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Reviews of what you should be reading next.

Tag: history

The Atlas of Disease by Sandra Hempel

 

Behind every disease is a story, a complex narrative woven of multiple threads, from the natural history of the disease, to the tale of its discovery and its place in history.
But what is vital in all of this is how the disease spreads and develops. In The Atlas of Disease, Sandra Hempel reveals how maps have uncovered insightful information about the history of disease, from the seventeenth century plague maps that revealed the radical idea that diseases might be carried and spread by humans, to cholera maps in the 1800s showing the disease was carried by water, right up to the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s and the recent Ebola outbreak.

Crucially, The Atlas of Disease will also explore how cartographic techniques have been used to combat epidemics by revealing previously hidden patterns. These discoveries have changed the course of history, affected human evolution, stimulated advances in medicine and shaped the course of countless lives.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting my wish to access this ARC! For anyone who is interested in the history of disease, this book is a dream come true. The author delves into each disease with a thoughtful manner and straightforward way, using maps of the world to show the spread of each illness. These maps add a new dimension of understanding to the text, and underscore how devastating the spread of disease can be. The trail of germs is traced across the continents for each disease, adding a quiet horror to the author’s words.  This alone makes the book worth buying – no other book I’ve read with this subject has illustrations quite like this. Interspersed in the chapters are other bits of artwork, either paintings of people suffering or government posters warning townfolk of the ravages of the flu, yellow fever, measles, and the like. THE ATLAS OF DISEASE stands out head and shoulders among other novels in this genre.

There are 4 sections to the book: airborne, waterborne, insects and animals, and human to human. Each chapter in the section then outlines a disease, from AIDS to Zika. The opening page has the disease name, the causal agent, transmission, symptoms, incidence and deaths, prevalence, prevention, treatment, and global strategy. For example, diptheria’s incidence and deaths statement lets us know that the germ causes around 5,000 cases per year worldwide, with 5-10% cases being fatal. The global strategy notes that there are childhood vaccination programs, but the World Health Organization (WHO) describes it as a “forgotten” disease. On the opposite page there is a painting by Francisco de Goya showing a man holding a child on his lap, supporting his head with his left hand while he probes the child’s mouth with his right. The work is entitled El Lazarillo de Tormes or El Garrotillo (“Diptheria”). When you turn the page you see illustrations of how the illness attacks the lining of the throat, causing the victim to strangle and suffocate.

I can honestly say I have learned more from this book than from many others I’ve read. The writer’s style is straightforward, sharing facts without drama, and extremely easy to comprehend. You won’t need a medical background to appreciate ATLAS. The author’s fascination with these illnesses is clearly portrayed on every page, as well as her depth of research. I cannot say enough superlatives about this book – it is far and away the best work I’ve read this year.  If you are a devotee of disease, you will treasure this work forever.  And for those of you who are not – please still read this. You will learn, you will be shocked, and you will appreciate the fragility of life.

Pick up your copy here.

Under The Knife by Arnold Van de Laar

In Under the Knife, surgeon Arnold Van de Laar uses his own experience and expertise to tell the witty history of the past, present, and future of surgery.
From the story of the desperate man from seventeenth-century Amsterdam who grimly cut a stone out of his own bladder to Bob Marley’s deadly toe, Under the Knife offers all kinds of fascinating and unforgettable insights into medicine and history via the operating theatre.
What happens during an operation? How does the human body respond to being attacked by a knife, a bacterium, a cancer cell or a bullet? And, as medical advances continuously push the boundaries of what medicine can cure, what are the limits of surgery?
From the dark centuries of bloodletting and of amputations without anaesthetic to today’s sterile, high-tech operating theatres, Under the Knife is both a rich cultural history and a modern anatomy class for us all.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

I have read many medical history books before but none of them were as gruesomely interesting as this one. The juxtaposition of the gory surgeries and the dry writing makes for an excellent read. So many different surgeries are discussed in this book, it seems, that there should be something for everyone. If you are a fan of spurting blood, swollen intestines, gangrene, and reading about a man performing surgery on himself without anesthesia, then this book is definitely for you. If you are the squeamish type, stop reading immediately and find something else.

