The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

I first heard about this book last year when someone suggested it in my book club. It didn’t get chosen then, but I heard more about it on a podcast episode. I was blown away by the story of these young women (girls, in many cases). So when this book came back around this year as a possibility for our book club, I was excited when it was selected.

It is the well-researched history of mostly teenage women who worked painting luminous watches and other instruments in the early part of the twentieth century. What made the watches glow was radium in the paint. At that time, they weren’t fully aware of the dangers of radiation. In fact, radium was often seen as a miracle cure. But as the dangers became known to the employers, they did nothing to protect their employees. These young women would even put the tip of the paint brush in their mouths to get a fine point. And they were playful with it, painting themselves with it like makeup before they went out after work.

Years down the road, they started having medical problems that no one understood. The most common was their teeth falling out and their jaws literally coming apart. Eventually they discovered that it was the paint that had caused their issues. They hired lawyers to sue the employers who fought them with everything they had.

This is a hard read, but not because of the writing. The writing is excellent. But to read what these women went through physically and emotionally due to the negligence and heartlessness of their employers was deeply effecting. If this had been fiction, I would have had a hard time finding it believable. It is important to remember what these women went through to fight for workers’ rights.

My rating: 4.5/5

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

For Black History Month (February), my book club read this book. The author is a former host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central. It is the story of his growing up in South Africa, both during and after apartheid there. It was educational, funny, and at times emotionally challenging.

Each chapter tells of a part of his life. These include a wide variety of experiences. There was the time he pooped on the floor of his house as a small boy because it was raining outside and he didn’t want to go to the outhouse. He once spent a week in jail for borrowing his step-father’s car without permission due to it having no proper title. Most emotionally and in the final chapter, he tells of how his step-father shot his mother in the head and left her for dead.

Throughout the book, he made me laugh. He also made me feel deeply for the people, like himself, that struggled through apartheid in South Africa and the challenging times afterward as the society adjusted to the new reality. But most of all, this was the story of a boy who loved his mother deeply and experienced the many ins and outs of growing up in a difficult time, coming out of it a wise and compassionate young man.

My rating: 4/5

How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World by Deb Chachra

I love this book. It is informative and nerdy yet eminently readable. It is about the seemingly boring subject of infrastructure—how it came to be, why, what it is for, and what it’s future is. Not exactly your modern day thriller. Yet Deb Chachra somehow tells the story of infrastructure and makes it, if not fascinating (though it is to me), interesting and approachable.

The first part of the book lays out what infrastructure is and why we have it. In brief, it is how we manage our access to and use of energy. And we have it to enable humanity as a whole to do more with less. She then pivots to discussing infrastructure in the context of global anthropogenic climate change. And this is where the book really shines.

Her premise is that we need to move from combustion as our source of energy (fossil fuels) to renewable sources of energy (geothermal, wind, solar). This is hardly new or surprising. What is surprising is that she argues that doing so would move us from energy scarcity to energy abundance. After all, there are only so many fossil fuels on our planet to burn and burning them is causing catastrophic harm to our environment. But renewables are abundant. We just need to learn how to harness them for the use of all.

The rest of the book is a vision for how this is possible, desirable, and most of all essential to the well being of all humankind and our planet. That the author has told such a clear, hopeful story about such a challenging subject around a bleak prospect is a credit to her ability and passion for such a project.

My rating: 5/5

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

This book is narrative non-fiction at its best. It tells the story of corruption and prejudice in Oklahoma in the early 1900s. When the government came for their land, the Osage tribe negotiated a settlement that gave them rights to everything below the surface. These were called head rights, and every member of the tribe held them in the land. When oil was discovered there, the Osage became rich. The jealous white people appealed to the government that the natives were not fit to manage their own money. But apparently that wasn’t enough. Many tribe members began to die unexplained deaths while other were outright murdered.

