Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Title: Lost City of the Monkey God

Author: Douglas Preston

Audience: Adult

Rating (scale of 1-10): 9
TL;DR: Amateur archaeologists scour the Honduran jungle for traces of a legendary lost civilization.

Appeal: Fast-paced, suspenseful

Longer review:  
The Mosquitia region of Honduras harbors the densest and least-explored jungle in the Americas. Now impinged upon mostly by drug-smugglers, Mosquitia once was home to a culture that rivaled the Maya in their sophistication and the size of their cities. Before the events chronicled in this book, the history of that lost civilization was confined to a few small archaeological finds and a whole host of legends. One rumor spoke of an abandoned city deep in the jungle where a huge idol of a monkey lay partially buried: the lost city of the monkey god.

Often dismissed as local legend or the stories of charlatan treasure hunters, it was up to a team of obsessive searchers to run down the legend and establish it as fact or fiction. Douglas Preston, in his capacity of writer for National Geographic and other publications, was along for the very bumpy ride. Whether the jungle hides a lost city or not, it certainly hides deadly snakes, prowling jaguars, swarms of disease-carrying insects, and in politically-troubled Honduras, perhaps drug-smugglers and revolutionaries.  Preston’s pedigree as part of a thriller-writing team shines through, and the book leaves the reader just as breathless as if they were themselves scrabbling through the jungle underbrush in search of an ancient city lost to the knowledge of men.

Read-alikes:  Luckily, tropical exploration seems to be a pretty rich area when it comes to adventure writing.  There are plenty of choices for read-alikes by subject - these two were popular enough that they’re probably in most collections.

The Lost City of Z: by David Grann - Journalist Grann traces the fate of a British explorer who never returned from an expedition to discover a lost civilization in the depths of the Amazon.  A few years old now, but being turned into a movie, and so back in the public eye.

River of Doubt: by Candice Millard - Teddy Roosevelt, fresh off an election defeat, ventures into the Amazon on an ill-planned expedition to map an unexplored region.  With the former president wounded and infected, the trip takes a turn towards disaster.

~ Seth Warburton

Short Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.S. Vance

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

A memoir of  Vance's experiences growing up poor in Ohio/Kentucky.  Hillbilly Elegy gave me some good insight on why some people can rise above their circumstances and some can't  Always wondered that.  Some of things he dealt with were crazy.  He also explained why some people who would usually vote Democrat didn't trust Obama.  


White Trash by Nancy Isenberg.  They are both offer thoughtful discussion of class in the United States.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.   Both books explain how hard it is to escape poverty.

There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America by Alex Kotlowitz.  One of my favorite books.  Both books give readers a front row seat of the lives of real  people living in poverty.

~ Amy Stuenkel

Review: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Title: Hidden Figures

Author: Margot Lee Shetterly

Audience: Adult

Rating (scale of 1-10): 8
TL;DR: A group of determined African American women overcome racial and gender barriers to help the United States win the space race.

Longer review:  
Hidden Figures details the lives and work of a group of African American women working at the Langley aeronautical research station in Virginia.  First hired to fill the ranks left by men during WWII, the urgency of the space race provided even more opportunity.  Hired against the prevailing wisdom that women were unable to comprehend the complex mathematics involved in flight and space travel, these female human 'computers’ proved their doubters wrong.  What's more, in Jim Crow-era Virginia, a state where reactionary laws enforced segregation (even when it became illegal), these women had to break through racial barriers too.  Their accomplishments would be tremendous even without the adversity they had to overcome.  
On the downside, while the story is compelling, the writing provides little narrative momentum of its own.  The author switches between subjects frequently, jumping from work to home-life to personal history and making things feel just a bit choppy.  Nevertheless, the winning attitudes and brilliant minds of these women carry the story forward and make for an extremely satisfying read.
With the movie doing well Hidden Figures shouldn’t be a hard sell.  But what to recommend when someone finishes and likes it?  What to suggest when you want to send them home with something when they find Hidden Figures has a huge hold queue?

For women breaking into the sciences as ‘computers’ look for The Glass Universe (Dava Sobel) or The Rise of the Rocket Girls (Nathalia Holt).  For more about diversity at NASA, try We Could Not Fail (Richard Paul and Steven Moss), and for more about the dark, hidden history of the intersections of science and race try The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot).

~ Seth Warburton