Reviews of Three Very Different Books

Patrick F. McManus, Kerplunk! (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 227 pages.


There is a favorite used bookstore in Wilmington, North Carolina that I often stop in when I’m home. This time I was looking to pick up another copy of Guy Owen’s The Ballard of the Flim-Flam Man to give to a cousin, along with any books by Archibald Rutledge (both Southern writers). I didn’t have any luck, but I came across a book by Patrick McManus that I had not read. I promptly purchased the book and read half of the stories that evening. All these stories had previously seen ink in Outdoor Life. They are funny and many have a good moral lesson, too. McManus has always been a bit of a curmudgeon. He longs for the days of old, when mountain trails weren’t so steep and there was more oxygen in air. He recalls hunting 80-acre section of land where the deer were seldom seen, but when he visited recently his old hunting ground, he sees that it’s not been developed into a gated community and the deer are plentiful, snacking on the shrubbery. The deer earing shrubs hit home! In these stories there are also good safety lessons, such as the purpose of hooking the safety chains on a trailer, because having your boat pass you on the highway us “one of the least pleasant sights you may encounter during your lifetime.” And McManus is also a master as self- deprecation, such as the time fishing for steelhead, his friend already had one on the line while he, having made a half-dozen casts, he hadn’t yet gotten his line in the water.  As for “Kerplunk”, you’ll have to read the book to find out. I do recommend McManus’ books!


David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 331 pages, a few illustrations.


I have enjoyed many of McCullough’s books (John Adams, The Wright Brothers, The Johnstown Flood) and while I enjoyed this book, it’s not one of McCullough’s best.  While the book is about the opening up of the Northwest Territory (which included the future states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin), McCullough spends the first part of this book discussing how the territory came to be in the early days of the Republic. As the nation was broke, this territory allowed the country to pay the soldiers in the Continental Army with land. Of course, these former soldiers had to clear the land and fight for it, as the native tribes were not agreeable to giving away their land. One of the promoters of the territory was Manasseh Culter, a Congregational Pastor. He spent time in Philadelphia lobbying for the territory and would later travel westward into Ohio but would not move there. It was through Cutler’s eyes that McCullough tells of the passing of the Northwest Territory Act. After discussion of the passing of the act that opened the territory, McCullough focuses on those who establish the town of Marietta (which is located just north of the Ohio River, where Interstate 77 crosses). McCullough does a wonderful job telling the story of how the settlement was established, overcame the hardships of the early years, and became a permanent town.  I think he should have stopped there.

Where McCullough’s book fails is that he tries to tie his story through the middle of the 19th Century, which leaves many gaps in the story. By focusing only on Marietta and towns along the Ohio River, the reader is only given insight into one strand of settlers who poured into the territory. That said, I still enjoyed reading this book which my men’s book club read for its December selection.


James Clavell, Tai-Pan  (1966, Blackstone Publishing, 2019), 885 pages (~34 hours on Audible).


Tai-Pan is a fictional account of the founding of the British Colony “Hong-Kong.” This is a long book. I listened to all the book and read some sections (as this is our January book selection for my book group).  While Clavell tells a good story, he seems to excel at foreshadowing, which means that when things happen there is little surprise. An example was when the Chinese lover of the Tai-pan was bitten by a mosquito, I knew she’d be coming down with malaria. Thankfully, Clavell doesn’t make a direct connection as, at the time (1842), it was thought that malaria came from “night vapors.” Clavell also seems to spend too much time in what goes on in the heads of various characters. People act or seem one way, but often have different ideas, which is especially true for the Chinese and their secret societies that even place mistresses so they can know what the British are up to. Clavell seems to embellish certain “kinky” sexual fantasies, from playful spankings of a lover to more harsh beatings and torture (he especially seems drawn to thumbscrews). I also felt he had a love for the sound of “reefed” sails. In his wonderful descriptions of sailing, he almost always has something to say about them being reefed (sails shortened due to excessive wind).


