At the intersection of nature and imagination

It’s always a pleasure to have a review from Tom Dillon, who draws attention to books I might otherwise miss.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

THE INVENTION OF NATURE: ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT’S NEW WORLD. By Andrea Wulf. Alfred A. Knopf. 473 pages. $30, hardback

natureBe honest, now. Who was Alexander von Humboldt? Do you know? The chances are, if you have been living in 20th and 21st century America, you don’t. He may be memorialized in things like the Humboldt Current running up the coast of Chile and Peru, dozens of parks and monuments and mountains in Latin America and more than 100 animals. Indeed, the state of Nevada was almost named for him. But for too many, he’s been forgotten.

It’s fair to say, says Andrea Wulf in this absorbing 2016 book, that the peripatetic German scientist and explorer is responsible for our concept of nature itself. He was a mentor for such people as Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Ernst Haeckel, John Muir and others. Go look at “The Andes of Ecuador,” Frederic Church’s marvelous painting at Winston-Salem’s Reynolda House, and you’ll be looking at the work of another person inspired by Humboldt.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries – Humboldt lived from 1769 to 1859 – he was probably the best-known scientist and explorer in the world, breaking new trails in the South American rain forest, climbing to heights unknown on Ecuador’s Chimborazo volcano – then thought to be the tallest mountain in the world – and influencing people as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and Simon Bolivar.

But Humboldt was German, and things German fell out of favor in much of the West in the early 20th century. “Both world wars of the 20th century cast long shadows,” Wulf writes, “and neither Britain nor America were places for the celebration of a great German mind anymore.” In Cleveland in 1917, German books were burned in a public bonfire – where 50 years earlier thousands had marched in celebration of Humboldt’s centennial.

So why should we care? Well, Wulf says, partly because Humboldt’s life was colorful and “packed with adventure.” He was one of the first explorers of Latin and South America and later traveled far across Russia, longing to reach the Himalaya. But more than that, she says, Humboldt’s writings blurred the line between science and the arts. He could talk to both farmers and scientists.

“Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary,” Wulf writes. “Environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers today remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision – although many have never heard of him.” She calls Humboldt their “founding father.”

Humboldt and his brother, Wilhelm, were born to an aristocratic Prussian family but had an unhappy childhood after their father’s early death. Both boys were tutored by a string of Enlightenment thinkers who taught them a love or truth, liberty and knowledge, but their mother expected them to become civil servants, a future that agreed with Wilhelm but frustrated Alexander.

Alexander took a job as a mining inspector, but on his mother’s death began planning with a young French scientist, Aime Bonpland, for a voyage to South America. They were eventually able to get permission from Spain to visit its colonies, and in 1799 set sail for what today is known as Venezuela – then New Andalusia.

That was the start of five eventful years during which Humboldt and Bonpland explored the rain forests, established a connection between the Orinoco and Amazon river basins, climbed mountains and eventually made it to Peru, Mexico, Cuba and the new United States, where Humboldt found a kindred spirit in President Thomas Jefferson. His writings about all this made his international reputation among both scientists and the reading public in Europe.

Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of his travels attracted immediate attention in Europe and was eventually followed by dozens of other books, papers and articles, culminating in his publication of his five-volume Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, in 1845. The first two volumes were huge best sellers and by 1851 had been translated into 10 languages.

This book is a follow-up to Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners and The Brother Gardeners, about the interest in the natural world among America’s founders. And while it takes Wulf in a new direction, it features the same seemingly effortless writing and fine attention to detail. It’s fair to say that the sections on Humboldt’s travels are by far the most interesting part of the book.  But it’s all very readable.

Humboldt could perhaps captivate others as he captivated John Muir, who wrote at the start of his own travels, “How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt,” desperate to see the “snow-capped Andes and the flowers of the Equator.”

  • Tom Dillon is a retired journalist who lives in Winston-Salem.


