Book Review: North Writers by John Henricksson, editor

North Writers I: A Strong Woods Collection

North Writers I: A Strong Woods Collection by John Henricksson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A lovely collection of short essay/memoir writings from a highly specific part of the American (and Canadian) landscape. A variety of voices and experiences are present here. Some of the pieces feel dated for the modern reader while others remain poignant and fresh. If you have love for the north woods, you’ll find something to enjoy at some point in this book. I would recommend reading it in small bites at a time. The volume is split between nature-focused writings and more human encounters–my preference was for the former.



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Book Review: Shipwrecks of Lake Superior, edited by James Marshall

Shipwrecks of Lake Superior

Shipwrecks of Lake Superior by James R. Marshall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I found this charming book in a used bookstore in Door County, Wisconsin. Compiled in the 1980’s, this volume is a collection of articles that methodically explores the known history of shipwrecks in Lake Superior–a topic that I’m currently researching. For the purpose of information, it’s an awesome find. The writing quality does widely vary from article to article. Some are filled with poetic prose, others unbearably dry. All of them are written by maritime history enthusiasts and divers, not necessarily writers… However, I found that created amusing results. For instance, the clearly heated opinions over theories regarding the reasons a ship might or might not have sunk come through with barely veiled salt. It’s great.
*
Like most of the non-fiction books I read, I wouldn’t recommend it other than for a very specific audience. Want all the facts on Lake Superior wrecks right at your fingertips, down to the names and lengths and crews of every single ship, but with no real regard for writing quality or organization? Look no further!



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Book Review: People of the Sturgeon by Kathleen Schmitt Kline

People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin's Love Affair with an Ancient Fish

People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin’s Love Affair with an Ancient Fish by Kathleen Schmitt Kline

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a lovely, info-packed volume for the rare reader who is deeply interested in the fishing and conservation history of lake sturgeon in Wisconsin. Luckily, I am one of those readers! The volume has lots of great pictures and many entertaining and educational anecdotes. This special fish has deeply impacted (and continues to impact) the culture of those who coexist with it, hunt it, and protect it. If you love sturgeon and learning about the history of fishery conservation, you will also love this book.

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Book Review: From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good DeathFrom Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Caitlin Doughty is one of America’s great death ambassadors–and I mean that in the most admiring sense. Her non-fiction title From Here to Eternity utilizes the knowledge and sensitivity that she’s gained from her own career as a mortician and funeral home owner as well as an immersive study of different cultural funerary practices. Many are extremely shocking for the typical American reader; as Doughty asserts throughout the book, our own view of death can be evasive, clinical, and even commercialized. The journey through these pages presents an alternative, highlighting many different funeral rituals, while being both light-hearted and deadly serious (ha!) about the importance of how we process death and view our body’s role in our transition into the next world. Disclaimer: If you are easily grossed out, or you have very set beliefs about what is religiously appropriate surrounding the dead, you may wish to skip this one. If not, READ IT!

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Book Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State KillerI’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michelle McNamara’s posthumously published true crime account takes us deep into the noxious labyrinth of one man’s unthinkable evildoings, and her own insatiable desire to hold him accountable for them. McNamara presents the sickening details about the Golden State Killer’s chilling reign of terror over central California in the 1970s and 1980s, but does so without being exploitative of the victims–rather, her tone prioritizes telling the truth: These things happened, and this man is responsible. Beyond the chilling facts of the GSK’s crimes, though, the truly fascinating part of this narrative is Michelle’s own unflagging, compulsive drive to use technology, wade through long-dormant paper trails, and unite citizen and police investigators to bring him into the light. Her dedication to solving this case was remarkable, and though she died before she could see him fall, she played a key role in helping unite and inform the people who did. Rest in peace, Michelle–They got him.

