these events. Kilmeade has had a long fascination with Washington’s spies, but only recently discovered the Barbary wars. It shows. The writing is less confident, and they seem less comfortable telling this story. Inaccuracies, documented in some of the other reviews at Amazon, are one result. Interpretations that are, say, “disputed,” are another result.

Kilmeade and Yaeger also want to add some unnecessary political implications to the story. Especially in the first few dozen pages, they want to make this a story with parallels to Islamic terrorism today. One cheap shot is that they frequently use the wrong adjective for these states. The adjective for these states should be “Barbary” or “Berber,” not “Barbarian.”

A more substantive point is that they want to show that the Koran justifies piracy against Christians and enslaving people. There is no pretense at consistency, however. For example, they criticize Islam because the Barbary states used a religious justification for slavery, forgetting that half of the United States was using the Christian Bible to justify slavery at the same time. The United States was also still involved in the Atlantic slave trade during the Barbary Wars, though ending that trade was only a few years away.

In short, caveat lector. If you know little about the war, you’ll learn quite a bit and enjoy the journey. But remember that Kilmeade and Yaeger are not experts on the war, and they have a political agenda as well.


Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality
Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality
by Elizabeth A. Armstrong
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.70
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How parties trash college, May 19, 2016
This book shows how a large four-year public university in the Midwest fails to support the hard-working students seeking upward mobility. The research team embedded themselves on a women’s floor of a first-year dormitory, and observed how students pursued different pathways in college. These included a party pathway, a professional pathway, and a mobility pathway for upwardly-striving students from less-privileged backgrounds. The most depressing part of their findings is the way that other students subsidize the privileged students who spend college partying.

Living in a dorm made it possible for Armstrong and Hamilton to see the academic costs of the university’s social life. The first effect, which comes as no surprise, is the poor academic performance of the party crowd. The more troubling effect is how this damages everyone else. Working-class strivers cannot afford the cost of joining the party crowd, and generally don’t have the time to party hard because they are working their way through college. This isolates them socially and contributes to depression and other mental health challenges. Sad to say, the strivers who left this flagship university for a less-privileged regional university ended up doing better both academically and professionally.

The university supports the party crowd in ways both obvious and subtle. For example, the math department rescheduled a test in a large freshman class because it conflicted with rush activities. Apparently rescheduling rush was not an option. More subtly, heavy policing of alcohol in dorms pushes drinking into the fraternities, especially for underage students. Another disturbing finding is that when the university offers “alternative” dorms or living-learning communities around themes, it ends up making the other dorms much more homogenous - white partiers of the upper-middle and upper-classes.

Though the book provides great insight into the modern residential college experience, it has its limitations. Because the researchers were embedded in a party dorm, they have little to say about the professional pathway – the serious students who have the resources and abilities to pursue highly-competitive goals such as medicine, law, or engineering.

The team also overemphasizes class. Geographical differences get conflated with class similarities, so that (for example) the urban working class and rural working class, or small-town professionals and urban professionals, get lumped together. Hints from the book suggest that this is more important than they make it seem. The authors also tends to conflate religiosity with class. They did not seem to have access to the Christian bible study group, and they tended to group Jews with the category “out-of-state.” There seems to be some geography here – women from small towns were more likely to be evangelicals – but we don’t learn much about how non-class socialization works.

That said, this is an important book for anyone who wants to understand the modern major public university.


Trespassing Across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland
Trespassing Across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland
by Ken Ilgunas
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.70
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cows, dogs, and Christians, May 14, 2016
To publicize the environmental costs of the Keystone XL pipeline, Ken Ilgunas decided to walk the length of its proposed route from the Alberta tar sands to Houston. Think about that for a minute - an environmentalist decided to walk through some of the continent’s most politically-conservative regions and argue against a project that would cost some people in those regions their jobs. We’ll come back to that.

Ilgunas writes very well, and the book is a pleasure to read. His various adventures move the story along. He’s afraid of aggressive cows, and he never really figures out how to defend himself properly. He also has some scary encounters with dogs - especially in Kansas and Oklahoma, for whatever reasons.

You’ll learn about the landscapes and peoples of the Great Plains, the overlooked heart of the continent. You’ll meet kind people, living in communities both charming and falling apart. You’ll see some police harass Ilgunas for being different, while others help him on his way. With Ilgunas, you’ll wonder what a black man attempting the same journey would experience.

It takes too long, but you’ll also see Ilgunas slowly realize that he has something to learn from the people of the plains. Remember that he thought he would be teaching them about the environment. He quickly moves away from confronting them on the Keystone XL, and starts to listen to them. Even so, he never considers changing his mind, though he hopes to change theirs.

Ilgunas also begins with a distrust of Christians, based on the political positions of conservative evangelicals. While walking through their land, he learns that they are kind to strangers. He also finds that their political landscape includes people who live the social gospel, a stance that resonates well with his own liberal politics.

I’d like to see him reflect more on his personal growth here, as he does in “Walden on Wheels.” Still, this American story is well worth reading.


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