Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Monday, July 18, 2016

It's Time to Pump You Up...with Lift by Daniel Kunitz


Title: Lift: Fitness Culture, from Naked Greek and Acrobats to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors
Author: Daniel Kunitz
Publisher: Harper Wave
Publication Date: July 5, 2016
Source: copy received for honest review through TLC Book Tours

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

A fascinating cultural history of fitness, from Greek antiquity to the era of the “big-box gym” and beyond, exploring the ways in which human exercise has changed over time—and what we can learn from our ancestors.

We humans have been conditioning our bodies for more than 2,500 years, yet it’s only recently that treadmills and weight machines have become the gold standard of fitness. For all this new technology, are we really healthier, stronger, and more flexible than our ancestors?

Where Born to Run began with an aching foot, Lift begins with a broken gym system—one founded on high-tech machinery and isolation techniques that aren’t necessarily as productive as we think. Looking to the past for context, Daniel Kunitz crafts an insightful cultural history of the human drive for exercise, concluding that we need to get back to basics to be truly healthy.

Lift takes us on an enlightening tour through time, beginning with the ancient Greeks, who made a cult of the human body—the word gymnasium derives from the Greek word for “naked”—and following Roman legions, medieval knights, Persian pahlevans, and eighteenth-century German gymnasts. Kunitz discovers the seeds of the modern gym in nineteenth-century Paris, where weight lifting machines were first employed, and takes us all the way up to the game-changer: the feminist movement of the 1960s, which popularized aerobics and calisthenics classes. This ignited the first true global fitness revolution, and Kunitz explores how it brought us to where we are today.

Once a fast-food inhaler and substance abuser, Kunitz reveals his own decade-long journey to becoming ultra-fit using ancient principals of strengthening and conditioning. With Lift, he argues that, as a culture, we are finally returning to this natural ideal—and that it’s to our great benefit to do so.


My Review:

When I heard about this new release, I was intrigued, especially given my recent interest in going back to school to become a personal trainer.  Learning a bit more about the history of exercise and workout trends seemed like a pretty good place to start as I dive into this new career!

Kunitz does a good job of not only tracing the general history of exercise, but also discussing the societal factors that helped (or hindered) its growth through the centuries.  A significant theme throughout the book is the role that feminism has played in exercise, something that I found quite interesting in an arena that has historically often been male-dominated.  However, Kunitz shows that many fitness trends have been driven by either female preferences, or the roles that society has placed upon them.  While some of the historical detail got a bit dense at times, overall it was interesting to trace this growth over time.

The dryness of the historical detail was broken up by the personal anecdotes of Kunitz himself.  Previously inclined to drink and smoke rather than lift and eat smoothies, his transition into the world of exercise was entertaining to read about, and also provides a bit of motivation for those who are looking to get on the fitness bandwagon.  That said, I was also a bit turned off by his obvious favoritism towards CrossFit (and its close relatives--acroyoga, Parkour, etc) as the be-all and end-all of workout regimes.  While I realize that much of his historical musing leads to the point that this sort of functional, well-rounded fitness program is the "ideal", I have trouble getting behind the idea that one fitness program is inherently "better" than another.  I am not at all denying that CrossFit is an excellent workout (and I've actually been very interested in trying it myself for a while now).  However, to say that a CrossFitter is "more fit" or in better health than a marathoner, cyclist, or dedicated Jazzerciser feels wrong to me, if only because people have different definitions of what "fitness goals" entail and the paths they would prefer to take to get there.

This ended up as a 3-star Goodreads review for me: enlightening on the historical side, fun to read for the personal stories from the author, but occasionally tedious in detail and has a bit of a bias that turned me off.

As always, much thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?  Check out the other blogs on this book tour HERE.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

SOS! Dead Wake by Erik Larson


Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Author: Erik Larson
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: March 10, 2015
Source: ARC borrowed from Jen at The Relentless Reader

Summary from Goodreads

On May 1, 1915, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were anxious. Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone, and for months, its U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era's great transatlantic "Greyhounds" and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. He knew, moreover, that his ship--the fastest then in service--could outrun any threat. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger's U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small--hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more--all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.


My Review:

I have a serious question, readers.

