The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman
Every year, a startling number of people go missing in the U.S. wilderness never to be heard from again. Jon Billman spotlights a large number of these cases and showcases inept government bureaucracies that often impede the searches they are trying to help facilitate. He also goes into a large number of possible causes for the lost people from natural possibilities (drowning and the body being washed down river) to criminal acts like serial killers or drug deals gone bad to bizarre conspiracy theories (bigfoot, UFOs). The sad truth is that these are unsolved cases and no one really knows what happened. It’s that not knowing what happens that makes this book so terribly depressing, but it’s still an interesting read.
A Speck in the Sea by John Aldridge and Anthony Sosinsky
This book gave me chills. John Aldridge, in a moment of carelessness, falls off a fishing boat in the middle of the night sixty or so miles off the coast of the U.S. in the Atlantic Ocean. By all rights, he should have drowned. The chances of finding him before he did drown—especially since it wasn’t noticed that he had fallen for several hours—brings the needle-in-a-haystack analogy to mind. But a combination of his own stubbornness and the hard work of the coastguard rescued him. It’s an amazing story.
In Alpha Order by Author
The History of Bourbon by Ken Albala
When I think of bourbon, I think of the Whiskey Rebellion—a major crisis in the administration of George Washington in which the federal government attempted to raise tax revenue by taxing whiskey. Washington raised an army and led it into western Pennsylvania only to find that the rebels had departed and gone to Kentucky to make start making bourbon.
Albala shows that bourbon has a much richer history than that, tracing it from its possible medieval roots through the colonial period, through its growing importance in the nineteenth century, Prohibition, World War and finally to its early 21st century boom. It’s a very quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The American West by Patrick N. Allitt
This Great Courses text on The American West remembers something many people forget when thinking about the past. The American West did not star with cowboys herding cattle in the mid 19th century. It began with the original British colonies as they moved inland from the coast and Allitt focuses on this moving boundary in the first three-quarters of his book. He charts wars, politics, changes in the economy and technology, discoveries like gold, the challenges of desert, plain and wilderness, the quest for religious freedom, and of course, the impact on the people already inhabiting those lands.
That was actually more of the history than I wanted. Anyone conversant with American history is already familiar with most of what Allitt talks about in this first section. Where the book really shines is when the author focuses thematically on issues like homesteading, or cattle ranching, or mining, or women, or the western myths that shape and remain in our society. It was this last idea that interested me the most and I would have been glad to see many more chapters devoted to it.
Ancient Civilizations of North America by Edwin Barnhart
Before reading this book, I had a pretty good idea of what life was like in North America before the coming of the Europeans, but Edwin Barnhart’s Great Courses book showed me that my image was a rough pencil sketch by comparison to the truth. In fact, Barnhart’s book often shocked me by making very vivid comparisons to the development of human life in other parts of the world at the same time. The country was more heavily populated than I had realized with many cultures demonstrating amazing architectural skills and astronomical learning. The trade networks were also far more expansive than I had realized.
The two things that stood out most strongly to me were Barnhart’s descriptions of complex hunter-gatherer societies on the west coast—a term I had not heard before that showed how truly bountiful territory can produce a very different and sustainable lifestyle. And DeSoto’s trek through the southern portion of North America, raping, pillaging, and murdering those who had greeted him with friendship so that he so destabilized that part of the continent so severely that the civilization he had plundered collapsed.
This is a fascinating set of lectures.
Lost Worlds of South America by Edwin Barnhardt
Edwin Barnhardt is Great Courses principal expert on the native peoples of North and South America, and in this volume he walks the reader through a primer on the ancient peoples of the far south—people who appear not to have crossed the Bering Land Bridge and who had to invent agriculture and everything else that comes with a civilization all on their own. They were isolated from the rest of the world and had no models to follow—not that that slowed them down. Barnhardt’s tour of these ancient peoples is absolutely fascinating and I quickly discovered that I knew almost nothing about them—especially pre-Columbus. It’s an extraordinary world that we’ve only scratched the surface of.
Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Edwin Barnhart
This is one of the best Great Courses books I have yet read. Edwin Barnhart offers forty-eight extremely lucid lectures on the history of Mesoamerica (roughly modern day Central America and Mexico). Part of what makes these lectures stand out is the effortless interweaving of the historiography that has revealed this history with the history of the region. You get the impression that unlike in Egypt where most of the great finds have probably been discovered, that we have barely scratched the surface of uncovering the remains of the great cities of the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs. Barnhart makes both the history and the uncovering of that history come to life.
If you are like me, and listen to audiobooks in the car or while taking
walks for exercise, you are probably going to want to listen to this series
more than once. The basic problem—no fault of the author’s—is that the place
names and the names of the majority of the rulers—were not familiar to me before
I started the course. That means that I was constantly checking maps a couple
of lectures behind where I was in the course. Next time through, I’ll be better
Coal Country by Jessica Blank
Blank offers us a concise and often painful look at a devastating coalmining disaster. The short book is filled with personal accounts of individuals involved in the crisis while using music to try and add a flavor of the culture of the miners. She succeeds in highlighting the very human elements and consequences of this disaster. Coalmining continues to be a dangerous occupation made more so when corporate leaders put profits over safety.
Edgar Allan Poe by Mark Canada
When I was in seventh grade, I recited Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart in a speech contest and I’ve had a soft place in my own heart for the author ever since. In high school and college I read a couple more of his stories and I’ve dabbled in his work in the decades since then. Yet, I didn’t know very much about the man himself until I stumbled on this excellent Great Courses book. Put simply, Poe was a mess, yet somehow out of the often-self-created disaster of his life, he transformed world literature creating the detective story and opening up the genre of horror fiction. It’s an amazing story, filled with tragedy and self abuse, but somehow out of all of this crushing difficulty came works of literature that continue to influence the literary and popular fiction worlds today. This one is well worth your time.
The 1759 Battle of Quebec by Charles River Editor
The Battle of Quebec marks a sea change in the politics of colonial North America. Before the battle, France had a major foothold north of the English colonies—a foothold which frightened English Protestants, who imagined their Catholic neighbors to the north coming down to force their religion upon them. After the Battle of Quebec, the French were gone from the north and with it a major perceived threat to the safety of those northern British colonies. In essence this meant that one of the major reasons those colonies “needed” Britain was gone.
At the same time, the larger French and Indian War that the Battle of Quebec was one part of put tremendous strains on Britain—especially the cost of the war. British efforts to make the colonists shoulder part of this burden were a major impetus of the American Revolution. So this battle is very important and Charles River Editors did a nice job of laying out the causes of the French and Indian War and walking the reader through the battle.
I received this book from Free Audiobook Codes in exchange for an honest review.
Great American Best Sellers by Peter Conn
Here’s a great look at 24 books that captured widespread attention in the North American British Colonies and the United States over the past few centuries. Odds are high that you haven’t heard of—much less read—all of them, whereas others are books you are quite familiar with even if you haven’t actually read them all. It’s a great collection and I am very pleased I read the book.
Conn roughly divides each lecture into three parts, starting with what is happening in America historically at the time the book was written and published and then describing the action of the novel and finally talking about its influence. I enjoyed it from beginning to end, but for me the best part of the lectures was for Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, which Conn used as an excuse to describe the development of the mystery novel from Edgar Allen Poe to Hammett. The final lecture on the modern best seller market was also very interesting. Mostly I enjoyed this book for the walkthrough of the plots and the discussion of influences and sometimes controversy. In today’s world, there are simply too many books out there to have read everything. This is a great way of familiarizing yourself with some very interesting novels you were always planning to read.
Midnight Son by James Dommeck, Jr.
This is the account of the murder trial of Teddy Kyle Smith, an Inupiac living in his ancestral lands in Alaska. After reporting the death of his mother, he went off into the wilderness for reasons unknown. There he shot two brothers, killing one, and was eventually caught and put on trial for murder. On trial, he surprised everyone by describing an encounter with creatures out of Inupiac myth and made it clear that he feared the two brothers were also these mythical creatures. It’s a strange story, told by the author in such a sympathetic light that it was a surprise to learn that Smith actually killed a man. (No one apparently denies this.) There was also a weird attempt by the author to find the mythical creatures that sort of petered out. Ultimately, the attempt to make this about myths and not Smith made the story disappointing.
Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights by John E. Finn
These days it’s very difficult to talk about the Supreme Court without getting pulled into contentious political issues. For that reason, I felt a little bit leery regarding reading this book as I was interested in learning about the issues and different interpretations of the constitution and feared being preached at. Fortunately, my concerns proved baseless. John Finn does a brilliant job of keeping his own political opinions out of the issues and helping the reader to understand the tremendous complexities in just about every issue that comes before the Supreme Court. What results is an amazing collection of 36 lectures which cannot help but increase your appreciation for the Supreme Court and the tremendously important job its justices perform for the United States. That being said, there is way too much information to absorb in a single reading, especially if you listen straight though over only a few days. So plan to listen to it again someday.
How 1954 Changed History by Michael Flamm
Some years seem to collect monumental events, and in this fascinating Great Courses book, Michael Flamm explores some truly world-shaking ones that occurred in 1954. This is the year of the Eisenhower presidency that the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to end de jure racial segregation in American schools in Brown v. Board of Education. It also saw a polio vaccine introduced and the birth of rock and roll. The French lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in modern day Vietnam setting in motion circumstances that would lead America to become militarily involved in that country. At the same time, Eisenhower decided to overthrow democracy in Guatemala under the dubious argument that this would somehow protect democracy in the United States. It was also the year that Joseph McCarthy fell, while at the same time, the U.S. moved to include the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” became the national motto, also as part of the anti-communist positioning of the country. Overall, it’s a very interesting snapshot of the U.S. in the middle of the twentieth century.
This Cider Still Tastes Funny! by John Ford Sr.
When I was in high school I found a lot of enjoyment in backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and crawling around in caves with my friends. Thirty years later—not so much—but I still enjoy reading clever accounts of backwoods happenings. The sort of stories told by Patrick McManus, Bill Heavey and now John Ford. Unlike McManus and Heavey, Ford wasn’t a professional writer—he was a game warden in Maine, but his stories are just as entertaining. If you think you’d enjoy a good humored look at life trying to enforce the hunting laws, you should give this book a try.
I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.
The Home Front by Dan Gediman and Martha C. Little
I’ve read a lot of histories focusing on World War II. Most of them deal with what life was like back in the U.S. while soldiers fought the war in, at most, a chapter. Many of them ignore the U.S. home front completely, focusing on the greater deprivation felt in European countries. The experiences of civilians in the rest of the world tends to get ignored. This book seeks to rectify that omission in the United States and it does a very good job of it. It holds itself together with a mild political narrative because the country is often reacting to that large structure of Hitler’s invasions and FDR and Congress’ responses. But the heart of the books and most of the skeletal bones focuses on what it was like to be called up for service, to join the factory lines, to be imprisoned because you’re a Japanese American, to deal with rationing, to see loved ones go, and return different if they returned at all. It’s a worthy contribution to the works on World War II.
American Titans by Michael Gray
Looking for a quick overview of some of America’s most famous titans of industry (or Robber Barons if you prefer that point of view)? American Titans opens with chapters on Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P Morgan giving quick but decent bios of each man. Then it moves into what I thought was the best part of the book—an analysis of how industrialism factored into the election of 1896 followed up by a look at the trustbuster, Theodore Roosevelt. Finally he wraps up with a quick look at Nicola Tesla whom I knew the least about and thus enjoyed the most. (Actually Gray finishes with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson, which was interesting even if I didn’t understand why he chose to include Jefferson and put him out of chronological order).
So Jefferson aside, if you’re looking for a quick survey of some of the men who helped to build modern corporate America, Americans Titans is a great place to start.
Dallas: A History of “Big D” by Michael V. Hazel
If all you know about Dallas came from the television series, you might want to take a look at this short history of the city. Starting with settlement of the area by Americans before the territory became part of the United States, Hazel walks the reader quickly through the development of the town/city—the arrival of different ethnic groups, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the domination of the city by elite business men, the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the struggle to more honestly represent the diverse groups that compose modern Dallas. For a quick survey of a famous American city, this book does a fine job.
