Blog Archives

“On the Map” by Simon Garfield

onthemapMy travel/map nerdiness is not a secret, so it came as no surprise to me when midway though Simon Garfield’s new book, “On the Map,” I was reading passages that amazed me out loud to my husband.  I have a whole shelf of travel books and maps, my son’s room has a U.S. and a World map on the walls, and I wouldn’t dream of traveling somewhere without knowing the lay of the land.

Yeah, I loved this book.

But I don’t think a map obsession is necessary to enjoy this splendid piece of writing and history.

Garfield manages to narrate the entire history of cartography from Ptolemy to Google Maps in 400 fast-paced and completely readable pages.  It’s no small feat.  This could be a super boring book, but instead it’s one of the best things I’ve read in ages.  I feel like I learned a million things I’ll never forget about fascinating pieces of history – the Mappa Mundi, Ogilby’s map of London, and the Vinland Map among others.  Garfield also places notes recent advancements in mapping – J.K. Rowling’s Marauder’s Map from the “Harry Potter” series, Facebook/GPS tracking, and the marvels of mapping showcased in the world of video games – as the truly historical advancements that they are.

This book hits stores in January 2013, and I suggest you go get a copy if anything about maps or travel is interesting to you.  I was sent an advance copy of this book, and it will remain on my shelf, in amongst the travel books, for a long time.  Probably forever, if I’m being honest.


“Island of Vice” by Richard Zacks

“Island of Vice” by Richard Zacks is as timely a book as you’re going to find. In it, a pre-Presidential Teddy Roosevelt becomes Police Commissioner of New York City and sets out on a righteous (and hard-headed) quest to clean up the city’s numerous sins – from corrupt and lazy cops to brothels to Saloons open on Sundays.  Of course, as he does this – which is exactly what he was hired to do – New York City gets downright mad at him.

Poor guy can’t win for losing.

Along the way, he even “invents” bicycle cops – and people are still mad at him!


“Island of Vice” fits in nicely with other recent pieces of historical non-fiction such as “The Devil in the White City” and “Sin in the Second City.”  Incredibly detailed and obviously thoroughly well-researched, the book rolls along at a fiesty pace, and introduces a whole cast of characters who’d be right at home on an HBO series. (“Boardwalk Empire” came to mind more than once.)  As Roosevelt charges forward with his quest like a puritanical Don Quixote, all around him are voices of opposition – from the media to the cops to the poorer citizens of the Big Apple, none of whom expected ALL the laws to be strictly enforced.  The shutting of saloons on Sunday, in particular, rubs people the wrong way — especially since it really only affects the poor.  (The rich can afford refridgeration and private clubs, which make drinking in their homes or among their fellow elite on Sunday legal and easy, while the poor suddenly find themsleves on their one day off without their favorite libations.  History shows that keeping people from their booze never turns out well.)

Zacks, the author of several non-fiction works, clearly knows how to keep things from getting dull – there’s always a new character to introduce in this recalled real-life drama.  (Among the heavy-hitters he pulls out are bajillionaire J.P Morgan and author Stephen Crane.  No joke.)

Like the last sentence of the book says, “Like in ancient Rome, the vitality of New York City sometimes seems to come more from the crooks than the do-gooders.”  People doing things deemed “sinful” are always more interesting than perfect people who obey each law and always act in accordance with high moral standards.  Where’s the drama in being perfect and saintly all the time, right?

“Island of Vice” hits stores in March.  Fans of history, check it out.  I liked it a lot.




“Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris” by David King

A few years ago, the book everyone was reading on the bus/train (at least in Chicago) was Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City,” a gripping non-fiction tale of serial killer H.H. Holmes and the havoc he was causing on the South Side during his heydey while Chicago’s attentions were focused on the World’s Fair.  The book was a true story, and compellingly told, with a cast of characters that even a great fiction writer might not have been able to conjure.

David King’s “Death in the City of Light” attempts at – and succeeds in being – something similar.  A non-fiction historical narrative drawn from real events and real records, King’s book moves the story of a serial killer from Chicago in development to Nazi-Occupied Paris, which is a terrifying landscape even without a murderer at large.

In 1944, a pile of mutilated and charred bodies were found in a house.  It didn’t take police long to figure out their prime suspect – a doctor named Marcel Petiot – though finding him proved to be another battle.  Long story short, Petiot promised Jewish families he would help them get to freedom, then killed them in terrible ways and took their possessions. He was found guilty of twenty-four murders, though in likelihood his victims were in the hundreds.  Petiot insisted he was innocent of those crimes – though admitted to killing Germans and sympathizers.  The world media went crazy over the story, the charismatic villain, and all the ghastly details, and the whole thing became a sensation.