Why did I know everything about the sinking of the Titanic (at least, everything as dictated by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), but nearly nothing about the Lusitania until I read this GEM of a book?  Because I'm always first to admit that my knowledge of history is lacking, but really.  Hollywood has focused on the wrong subject here.

I have been striking it RICH with nonfiction lately, people!  And this might be the best one of late.  A few years ago, I read Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, and was impressed with his style of narrative nonfiction.  What that literary jargon means is that his nonfiction books read with the suspense and vivacity of a fiction novel.  All of his works are historically accurate (painstakingly so), but he formats them in a way that makes you feel like you're right in the moment with these historical figures, part of their conversations and triumphs and tragedies.

That absolutely holds true for Dead Wake as well.  I was on the edge of my seat while reading this book.  Larson outlines the entire week leading up to the Lusitania's sinking (oh yeah, spoiler alert: it gets sunk. By a German submarine), and even though you totally know what's coming, you'll find yourself praying that the darn thing stays afloat.  Because you KNOW these passengers.  Larson brings you up close and personal with the captain, the crew, the men, women, and (way too many) children on board, even the stowaways.  Plus, you get perspectives from the US (as President Wilson deals with some personal romantic issues while all this drama unfolds), the UK (as the British had far  more foreknowledge of this attack than you may think), and the German U-boat that actually perpetrated said sinking.  This gives you a clear illustration of the complex political forces at work during the attack as well.

In the end, you're left with a detailed, absorbing, and highly emotional account of one of the most devastating and politically-charged passenger boat disasters in history.

I can't say enough good things here.  Five stars all the way on this one.  Whether you're previously familiar with the Lusitania disaster or not, this is a nonfiction release that is not to be missed.

Ever been on a cruise, reader friends?  Did you pay attention during the lifeboat drills?  I bet you will after reading this.  Also: swimming lessons.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Book Review: The Race Underground by Doug Most


Title: The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America's First Subway
Author: Doug Most
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: February 4, 2014
Source: ARC received from the publisher for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

In the late nineteenth century, as cities like Boston and New York grew more congested, the streets became clogged with plodding, horse-drawn carts. When the great blizzard of 1888 crippled the entire northeast, a solution had to be found. Two brothers from one of the nation's great families—Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York—pursued the dream of his city digging America's first subway, and the great race was on. The competition between Boston and New York played out in an era not unlike our own, one of economic upheaval, life-changing innovations, class warfare, bitter political tensions, and the question of America’s place in the world. The Race Underground is peopled with the famous, like Boss Tweed, Grover Cleveland and Thomas Edison, and the not-so-famous, from brilliant engineers to the countless "sandhogs" who shoveled, hoisted and blasted their way into the earth’s crust, sometimes losing their lives in the construction of the tunnels. Doug Most chronicles the science of the subway, looks at the centuries of fears people overcame about traveling underground and tells a story as exciting as any ever ripped from the pages of U.S. history. The Race Underground is a great American saga of two rival American cities, their rich, powerful and sometimes corrupt interests, and an invention that changed the lives of millions.


My Review:

I grew up in an area of Connecticut that is basically the midpoint between New York and Boston on I-95.  I've ridden the T several times, and I've logged many (maaaaaany) hours on NYC subways and commuter rails.  It's hard to imagine either of these cities without their subway systems--with such congested streets, underground travel is quick, affordable, and convenient.  So I was intrigued by a book that offered to bring to life the 100+ year history of subways in these two metropolises.

Doug Most opens the book with an introduction that hints to the important roles that Henry and William Whitney (two brothers from Massachusetts) played in the openings of the Boston and New York subways, respectively.  He then takes us through early attempts at subway designs, the engineering inventions that gradually made them more plausible, and the many struggles that builders and politicians went through in order to eventually make them a reality.  Finally, we see the subways being constructed and opening in each city (which one first? You have to read to find out!).

In terms of comprehensiveness, this book can't be beat.  Most definitely did his homework on this subject, and has provided intricate details that left me impressed by how specific his sources were.  The history of underground travel really is fascinating, and I loved getting this glimpse at how engineering innovations developed quickly within 5, 10, 50 year periods.  Makes you wonder how far we'll come by 2050.  And Most doesn't stop at giving particulars about the subways.  Every major contributor to these projects is introduced with lots of information about their pasts, families, etc., so you really get a human element there as well.