A History of the Supreme Court by Peter IronsSupreme Court decisions factor heavily into American history, but I had never before read a book that focused on the history of the third branch of the government by itself. In 24 lectures, Irons both explores the major personalities that have shaped the court and analyzes the important decisions the court has made. But he also puts both the personalities and the decisions into their historical context and shows how politics of a given era have influenced the court—both in its composition and in the decisions it has made. A quick and interesting guide to the least known branch of the U.S. government.
Ten Big Questions of the American Civil War by Caroline Janney
I have read a lot of books on the American Civil War that trace the development of the war, often in excruciating detail, from beginning to end. Caroline Janney brought a refreshingly new perspective to discussing the war and in doing so made the subject matter extremely relevant to modern times. She does this by asking pressing questions that modern audiences raise about the war and then tracing their answers in enough detail to show their complexity while also being convincing. For example, Did Lincoln Free the Slaves? The answer, of course, is yes he did, but he didn’t do it in a vacuum totally by himself and Janney shows how he came to do so. The parts I found most interesting were those that involved why the war was fought and how we remember it. Humans being human, we have changed our thinking about these things as time went on. When the Civil War began, the South very much thought that it was about slavery, but after losing the war they edited their story in an attempt to make their cause seem more high minded and just. Similarly, at the start of the war Northerners did not the war to be about slavery and insisted it was about preserving the union, but after the war it was the emancipation of the slaves that they most focused upon, recognizing it to have been a noble outcome of the struggle. Overall, this is one of the best books I’ve read on the Civil War because of its focus on issues and Janney’s willingness to tie those issues to modern debates in our society.
American Monsters by Adam Jortner
If you enjoy a good horror story, this book will teach you a lot about where those images come from in America, and how they have been cultivated over the history of the nation. It’s a very quick but fascinating read. In addition to looking at the historical roots of things like spirits and witches, Jortner also spends a great deal of time looking at how movies, televisions, and novels have shaped the images. The popularity of monsters, and the way that those monster stories are told, has a lot to do with the stresses, fears, and problems of American society. Therefore, it should not be surprising that racism and civil rights are often underlying themes of the monster tale. Another fascinating theme is whether or not we can really govern ourselves when the people in charge in the stories often show themselves to be idiots. American isolationism, the Cold War, the proper role of science in our society… all of these themes pop up again and again as do stories about what happens when teens or women start to get a little independence in our dangerous world. Each section fascinated me and my only complaint is that the book wasn’t longer.
Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary
Autism is an increasingly prevalent part of our world. If you don’t have an autistic member of your extended family, you almost certainly know someone who is autistic or has autism in their family. If you’re looking for an opportunity to gain some understanding into their experiences and relate them to your own life, this is a great place to start. After all, who hasn’t felt tremendously uncomfortable on occasion? Sitcoms are built around social awkwardness and feeling out of place. And with that same sort of self-conscious humor, Michael McCreary walks us through his own life from his initial diagnosis of autism, through his difficult school years, and into the start of his career as a standup comic. He has the remarkable gift of making you feel empathy while simultaneously making you laugh. It’s a remarkable talent that will help you through the genuinely tough times he also describes. McCreary is still young. I’ll look forward to him updating his story in a few years.
Mongoose Bravo: Vietnam by Tim McCullough
This is an autobiography of the author’s years fighting the Vietnam War as an infantryman, but it often reads more like an adventure story. It mixes telling about the day to day drudgery of life in the war with those moments of intense fear and excitement when McCullough and his fellow soldiers encountered the enemy. Most surprising to me was the large number of times McCullough was injured or grew sick in his years in the army—a constant reminder of how very dangerous the war truly was.
