Patrick Whalen

Share Profile

Patrick Whalen

Patrick Whalen’s book reviews

Following the Equator documents Mark Twain's journey around the world in 1897 as he visits Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, India, the island of Mauritius and South Africa. Written at an interesting time, Twain reveals some of the haphazard problems to travel of the day, such as a Hawaiian Cholera outbreak that, regretfully, prevented his boat from letting passengers disembark on the islands.

Twain's wit and wisdom is on full display in the book as he adds an epigraph atop every chapter - a quote from Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar :

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakable precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

He travels extensively around India, stopping around Bombay, Calcutta and Taj Mahal. It is clear that India is one of his favorite places. He loves the legend, the mythology, the dichotomy of it:

This is indeed India! the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Alladin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods...

In South Africa, he learns about the Boers struggle for independence and visits the De Beers office where raw diamonds are mined, at the time the company was just beginning. Twain was a vocal egalitarian, and he adds in a good deal of criticism of the racism he saw in Australia, India and South Africa. The book is mostly remembered for that, but it is also a great read for its historical perspective on the places he visited as well as the humorous stories and colorful descriptions that only Mark Twain could add.

A gripping look at one of the most defining moments in history. The first part of the book was written by scientists and medics on the Special Manhattan Engineer District Investigating Group. It describes in great detail what the atomic bomb was, how it worked and the damage it caused. At the time, the US treated the atomic weapon very scientifically as the country leapt into this new technology. Long before dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US avoided hitting these cities with conventional bombs so damage results were untainted. And soon after the Japanese surrendered, assessment teams were sent in to survey how the cities had been affected.
The last quarter of the book is the more engrossing part. It is the firsthand account from a British Catholic missionary living on the outskirts of Hiroshima, and it shows how completely unknowable the scale of the A-bomb was.
Down in the valley, perhaps one kilometer toward the city from us, several peasant homes are on fire and the woods on the opposite side of the valley are aflame. A few of us go over to help control the flames. While we are attempting to put things in order, a storm comes up and it begins to rain. Over the city, clouds of smoke are rising and I hear a few slight explosions.
You can see in his writing the priest thinks the bomb’s mushroom cloud is a storm, a thunderhead, he sees over the city. When the priest talks to other priests across the city, they think the same way he did when the bomb first detonated.

They had the same impression that we had in Nagatsuke: that the bomb had burst in their immediate vicinity. The Church, school, and all buildings in the immediate vicinity collapsed at once.

Seeing the razing of their city, morale of its citizens was also annihilated as well. This is shown by one dramatic description of a Japanese worker.

Fukai, the secretary of the Mission, is completely out of his mind. He does not want to leave the house and explains that he does not want to survive the destruction of his fatherland. He is completely uninjured. Father Kleinsorge drags him out of the house on his back and is forcefully carried away.

In his final words – most likely written after the Japanese surrendered – the priest gives a “live by the sword, die by the sword” statement about the use of the weapon, which is interesting given his very unique point of view.
…It seems logical to me that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of war against civilians.

A fascinating biography if you are interested in medieval literature or the Machiavellian politics of 14th century Italy. Mostly covering Dante Alighieri’s greatest work, The Divine Comedy, and how it was sort of a poison pen letter for the people he felt had betrayed Christianity – and him personally. At the time, Florence was one of the greatest cities, so rich that its banks lent money to kings. When Dante was exiled for political reasons in the year 1301, possibly forced to leave his love – the inspiration for Beatrice – he felt the enduring sting of injustice. And this was the inspiration for his hell.

In this pit are punished the hypocrites, who go in slow procession clad in cowls of gilded lead.
Examining the circles shows how Dante even gave grades or levels to sins, scientifically applying weight to them.
The seventh pit is appointed for the punishment of thieves. Serpents and dragons are here introduced. In some cases the body is reduced to ashes in consequence of the bite, and presently recovers its shape; in others man and serpent blend; in others, again, they exchange natures, the sinners themselves being transmuted into the reptiles, and becoming the instruments of torment to their fellows. A kind of reckless and brutal joviality seems to characterize the malefactors.
The Black-Bearded Barbarian tells the story of George Leslie MacKay, the Presbyterian Priest from Canada, who brought Christianity to north Taiwan, or Formosa as it was known in the late 1800's. Even if you are not a religious person, this book is interesting in showing how one man, alone, walked into a land where he didn't know the culture or one word of the language and, over time, introduced an idea that change a people.
When MacKay landed, he first went about learning the language, customs and beliefs of the people. Most of the locals did not want to even rent a room to him - wanting only to stone him for being a foreign devil. But MacKay, living in a hut by a river, spent all his time learning Chinese, amazingly mastering it enough after only a few months to read and understand the scholarly texts of the intellectuals. He learned the scholar books so well that he would argue with the mandarins (men from the ruling class). His arguments for his beliefs were logical as well as spiritual. It was one of these bright, young mandarins, so impressed with MacKay's solid reasoning and unwavering beliefs, who became MacKay's first convert.
MacKay, with the bravery of "an army", walked from village to village talking about his beliefs, even traveling into the wild mountains where the Chinese dared not venture because of native headhunters. But he did not just preach, often working as a doctor, performing dentistry and giving out medicine for Malaria relief. He married a local woman and, in the end, was buried in Taiwan. This showing how ingrained he was with the people he had changed.
Chita, which is short for Conchita(Spanish for girl), is the fictional tale about the actual hurricane that hit Last Island, Louisiana, in 1856. The storm razed a resort hotel and killed over 200 people. In the story, Chita – a 5-year-old girl, survives the storm and is adopted by a Spanish fisherman and his wife. Her father, who later returns to New Orleans, does not know she is still alive and spends his last days in sorrow.