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What did the president know …

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

RICHARD NIXON: The Life. By John A. Farrell. Random House Audio. Read by Dan Woren. 29 hours; 23 CDs. $60. Also available in hardcover from Doubleday.

nixonThere have been other biographies of Richard Nixon, the only American president to resign from office. From what I’ve read, this new one by John A. Farrell measures up well and provides some new information, most notably the revelation about how Nixon’s secret communications with the president of South Vietnam in 1968 sabotaged President Lyndon Johnson’s attempts at a peace deal, probably extending the Vietnam War for political gain.

Like many others, I, however, have not read any previous biographies, so my reactions are based solely on this one. I found it fascinating, fair, enlightening and a story that became hard to put down (in my case, the kind of audio book that makes me drive farther than I meant to, because I want to hear what happens next).

Many Americans born toward the end of World War II or in the early days of the baby boom, as Nixon’s two daughters were, have memories of much of what Farrell details. With scandals, the Cold War, assassinations, civil rights and antiwar protests and then Watergate, he has a wealth of material.

Younger readers can gain valuable insight into how American politics and society have come to be the way they are. Much of what we struggle with today has its roots in the story Farrell tells so well.

I was privileged to be a young journalist on the national news desk at The Sun in Baltimore, just up the road from D.C., when Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned in disgrace and during the Watergate scandal. Even though I lived and breathed the news events of those days, I learned a lot from Farrell’s book. In addition to information that was not known at the time, his insightful treatment provides the sort of context and perspective that are in short supply when dramatic events are unfolding.

One of Farrell’s most impressive achievements is the way he manages to describe the life of this complex man with great fairness and even, at times, compassion. He is more sympathetic to Nixon than might be expected, but he never fails to point out the man’s flaws and failings. The Nixon he describes is clearly a tragic figure in the classical sense, a man with much greatness but also with flaws that lead to his own destruction.

While not indulging in too much amateur psychoanalysis, Farrell does make a good case for the warring drives that motivated Nixon – the good instincts inherited from his Quaker mother, whose approval he was never quite sure of, and the sometimes ruthless determination to fight and win that came from his harsh father. Though Nixon was intelligent and accomplished, he never got over his feelings of insecurity. Those feelings made him thin-skinned to the point of being paranoid. He also came to believe that he was on a mission, and that whatever it took to keep him in power and help him to achieve his goals was justified.

Nixon did many bad things, although part of what Farrell accomplishes is to show that he was not the first or the only one to commit many such transgressions – he just went further, and in a more reckless way. He also did a number of good things that tend to be forgotten, including more to help the environment than any president since Theodore Roosevelt.

Farrell’s book inevitably sparks discussion about the many parallels between Nixon and Donald Trump, the man who surprisingly became president while this book was about to be published. The most notable similarity is their extreme distrust and hatred of the press.

But, as others have pointed out, there are many ways in which these two men are quite different. Nixon came from a working-class family, and even when he was hobnobbing with the wealthy and mingling with world leaders, he never felt that he belonged. Nixon was a professional politician, not an outside amateur, having worked his way up from congressman to senator to a two-term vice president, and having weathered some difficult defeats, before reaching the White House. Nixon, highly intelligent, did much research and was deeply involved in policy decisions. He was plagued with self-doubts.

And yet … the similarities are disturbingly there. One of the oddly comforting takeaways from Farrell’s book, however, is that the United States has survived even through times when its leaders fell far short of its ideals and terrible events threatened our democracy.

This is a fine biography, a good story as well as well researched and documented history. Dan Woren’s presentation in the audio version is just right, making the listener feel like an intimate witness to history.





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Probing the past in L.A.

Bob Moyer takes a look at the latest book in a series he’s long enjoyed.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

HEARTBREAK HOTEL. By Jonathan Kellerman. Ballantine Books. 351 pages. $28.99

hotelThe duo of LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis and child psychologist Alex Delaware has taken on a number of demeanors over the many volumes of their adventures against crime.  Foremost, of course, is Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, a yin and yang combo of intuition and analysis.  Other characterizations obtain, particularly, given their penchant for banter, Milo’s portly figure, and Alex’s dry delivery, Laurel and Hardy.  In this latest installment, Milo comes up with a new job description: “When you get down to it, we’re both historians.”