Bringing Down the Colonel by Patricia Miller
In the 1890s, the role of women was changing radically in American society. The growing use of short hand and typewriters in business led to radical growth in the number of “proper” women who entered the work place and challenged social conventions that said that a “proper” woman couldn’t be in the same room with a man she hadn’t been properly introduced to. To make matters worse, the men thought that because women were their subordinates or were “mingling” with them in an office situation, that meant that they were sexually available to them. Yet many of these “proper” women pushed back against the sexual harassment and ideas about proper behavior began to change. Add to that that the suffragette movement, purity crusaders, and other women’s rights movements were mobilizing and one of their major complaints was that the moral standards that men were held to differed from that that women were held to.
That is the background of Bringing Down the Colonel in which a young woman from poor background sued one of the most powerful men in Congress for breach of contract when he married another woman after promising to marry her if his wife ever died. The trial rocked the nation and illustrates how strongly social opinions were changing. A generation earlier and the colonel’s efforts to destroy the woman’s reputation would have won him the case. Now those very same efforts not only cost him the trial, but they cost him his seat in Congress setting up nearly a century in which misdeeds in a man’s “private” life could destroy his public career. This is a truly fascinating story.
African American Athletes Who Made History by Louis Moore
This is a great introduction not just to African-American athletes but to their role in fighting for civil rights. Starting with a brief but fascinating overview of sports in Africa before the English slave trade (did you know that Africans were using “freestyle” to swim and the English were using the “breaststroke”?), Moore gives a quick concise overview of how African-American men and women have fought for their right to participate in sports. It was a bumpy road in which prejudice and racism often hampered African-American sports dreams. Yet, rather than let this beat them down, a great many African-American athletes used the fame they acquired in sports to fight for civil rights for all African-Americans. Along the way, we learn that figures like Joe Louis and Mohammed Ali did much more than dominate their professions. It’s a quick and highly informative survey.
The Vietnam War Trivia Book by Bill O’Neil and Dwayne Walker
Looking for a quick overview of the Vietnam War? The Trivia Book series has produced another winner here. It’s a little shorter than I would have liked but still covers the major issues and events of the war as well as providing the context within which the fighting began. The things that makes these books stand out, however, are the short vignettes that add humanity to the larger discussions. If you’re curious about this period of history, this is a good way to get introduced to the topic.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.
The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution by Thomas Pangle
Anyone interested in the creation of the U.S. Constitution should read this Great Courses text. Pangle takes the reader into the hearts and minds of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, exploring what it was they thought the constitution was creating and why they thought this was a good or bad thing. In doing so, he creates the case for the Bill of Rights as a compromise document that permitted the acceptance of the constitution. It’s a thought-provoking course.
I used to think I was a pretty strong Stevie Nicks fan back in my college years. I’m not much of a concert goer, but one of the three I’ve been to was Stevie Nicks. I had all her albums up to that time, knew tons of the lyrics by heart, and knew it was only a matter of time until she got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Then I came across this Audible Original and realized that for me Stevie Nicks was just a passing phase. Rob Sheffield has been breathing Stevie’s air for his entire life and he clearly thinks in her lyrics. The whole book could almost be described as stringing versus from her various songs together to make a narrative whole. And what a narrative it is. If you’ve any interest in Stevie or Fleetwood Mac this book is a must listen. Everyone knows that the band had romantic problems—hookups and breakups—during the making of Rumors, but I had no idea just how long lasting and how crazy the drug-fueled romantic madness really was.
Through it all, Stevie’s strong voice resonates as Sheffield successfully articulates why she is so important to rock and roll and why her music continues to resonate with so many fans. I’m very glad I stumbled across this book.
Into the Raging Sea by Rachel Slade
If you enjoyed The Perfect Storm you’ll find a lot to like in this chronicle of the loss of the El Faro. Instead of a fishing vessel, we look at a cargo ship which sinks in a hurricane due to the cost cutting neglect of the company that owned it, the failure of the U.S. government to apply safety regulations to old ships, and some very bad decisions on the part of the El Faro’s captain. It’s a very sad tale which Slade works hard to keep focused on the humans who lost their lives when the vessel sank. It also teaches quite a bit about the modern cargo business and its recent history.
