Tag Archives: history

Review: Come Up and Get Me: An Autobiography of Colonel Joe Kittinger

Colonel Joe Kittinger is probably best known for his work with projects Excelsior and Manhigh, which culminated in a record setting parachute jump from the edge of space. In truth, this was only one highlight of a colorful life filled with daring and record-setting aeronautics.

Kittinger was a career aviator for the US military. His time as a research and test pilot contributed to the development of new flight safety equipment, as well as breaking ground for a fledgling NASA. (His famous leap starting, in a way, with the first space walk.) He served as a fighter pilot in Europe as well as Vietnam, where, after being shot down during a combat mission, he was held prisoner of war.

Following his release and return as a hero, Kittinger would eventually find his way back to ballooning. In addition to winning a number of competitive balloon races, he would go on to become the first man to pilot a balloon solo across the Atlantic. In his later years, the Colonel and his wife turned to barnstorming: flying from town to town in an open-cockpit plane, delighting fans at events and airshows.

The life of Colonel Joe Kittinger has not been a dull one. To call him a daredevil might seem fitting, but may equally do the man a disservice. He was a risk taker, but not necessarily in a haphazard or reckless way. He set goals and pursued them with bravery, dedication, and more than a little bit of luck.

Joe Kittinger was truly a man who lived to fly. Come Up and Get Me will appeal easily to fans of aviation, ballooning, and military history.

Rating: 4/5

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

Kim Philby was a unique individual who lived a fascinating life as one of the most successful spies the world has ever seen. Outwardly a loved and respected member of the community, the man spent decades secretly betraying the people and governments who supported him.

Ben Macintyre opts to approach the Philby saga not as an academic presenting research but as a storyteller revealing a drama being played out against the all too real backdrop of international war. He adeptly weaves together a cohesive and riveting story line utilizing quotes gleaned from interviews, biographies, journals, and other surviving documentation. The author openly admits that many exact details will never be known, and that his version of events required “judgements about the credibility of different sources,” which “is not an exact science,” but ultimately is “as close to a true story as [he] can make it.”

Even if only largely true, the story has all the twists and turns of a thrilling spy novel. The fact that the actions of these individuals shaped the outcomes of very real wars, influenced international relations, and directly contributed to the lives…and deaths…of thousands of people around the world just makes the whole thing all the more fantastic. Macintyre presents characters which are often deep, conflicted, and borderline surreal, yet simultaneously sympathetic and relatable. He paints a vibrant picture of the unique time and culture within which these personalities thrived: a Britain where the upper class ruled, and one’s status and personal connections made all the difference.

These men were, perhaps, as close as the world has known to real life James Bonds. It’s certainly no coincidence that Ian Fleming was a contemporary and often an acquaintance of these same individuals. Their exploits, even without the central thread of treachery, make for some compelling reading.

Kim Philby’s betrayal was so thorough and successful, the story at time borders on classic movie theater horror. The protagonist’s companions haplessly, tragically, work against their own self interest, while the audience is forced to stand by, helplessly watching as the villain, who seems so obvious in retrospect, works his craft. The fact that the victims were not only real, innocent people, but some of the most powerful governments of the world, is jarring.

A Spy Among Friends is about as much of a page turner as a book about real life human history gets. Macintyre does a superb job of bringing the material to life in a way which is thorough, accessible, and dramatic. I highly recommend it, regardless of one’s personal interest in, or knowledge of, the Philby case.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton

Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween is divided into 6 main chapters. The first two cover the origin of the holiday around the British Isles, beginning with Samhain and the early rituals of the Celts. The author traces the progression of these festivals through the centuries and on up to modern day Hallowe’en. Chapter three moves overseas and examines the parallel evolution of Halloween on the North American continent. Having established the historical context, the author then presents a global picture of the adoption of Halloween in modern times. This is followed by a unit dedicated to the festival of Dias de los Muertos, after which the book wraps up with an examination of Halloween in popular culture.

As author Lisa Morton observes, despite the huge popularity of the holiday in modern times, Halloween has received surprisingly little academic attention. It has also been subject to a variety of misinformation, particularly around its early history and religious significance. Suffice it to say, Trick or Treat offers a wealth of information on the topic, most of which appears well researched. Morton’s approach is objective, and she makes an effort to dispel some of the common Halloween myths in passing.