Each one of the 28 chapters discusses a different type of surgery, complete with history and famous examples. Some of the people van de Laar writes about are JFK, Bob Marley, Lenin, and Napoleon. I can honestly say that I learned multiple new facts in each chapter. This, plus the straight-up medical language (that may be incomprehensible to most people) made this book a winner for me. I have a medical background so this was an easy read, but I can see most people trying to figure out some of the jargon and getting discouraged. The author does provide many explanations and word sources (such as Latin or Italian) as well as a glossary at the end, but there is also a good deal of medical verbiage. The chapter also brings us into the present time, and how this surgery is performed using clean instruments and updated techniques.

As I mentioned before, the gore factor is extremely high. I don’t recall ever experiencing this level of detail, even in books containing Hannibal Lecter. A simple sentence telling us that the Sun King only bathed once or twice in his lifetime, and generously opened a window so a visitor could have fresh air speaks volumes. Can’t you just smell the stench from here?!?

There are also chapters on eunuchs, ancient Rome, and bloodletting. The detail in which van de Laar describes each procedure is magnificent. Facts just keep unrolling on the page, with minimal asides for the human detail found in so many other books written by doctors (such as Sandeep Jauhar or Atul Gawande). The book is nearly devoid of emotion; there are only procedures and facts.

I absolutely loved this book. I also may never be able to get some of the gory images out of my mind – but that’s ok.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up

.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE MILLION COPY BESTSELLER SAPIENS

Sapiens showed us where we came from. Homo Deus looked to the future. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century explores the present. In this new book, Harari helps us to grapple with a world that is increasingly hard to comprehend. How can we protect ourselves from nuclear war, ecological cataclysms and technological disruptions? What can we do about the epidemic of fake news? Which civilization dominates the world – the West, China, Islam? What can we do about terrorism?
With his trademark clarity and vision, Harari takes us on a thrilling journey into today’s most urgent issues as well as turning to more individual concerns. The golden thread running through this exhilarating new book is the challenge of maintaining our focus and attention in the face of constant and destabilizing change. Ultimately what we and our children will need is mental stability, compassion, resilience and reason. This is a crucial part of our ongoing education in the 21st Century.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review!

Once again, Harari has taken his unique perspective on life, economics, technology, and humanity and summarized his thoughts in an easy to read and thought-provoking book. At times terrifying, humorous, and learned, Harari applies his unique take on things such as biometric sensors that help us make decisions and the current state of politics today. His previous books discussed the past and the future; this one concentrates on the present (mostly) with an eye to the future. Statements such as “Once AI makes better decisions than us about careers and perhaps even relationships, our concept of humanity and of life will have to change” are equally interesting and scary. The author paints a picture of a 1984-like world where 1% of humanity owns all the wealth, property and beauty and the rest of us live a nearly decision-free existence.

Harari’s style is easy to digest with sly humor interspersed among the caveats. I think his main goal is to get the reader to consider our own humanity and what we can do to ensure we all stay “human” and connected. For those who have read his other books (Sapiens and Homo Deus) the themes will be familiar. He touches on religion, terrorism, and technology with equal strength. He notes in multiple places that our personal information is being taken from us slowly via Facebook and other sites, and this will have a bigger impact on our future lives more than we think. Part of me wants to be worried, and the other part feels that I’ll be too old to matter when/if that ever comes to be.

21 Lessons was a bit drier than his other two works – that being said I think Homo Deus was my favorite. That does not make this work any less important, however. There is definitely something to be learned from the book, even if it just makes you more aware of the multitude of problems in the world today.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up  here.

 

 

Ether Day by Julie M Fenster

ether

Ether Day is the unpredictable story of America’s first major scientific discovery — the use of anesthesia — told in an absorbing narrative that traces the dawn of modern surgery through the lives of three extraordinary men. Ironically, the “discovery” was really no discovery at all: Ether and nitrous oxide had been known for more than forty years to cause insensitivity to pain, yet, with names like “laughing gas,” they were used almost solely for entertainment. Meanwhile, patients still underwent operations during which they saw, heard, and felt every cut the surgeon made. The image of a grim and grisly operating room, like the one in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, was in fact starkly accurate in portraying the conditions of surgery before anesthesia.

With hope for relief seemingly long gone, the breakthrough finally came about by means of a combination of coincidence and character, as a cunning Boston dentist crossed paths with an inventive colleague from Hartford and a brilliant Harvard-trained physician. William Morton, Horace Wells, and Charles Jackson: a con man, a dreamer, and an intellectual. Though Wells was crushed by derision when he tried to introduce anesthetics, Morton prevailed, with help from Jackson. The result was Ether Day, October 16, 1846, celebrated around the world. By that point, though, no honor was enough. Ether Day was not only the dawn of modern surgery, but the beginning of commercialized medicine as well, as Morton patented the discovery.