And So We Walk by DeLanna Studi
This short book offers an interesting perspective on the Trail of Tears and its continuing impact on the Cherokee today as a Cherokee woman and her father take six weeks to retrace the trail, interviewing Cherokee along the way. It’s a very emotional account and aptly demonstrates how a government-sanctioned crime nearly two hundred years ago is still being felt in the twenty-first century.
I was surprised that the author thinks that the Trail of Tears and the surrounding events are not broadly known today. Perhaps they aren’t, but I first heard about it in elementary school some 45 years ago along with Andrew Jackson’s decision to ignore a Supreme Court order and force the Cherokee off their lands. What I found much more informative were the glimpses into modern Cherokee life and the experiences of many Cherokee. One tends to think of events this far in the past as “in the past” but the damage done by the United States’ “Indian Policy” continue to be felt including the Dawes Act and efforts to force young Cherokee children to give up their culture.
It's a very moving book.
Break Shot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor
Everyone knows at least a couple of songs by James Taylor. Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, How Sweet It Is—the list gets really long when you stop and think about it. So when Audible offered a free copy of this short autobiography of Taylor’s early life, I was quite happy to take advantage of it. I really didn’t know anything about Taylor other than I like a lot of his music.
James Taylor was born to affluence but didn’t take well to his family’s plans for him. His childhood was clearly rough. He ended up in an asylum when people feared his depression could lead to suicide. Perhaps the best line of the book was when he said that the asylum fixed him not because of anything it did, but because being committed ended all of his family’s plans for him and gave him the freedom to seek out his own path through his music.
Taylor thinks of his music as therapy and I think any fan would benefit from learning what motivated the lyrics they love. For example, I had no idea that Fire and Rain was about a friend of Taylor’s who committed suicide. It makes total sense now that I know it. Maybe I never paid that much attention to the lyrics and just enjoyed the beautiful melody.
If you’re a fan of James Taylor, it’s hard to imagine how you wouldn’t enjoy this chance to better understand him and his music.
The Agency: A History of the CIA by Hugh Wilford
This Great Courses book provides an overview of the CIA and manages to strike a fairly neutral tone. It recognizes both its failures and its successes, and its successes that later turned into failures. It also is very good at getting into the basic contradiction of a government agency that needs to be covert in much of its activities in a democracy that needs the government to be transparent in order to maintain itself. Perhaps its best contribution is getting into the context of the CIA’s actions and understanding why they took the steps they took before they get into judgements on whether or not in the long term these actions benefitted the U.S. Overall, it’s a very interesting read.
Conquistadors by Michael Wood
Here’s a book that takes a fairly in depth look at the actions of four conquistadors—invaders Cortez, Pizzaro and another Pizzaro, and shipwrecked De Vaca. The accounts are all fascinating, drawing on both Spanish and native sources. The aspect that impressed me the most was Wood’s attempts to show how each group was viewed by the other—a clash of cultures in addition to the military conflicts.
The most interesting account if of De Vaca who, together with three companions, was shipwrecked on what was probably Galveston Island off the coast of Texas. After a period of enslavement, he and his companions journeyed for years across what would eventually become the American Southwest. His writings about the peoples he met and the clear respect he held for them makes him a highly valuable source for modern historians—even if the Spaniards of his time were not interested in what he had to tell them other than as a guide for new people to conquer.
American Nations by Colin Woodard
American history is often presented as the friction between two poles—loyalist versus revolutionary, north versus south, Republican versus Democrats. The great strength of Colin Woodard’s American Nation is its development of multiple (eleven) culturally distinct groups of Americans whose values often conflict with each other and who have remained identifiable over the last four centuries. This concept resonates quite convincingly as Woodard walks the reader through American history from colonization until the present day (although most of the book focuses on the 17th to the 19th century).
A lot more work needs to be done on this concept, especially as it relates to the later periods, but I found the basic idea plausible. After all, neither the north or the south is monolithic and this concept helped to explore the more complex nature of both regions. The primary weakness probably comes from the tendency for Woodard to describe his eleven nations in the same monolithic terms. That problem could be resolved with further research and exploration. Overall, the book has given me a lot to think about.