Sunday, July 28, 2013

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose

4 out of 5 stars

Read in July 2013

Large, thick books do not scare me.  If you've delved into my blog here at all, you'll quickly learn that I read constantly and I read epic fantasy for fun.  The longer, the better.  The more characters and plot lines, even better.  With one exception, or wait, two exceptions.  I tried but didn't like G.R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series and Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Not my cup of tea.

So when July rolled around and saddled me with the 521 page Undaunted Courage by Ambrose, I barely batted an eye.  I even took a stab at actually reading the print edition our Stranger Than Fiction discussion leader handed out to us last month when we turned in our Unbroken copies.  I think I made it a couple of hundred pages before I decided listening to the audiobook would be faster (and less painful on the eyes grammatically).  I checked out the audiobook on CD from the Kansas City Public Library.  One thick 521 page paperback translates roughly to twenty-one hours and twenty-seven minutes (21 hr 27 mins) of narration.  While technically, I could have completed listening to this audiobook in less than one day, practically and physically, I can only handle about two to three hours a day of listening, with long breaks between to give my poor eardrums a rest.    The disadvantages to listening include the absence of 1) maps, 2) illustrations and photographs, 3) footnotes, 4) end notes  and 5) the bibliography.  The greatest advantage to listening to the audiobook was not having to learn how to properly pronounce the names of less commonly known objects, tools and places.  Luckily, I had the best of both worlds at my fingertips.

I learned an incredible amount about Lewis, Clark, Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase and the Corps of Discovery Expedition to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean via the Missouri River.  Since I grew up within twenty miles of that river, I also grew up with the names "Lewis & Clark" plastered on various road signs and parks.  While I had some idea of the adventures of those early trailblazing frontiersmen, Ambrose provided me with an incredible wealth of detail and anecdotal gems to keep me forging ahead.  One of my favorite moments involved a nearly indestructible grizzly bear and four members of the Expedition.

I finished listening to the audiobook edition with just 26 hours to spare.  After a full day of work in the same building, I arrived just a few minutes past seven o'clock to a nearly full meeting room.  A couple of the usual suspects were missing, but I thought nothing of it since it's summer time and many normal people take vacations.  I arrived in the middle of a conversation involving the August 2013 edition of Car & Driver, specifically the review of the 2013 supercharged Land Rover Range Rover, which was tested in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana and specifically mentioned the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Our discussion leader soon roped us back into discussing Undaunted Courage by relating a hand-written note he received from one disgruntled Stranger Than Fiction reader.  That person only made it to page 28, where they couldn't stomach the 'run on sentences' and 'sixteen adjectives for the same word' or the fact that it appeared the author was being 'paid by the word' to write.  'Life was too short and there are too many good books to waste time with such poor writing.'  I made the comment that long sentences were the norm for early 19th century writing, but apparently Ambrose was being accused of this egregious error.  Our leader did confirm that he found a sentence written by Ambrose that surpassed one and a half pages.

We moved on from that dead-end when one of the readers mentioned that they watched all four hours of the Ken Burns' documentary of Lewis & Clark, which our local PBS station, KCPT, conveniently re-aired in mid-July.

At least one reader struggled with this book, commenting it felt too much like being in a history class.  She half-expected to see questions at the end of each chapter.

Our leader began posing questions to spark discussion, one of the first being on our definition of "discovery."  Only to the Western World (aka Europeans) could any of these plants, animals, rivers, mountains, etc. be considered "discoveries."  To the Native Americans, none of it was new or unknown.  He also asked or mentioned a scenario wherein Native Americans hopped on a boat and visited Europe, is it still considered a "discovery" because all of that would be new to them?

We also discussed Sacagawea and the plight of Native American women.  Are they just footnotes in history?  Were most of them little better off than slaves, doing the majority of hard labor for their communities?

And speaking of slaves, how about poor old York?  He had a good sense of humor, but was mistreated and not freed upon his return.

With respect to Manifest Destiny, the Corp of Discovery Expedition was just the first phase (and the origin of the phrase).  There was a religious aspect - God deemed Europeans should have the North American Continent from short to shore.  Our leader asked us if this was similar to eminent domain today? Or was it just theft?