What followed was a battle so bitter that it sent all three men spiraling wildly out of control, at the same time that anesthetics began saving countless lives. Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Ether Day is a riveting look at one of history’s most remarkable untold stories.

Thanks to the author for gifting me this book for review!

ETHER DAY is meticulously researched; the characters are brought to life via the detailed descriptions of their lives and mental states.

To think that people were operated on with no care for their pain, yet Laughing Gas (ether) was used by non medical people for fun and escape, is mind boggling. No one made the connection between the two until William Morton, Horace Wells, and Charles Jackson “discovered” the other uses of this gas.

The fact that these three men’s lives overlapped was both good and bad: the discovery of ether as an anesthetic made both patient’s and surgeon’s lives better, but there was a lot of vitriol and ego involved as well. Each stood to make his fortune via ether, yet their lives were not always brightened by their actions.

Fenster has clearly done her research: there is both an index and endnotes, showing the comprehensive reading she did to recreate this story. She also includes a bibliography for further reading. The 1800’s come to life under her expert prose and background detail. I especially enjoyed the explanation of how the gas was delivered, and how the machines were tinkered with to provide a more accurate mixing of gas and air. The fact that these men experimented on themselves shows both folly and determination – in Chapter 14, Chlory, there is a section about scientists sniffing different concoctions of gases to figure out the best combination.

Every Thursday evening they would gather at the Simpson home, sitting around the dining table to inhale candidate chemicals. “I selected for experiment and have inhaled several chemical liquids of a more fragrant and agreeable odor,” Simpson wrote in a medical journal during the course of his research, “such as the chlorine of hydrocarbon, acetone, nitrate of oxide of ethyle, benzin, the vapour of chloroform, etc.”

One old friend, a professor named Miller, made a habit of dropping by at breakfast time every Friday, so he said, to see if anyone was dead. 

The lengths these men went to in the name of science is unheard of today. As the book jacket notes, Ether Day is a little known anniversary, yet without the actions of these men there would have been greater suffering in this world. They were not heros, either – just men trying to make money or a name for themselves, who fell into a bizarre chain of events that would send them all down a crazy rabbit hole and eventually break them.

Author Julie Fenster has brought the memory of these men out of the past and placed it firmly into our awareness with ETHER DAY. I commend her for choosing her subject wisely and keeping this discovery relevant, in a new way.

Want your own copy? You can pick it up [easyazon_link identifier=”0060933178″ locale=”US” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

 

Silk Legacy by Richard Brawer

silk

In early twentieth century Paterson, New Jersey, dashing twenty-nine year old Abraham Bressler charms naïve nineteen year old Sarah Singer into marriage by making her believe he feels the same way she does about the new calling of a modern woman. He then turns around and gives her little more respect than he would a servant, demanding she stay home to care for “his” house and “his” children.

Feeling betrayed, Sarah defies him and joins women’s groups, actively participating in rallies for woman suffrage, child welfare and reproductive freedom. For a while she succeeds in treading delicately between the demands of her husband and her desire to be an independent woman. Her balancing act falters when a strike shuts down Paterson’s 300 silk mills. With many friends working in the mills, Sarah is forced to choose sides in the battle between her Capitalist husband and his Socialist brother, a union leader who happens to be her best friend’s husband.

Jealousy, infidelity, arrogance, greed—the characters’ titanic struggles will catapult you into the heights of their euphoria and the depths of their despair. Who will triumph and who will be humbled is not certain until the last page.

Thanks to the author for giving me this book in exchange for a review.

Excerpt:

