Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them.  I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work.  Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles.  This is history we think we learned in eighth grade.  Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and returns a thoroughly human story, extensively researched and rich in detail.

There was an impression then, and I suspect now, that the “Railroad Chinese” were enslaved workers, but California (the Gold Mountain of the title) was a free state, so it was important that incoming Chinese laborers were not being traded as slaves.  Most of these men were contract workers who came willingly, following opportunity.  However, Chinese women were bought in China and sold here as prostitutes, primarily for the “Railroad Chinese” – hmmm, the sex trade, as old as time and still with us today unfortunately.

All the work was done by hand – men with hand tools, wheelbarrows, black powder (a Chinese invention), horse carts and supply trains as the tracks extended.  Teams of three men using an eight-pound sledge hammer and a pole with crude bit-end could tap roughly three blasting holes a day, mile after mile, for roadbeds and tunnels.  Avalanches, explosions and fire, rock slides, entrapment, maiming injuries that would, as likely as not, ultimately kill a man.  We can only estimate the number of deaths, however.  Complete and/or accurate records of workers don’t exist.  The railroad united our country coast to coast, but, except for a scant few, we don’t even know who these men were – the survivors or the fallen.

After the railroad was completed, some of the “Railroad Chinese” went back to China as they’d planned to do.  Some continued as railroad workers here, in Canada, and elsewhere.  Some remained, took jobs or opened businesses, and their descendants live among us.  However, federal law immigration law prohibited anyone born in China from becoming a naturalized citizen, and that law was not changed until 1943.  Nothing brings today into focus as blindingly as history does, and so I offer you Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a thorough, scholarly work and a good read as well.

Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 7.  Click here to order/pre-order from your local indie bookstore or, if you prefer, from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia

A noted author of essays and criticism, Marin Sardy is the daughter and sister of schizophrenics, her mother and her brother Tom.  Although her mother was never officially diagnosed, doctors suggested that she did have some form of schizophrenia, and, to Marin, her mother was stolen by this “shapeless thief”.  The earlier parts of the book explore schizophrenia in a way that feels rather loosely connected, and indeed, portions of this book were previously published as essays:  personal experiences, effects on families, a possible link to creativity, David Bowie and Ms. Sardy’s own wardrobe choices.  However, as the book nears its central story, that of her brother Tom, its earlier disjointedness seems purposeful, a mimicking of the “episodic, fragmented, gaping” effect of schizophrenia itself.  Life to a schizophrenic is described as “a series of stills”.

Tom’s story is heartbreaking, and that is neither trite nor a cliche, no.  No other statement does justice.  Robbed of all hope and promise, homeless on the streets of Anchorage, in and out of our inadequate mental health care systems, loved helplessly by family and friends who shelter him when possible and search endlessly for resources, solutions, help of any kind.  Ultimately, Ms. Sardy relates a personal experience with a baby raven as a way to tell us that “…sometimes, ceremony is the only resolution we can have.”  A deeply moving and thought-provoking reading experience.  Available in May wherever books are sold, or click the following link to pre-order at Amazon.com: The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group / Pantheon via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Florida State of Mind: An Unnatural History of Our Weirdest State

Had a sampling good time (admittedly not front to back), and “weirdest state” is the author’s opinion, not mine!  However, we had an aunt in Florida, married several times, who had a dog she named Mister.  It gave her a kick to go to the door and call, “Here, Mister, Mister,” she said.  A little weird, I guess.  Mr. Wright lives in Florida and calls this “…a collection of factoids, oddments, stories, and backstories…”.  I call it fun.  Let’s see.  Florida remained loyal to Britain during the Revolution, so no fourteenth colony.  How “oh wow” rich is that laid back Jimmy Buffet who, we’re told, is Warren Buffet’s distant cousin?  What happened to the Florida of Fifties and Sixties vacations, Silver Springs and glass-bottomed boats, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee?  Did Gore or Bush win the contested 2000 Presidential race in Florida, and how many types of “chads” were there?  Ha, there were four identified and named!  One was a swinging chad.  Didn’t you date him?  Florida is known as the “Road Kill State”, and there’s an interesting flipside.  White-tailed deer kill more humans than sharks, alligators, bears, snakes and insects combined.  A recipe for Tang pie is here too.  Check it out on April 30!

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press / Thomas Dunne Books via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

Caroline Van Hemert, a biologist, and her husband Pat Farrell (artist, outdoorsman, builder) dream a simple dream, yet one so daunting in scope that few could dream it – a trek of 4,000 miles from Bellingham, Washington to a far, far speck in the Alaskan Arctic, Kotsube.  Ever been there?  Me, either.  Without snowmobiles, ATVs, sponsors.  No planes, no trains, no hitched rides.  After four months intense planning, they leave Bellingham in two rowboats built by Pat, traveling up the Inside Passage then across mountains, glaciers, rivers, delta, and tundra on foot, on skis, by canoes and pack rafts.

This challenge was undertaken, I felt, in the spirit of a quest, though perhaps not consciously so; and it is recounted here in all its harshness, dreamy beauty and overriding love of the wilderness.  In a stunning episode, we’re practically part of a migrating caribou herd, and the astounding migratory flights of birds weave in and out of the narrative as a counterpoint to the journey.  The lovely title is, in fact, a reference to migratory bird navigation.  So, readers, travel and grow with this intrepid young couple.  Well-worth anyone’s time.

Take the trip now at Amazon.com or shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown and Company / Little, Brown Spark via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Accidental Veterinarian: Tales from a Pet Practice

A pleasant interlude of a book for those of us who love our animals and rely on the vets who care for them.  Canadian vet Phillipp Schott’s calm voice, practical point of view, and gentle humor is so like the vets I’ve known through many years and wonderful pets – hermit crabs (funny little fragile things) to horses (funny big fragile things) and variously-sized dear things in between.  Dr. Schott raises our awareness of the challenges unique to veterinary practices, clinics encompassing nearly the entirety of medicine in one hectic place, and he includes practical and interesting tips for neophytes and the seasoned as well:  when to call a vet, what to expect, advice on fleas and ticks, what chocolate actually does to dogs, “natural” food, supportive wisdom on end-of-life eventualities.

Good stuff, and, of course, plenty of the anecdotes we all enjoy so much.  Petit Choux, the pet rabbit of a French Canadian client, heard by the receptionist as Petty Chew.  The interesting observation/opinion that U.S. clients complain less about veterinary costs than Canadians do because, perhaps, they are aware of the cost of medicine for human beings.  Hmmmm.  And the child who wrote the good doctor about his ambition to be a “vat”.  Dr. Schott muses that he too once dreamed of becoming a “large container”, but decided to become a vet instead.  Glad he did.

Set for release on April 23 from ECW Press.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by ECW Press via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.