We discussed Jefferson, and by extension, Lewis' policy towards the Native Americans.  Their vision of an American Trade empire and the integration of the Native Americans proved an impossible mountain to scale.  The 'civilizing' of the Indian Nations by forcing them to become peaceful among themselves and then ultimately wholly dependent upon America was either naiveté or hubris or both.  With the exception of the Mandans and the Nez Perce, the Expeditions' interactions with the Indian Nations were strained at best and left a legacy of lies and distrust that resulted in even worse relations for generations to come.

Does man ever progress without harm?

At this point, our leader recommended another book by Ambrose entitled Nothing Like It In The World about the transcontinental railroad.

On a lighter note, one of the readers related that her favorite story from Undaunted Courage involved the collapsible boat.  Recently, some archeologists believe they have found it near Great Falls, Montana.

I related that my favorite story involved the grizzly bear that refused to die and jumped after two of the Expedition's men from a twenty-foot high bluff into the Missouri after being shot eight times.

We returned to the more depressing tale of Lewis' death.  Our leader asked us if we believed it was murder?  We all agreed it was not murder, unless you consider suicide self-murder.  Some contributing factors could have included the amount of mercury consumed by Lewis (and the rest of the Expedition).  One of the readers noted that archeologists today have no trouble tracing the Lewis and Clark expedition because of the incredible amounts of mercury still present at their campsites.  Other contributing factors includes Lewis' alcoholism, use of opiates, lead poisoning (from being shot), he could have been bipolar and/or recurrence of malaria.

Suggested field trips included the Lewis & Clark museum in Nebraska City and Ft. Osage in Missouri.

After some more tangential and heated discussions on right and wrong, good and evil, our leader brought us back down to Earth and distributed next month's book of a much lighter fair:  A Walk in the Woods by Billy Bryson

Looks like next month I may get to encounter bears ... again.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Neglecting My Blog

My apologies.  I've been neglecting my Blogger blog in favor of my WordPress one.  I have to admit that I much prefer the interface, options and features provided at WP compared to what I have here at Blogger.  Still no excuse to completely abandon it.  I will make an effort to check in here at least weekly.

I am way behind on my book reviews, but I have done a couple of movie reviews that I may import here as well. 

Again, I apologize for appearing to abandon my Blogger blog.

Rembering Roxy Posts

In Memory of Roxy

Roxy (c. 2008)
Roxy (c. 2008)


Friday, March 23, 2012

Remembering Roxy: Bear-Pig

Derek Teasing Roxy (Aug 2005)
Derek Teasing Roxy (Aug 2005)
I can thank my son, Derek, for coming up with the nickname 'Bear-Pig' for Roxy. Back in 2005, Rachelle was a sophomore in high school and Derek attended a local community college but still lived at home. By then he had moved into the basement (don't all young adult males thrive in those environs?) and only came up for air when he needed food or to leave for work or school. I often referred to him as 'Derek the Destroyer who lurks in the Mossy Catacombs (or Dungeon).' At that time, Roxy didn't have a playmate or companion dog to annoy (we would rescue Apollo the following year).

Derek and Roxy in a Stand Off (Aug 2005)
Derek and Roxy in a Stand Off (Aug 2005)
Derek loved to tease and harass Roxy. She would wait for him at the top of the stairs when she heard him rising up from the basement. He would lean forward on the stairs from the lower landing so he was eye level with her and start making strange noises at her or woofing at her. Roxy replied with her own strange sounds, which reminded Derek of the sounds a bear makes. He would get her so worked up she would start to lunge at him. Then he would egg her on more by chasing her into the great room and wrestling with her. Roxy didn't stand a chance by then, since Derek is an expert in nearly all forms of grappling - wrestling, judo and jujitsu.

That explains the first part of the nickname 'Bear-Pig.' The second half has more to do with Roxy's typical Rottweiler appetite and the fact that when she sniffed around the house for anything remotely resembling a snack, she sort of looked like a wild pig. At least she didn't 'oink oink' while she was rooting around for treats.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book Review: The Terror by Simmons

The Terror

The Terror by Dan Simmons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read The Terror as part of a group read at the Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club at GoodReads during the month of February. I participated in the discussion, as did many others. To review those threads, please follow this link.

I started reading this the evening of February 13th, with snowfall predicted to commence after midnight. I sat shivering at the kitchen table while I read the first few chapters, even though the furnace kept my house a toasty 78 degrees Fahrenheit. I even dug out a blanket to put on the bed before I went to sleep (still shivering). Brrrr..... Great writing by Dan Simmons, atmospherically speaking.