The fledgling FBI led by a young J. Edgar Hoover, sent Tom White to investigate. What he uncovered was a deep, dark conspiracy to kill all the members of one family to gain access to their head rights. The worst part was that the ring leader was a self-professed “best friend” of the Osage whose nephew was married a member of the family. The investigation is slow going due to those involved stymieing the investigators at every turn. How it turns out is stranger than fiction.

The most tragic part of this story is covered in the third section of the book where the author uncovers the vast extent of the corruption. It went far beyond the subjects of the investigation covered in the book. The details may never be known and the guilty parties will likely never face justice.

My rating: 4/5

Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff is one of the most important books of the twenty-first century. It outlines how our economy has largely shifted away from an industrial base to a technological base of surveillance-driven advertising. And like the industrial revolution introduced new ways of economic engagement that required decades of adjustment, we must also adjust to this new economic modality. Unfortunately, the pace of the change this time is so fast that we aren’t adjusting to it quickly enough to head off as much of the negative consequences as we have in the past.

This work is well-researched with extensive notes. What I first thought of as a criticism became a benefit as I continued to read. The author keeps coming back to the basic points and reiterates them in the context of the content she shares. It is a bit like a spiral staircase that turns on itself in order to take you up higher in a limited space. It is just as effective here, ensuring that the reader is able to follow a very complex argument that builds to a very complete picture.

The book is a bit long (over 240,000 words), but is worth every minute of time it takes to read. For those concerned about surveillance, privacy, and inequality it is an essential work explaining how we got here and what we might be able to do to about it.

My rating: 5/5

Night by Elie Wiesel

On my recent drive home from attending a reenactment weekend with my father, I listened to the audiobook of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. It is his telling of his experience as a teenage Jew in eastern Europe before and during the Holocaust of World War II.

He grew up in a small town in Hungary where he studied the Talmud and aspired to study Kabbalah. He had planned to dedicate his life to this study. While he was working toward this, an adult who left the town returned with what the residents thought of as tall tales of what Hitler’s Germany was doing to Jews. No one believed him. Even when the Germans arrived in their town and moved them to ghettos. Finally, they were all marched off to concentration camps.

The descriptions of life there are harrowing. He and his father are separated from his mother and sister. He spends the rest of his teens in multiple concentration camps, on forced marches, trying to keep his father and himself alive. This book should be required reading for high school graduation so that we never forget how horribly human beings are capable of treating one another.

My rating: 5/5

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Author name and book title on a white background

This may be the best history book I have ever read. It most certainly is different than any other. Most tell history from the top down, from the perspective of the leaders and businessmen. This book attempts to look at history from the bottom up, from the point of view of the working man. The author was a self-described democratic socialist, and this comes through clearly throughout the text.

Coming of age in during the Cold War, I was raised and educated to view all things communist and socialist as bad and wrong. And if I had read this book back then, I would probably not have read very far. I am glad that I have a much more open mind now that I am older. Much of what I learned in this book I already knew. For instance, how the United States government violated and broke every treaty we ever made with Native Americans. But there were many details that I was not aware of. For example, not only was the Army segregated during the fight against Hitler’s racism, but so was the blood bank.

In the end, this is not a perfect history book. It definitely gives a fresh and needed perspective. Neither of the political/economic extremes (capitalism and socialism/communism) works particularly well. I would like a political system that better balances the rights and freedoms of individuals with a responsibility to the community at the same time. In order to get there we need multiple viewpoints of American history. And this book is a great step in the direction of balancing the hagiography that passes for most US history.

My rating: 5/5

The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Vol. 1

Sepia portrait of Robert Green Ingersoll

As I have noted on my About page, I have volunteered for the Standard Ebooks project. One series of books that I wanted to do was the works of Robert Green Ingersoll (12 volumes). Unfortunately, these are outside of the collections policy of the project. As the tools for the project are open source, I decided to use them to create these books in the style of Standard Ebooks and publish them here on my site.