Sarah pushed aside the muslin curtain on her bedroom window and stared at the sidewalk.  She was glad her father had invited him after dinner, rather than in the daytime.  The shops had closed.  The streets were empty of commercial traffic.  Most people had settled into their evening rituals of reading, sewing, playing a game of cards or checkers in their parlors, or sitting and gossiping on the building’s stoops enjoying this splendid May evening.  Even in the flickering light of the gas street lamps she would have no trouble spotting him coming down the sidewalk.
She first noticed him across the room at her best friend’s wedding.  When their eyes met and he smiled, her heart fluttered and she almost swooned.  He was so handsome, so distinguished with his sweeping handlebar mustache.  He carried himself straight and tall, sure of himself, not like the other men in the congregation who cowered when they walked, as if they were trying to draw themselves into a cocoon they thought would protect them from the outside world.
She ached to meet him right then and there, but women weren’t allowed to mix with men at weddings.  That Biblical edict did not stop her from discretely inquiring as to who he was.  When she learned he was the groom’s brother, she was overjoyed.  Her father had to know him.  He had taught all the Bresslers.  On their walk home from the wedding she asked her father about him.
Before her father could answer, her mother cut in and said, “He’s no one you are to concern yourself with, Sarah.”
“Why?  What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing,” her father said.  “He was one of my best students.”  Looking quizzically at his wife, he said, “I invited him to our house Wednesday evening.”
Delight engulfed Sarah.  But her brief moment of ecstasy crashed into desolation when her mother shrieked, “You didn’t!”
Her father cowered at the rebuke, and offered his daughter no help when her mother told her, “You will be confined to your room.”
“Why?” Sarah cried.
“Because I said so.  That is all you have to know.”
Despite her mother’s forbidding, Sarah readied herself anyway in hopes her mother would have a last minute change of heart.  She put her hair up, and dressed in the white linen shirt-waist with flowing sleeves and ruffled cuffs trimmed in pink satin ribbon.
“Sarah, come away from the window.”
Startled by her mother’s voice, Sarah withdrew her hand from the curtain as if she had grabbed the hot handle of a skillet.  “Why won’t you let me meet him?” she asked.
Her mother crossed to the bed, sat down and patted a place next to her.  “Come, sit by me.”
Sarah obeyed and fidgeted with a strand of hair that had escaped from her bun.
Taking her daughter’s hand, her mother said, “He’s not right for you, my darling.  He’s too old.”
“But he’s only ten years older than I.  Father is twelve years older than you.”
“That’s true, but your father is a learned man—a scholar, a teacher.  He is counting on you to carry on for him.”
“And I will.”
“Not if you were to become attached to Mr. Bressler.”
“Why?  Mr. Bressler is an educated man.  He knows the value of learning.”
“Does he?”
“Father said he taught him.”
“But it does not mean he learned anything.”
Confused, Sarah stared at her mother.
“You know all the places you read about and are aching to see—the Eiffel Tower, Rome, the Great Wall of China?  You will never see them if you marry Mr. Bressler.”
“How do you know that?  My friend, Cecelia, Mr. Bressler’s sister-in-law, told me Mr. Bressler makes a wonderful living from his business.”
“Yes, a saloon.”
“He’s not a shiker?”
“His father is.”
“But he’s not a drunkard?”
“Not that I know.”
Sarah sighed with relief.  “Then why won’t you let me meet him?” 
“Sarah, please.  You knew the Bressler family back in Latvia.  The father is a carouser.  The uncle is an azes ponim—an arrogant man.  You are aware the uncle tried to get your father fired for teaching the writings of Karl Marx?”
Sarah didn’t answer, thinking, yes the father did neglect his family, and the uncle lorded his riches over everyone.  But that did not mean Abe was like them.  Her best friend, Cecelia—Abe’s new sister-in-law—said her husband was a wonderful man.
“You do know what a sow is?”  Sarah’s mother asked.
“Of course.  Trayf.  Not kosher.”
“There is a saying I picked up in this city of silk which fits Mr. Bressler very well. ‘You cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.’  Let him go.  He will stifle you.”

SILK LEGACY is two stories in one–a romance and a Capitalist/Socialist struggle pitting brother against brother. The first part of the book goes by smoothly, as we are introduced to the Bressler family. As the years go by the struggles surface, and while I was firmly in Sarah’s corner (as she struggles against the mighty thumb of opppression wielded by her husband, Abe), I was not sure who to support regarding the labor wars, Abe or Solomon. Both sides are equally represented, and the author paints a wonderfully accurate picture of working class struggles in burgeoning Paterson, NJ.

This book was written so well, I had to stop to double check the author’s name on the front! It could have easily been composed by Ken Follett or Colleen McCullough. There is history, romance, intrigue, and the setting is authentic. I especially was moved during the suffragette’s parade in Washington, as I read about their high hopes and what actually took place.

It is always interesting to see how an author handles a roman a clef, and Brawer intersperses real and fictional characters seamlessly. The dialogue flows smooothly and there are no awkward transitions that are the hallmark of a less talented author.

