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review 2018-04-26 12:02
The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA
The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA - Doug Mack

Quick: name the 4 American territories that aren't Puerto Rico.

 

I'm betting my BookLikes friends are the most likely to know some of them, but probably not all of them.  Of the 5 populated territories, I knew of 4, although I couldn't have reeled them off on command; 1 (Northern Mariana Islands) was completely new to me.

 

Now, how many of us could speak knowledgeably about what it means to be a territory of the US?  Are they citizens?  Can they vote?  Do they pay taxes?  Does the US Constitution apply to them?  Answers: Yes, except American Somoa. Not for president, although they can vote in presidential primaries.  No.  Yes, but only some of it - the parts that Congress arbitrarily decides to apply.

 

Sounds all kinds of screwed up, doesn't it?  What's more screwed up though is that I knew almost none of this, and most Americans don't either.  That's what prompted me to buy this book - it's embarrassing not to know this stuff about my own country, especially living overseas and being asked by people: what's the deal with Guam? and having to respond um... it's an island?

 

Doug Mack is a travel writer with a degree in American Studies, and he didn't know either, but he decided to dig into the issues that make the territories not states and try to find out why they've so completely fallen off the radar of almost all Americans, including our politicians (a congressman introduced the American Samoan representative as being from American Samolia - and massacred the man's name).  Mack visited each of the 5 territories himself, talking to whomever he could, researching their cultures and searching out the very little written about them over the decades, and speaking to the two (2!) people in the country well versed enough in the legalities to answer constitutional questions.

 

The results are enlightening, horrifying, and eye-opening.  Most Americans probably know about Puerto Rico's seesaw to-be-or-not-to-be-a-state, but the other territories are quite happy not being a state.  Further, American Samoans - the only territory where the residents are not US citizens (they're residents, but without the green card) - are, for the most part, happy not being citizens.  That's not to say there aren't extreme disadvantages and challenges for the territories, but Mack does a brilliant job illustrating just how difficult it is for them to balance being American with preserving their distinctive cultures and identities.  Mack also outlines brief histories of each territory, and some of the legal precedence for why they are set up the way they are, and why it's so hard to define their place in the US.  Or, you know, remember they exist.

 

This is a huge task and though he does it entertainingly, he does not pretend to do it comprehensively.  Every part of this subject is a quagmire of questions that have no easy answers and no good solutions.  But Mack's willing to give it a try, and he does it in a very readable, balanced narrative.  The talking points are innumerable - MT and I have discussed this book's points until we're both hoarse - and for that alone, the author gets 4.5 stars from me.  MT felt like a few questions went unanswered, and he's less than thrilled about my new enthusiasm for an American Samoa holiday (it's a seafood thing), but he's not reviewing this book, I am, and I say if you have any interest in the part of America that isn't often thought of as being part of America, this would definitely be a great place to start.

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review 2018-02-28 07:29
Horrible Histories: The Groovy Greeks and the Rotten Romans
The Groovy Greeks And The Rotten Romans (Two Horrible Books In One) - Terry Deary

Eh.  Gross overuse of the word "Groovy" in the Greek part, and generally not as well laid out as the HH on World War I.  For me, that is.  For the teens it was written for, and as a teaching aid, it's great.  A lot of quizzes that were far more interesting than any I had to take in school during world history class.  I especially liked the sections where they described how to play the games of ancient Greece and/or Rome, and the sample Roman menu is a great idea of you're reading this with teens.  I personally plan on making a camera obscura with my niece one of these days.

 

As always for me, the cartoons in these books are the best bits.

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review 2018-01-28 06:56
The Ludicrous Laws of Old London
The Ludicrous Laws of Old London - Nigel Cawthorne

Interesting, but not precisely what it says on the tin.  The title and summary on the back would give the impression that the book is a collection of crazy laws enacted throughout the ages that are still in effect.  There are a few of these sprinkled throughout, but most of the entries are really more a historic overview of London laws through history; laws that seem insane to us now, but made sense to citizens at the time (for good or bad).