So, why was it important to me to publish these? As they are in the public domain in the US, they are freely available already at the Gutenberg Project. Unfortunately, they are not very well done. And why these books? In the late nineteenth century, prior to radio and movies, entertainment was always live—live music, theater, and lectures. This last group, lectures, is hard for us today to grasp. People actually went to hear people give talks on various subjects. This was a very popular form of entertainment. And Robert Green Ingersoll was a very famous and popular giver of lectures. He was known as the “Great Agnostic”, being openly opposed to religion and a fierce proponent of reason. He was also a close friend of Walt Whitman, delivering the eulogy at the poet’s funeral after his death in 1892.

After his own death in 1900, his brother-in-law collected his works and published them in twelve volumes. I have finished and published the first volume. You can download it on my Publications page. Be warned. Ingersoll is ruthless in his application of logic and reason to religion, and religion does not fare well in my opinion. If you are strongly religious, this book may offend you. But if you are open to examining your own beliefs, it may make you think in a fresh way about your spirituality. Regardless, it is an excellent way to dip your toes into the waters of one of the most well-known orators of the late nineteenth century.

My rating: 4/5

Nine Nasty Words by John McWhorter

Title and author printed stylistically on an orange background

I read this one just for fun. Think of it as a modern version of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV. I used to listen to the author’s podcast Lexicon Valley, so I knew what to expect. While he is a linguistics professor at Columbia, he is also down-to-earth, funny, and entertaining.

Profanity in English has gone through a series of great shifts. Initially, bad words were those related to religion such as “damn” and “hell”. Then as religion became less important in every day life during the Enlightenment, cursing moved to those words related to our bodies like “fuck”, “shit”, “ass”, “dick”, and “pussy”. Today, the most profane and forbidden words are those that slur others. I almost hate to write them here, but the two he covers in the book are “nigger” and “faggot”. While I have used many of the others (and often still do), I never use the last two.

There is a chapter on each of these words. In each, the author goes over not only the word itself but how it became profane. He also covers any other versions of it and some fascinating insights. Here is one example.

As we take our leave from fuck, I can’t help mentioning that on ye olde Fucker John and the descent of his surname from an antique French name Fulcher, I refrained from mentioning one of the chance renditions of the original word. One outcome of Fulcher, as humans rolled it around in their mouths over the generations, was Folger. Those of us who remember television’s Mrs. Olson, as well as those of us who are in on the fact that instant coffee is actually somewhat better than one might think despite the cultural penetration of Starbucks, can enjoy that on a certain abstract level, there are people across America starting their day with a good hot cup of Fucker’s Coffee.

This book was a fun romp through the crazy evolution of bad language. I recommend it to anyone who ever wondered about some of the profanity that is used in English, “Why do we say that?”

My rating: 4/5

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

The title surrounded by laurels on a cream colored background meant to look like old parchment

I was looking for a single volume book that covers the history of ancient Rome. In school I had learned about the ancient Greeks and Alexander the Great followed by the Roman Empire and its Senate. But I didn’t know very much about either. My research for a history of Rome led me to this book, which tells the story of Rome from its founding in the eighth century BCE to the granting of citizenship to all free inhabitants by Emperor Caracalla in 212 CE.

Overall, I found the book enlightening. Rather than presenting a bunch of cardboard characters with names and dates, the author gives a surprisingly approachable history that presents the times as very much like our own with people just trying to live their lives. I learned about the leaders, generals, and emperors, but I also read about the poor and enslaved. I gained a view of ancient Rome that was very different than I expected from my cursory knowledge before reading the book.

The author is British. This posed a bit of a challenge for me as an American. Yes, the spelling was different with a lot of extra u‘s, but that wasn’t the issue. The perspective was just the slightest bit different with the use of some words I wasn’t familiar with. That slowed me down. The layout of the content added to the complexity of the topic. It is not strictly chronological, though it mostly is. The subject matter is so vast, there was a little bit of a topical focus that required a little back in forth in time.

In the end, I feel that this book gave me a much clearer and better understanding of a history I formerly only knew at the surface. The work was a little challenging and not a quick read, but I am grateful for the knowledge gained.

My rating: 3.5/5