The only caveat I have to note is that the plot is taken over by the politics and labor talk, to the exclusion of everything else as the story progresses. It started to seem a bit unbalanced and I found myself becoming less enthralled with the story. Just as things move away from the union struggles, the book comes to an abrupt ending. It was a bit hard for me to see how Solomon would have acted the way he did, given his previous behavior, but there it is. That was the only stutter in an otherwise wonderfully written novel.

There is a great deal of history in these pages—anyone with an interest in how the unions came to be will want to pick this up. You can get your own copy [easyazon_link identifier=”B003BVJFJW” locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

 

Breaking the Silence – Guest Post by author Maria Nieto

breaking the silence

On a sweltering summer day, the streets of Old Madrid that once resonated with the laughter of children playing are empty and silent. But inside the apartment buildings there is life as families faithfully wait for updates about an army uprising in Spanish Morocco. Before long, their greatest fears come true. As rebel troops storm Madrid and chaos fills the streets, six-year-old Mari wonders why she cannot go outside to play. Unfortunately, she has no idea she is about to be trapped inside the abyss of what is rapidly becoming a ruthless civil war. Already emotionally wounded by the absence of her mother, Mari attempts to go about her fear-filled days living with her father’s family, which includes a grandfather who lovingly teaches her about the history leading up to the conflict. As she embarks on a coming-of-age journey submerged in the darkness of war, Mari somehow stays alive despite the decisions of an intimidating, ruthless dictator, starvation, and brainwashing by the new Fascist regime. But when circumstances lead her to inadvertently commit the ultimate betrayal, Mari must face the horrifying consequences of her actions. Breaking the Silence shares the compelling tale of a little girl’s experiences as she attempts to survive amid the horror and death surrounding the Spanish Civil War.

 

Gimmethatbook had the privilege of communicating with  author Maria Nieto and discussing her book BREAKING THE SILENCE. We are proud to present her guest post, as she discusses why she wrote the book and the meaning it holds for her. If you are interested in having your own copy, you can get it [easyazon_link identifier=”1491761016″ locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

 

My name is Maria Nieto, and people have been questioning why, at the age of 85, I wrote  a book called Breaking the Silence.

It is a book describing the pain and the horrifying days of a small girl´s life during and after the Spanish Civil War. There are moments of humor in the book, but mostly it deals the devastating effects that war creates for children. The book goes a little further into Spain´s post war years under the yoke of a fascist dictatorship using ruthless  mind altering techniques on children in order to assure their total loyalty to the new order. Mari, the child in the book, ends with the terrible decision she must make to atone for an act of treason she innocently committed.

The book is written as a novel, a work of fiction, but fiction is often impregnated with truth.

Why did I write the book, and how did I write the book?

Please allow me to go back in time just a little.

I was born in New York City in the middle of the Great Depression.  Just a year later, the laws that rule the universes (I do not believe in coincidences), transported me to Madrid, Spain. Two years later,  the same universal laws took my mother away from me . I do not remember the days after she disappeared, but I do remember that even though I forgot how to speak English, at stressful times the sound of strange sounds would almost sing inside of my mind. Sounds like “mommy”, “daddy”, “Teddy the bear”, and sometimes I could hear the soft voice of a woman whisper something that sounded like, ”you are my princess”. Nothing more.

Three years passed and I suddenly found myself in the middle of falling bombs, crashing buildings and the passing of marching tanks in the night making cracking noises on the  street cobble stones  as they passed by the house.

Spain was at war. A war of brother against brother, and father against son: The Spanish Civil War. I lost most of my childhood friends  who died torn to pieces  under the explosions of bombs, the fire of machine guns, or the falling of mortar shells.  I survived day after day holding on to the image of a dark haired woman who held me in her arms in times of danger.

After the war, Spain fell under the tyrannical fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the Spanish Army officer who initiated the revolt against the Spanish Republic.

People were imprisoned and killed by the thousands. All freedoms were forbidden. Children marched in the streets dressed in Nazi-like uniforms with extended arms in a Nazi salute singing fascist songs to the beating of drums and the waving of flags. Soon I too became one of those children.

Some years passed and during  my early teens, I was found reading a Reader’s Digest (in Spanish). That type of reading was forbidden. Nothing foreign was to be read in Spain, and no listening to radio stations from other countries was allowed. Because I was an American Citizen, I did not go to jail . Instead,  my father was ordered to have me out of the country within three days. An uncle in New York who had converted into Judaism arranged for a Jewish organization helping children out of Nazi Germany, to look over me in Portugal as I waited for a ship to take me to the United States.

