Book Review: The Mental Floss History of the United States by Erik Sass

Hi there,

Do you ever think back on your history classes in high school and college and wonder what exactly it was they were teaching? Or do you ever wonder if some of those dry, boring facts we learned have changed over the years as more information is uncovered? I for one was bored stiff in most of my US history classes in junior high and high school. I would have much preferred to have learned more about European history or the ancient world than more about the effect of cotton on the US economy in the 1800s.

Well, if you were as bored as I was,  there may be a way to refresh your memory on US history and learn a few new things at the same time. Erik Sass from Mental Floss (along with Will Pearson and Mangesth Hattikudur) has created a history book that not only lays out all of those names, dates, and places we probably should remember, but offers some fascinating details about the things our teachers probably didn’t know.

This book starts a long time ago and works its way up to the present – some 23,000+ years of history from “Chapter 1: Prehistory, Puritans, Plantations, and Pirates” starting at roughly 23,000 BCE (Before Current Era) to “Chapter 10: America, the Decider” ending in 2010. And they do it all in a little more than 400 pages.

You may be thinking to yourself “History is boring, why would I want to read this book?” It’s a fair enough question, and if the book covered every single year in that 23,000 year span I would probably still be reading when the apocalypse hits and need the paper for toiletries, kindling, or dinner. Somehow I think the problems we currently have with our shrinking forests and jungles would probably be exacerbated by the thousands of pages worth of useless information the book would cover.

Thankfully, the bright folks from Mental Floss don’t do that.

Each chapter works about the same way. It starts with an introduction, moves to a “What Happened When” list of important dates and events, and then hits the high points of each era covered. They cover a lot of ground in a fairly short amount of pages. My favorite sections are the “Lies Your Teacher Told You” that goes over what you probably learned and then why some of that was untrue. Also included along the way are fascinating little tidbits of facts or figures.

I have to admit that for not being a fan of US history, I learned and relearned quite a bit. For example, though Benedict Arnold is labeled as one of the biggest traitors in American history, I never knew more than the fact that he switched sides from the American side to the British during the Revolutionary War. Turns out there were reasons for why he flipped. Though he fought well in several key battles and was wounded in the line of duty, he didn’t actually win the battles he led and never really got credit for his accomplishments. While he recovered, he grew more and more bitter and eventually wanted what was coming to him. Though he is still a traitor, at least now I understand more about what his motivations were behind his acts.

All the major highlights are covered, albeit in a more lively way than all the history books I ever read in school. If I’d had sections like “Quick’n’easy World War II” in my AP American History class, I might remember a bit more. In less than three pages, including a map and a chart, it sums up the high points from the American reluctance to join in the war up to Pearl Harbor, trade policies with the U.K. and the Soviets that caused many merchant ships to be sunk by German U-boats in the Atlantic, along with many of the big battles and dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tight, factual, and informative.

As the book works its way forward in time, I had to wonder about the misinformation I learned in school. Was it deliberate? I don’t think so. Most teachers are given a curriculum and don’t have much leeway to add much to the schedule. The end result can amount to a lot of bored students. Perhaps if they used more entertaining textbooks like The Mental Floss History of the United States or America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction by Jon Stewart, classrooms would encourage free thought and inspire [gasp] a love of learning?

If you’ve been considering some non-fiction to supplement your fiction habit (or maybe that’s just me), I highly recommend The Mental Floss History of the United States from Erik Sass and the folks at Mental Floss. The quotes, dates, interesting facts, and straightforward writing coupled with a sense of humor makes this a history resource I will keep and refer back to for years to come. It manages to educate and entertain simultaneously, which is a win-win for everybody!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here (in its earlier form – this version has a few edits).

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great books below!

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Book Review: Voices Under Berlin by T.H.E. Hill

Hey all…

For me, historical fiction all too often falls into one of two camps. It’s either so detailed that you get lost in the details and don’t get much in the way of story. Or it focuses almost entirely on story and doesn’t provide enough detail to set the stage. Voices Under Berlin is like the Baby Bear’s bowl of porridge in the Three Bears. It provides just the right amount of details to enhance the already gripping story.

Voices Under Berlin is a novel about the Berlin Spy Tunnel started by the American military and intelligence forces in the American Sector of Berlin after World War II. Work on the tunnel began in February 1954 and American forces operated it until April 1956 when it was finally discovered by the Russians.