 And I restrained my insatiable desire to research the quest for the Northwest Passage and specifically the final voyage of the HMS Terror until after I finished reading the novel. Simmons kept me riveted until the last few chapters, when he decided to take an extreme detour into arctic supernatural spirituality that left me, well, cold.

Still, a great read by an outstanding author. I recommend lots of warm tea or cocoa and abstinence from long pork.

 View all my reviews

Book Review: Archangel by Shinn

Archangel (Samaria, #1)Archangel by Sharon Shinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beyond Reality February 2012 Science Fiction Selection

The protagonist, Rachel, grabbed me immediately. Not only was she a superb vocalist, she reminded me in so many ways of my own daughter, also named Rachelle, and who is also a superb vocalist (mezzo soprano, though, instead of Rachel's coloratura soprano). As soon as I finished the book, I sent a recommendation off to my Rachelle, hoping she'd read it and enjoy it as much as I did.

The religious references intrigued me (and sometimes made me laugh - did anyone else think that the name of Semorrah was a mashed-up condensation of Sodom and Gemorrah?) and the musical elements fascinated me. I play piano, attempt to sing (not as well trained as my daughter, so I gave it up as a lost cause at this point in my life) and I know basic music theory. My husband has years of training (jazz trumpet and guitar), composes music and has perfect relative pitch; all of which he passed on to our daughter.

On the question of whether this novel is science fiction or fantasy, I leaned towards the former early on. Once introduced to the oracle Josiah in Archangel, I began to believe I was reading a science fiction story (perhaps along the lines of Pern?). But the rest of the novel revealed little beyond that scene with the Oracle. Another clue could also be derived from the 'smallness' of their 'planet' in area and scope.

I interpreted the singing as magical. The story is mostly a romance, which I normally avoid like the plague, but in this case it worked well.

I have not decided yet if I will continue this series. I'll have to research my friends' reviews of it and see if it gets better or if this installment is as good as it gets.

 All in all, I really enjoyed Archangel, even if it seemed to be a romance masquerading as a fantasy with hints of science fiction sprinkled throughout.

 View all my reviews

Friday, March 16, 2012

Remembering Roxy: Circling the Wagons

Roxy with one of her indestructible ring toys (May 2007)
I have many great memories of Roxy to share. I hope most of them make you smile. Some of them may even make you laugh out loud. All of them will be bittersweet for me, but still precious. So, I plan to share them with you on a weekly basis, probably on Fridays, as I will have the hardest time getting through a weekend without Roxy to cheer me up.

I dreaded walking up the fronts steps these last five days. Apollo met me at the door, but his tail didn't thump-thump-thump against the dividing rail between the entryway and the dining area. He wagged his tail at the sight of me, but he wasn't crowded out of the way by Roxy. She usually stood front and center, eagerly gripping her ring toy in her mouth, dancing back and forth in front of Apollo. I usually had to order them both to back up so I could squeeze through the screen door.

I would carefully thread the needle of swirling Rottweilers and unburden myself of my purse and laptop case in the great room. Once my hands were free, I could pet each of them, although Roxy would continually circle around me in an effort to head Apollo off from getting too much attention.

If I decided to sit down, Roxy would either approach me and plop herself down on my feet, facing away from me, or continue circling the great room with her ring toy. We affectionately called this parading around 'circling the wagons.' Sometimes Apollo would stealthily attempt to snatch the toy from her jaws and then the fun really began.

Roxy, being the nearly full blooded Rottweiler, could easily keep Apollo, the half-breed, from her toy. Her jaw strength and stubbornness exceeded his. But Apollo never played fair and used stealth and guile to trick Roxy into dropping it. Sometimes, he would even go so far as to lay on the ring toy, which drove Roxy into a fit of apoplexy. Eventually she would start circling him faster and faster and even go so far as to bark repeatedly at him. Unless Terry or I told Apollo to get up, he would ignore Roxy's tantrum.

Roxy's ring toys sit idle in the great room. I've tried a couple of times this week, as has Terry, to get Apollo to play catch and fetch, but Apollo only made half-hearted attempts. Apollo would much prefer to play tug-of-war with Roxy. He still doesn't understand why she's gone. If only I spoke better dog, then I might be able to tell him what happened. Perhaps it's a blessing for him that I can't.