Franco died and Spain’s new monarchy passed a law of silence, “a pact of silence”, as it was called. The people of Spain were not to talk or act on any issues that incurred during the war or during the dictatorship after the war. Franco’s murderers never went to trial for their crimes and continued to flourish and continued to use their money to hold on to power. After that, when  I visited Spain, neither my family nor my friends would talk about or mention the  terrible years. During a visit to my grandmother’s  village, I came upon  a group of older women in the town’s plaza seated in a circle  noisily and happily talking as they did their sewing. I introduced myself and told them that my grandmother  was born in the village. They recognized her name, but when I told them that I had lived in the village for a short time during the war, the women looked at me, and one of them clipping her words almost yelled, “ Ah, that was a long time ago.” All the other women went back to their sewing in silence.

That was the beginning of the heavy weight in my chest that made me write Breaking the Silence.

After four years in the Navy, the GI Bill helped me to finish nursing school  and after graduation I was able to work during  the day and go to school at night. It was years before I finally gathered enough diplomas to teach me how  to help emotionally wounded persons identify their pain, and hopefully resolve it.

When  my working days ended, the heavy weight in my chest returned, and strange rumblings again woke me at night. As time passed, the weight got worse, the rumblings got louder.

Finally, it became clear to me what was happening: I was choking on Spain’s silence denying me of my childhood, as well as my childhood friends not being recognized and remembered.

That is why, very slowly and in silence, I began to write Breaking the Silence and no one, friends or family, knew about the book until it was published. My family in Spain received it well, and now  the rumblings and the weight in my chest are gone, and  I can again sleep through the nights.

I hope people will read it. I hope that in some way it may help people throughout the world  and the United States reject any further war suggestions from their leaders.

I started another book. Maybe  I can finish it before the laws of the universes  take me away from this planet and I begin to use my experiences on earth elsewhere.

 

Biography Review: Russell Long by Michael Martin.

The Short Version

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Russell Long: A Life in Politics starts off even before he was born to one of the most powerful American politicians outside the Capital, Huey Long. We come to know Russell as a man who seems to have ideals: whichever ones suit his purpose. We meet a chameleon who grows more conspicuous and powerful . He skillfully harnessed his father’s controversial legacy to shape his own. Many biographies are stories of rags-to-riches. This one shows us political royalty begetting political royalty. Like father like son.

Cinderella stories and train wrecks are interesting, sure. But at the heights of national politics, all things ordinary are extraordinary. You just need to be close enough to see what’s actually going on. Michael Martin points his microscope at characters who can raise up or ruin thousands of lives with a phone call. More than just a biography, Russell Long is a life-size portrait of some of the invisible forces that shaped American civil rights and economic intervention policy from the 1920s through the 1980s. I had mixed feelings about how Mr. Martin treated some topics, but overall this book was a joy to read, and particularly transformative for my personal understanding of Congressional politics in the middle of the last century.

You in a hurry? Take your coat off, why don’tcha? Keep reading!

 

My Full Review:

Excellence in the Biographical Craft

I read a lot of really dry books. I like’em that way. I’m all about the information density. Crank it up to 11! Don’t get me wrong. I love good narration and storytelling, but I’ve left mountains of biographies more relatable than Russell Long unfinished. Why did I finish Russell Long, but not the others?

As long as a biography helps me understand the place and importance of the person in the title, I’m happy. There are plenty of ways to do this. Some authors use personal accounts of people who knew the title character to construct a story. These biographies usually have a very personal touch. Their success or failure depends on how easy it is for the reader to get to know the person they’re reading about. Russell Long doesn’t even try to do this, so I won’t judge it on this basis.

This book wants to teach you about Russell, not introduce you to him. Enjoyment doesn’t issue from its style or wit, but from its combination of clarity and insight. Every page is pressurized to the bursting point with information. Russell Long is such a dense piece of pulp that the absence of any one sentence would immediately stand out to most mildly-attentive readers. Even being as dense as it is, however, it’s still easily accessible. Usually, accessibility correlates well with the complexity or depth of the content. I believe Mr. Martin created this outlier by focusing on a narrative structure before thinking in terms of timelines, events, and explanations.

