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Book Review of: A Voyage Long and Strange

Rediscovering The New World

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Review of A Voyage Long and Strange, by Tony Horwitz (Paperback, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

 

A delightful historical narrative! And quite refreshing in this age of disinformation.

While our public schools continue their relentless rewriting of history to fit the agenda of special interest groups (such as the criminal protection lobby's removal of firearms from image of Washington crossing the Delaware), it's good to come across a book based on open-minded research. Turning the conventional pattern completely backwards, Horwitz seeks information and then forms conclusions. That approach made this book a "keeper." In fact, Horwitz deftly defrocks a long list of myths, half-truths, and utter fabrications that are almost canonical today.

He defies another convention by staying on topic. If you've been offended by books the author uses to segue into political side issues, you'll be pleased at Horwitz's not doing that.

Tony Horwitz follows the centuries-long European discovery of the new world. This discovery didn't, as popular myth holds, start at Plymouth Rock. Nor, as we are told during Thanksgiving each year, did European settlement begin with the Pilgrims. In fact, those folks didn't call themselves Pilgrims--that's a label fabricated for them in much later times.

The discovery, exploration, and settlement occurred in fits and starts. It was more stumbling and bumbling than it was heroic conquest. And it was more often brutal than it was noble.

While reading this, I frequently laughed aloud. Horwitz has a knack for keeping things lively with quips, barbs, and acerbic wit. His own adventures while visiting the many places discussed in the book sometimes produced situations that were farcical enough for a few chuckles. At other times, the people he ran across were, themselves, hilarious. As entertaining as it is, the real value of this book its actual information. Horwitz doggedly pursued answers to questions, and while that pursuit provided ample basis for comedy, it also provided answers that are worth knowing.

In some cases, that research didn't provide an answer but merely proved the official propaganda wrong. There are some things we simply do not and cannot know. When a work purports to be nonfiction and yet has answers to everything, you can be fairly confident that work isn't reliable. Horwitz voyage produced some frustrations for him and left unanswered many questions that would have been nice to have answered. The fact he doesn't just plug in an answer he likes makes me fairly confident this work is reliable.

This book is about 400 pages long and contains 15 maps.

The Prologue explains why Horwitz embarked on this quest. Despite his extensive background in American history, there were large gaps. And he got to thinking about this. He shares some of those thoughts in the Prologue.

This book is divided into three Parts:

  1. Discovery.
  2. Conquest.
  3. Settlement.

Part One consists of four chapters, one each for Vinland (mostly Lief and related Eirickssons), 1492 (Columbus, et al), Santo Domingo (Columbus again), and Hispaniola (lots of laughs and oddball characters).

Part Two devotes five chapters to the conquest. Each chapter covers a separate geographic area: Gulf Coast (an assortment of Spanish explorers, dandies, and conquistadors), Southwest (to the seven cities of stone), the plains (the sea of grass that seemed to swallow up many explorers and potential settlers), the South (De Soto does Dixie), and the Mississippi. On that last one, I have always wondered how this river got such an ungainly name. Horwitz reveals the answer.

Part Three contains four chapters, each of which provides insight into the settlements in St. Augustine (and other Florida places), Roanoke (and other Virginia places), Jamestown, and Plymouth, respectively. The chapter on Plymouth rips apart several myths, including the many that surround the Thanksgiving holiday.

The source notes and bibliography are extensive, which would be expected of a book that is this well-researched. What those reference don't reflect is the sheer footwork Hortwitz did. And I don't mean figuratively. He actually walked where these explorers, conquerors, and settlers walked. He visited sites, spoke with other researchers, and interviewed people who had starkly different views of what occurred.

All of this research contributed to a credible work that is also quite funny in places.

 


 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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