The Berlin Spy Tunnel was a joint operation between the American CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). They dug a tunnel below the border between the Western sector of Berlin and the Soviet sector to tap into Russian communications between the Soviet spy masters in Berlin and their leaders in Moscow.

The story, amid the history, is about Kevin and a small number of soldiers who constructed the tunnel, administered the wiretaps, and translated the calls made by their Russian counterparts.

Though Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) has been around for as long as there have been signals to intercept, it’s amazing to see the type, depth, and breadth of information gathered and used during the two years the tunnel was operational. The soldiers involved were privy to private phone calls between Berlin and Moscow, which provided details about operations by the Russian intelligence agents in Berlin as well as amazing insight into Russian politics as viewed by those Russian agents in Berlin.

The transcripts included to provide the Russian side of the equation not only were a major part of the story (it’s what the men were there to do), but it was part of the give and take of the times. We learned to like some of these Soviet spies that the guys were listening to. It was a glimpse into the human side of intelligence gathering that’s tough to get across. I thought Hill handled it masterfully.

Hill also managed to bring the human element into the novel, allowing us to watch relationships develop among the men and some of the local women in Berlin, some of whom were spying on them. Each of the main characters – Kevin, Fast Eddie, Sheerluck, and others – gave us glimpses into a segregated Berlin after World War II. There were many difficulties and challenges of living in a city separated into the American, British, Russian, and French sectors.

And amid the day to day drudgery and danger of working as spies in post-war Berlin, Hill also brought a great deal of humor seamlessly into the story. It’s the humor of military life and the quirks of people forced to work together under pressure. These pranksters and tricksters born of boredom and spite came up with some great ways to even the score between enlisted men and officers.

What’s even more interesting to me is that Berlin was segregated from the end of World War II until 1990 when the Berlin Wall came down. Nearly 40 years of a city and country divided in one way or another.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, spy novels, or just looking for a great story – Voices Under Berlin has a little bit for everyone. It’s a quick, enjoyable, and educational read.

Be sure to check it out!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick it up at Amazon:

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Movie Review: Watchmen

Hi all…

Last Friday I was indoctrinated into the world of Watchmen. For years, I’ve avoided reading this iconic geek text from the 1980s that caused many interesting conversations in college. Though I read many silver age comics from my Uncle’s collection (left squirreled away in a box in a closet in my grandparents’ house), I was never really addicted to comics like so many of my college friends seemed to be.

That said, I have to say that Rorshach is now one of my favorite heroes. In a world so overrun by compromises, it’s amazing to see someone, even a fictional character, say “No compromises” and actually believe it.

[rating:3/4]

The world of the Watchmen is very dark. It’s a world where superheroes came together in the 1940s and gave way to a new group in the 1960s in the time of Nixon and Vietnam. One of these superheroes, like Sylar from Heroes, was the son of a watchmaker and due to a lab accident gained control of matter and energy. Dr. Manhattan, as he came to be called (to evoke fear in the Cold War Russkies), turned the tide for America in Vietnam and made the Russians pause before starting World War III.

He was the only hero with actual powers, but he wasn’t the only hero. Each of the Minutemen and later Watchmen came at their avocation in a different way. The Comedian was not the first of these heroes to lose his way. But his death at the beginning of the film sets the stage for the mystery that Rorschach and his remaining friends must unravel.

Over the course of the film’s nearly three hour running time, I found myself engrossed in this world with these characters. A world poised on the brink of nuclear war and social meltdown. I only thought the movie dragged a couple of times in the last 45 minutes or so where Dr. Manhattan waxed philosophically for too long in a couple of places. but overall I thought the pacing of the movie was good.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like. One was near the very end. Not the way the main plot ended – that was satisfying and provided closure from the opening scene – but the scenes with Dan, Sally, and Laurie, and then at the newspaper – neither sat well with me for some reason. And the second was seeing Dr. Manhattan’s blue “pipe” in a number of scenes. Was that really necessary?

I really look forward to the extended version(s) (I think two are planned) that will be coming out on DVD to see if it provides a better ending than the theatrical release.

But overall I enjoyed the movie and would like to see it again. I give it a solid 3 out of 4. Rorschach was most definitely my favorite character though — where can I get one of those masks?

Until next time…

–Fitz

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