However, I did like how he worked in principles of economics, the advantage of free trade, the world views that tied together or put in conflict the interest of a variety of nations (from Britain, to Russia, and the America), and a main character (Dirk Sturan, a Scotsman) who is open and interested in what he and the English can learn from the Chinese. Staran is the “Tai-pan” or the leader of the strongest trading group in China. He has a number of other challengers including his arch-enemy, Tyler Brock. Staran is planning on leaving Asia and turning the operation of this company over to his son, Culum, which happens to be in love with Brock’s daughter.


The dream of the traders is to have a safe harbor where they are free to trade in China without Chinese control, and their fleets (the British navy and merchant ships of many nations) can survive storms. The book ends with a terrible typhoon (foreshadowed by the constant checking of the barometer), that destroys much of Hong Kong. But the fleet is spared. The trade will continue and Hong Kong will rebuild. Upon the death of his father, Culum assumes the role of the new Tai-pan while this half-brother (half Chinese and half Scot from Staran’s mistress plots to control the city.


While Clavell’s story does try to give value to the Chinese (their customs and their medicine), it is very much written from a Western point-of-view. I found myself wondering, while reading, how the book would be received in today’s more culturally sensitive and “Me-too” climate. While I’m glad I read the book, I won’t recommend it to anyone else (but I might make you a good deal on a used copy of the book 😊).

28 Replies to “Reviews of Three Very Different Books”

  1. I read Tai Pan a long time ago (around the same time I was reading Michener) and loved it. But I suspect I might not feel the same way about it now.

  2. Kerplunk sounds good. I thought the comment about “the good old days when the trails weren’t so steep and there was more oxygen in the air” was funny.

  3. I read Tai Pan years ago. I love it when people mention books that were published long ago, but are still being read. That fortifies my belief in the written word and its endurance.

    1. Lee, I tend not to read new books right when they come out (but not always 40-50 years later). This was one decided on by our book club because of the issues currently going on in Hong Kong. I’m not sure it will help in understanding the current situation other than to give a framework of how unique HK is.

    1. Somewhere I read that the word “Tai-pan” which he uses as “supreme leader” could better be translated as “big shot”! But you are right, I think, that even today, there are a few people who do wield great control over economics (which is in conflict with the “free trade” that Staran spoke of, which of course was free trade with his company having an inside position).

  4. That is one segment of history I really need to read about. I know China didn’t fare well during that period with the Western nations pushing their influence on the Middle Kingdom.

    I’m pretty sure I’ll read Tai-Pan in the near future.

    1. While Clavel does bring up a lot of the economics involved in the tea/opium trade, I am not sure I would recommend this book as a way to understand China. Years ago (like nearly 40 years ago) I read a lot on Chinese history and philosophy. I am sure there are other better books out there now.

  5. I’m impressed with all your high level reading accomplishments. It takes brain activity that I often don’t have to simply follow your user-friendly summaries. Yet I agree with your bottom line: Always go for humor!
    Be well, Sage.

  6. I’m familiar with all three authors, but haven’t read anything by any of them! I’m most inclined to pick up something by McManus.

    1. She would probably enjoy the book, for the section about travel over the Alleghenies and the first year or so of the community has a lot of information about how difficult life was back then.

  7. I’ve read several Patrick McManus book collections but for some reason, he fell off my radar. Thanks for the reminder because I always loved his writing.

    I’ve read just about all of David McCullough’s books and enjoyed them but this one for some reason I just couldn’t get into. I guess because I was hoping for a broader story instead of focused on just one town. After awhile of forcing myself to read it, I actually gave up and stopped reading it. I haven’t given it away yet but I’m not sure I will pick it up soon either.

    1. Most all of us in the book group felt this way–that it wasn’t his best. I thought he had some good information, but tried to stretch it too far.

    1. I’ve only read Smiley’s book, “A Thousand Acres.” I thought she did a good job capturing the Midwest farm crisis of the 1980s.

  8. Pretty sure I would like all of these. Actually I thought I owned a complete set of McManus, but don’t have that title. I wonder if this is an overlapping publication of some selected columns.

    1. Yes, all these stories were first published in “Outdoor Life” and collected in this book. I do enjoy reading his stories.

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