 

As I said, it's still a very engaging and interesting read; I learned heaps about London (did not know, for example that there's a city of London and a City of London (the latter being the 1 square mile section within the old Roman walls).  But I admit when I saw "Ludicrous" in the title, I was expecting something far sillier, the UK version of silly laws I've heard about in America like:

 

In Gainsville Georgia, you are not allowed to eat fried chicken any other way than using your hands.

 

In Arizona, having more than two vibrators in your home is illegal. If you own more than two in your house, you can be subject to criminal possession.

 

In Iowa, it is illegal for a man with a mustache to kiss a woman in public.

 

In Florida it is illegal for a divorced or a widowed woman to skydive on a Sunday afternoon.  Also, if an elephant is left tied to a parking meter, the parking fee has to be paid just as it would for a vehicle.  

 

The closest this book comes to this version of ludicrous is a law that states you cannot have a pack of playing cards within one mile of any building storing explosives or ammunition.  Which, I admit, is a stumper.

 

All in all, a good read; very informative, well-written and entertaining.  Just not silly.

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review 2018-01-26 10:17
Horrible Histories Special: Ireland
Ireland - Terry Deary,Martin Brown

Of the four Horrible Histories I've read so far, this one was the least ... enjoyable isn't the right word, cohesive?  clear? well-written?

 

I learned a lot, but I was pretty much starting at zero, and I'm left with the feeling that I didn't learn as much as I should.  A lot of start of the book was spent listing all the saints considered "Irish" - and making the common mistake of mentioning Catholics 'worshiping' them.  Any Catholic that paid even a little bit of attention in their catechism classes knows that's idolatry; real Catholics might ask Saints to pray for them; to intercede on their behalf.  It's a small thing, but it bugs me in the same way people say evolution means humans came from monkeys.  Small words can make big differences.

 

Regardless, I finished the book with the overall impression that the British were awful to the Irish, but so were the Irish awful to the Irish.  Unfortunately, that's about the only thing I knew going into the book, so I'm not sure I'm any better educated now than I was yesterday.  I do have a slightly better idea of the complexity of the 20th century Troubles, but not enough that I'd ever attempt to hold my own in a discussion.

 

Definitely not their best work.

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review 2018-01-13 09:14
A Short History of Drunkenness
A Short History of Drunkenness - Mark Forsyth

I love Mark Forsyth's writing.  I think I've read (and own) everything he's written and I've yet to be let down.  He's got the dry, British humor in spades and his writing is always excellent.  His original bibliography focused on etymology, but he's lately broken out into short, but focused, histories.  

 

Forsyth makes it clear from the start that this is not a comprehensive history of drunkenness; that would be a comprehensive history of humanity.  But he does break it down into a very easy to follow, somewhat linear timeline, with each chapter focused on a specific culture, or age.  I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, but it turns out ancient Greeks got a bad rap; when it comes to partying they had nothing on ancient Egyptians.  Or late 19th/early 20th century Russians.  Holy crap.

 

The book ends in more or less modern times, but Forsyth does revisit America in the last chapter; specifically Prohibition and Did it work?.  Half my family was in Chicago during Prohibition and the other half was in Florida, with a constant stream of 'revenuers' and bootleggers coming through the tiny fishing village called home, so I'm not sure I entirely buy his premise that Prohibition was a success.  On the other hand, my family's history would give me exactly the skewed perspective that would make me dubious.  No matter what my opinion is, his take on Prohibition was fascinating and (to me) an entirely new way of viewing the 18th amendment experiment.  

 

But the best part, the very best part of the book, for me, is something only a few here will immediately appreciate, and it's this, from a quote in the chapter on the American Wild West:

 

"The saturnalia commenced on Christmas evening, at the Humboldt [saloon]..."

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