That’s exactly the skill they need for this latest case.  Thalia Mars, just a few days shy of her 100th birthday, cajoles Alex into a meeting, getting his attention with some enigmatic questioning.  When he returns to the decaying suite in the hotel where she has lived for more than six decades, he finds her dead.  No immediate motive appears, with nothing of value kept or missing from her suite, and her estate destined for a children’s hospital.  It’s up to Alex and Milo to go “…bravely into the past,” to re-create her “…increasingly narrowing world, two rooms her universe.”

A few fragile threads emerge, leading them along unusual paths.  Well, unusual in another city perhaps, but not Los Angeles.  After all, it’s “…a city where the county coroner runs a retail website and guides driving pimped-up hearses cruise past the manors of dead rich people, doling out schadenfreude.”  The trail leads to a past strewn with mobsters, lawyers and/or thieves, and finally proves to be the result of “…the long arm of the lawless,” executed by a “…femme way past fatale.”

The progress toward Alex’s intuitive jump to a solution is enhanced here with a larger role for his significant other, Robin.  She interjects herself into his ruminations, and provides a female perspective hitherto unplumbed in this series.  It’s just the jolt Alex needs and leads him to a discovery that makes the coroner comment that, “You’re a smart man.  Or you understand women. … Both possibilities scare me.”

Of course, it doesn’t scare us, it delights us once again.  Check into the Heartbreak Hotel.  It’s a pleasant visit.


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A most misunderstood president

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

HERBERT HOOVER: A LIFE. By Glen Jeansonne. Berkley. 464 pages. $28. Also available from Penguin Audio, read by Mark Deakins. 16 hours, 28 minutes. $29.95.

HooverHead west across Interstate 80 from Chicago, and you’ll come across a National Park Service surprise in West Branch, Iowa: The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site.

The surprise lies in aspects of the 31st president’s life on display in his hometown but taught neither in our schools nor on the History Channel.

To the extent that many of us know of Hoover, it is likely for one of these three things:

He was president when the stock market crashed in 1929.

He lends his name to the “Hooverville” encampments of the Great Depression.

He made a pretty good vacuum cleaner.

That third item isn’t true; he had nothing to do with the Hoover vacuum cleaners.

As you tour the small museum, you will discover that, in the words of Glen Jeansonne in this 2016 biography, Hoover was the “most versatile American since Benjamin Franklin.”

A small town boy orphaned at 10, Hoover was sent to Oregon to live with an uncle. In one of those Horatio Alger stories that America once appreciated, he graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree, worked as a coal miner, started as a typist in an engineering consulting company and within two years was its owner’s right hand engineer.

A British mining company sent him to Australia, where he introduced new techniques to mine previously considered exhausted sites, reaping huge profits and sizable rewards for himself. Then the Chinese made him their chief mining engineer, and during that time he was caught in the Boxer siege of Beijing.

By the time he was 30, Hoover was considered the foremost mining engineer in the world.

By 1914, at the age of 40, he was ready to take on new challenges. A wealthy man, he led the international effort to feed the starving Belgians during World War I, and after America’s entry into the war in 1917, to head food production efforts in the U.S.

After the war, as probably the best-known U.S. commerce secretary in history, he led both his department’s modernization and hunger-relief efforts in Russia. After World War II, President Harry Truman would ask him, as the world’s most accomplished food relief administrator, to help feed starving Europeans.

Jeansonne says that Hoover probably saved more lives through these relief efforts than any other person in human history.

So, if all we knew about Hoover was related to the Depression, we obviously missed a lot. And maybe what we know about Hoover’s presidency isn’t totally accurate, either.

Hoover was very conservative, but not in the vein of today’s Tea Party reactionaries. He made many efforts to put people back to work, but most involved the private sector. He hoped business policies could do the job. Contrary to popular perception, Hoover did increase government infrastructure spending in hopes of increasing employment. But it wasn’t enough, and Franklin D. Roosevelt crushed him in the 1932 elections.

Jeansonne has written an engaging biography, one that reintroduces us to a man previous generations of Americans knew well and for a long time.