Hearn writes with an ear for language, capturing the different cultures of New Orleans – Spanish, Anglo, French, Italian and Creole – with very authentic dialog. Chita is a simple story, focusing on a simple tragedy while showing how life adjusts to change. The little girl quickly grows into her new home. Going from the city to the fisherman’s cottage, her skin darkens, she becomes quiet and explorative, she learns to read the waters and understand the weather. Hearn’s prose are rich with these natural details that let the reader feel the heat, taste the brine, hear the immigrants, see the storm clouds forming and Chita should be read for this feature.
Rebel Raiders is a very quick read, being a short historical story first published in the magazine True: The Man’s Magazine which has an interesting history itself. True was the first men’s magazine to sell over a million copies a month back when men shaved with ax blades and wrestled bears. And being called “The Man’s Magazine”, you can expect a real man’s tale and that’s what you get.

The story chronicles the service of the Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby, aka “The Grey Ghost”. Mosby came up with the idea that an enemy battle front could be pushed back with mounted raids. He quickly proved his point with excursions into northern Virginia, causing Union defense forces to be increased and more patrols to be assigned.

Mosby had a numerous accomplishments. In 1863, he captured Brigadier General Stoughton along with 58 horses. President Lincoln later commented on hearing the news that he was sorry to lose the horses; after all, he could make all the generals he wanted. Even in the waning days of the war when some Confederate states had surrendered, Mosby was raiding cities fully fortified by Union soldiers. His final plan was to sneak into Richmond and capture General Ulysses S. Grant! But just before entering the city, he learned that General Robert E. Lee, his commander, had surrendered. After the war, he supported Grant for president, because, as he said, he had been a soldier. This was not socially acceptable by many Southerners at the time.

Bravery, honor, smarts, grit. Rebel Raiders is a nice read for any red-blooded American boy or anyone who appreciates a good war story.
"If treaties are scraps of paper and neutral states are to have no rights or protection, there is no safety in the world, no sacredness of contracts; the world is at an end and chaos reigns."

The Audacious War by Clarence W. Barron is a fascinating and useful book written during the middle of War World I - before the USA's entry - when the echoes of howitzers were still thundering over the French countryside. I say useful because Barron is thorough in his examination, visiting the countries and looking behind the scenes - in the cities, governments, and banks. He investigates the reasons for the war, and the bad assumption made by all sides before it started... Germany assumed America might join their side, France had 400 miles of fortification that were immediately abandoned, proving useless against gasoline-powered mobility. Barron highlights the bad blood between Germany and France that existed since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and gives detailed accounts of the cost of war in treasury and men.

Written in a sort of half travel essay-half analysis style, the author knows the truth sits inside the people he meets and not the cratered roads and broken facades, so he listens to people and paints a revealing picture of European life during World War I, noting that at the time, Parisians refused to darken the streets - unable to ruin the atmosphere of the city. In one very observant passage, he notes how the Americans sort of liked the European war as it seems to increase productivity and lift their stock market.

Barron is English, but loves Germany, obviously having had many connections with the country in the past. He starts off remarkably neutral, but emphatically declares his change of mind, siding with the Allies after seeing what the Germans did to Belgium, shelling villages and peasants. You can feel the change in the author's tone along with the culture. Before World War I, wars were fought with a great deal of "honor" and "civility". The English were sports at war, he writes. The Germans were once a admirably efficient people who loved their firesides and home. But, infected with the philosophy of Nietzsche, Germany found meaning in "The Will to Power." Barron clearly means to use the word Audacious for its negative definition. The Great War and its poison gas and building-destroying shells ended the old style of war and man rediscovered a viciousness on a massive scale never seen before.
A non-stop, action-filled flight over the battle fields and sea battles of the War of 1812 where cannon-smoke drifted and grapeshot volleyed. This isn’t a history book it’s a saga about a young nation learning to stand up to the bullying of world’s only superpower at the time. Starring an amazing cast of characters such as Tecumseh, the blood thirsty Native American, who sides with the British in order to seek revenge for the wrongs perpetrated on his people. Captain Hull, the dashing captain of The United States’ most long-serving ship, The Constitution, and a man who must arouse a demoralized nation by taking on an almost undefeated foe. The hardened Red Coats are merciless, looting villages and burning the White House for spite. The War of 1812 was like prequel for many heroes of The United States such as David Farragut, who served on a ship at the age of 12, and the short-tempered Andrew Jackson who – even against orders – led his highly-skilled Tennessee riflemen south, and into the solid ranks of the British at New Orleans, leading men like Sam Houston and Davey Crocket along the way.
Imagine being run aground on an uncharted reef in the middle of the Pacific. The foolish boy, the yacht owner's spoiled son, has just burned the signal fire, alerting the strange ship running across the horizon. The ship is a Chinese junk ,its deck crowded with pirates, and it has just turned toward you.

If you're hungry for 19-century nautical adventures with very authentic writing, Collingwood is your man. He puts you there on that boat with details that only someone who spent his life on boats would know.