My biggest issue with this history of Halloween comes down to the structure and presentation of the material. There are times when Morton really steamrolls her way through the content. There is very little opportunity to stop and take stock; the facts are presented, and a sentence or two later we have already moved on. The information was there to be had, but it came in such a barrage that I left feeling unsure how much of it I had really absorbed.

I would also have preferred to see more space dedicated to the subject matter of the first couple chapters; to really flesh out more of the historical context, and pace the progression through time a bit better. The chapter on Dias de los Muertos felt largely unnecessary, and it could easily have been cut down to concentrate on more relevant material.

Finally, the chapter on popular culture felt poorly worked in. A lot of it seemed redundant, having just gone past-to-present in previous chapters, only to do so again in much of the same context as before. That same material, if added in alongside the historical pieces instead of after them, may have really improved the flow of the entire presentation.

On the whole, as someone who has been a fan of Halloween since childhood, I enjoyed the opportunity to develop a more grown up and informed knowledge of this most misunderstood of holidays. Complaints about presentation aside, I would recommend this book to most curious trick-or-treaters.
Rating: 4/5

Review: The Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt by Christopher Dunn

Christopher Dunn is an American engineer who has some serious questions about the technological history of ancient Egypt. He has spent many years traveling to Egyptian temples, pyramids, and archaeological sites in his spare time, examining the remains of this once great culture. In The Lost Technologies of Ancient Egypt, Dunn presents his latest findings, many of which challenge the teachings of establishment Egyptology.

Alternative histories of Egypt (and elsewhere) have been popularized as of late by the Ancient Aliens crowd, often suggesting that extraterrestrials had a hand in early human accomplishments. Rest assured, ET makes no appearances here. The author remains wholly down to earth, and gives no suggestion that any species other than mankind was responsible for the pyramids. The text is strictly analytical, and only sensational in so far as it disagrees with the more popular academic views on the technology used by the ancient Egyptians.

While most Egyptologists are archaeologists or historians by trade, Dunn is a lifelong engineer, with an in-depth knowledge of manufacturing processes. Rather than studying artifacts in terms of the people who created them, Dunn wants to know what we can learn about how they were created. Where an archaeologist might see a coffin or a statue of an old god, Dunn sees manufactured objects exhibiting subtle errors and tool marks that can speak to their means of creation.

The author takes tools for precision measurement and a digital camera to each location. He singles out individual objects which he feels exhibit particularly telling features, and uses a combination of physical inspection and computerized analysis of his photographs to complete the evaluation. He attempts to determine, based on the various shapes and surface features, what tools may or may not have created the artifacts, and what mathematical calculations would have gone into their design. The book contains numerous black and white images in line with the text (often marked up to indicate points of interest or measure), as well as a series of color panels to further illustrate key findings. Dunn makes frequent references to geometric principles throughout his work, and an understanding of these is somewhat critical to following along.

The pace of the text varies, in some places feeling a bit dry, as scholarly works are prone to do. The only real intrigue is in the mystery of the artifacts themselves, and how the story presented to tourists and the media, of armies of Egyptian slaves with hand tools of wood and copper, fails to jive with the reality of mathematically precise, seemingly machined, stonework. My biggest complaint is probably that the black-and-white photos were rather small and low resolution, and were in some instances hard to reconcile with the corresponding discussion in the text. There were certainly a few times where “I’ll take your word for it” was as likely a result as “oh, I see it!” for me, but I don’t feel it significantly damaged the case the author was trying to make.

By the end though, the arguments really do pile up, leaving one to wonder what the true history of Egyptian technology could be. The evidence seems convincing, based on all the apparent signs of advanced mathematics and mechanical processes currently unaccounted for, that more complex technology must have been available to somebody, at some point. I have no less difficulty believing Dunn’s claims, given the reasonable degree of photographic and analytical proof, than any other historian claiming the same miracles were worked with much less. It’s a shame that so many scholars would seemingly rather argue amongst themselves than reexamine the evidence, when the truth shouldn’t be a matter of opinion. Maybe the field of Egyptology could use a few good engineers in its ranks.

Recommended for anyone with an interest in Egyptian history or ancient technology; no aliens required.

Rating: 4/5