The Hoover we think we know was cold, heartless and inflexible. The Hoover we meet in these pages, or in the West Branch complex, is just the opposite.


  • Paul T. O’Connor is a veteran political columnist who teaches in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism.


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Can Jack be back?

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE CUTTHROAT. By Clive Cussler and Justin Scott. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 9 ½ hours; 8 CDs. $45. Also available in hardback from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

CutthroatIsaac Bell, the chief investigator for the Van Dorn Detective Agency, would not normally be assigned to find an attractive young woman who has run away from a nice home in hopes of making it big as a Broadway actress in New York City. After all, it’s 1911, and a lot of well-bred young women chafe at society’s restrictions and hope for more excitement and glamour in life.

But this particular young woman, Anna Pape, has a father who has pull with Bell’s boss, the founder of the agency. So Bell starts to work, but before he can track down Anna, she’s found murdered in a particularly gruesome way. Plagued by thoughts that he could have saved her if he’d acted more quickly, Bell vows to solve the case. The more he works, the more he realizes that Anna’s death was not a singular act.

As he becomes convinced that a serial killer is preying on young women, Bell presses his investigation, even traveling to England to find out more about the mystery of Jack the Ripper. That serial killer was never identified, and the murders stopped abruptly a little more than 20 years ago. Could “Jack” have come to the United States?

Bell becomes obsessed with the case, wondering how many young women have died, and how many more might be killed if he doesn’t find the murderer. His investigation takes him across the country, as Broadway shows hit the road. And the more Bell learns, the more chances the killer seems to be willing to take as he preys on vulnerable women.

Clive Cussler is one of those successful authors who have something of a publishing empire, with a team of writers helping to produce new volumes. Although the books in his various series have some things in common, the plots are always inventive enough to keep the stories fresh. And the stories are enriched by a considerable amount of fascinating information. Even his contemporary series usually incorporate some interesting history, and the Isaac Bell books, set in the early 20th century, are rich with descriptions of notable personalities, vintage cars, train travel, the entertainment world including the nascent movie industry, and other intriguing details.

As usual, Scott Brick’s reading bring the audio version alive in a way that fits the mystery and mounting suspense. This is a great book for a road trip, or any time you want a lively, reasonably intelligent diversion.


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The art of death in Detroit

Bob Moyer takes a look at paperback original novel from a prolific writer of mystery stories.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

SHOT IN DETROIT. By Patricia Abbott. Polis Books. 302 pages. $15, paperback.

detriotThe 12 bodies in this book don’t get dead the same way. Some are gunned down, some are stabbed, and one is dismembered. After they die, however, they have one thing in common — they are shot again.

With a camera.

Photographer Violet Hart struggles to barely make a living, shooting bar mitzvahs and weddings. She’s a bit harried, has nothing but hookups for relationships and has just finished a highly unsuccessful gallery showing. She can feel 40 coming on fast, and she hasn’t found her métier, her raison d’etre, her oeuvre. She wanders about Detroit, looking for the elusive link to art that has evaded her.

That’s the big mystery explored here — what is art? The author heads every other chapter with quotes from famous photographers, nets of words casting about for the inspiration that leads to the real thing.

Then her hope-to-be boyfriend, a mortician, calls for her help when his photographer can’t make it for funeral photos. She finds her subject that matters: young dead black men. The subjects arrive at a rapid pace — it is Detroit, after all — and she gets caught up in the frenzy of creation.

Questioning her source, hung up over her father’s desertion, panicky about her boyfriend’s dwindling attention, she puts herself in harm’s way with a chance acquaintance, involvement with a dead body, and subsequently, the cops.

Through it all, she perseveres with a compunction bordering on the perverse to take the pictures needed for a show. A shocking final death and the completion of her work arrive simultaneously. Her personal and professional life merge into an exhibit featured in a faux review at the end of the book. The dark matter and the portrait of Detroit elevate this book, nominated for Best Paperback Original Edgar Award, above the average pulp novel.

Take a shot at it.