While I did appreciate the attention to detail, there were several structural elements in this book that frustrated me.  First was the formatting, in terms of how the history was unfolded.  As I mentioned before, it is implied at the beginning of the book that the Boston and New York subway systems had their beginnings with the Whitney brothers.  However, as I read on, I felt more and more that the Whitneys were not the central characters in this story.  Yes, they both played notable roles in their respective cities with the subway projects, but in the end, neither of them would be credited as anything close to the "father" of either system.  This left me confused as to why Most chose to structure the book around them, and gave it a bit of a disjointed feel, as many other (arguably more important) players were continually introduced throughout the book.

Possibly because of this odd choice in structure, the book as a whole doesn't flow very well.  There were whole paragraphs in certain chapters that seemed poorly placed, with details that weren't especially relevant to the rest of the section.

Final verdict: if you have a true interest in history, innovation, and engineering, the story that Most provides here is top-notch.  But there is a significant downside in how he chose to structure the book, which does tend to take away from the finer details at times.

Have you ever ridden a subway, reader friends?  Where was it, and what did you think?  Is it a preferred route of travel for you, or are you an above-grounder at heart?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: 1776 by David McCullough


Title: 1776
Author: David McCullough
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 24, 2005
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

America's most acclaimed historian presents the intricate story of the year of the birth of the United States of America. 1776 tells two gripping stories: how a group of squabbling, disparate colonies became the United States, and how the British Empire tried to stop them. A story with a cast of amazing characters from George III to George Washington, to soldiers and their families, this exhilarating book is one of the great pieces of historical narrative. 

My Review:

When I was in high school, history was not my favorite subject.  I was more of a science girl, actually.  (A close second: English.  Because READ ALL THE THINGS!)  I got high grades in history, but more because I was very good at memorizing things than because I had any actual interest in it.  I scored a 2 (out of 5) on the AP US History exam, if that gives you any frame of reference.

However, part of me always felt like I should have more interest in history...I mean, it gives us a better understanding of ourselves, doesn't it?  It's important to know from whence we came, yes?  But it was so DRY.  How could I care more about a subject that put me straight to sleep?  Where could I find a history book that would change my tune?

I heard about David McCullough several years ago, and thought that maybe his work could be the ticket.  As a historian, his books are well-researched and extremely detailed, but he also adds more of a human element to his analysis.  This sounded like it would work better for me, but I was still nervous--hence the five-ish years that this book has been on my shelf, untouched.

Thanks to Nonfiction November, I decided that it was time to dive in, and as you may have expected, my initial inclinations were correct.  Despite its high level of detail and dense text, I was engaged with this book from beginning to end.

This book is not, as I had previously thought, a history of the entire American Revolution.  It is, as I should have maybe guessed from the title, specifically focused on the events that took place in 1776 (and a little bit of 1775, for background purposes).  Once I figured that out, I thought, cool, I will get to read about how the Americans won the Revolutionary War!  And then I realized, nope, the war didn't actually end until 1783.  (Reminder: score of 2 on the AP US History test.)

In fact, 1776, despite the whole Declaration of Independence thing, was not a real banner year for Team America.  We lost a lot of battles.  Like, A LOT.  George Washington made a whole slew of bad decisions for the army.  Yet, by the end of the year, things had started to take a little swing--just enough to bring the tide back in our direction.  McCullough describes all this at great length, but rather than just a dull list of dates and places, he provides insight into the hows and whys of each event.  What was Washington thinking in the days before the Battle of Brooklyn?  Who were his most trusted allies?  What were the British expecting of the Americans before each battle--and how were they getting that intelligence?  Who was a raging drunkard, or a traitor, or a dirty coward?  These are all the intriguing little details that may have made history class more fun for me back in the day.  Plus, he tells it from both sides (British and American), so you get a fuller view of the tense situation as it continued to develop.

That's not to say that this book will be for everyone.  You do have to have some interest in the finer particulars of US history if you want to enjoy this book, otherwise you will get bogged down in the density of the text.  But if you're looking for a piece of historical nonfiction that will both educate and entertain you, 1776 is a wonderful start.  I will absolutely be checking out McCullough's backlist for more brain food!

Have you read any of McCullough's work?  Are there any other historian authors out there whose books you've enjoyed?
 
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