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Book Review: The Old-Fashioned by Robert Simonson

The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and LoreThe Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore by Robert Simonson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a neat little book about the history of the old-fashioned, which–as you’ll find if you read it–is far more contentious than one might assume! Small vignettes about notorious bartenders, responses to Prohibition, and the various reputations surrounding various versions of the drink reflect Simonson’s copious research as well as his knack for retelling it. My favorite aspect of the book, being a lifelong Wisconsinite myself, was the appearance of our state in the story of this shapeshifting cocktail. (Spoiler: Wisconsin is one of few places in which the preferred recipe of the old-fashioned has remained unchanged and popular through time… since the early 1900s!) There are also over 40 recipes for variations on the old-fashioned at the end of the book. The photographs throughout the book may be the actual star of this book, though–they are deliciously atmospheric and quite lovely.

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Book Review: Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining WomenThe Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kate Moore’s monumental dedication in researching the lives of the radium dial painters makes this incredible book what it is. She writes their stories with sensitivity and fidelity, imbued always with the deep admiration that compelled her to take on the project of writing Radium Girls. Detailing the obscene negligence of the radium companies of the 1920s and the carnage that followed in its wake, this book is a battle cry from the past that’s long overdue. I was transfixed and educated in the process of reading–Moore leaves no small detail unturned. The dial painting women are resurrected in these pages, and the reader learns about their everyday moments and concerns as much as about the unbelievable physical torments that they underwent. “Lip, dip, paint” becomes a chilling refrain as Moore shines a harsh light on a moment in history that birthed many of the workers’ protections that our country now provides. This is a stunning piece of non-fiction that pays a loving tribute to its subjects, making them completely impossible to forget.

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Book Review: The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

The Secret Lives of ColorThe Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This enchanting read is one of the most interesting informational books I’ve ever read, and it’s as much a festival for the eyes as it is for the brain. Kassia St. Clair assembles a huge collection of historical vignettes that take us through the unexpected secrets of various colors–some familiar, some quite unusual. The stories dabble in art history, fashion, biology, geology, politics, and culture, all through the lens of the colors that have influenced them since time began. What’s really wonderful is that each shade appears visually along the margins of its own story, so the reader can really soak in each shade. I loved the bite-size length of each individual color’s moment in the text, and the way St. Clair’s tone shifts in a charming way, as capricious as the colors themselves. Whether creepy, comical, pious, or posh, each color has more in its history than most of us dare to imagine. If the visual spectrum has ever interested you, you’ll want to add this title to your reading palette. (P.s. My favorite shades from the book: Baker-Miller Pink, Dragon’s Blood, Ultramarine, Absinthe, and Taupe. )

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Book Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is not just an absorbing scientific read, but also a manifesto in defense of the study of animal cognition. As one of the most prominent leaders in this field of biology, Frans de Waal gives a passionate and impenetrable body of evidence to support the concept that animals are so much more than mindless stimulus-response machines. De Waal argues that it’s high time for science to accept that human beings are in good company when it comes to thinking skills like planning ahead, creating culture, communicating, and even playing politics. With results from studies on chimpanzees, orangutans, macaques, crows, octopuses, wolves, and many more fauna, this book takes us on a tour through different types of cognition and explores the history behind what we know about animals’ amazing thinking abilities. As far as readability, the prose is a bit dry and tough to stick with for readers who don’t normally read in this genre–it is very heavy on scientific terminology, so approach it as such. One can’t help but respect de Waal’s copiously researched and referenced work in this volume: it speaks to how seriously he takes his discipline, and how seriously we should consider the minds of our crawling, flying, and swimming neighbors.

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Book Review: Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy

Thrill Me: Essays on FictionThrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Benjamin Percy has given writers of fiction everywhere a gift with Thrill Me. It reads somewhere between a career coming-of-age memoir, a nuts and bolts writing guide, and a certain Christmas when your one weird uncle sits you down to give you some tough love advice about life that all turns out to be true. As a teacher of writing and a writer myself, I’ve read a whole lot of books on writing craft, and I will confidently laud Thrill Me as one of the most enjoyable, applicable, smart, and motivating writing guides out there. Percy’s voice is relatable and fun, while also sage and seasoned. There are dozens of game-changing takeaways here that I can’t wait to try in my own writing. This book will leave my shelf often, accumulating multiple colors of highlighter ink and no doubt a crease in the cover. I almost don’t want anyone else to read it because I’d prefer to hoard all of Percy’s great advice to myself. Fiction writers: buy this book, read it, and thrill us!

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