  • Robert Moyer is a dramatist, poet, teacher and Renaissance man who lives in Winston-Salem when he’s not off gallivanting.
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Fighting Irish – a tale for our times

Paul O’Connor reviews a new biography of a 19th-century immigrant who battled discrimination against himself even as he fought for freedom for those who were enslaved.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE IMMORTAL IRISHMAN. By Timothy Egan. Brilliance Audio. 14 hours, 9 minutes. Read by Gerard Doyle. $11.95 Audible Download. Also available in paperback. Mariner Books. 384 pages. $15.95.

irishSome lives just don’t turn out as expected.

Thomas F. Meagher was born into the small, fortunate sector of Irish Catholics who in mid-19th century Waterford could afford to eat, wear clothes rather than rags and enjoy a formal education.

The son of a successful merchant, he would have been expected to live well despite the crushing rule of the occupying power, Great Britain.

But Meagher didn’t take that path, and National Book Award-winning author Timothy Egan has produced a fascinating, inspiring and infuriating biography of this man, a book that is hugely relevant today.

Meagher, who many considered the finest orator of his generation, ventured into the Irish independence movement as a teen, joining the radical Young Ireland movement.

Captured by the British after a failed rebellion in 1848, Meagher was eventually sent into lifetime Tasmanian exile from which he eventually escaped.

He came to the U.S. and instantly became famous. He traveled nationally on speaking tours during the 1850s and was widely seen as the leader of the Irish expat community.

When the South rebelled, he led the New York 69th, otherwise known as the Irish Brigades, as a general in the U.S. Army. After the rebellion, he would head west, where he served as acting governor of Montana until his death.

Through the many stages of his life, Meagher fought for one principle: freedom of the enslaved. First, in Ireland, where he fought against the British overlords who intentionally allowed the Irish population to starve during the potato famines, then in the Civil War, where he made clear that his purpose for joining the Union forces was to free the slaves.

Finally, in Montana, where a vigilante cadre maintained power through violence, he fought to bring law and order for the vast influx of immigrant mining labor.

Although Meagher could escape from British imprisonment, he could not get free of the pervasive prejudice against the Irish. In the 1850s, he was the target of vile attacks from the Know Nothings who wished to restrict immigration from Ireland and other non-Anglo Saxon countries.

Egan recounts the discrimination directed at Irish immigrants in infuriating detail. One can only hope that any Americans claiming Irish heritage today would consider what their ancestors went through then and feel some empathy for today’s immigrants.

The discrimination followed Meagher into the U.S. Army. He and his men faced discrimination by the ruling WASP military “elite” of the Union Army, despite the spectacular performance of the Irish Brigades at battles such as Malvern Hills and Antietam. (An aside: Although there is no definitive origin assigned to Notre Dame’s calling its athletic teams the “Fighting Irish,” one prominent theory is that it springs from these brigades.)

Writing the biography of such a gifted writer and orator must have been a challenge, but it is one to which Timothy Egan rose. His words flow beautifully, as did Meagher’s, and in the audiobook version Irish reader Gerard Doyle provides probably the best performance it has been my pleasure to enjoy.

So, as we enjoy St. Patrick’s Day this week and as our president continues his harsh and cruel policies against immigrant populations, we have this wonderful, highly acclaimed book to which to turn for inspiration.

  • Paul T. O’Connor is the North Carolina statewide political columnist for the Capitol Press Association.


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Poverty, material and spiritual

This memoir/sociological analysis came out last summer, but Bob Moyer finds that it’s just as relevant now as it was during the thick of the presidential campaign.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

HILLBILLY ELEGY. By J.D. Vance. Harper. 261 pages. $27.99.

elegyAccording to J.D. Vance, you may be a hillbilly if you do the following during a marital conflict:

Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you — if she or he knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much and you departure won’t be as effective.”

Vance has produced a remarkably poignant portrait of that Scots-Irish-Appalachian group known as hillbillies. He intends, he says, to portray the “spiritual and material poverty” that affects this oft-maligned, oft-ridiculed segment of the population, and why that condition remains chronic. With vivid detail, he describes how this “ancient family structure from the hills” did not thrive in the suburban setting they found themselves in when they made the journey up Route 23 from Kentucky to Ohio.