Russell Long’s overall structure is evidence that Mr. Martin took spectacular care to produce an account that covers a wide canvas without becoming obtuse. The lesson other biographers can learn here is that contextual information is not a commodity. What does that mean?

In the Land of the Confusing, Context is King

Some contextual information pairs best with its related content when nestled in with a tangentially related account. We learn of Earl Long’s ultimate fate early, to lose his marbles while in the Senate in 1960. Seemingly a non-sequitur at first, this knowledge casts its foreshadow over Earl’s actions leading up to that year. At no time does Mr. Martin suggest any relationship between Earl’s escalating political aggressiveness and his meltdown. Even so, I would expect any reader to make his or her own judgment about the cause for his behavior, and whether his actions or his meltdown were the chicken or the egg. Regardless of the determination you make, the very fact that I was involved so deeply for so long leading up to the reveal is thanks to a masterful measuring of just the right amount of suggestion early on and an otherwise-innocuous lead-up to the event in question. You could argue that leaving the cause for his meltdown for the reader to intuit is unsatisfying, but remember, this book is interested in the facts. Guessing and wondering is the reader’s half of the contract here. Besides, have you ever called a book that left your brain chewing on its contents long afterward a “bad book”?

Russell Long is loaded with foreshadowing that seems like fact-stating at first blush, but produces satisfying “Aha!” moments throughout the proceeding text. Much of this foreshadowing occurs in the meaty first chapter entirely devoted to the life and career of Huey Long, Russell’s father. Mr. Martin depicts him as a powerful and ruthless Louisiana governor and political boss. Huey was a New Deal-era populist, and early on we come to know Russell as a Truman/Kennedy/LBJ Fair-Deal-era/Great Society-era populist. The account of Russell’s time striving toward and later working within the U.S. Senate during this period stands tall on its own, but it benefits tremendously from the foreshadowing earlier on.

As for sections of the book that trace the cause of a significant even to its effect, Mr. Martin provides context in step with the content. He seldom leaves the reader wondering what motives the actors might have had. Often, when an author does not give particular consideration to the distribution of contextual knowledge, the reader is burdened with wondering if he or she missed something until the author gets around to providing helpful context. The combination of foreshadowing and unconstructive inline explanation makes Russell Long a relatively effortless read.

Small Book, Big Ambition: The Compromise Shows.

In spite of all of the great things that I have to say about this biography, I do have complaints. Mr. Martin’s application of foreshadowing sometimes seems to guide the book’s focus away from very important details in favor of events that mesh well with the scaffold of foreshadowing upon which the biography seems to be built. Mr. Martin glosses over, and sometimes neglects even to account for, very important transitions in Russell Long’s political career. I found the explanation of the machinations by which Russell became Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, for example, to be unsatisfying. In sections describing the use of connections by either Long to usurp the function of government agencies, some more detail regarding how these connections were formed and maintained would have been beneficial.

Am I nitpicking? You may not even think twice about the informational gaps if you give this mainly solid book a read. I’m probably asking too much from a book in the range of 300 pages. If an editor demanded that I tamp down the word count, I might have nixed these details, too. Regardless, fleshing out these details in a longer book would have been well worth the longer read. In the end, every book must stand on it’s own two… covers. Russell Long certainly suffers from several unsatisfactory, unsatisfying, and sometimes missing explanations of what I though should have been key elements of a complete narrative.

The Last Word

To get hung up on any of these qualms would be to miss out on appreciating this book’s most important feature. Before Michael Martin’s Russell Long became available, there had been no quality account of Russell Long’s place in American history accessible to the layperson. The alternative for the average person seeking to learn about the younger Long would be a greatly fruitless Google search. Even Wikipedia, with it hordes of fanatical volunteer editors, hosts relatively little quality, cross-referenced information about this troubled, controversial, and interesting man. The publication of this book fills a conspicuous void, and there’s nothing but good in that.

The information density of Russell Long is actually dumbfounding. That Mr. Martin was able to make such a dense work so easy to read is a testament to his mastery of the biographical form. I swallowed about 300 pages of pure knowledge in hardly more than four hours. (If I’m being honest, the speed was just as much thanks to the “Spritz” reading software I use as to Mr. Martin, but I digress.) If all non-fiction books were like Russell Long, we would all be far more knowledgeable. People would read more books. People would patronize their libraries and coffee shops with equal frequency. Heck. The coffee shops would probably just be in the libraries.

 

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