That’s where Vance hails from. Born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio, he knows whereof he speaks. Growing up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, he experienced that much-studied milieu of single-parent homes and economic segregation that Middletown became. He also graduated from Yale Law School, and he brings a fierce, unsentimental ability to conflate his observations and experience with the many studies that have come down. In other words, he walks the walk and talks the talk with authority.

One of the problems he tackles throughout the book is the “…reasons poor people aren’t working as much as others.”

Although he give some credence to the observation that factories around the country “…are going out of business and (the workers’) skill sets don’t fit well in the modern economy,” he lays part of the fault on the hillbilly himself.

He cites the culture brought from the hills, in which a man doesn’t do “women’s work.” In this model, it is not clear what work, if any, is acceptable to a man. Vance recounts the warehouse where he worked in high school with a constant flux of workers who simply didn’t want to work that hard. In other words, “…many folks talk about working more than they actually work.”

Vance blends personal experience into the cycle of lost opportunities in Middletown, as people can rise neither above nor out of poverty. He catalogues drug abuse, his mother being driven away in the back of a cop car, frequent moves just within the community, and the penchant on the part of a hillbilly to go from “…zero to murderous in a f*#@ing heartbeat.” Up against that negative force, he came out with an optimism which he credits to his own “god#@*n terminator,” his grandma. Not only did she provide him the succor that kept him going, as well as kept him from harm, but she also provides a few unintended moments of humor. In order to keep him away from a certain unsavory character, she threatens to run the kid over if she ever catches Vance with him again:  “No one would ever find out,’ she whispered menacingly.” Both she and his grandfather were part of the “…loving handful of people” who rescued him.

That’s it. No panaceas, no pronouncements, no prescriptions, just a clearly wrought conclusion with no fanfare. Vance makes clear that love and a stable place to live enabled his “escape.”  Without sounding the least academic, he has produced a most profound sociological study of the dysfunction of the American working force, and the vicious cycle of poverty that makes it nigh onto impossible for people like him to escape it.

He’s proud that he escaped it, but, to his credit, he’s also proud to be a hillbilly. That pride manifests itself in the deeply empathetic but pointedly accurate portrait that has put this book at the top of the best-seller list.


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Pirates, beware

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI: Lieutenant Putnam and the Barbary Pirates. By James L. Haley. Books on Tape. Read by Paul Boehmer. 15 ½ hours; 13 CDs. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 464 pages.

tripoliWow, what a book – a naval adventure tale full of action, interesting characters and fascinating history. The Shores of Tripoli is a highly entertaining and enlightening beginning to what I hope will be a long series of novels.

Our hero is Bliven Putnam, a New England farm boy who is thoughtful, well read and eager to see the world. With misgivings, his father lets him join the fledgling United States Navy when Bliven is 14. It’s not long before the boy is educated in the ways of the sea and toughened in battle. He becomes a midshipman and moves on to lieutenant while still a teenager. One of the many details that you will learn from this well researched book is that service at such a tender age was not unusual in the early days of our country’s Navy. Bliven was a midshipman decades before there was a Naval Academy (or, later, ROTC programs) to educate and train future Navy and Marine officers.

The book starts in 1801, when the American Navy is still in its infancy and politicians argue over the wisdom of spending the money to build and maintain ships and keep them manned with trained crews.

President Jefferson, however, has decided that the young country must do something to stop the menace of piracy in the Mediterranean, where the Berber States of Northern Africa believe that their religion entitles them to seize foreign ships and make slaves of the “infidels” who make up their crews. The Berber States, especially Tripoli, demand tribute to leave U.S. ships alone and ransom to free those sailors who are captured and enslaved.

While on his first ship, Bliven is part of a fierce battle with the pirate ship Tripoli. After an extended time at home, he is assigned to the USS Constitution, under the command of Commodore Edward Preble. In addition to the action he sees on the Constitution, Bliven is temporarily assigned to accompany Army Gen. William Eaton on a daring march through the desert to mount a surprise attack on the Libyan city of Derna. Students of history will know Bliven is in the thick of actual events with real people.

James L. Haley must have done extensive research into the history of the Navy, the United States and early 19th century wars and politics, and, like the best historical novelists, he works his knowledge smoothly into the story he’s telling.

Bliven sees a lot more of the world than he had imagined, learning much about human nature, politics, military culture and, yes, women. In 1801, he’s a bright but naïve young teenager; by the end of the book, he’s a man, even if not yet in his 20s.

Haley does a grand job of bringing the story alive. With Bliven, we brave the seas, face terrifying foes, visit exotic places and meet interesting people.

Although fans of historical fiction in general should love the book, those with an interest in naval history will be especially pleased. Those familiar with today’s Navy will be intrigued, amused and even horrified by some of what went on in those early days. One challenge, for example, involved trying to figure out how to keep worms from infesting the hard bread that kept sailors alive on long stretches at sea. Another was the lash, which some officers were all too ready to wield for any infraction.

If you like Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin (Master and Commander) nautical novels, you should love Haley’s book. It’s set at about the same time, but from the perspective of the U.S., not the British Navy. And you, like Bliven, will pick up on the reality that tensions between the United States and Britain may well lead to war before too long. Bliven, too, is increasingly conscious of tensions within his own country between people from the North and those from the South, between those who believe slavery should be abolished and those who think it must be continued.

The U.S. Navy, we know, will have many more vital and adventurous missions in the years immediately following 1805. I’ll be surprised and disappointed if Bliven Putnam is not in the thick of them.



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Murder in Atlanta

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

OLD BONES. By Trudy Nan Boyce. Read by Rebecca Lowman. Books on Tape. 10 ½ hours; 8 CDs.

oldbonesjpg-89c804bdb98533d0Atlanta is a powder keg after someone fires on a group of students from Spelman College who are demonstrating for police reform. One student from the historically black women’s college is killed, and several others are fighting for their lives. People are demanding answers. Sympathizers are pouring in from other cities. Police detectives are trying hard to figure out who the shooter was, trying hard to solve the other murder cases that haunt their thoughts, but having to take time from their investigations to don uniforms and help deal with riots in the streets.

The situation that unfolds in Old Bones is not exactly just routine work for an Atlanta police detective like Sarah Alt, but it isn’t that atypical, either.

For fans of detective and mystery fiction, it’s always a pleasure to discover a good series, with the prospect of many more books to come. I somehow missed Out of the Blues, the debut of the Detective Sarah Alt series by Trudy Nan Boyce. But now that I’ve found No. 2, Old Bones, you can bet I’ll go back to find that first one and eagerly await Boyce’s future offerings.

Sarah Alt, known by most people as Salt, is a young woman who, after doing her years on the streets of Atlanta as a beat cop, has recently become a homicide detective. Her father was also a cop in Atlanta, and her family’s roots are deep in rural Georgia near the city. She’s a police officer who strives to do her job well, and who also thinks about such issues as justice and fairness and what kind of prospects the kids who grow up in the projects have in life. She gets to know the people she deals with, and she cares about them.

Boyce obviously is writing what she knows. She spent more than 30 years as a police officer in Atlanta, including time as a homicide detective. Before that, she earned a Ph.D. in community counseling.

In the midst of the fallout from the Spelman shootings, Salt discovers that the decomposed body she’s called out to investigate is that of a teenage girl she arrested a couple of years earlier. Salt didn’t even know the girl was out of custody, but she feels a responsibility to find out what happened. Unfortunately, both events and people with questionable motives interfere with her investigation.

This book has it all – the plot is taught and believable, with enough action and suspense to make it gripping. Salt is a complex and likable character, struggling with her own problems even as she devotes herself to her demanding job. There’s a romance, too, and it blends seamlessly into the rest of the story. Boyce portrays the tensions of Atlanta as a New South city, with plenty of good people, to be sure, but also slums, drugs and gangs intertwined with the legacy of slavery and racism.

Boyce’s story and her prose are rich and accomplished. Rebecca Lowman’s reading of the audio version is a pleasure, and I’m happy to say she does not exaggerate Southern accents.




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