“The Devil in the White City” carefully balanced the atrocities of it’s central killer with the cultural advancements taking place at the same time, and “Death in the City of Light” does that as well.  While Petiot is on the loose and police are on the hunt, a couple of artists named Sartre, Camus, and Picasso (heard of them?) are producing art, writing, and premiering a new play – “No Exit.”

A great deal of this narrative details the lengthy circus of Petiot’s trial – which comes off as something you might see in a Hollywood film today.  The accused is mouthy and temperamental, though with his endearing moments, as the prosecutors (a wacky bunch) swirl around trying to pin unidentifiable bodies on him.  Petiot claims to have been a member of the Resistance, though can’t name a single person involved with him AND fails simple tests that any real member of the Resistance should be able to answer.

David King wisely keeps the focus on the events, and largely refrains from speculating on what may have happened to this person or that person.  For the most part, the details speak for themselves.  It’s a well compiled, and very well researched history, and one I enjoyed tremendously.

…and now I’ll stop reading books about serial killers until after the baby is born. The end.

“A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown” by Julia Scheeres

[Hey All! I’m back – kind of.  Well, at least I have a few posts from pre-baby that I figured I’d put up, and I’ve started trying to work a little reading back into my days.  Granted, now that I have a one month old, it’s not a lot of time, but it’s something.]

It was before my time, but in November of 1978 918 people died after drinking grape Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide while living in a colony in Guyana ruled over by a drug-addicted maniac named Jim Jones.  The events of Jonestown still pop up in pop culture frequently (who hasn’t heard the term “drink the Kool-Aid”) but I’d never really known too much about them.

Into my mailbox recently came a review copy of a book that changed that.  The book was “A Thousand Lives:  The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown,” and it’s a well-researched, thorough, and fascinating book about the horrors and traps of cult mentality and, in the end, the ups and downs of the human spirit.

Author Julia Scheeres didn’t set out to write a non-fiction book about Jonestown.  Her original instinct was to write a novel about a charismatic preacher in a small town, but after some googling Jim Jones her focus changed and she realized the potential in telling this story start to finish.  Pulled largely from the FBI’s files on Jonestown, Scheeres laces all these fragments of stories together into one cohesive and riveting work that may become one of the defining texts on these events from this day forward.

After founding the People’s Temple  in Indiana in the Midwest, and seeing his “open to all” policy become wildly successful, charismatic leader Jim Jones took his church to California and then (finally) to Guyana while encouraging his members to live communally and slowly to eliminate outsiders from their lives. Soon, though, this man who claimed to be a Messiah was hooked on drugs, shagging his parishioners, paranoid, and ruling over this commune 4,000 miles away from the U.S. like a crazed tyrant.

Though the focus of the book is to tell the complete story of the build-up to the tragic events of November 1978, and not necessarily on individual stories, Scheeres wisely works a few people into the mix, giving us heroes to hope for.  Mainly, there’s troublemaking teenager Tommy Bough, whose battle against the rules that caused so many so much misery is partly out of teenage rebellion and partly from a place of pure common sense.  There’s also 76 year old Hyacinth Thrash, who became aware that Jonestown wasn’t the paradise she and her sister had been promised, but bit her tongue long enough to walk away from the events physically unharmed.

“A Thousand Lives” makes for riveting – yet horrifying – reading.  However, the more we know about our past the more aware we can be when it tries to repeat itself, right?  Jonestown was certainly an interesting chapter in history, and one that has a great many lessons to teach regarding the dangers of blindly following a leader.

The Depression, Revisited – “The Forgotten Man” by Amity Shlaes

Much has been made in recent years of America’s economic troubles, and how they compare to that ultimate time of economic strife – The Great Depression.  Amity Shlaes, journalist and economic history expert, wrote “The Forgotten Man” in 2007 to explain her theory regarding the real reasons and factors that led to the original Depression, and to warn us of how history repeats itself.

The phrase, “The Forgotten Man” existed previously thanks to a lecture given by a Yale University professor named William Sumner, who said;

It is when we come to the proposed measures of relief for the evils which have caught public attention that we reach the real subject which deserves our attention. As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. As for A and B, who get a law to make themselves do for X what they are willing to do for him, we have nothing to say except that they might better have done it without any law, ‘but what I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man.  — (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Critics of the book seem divided on it’s accuracy and interpretation of events, but regardless – it’s full of information and a decent read.  Called “The finest history of the Great Depression ever written,” by one person and “revisionist” by another, “The Forgotten Man” is a  heady book full of names, dates, and information.  Whether or not you agree with the theories presented within is up to you, but it’s certainly an interesting read.

Shlaes criticizes Herbert Hoover, FDR, and the New Deal all for exacerbating a terrible situation by offering government intervention, as well as not doing enough to help. (Apparently when this book was released, it was a big hit among Republicans on Capitol Hill.)

The sheer amount of information included in this book could have made it a daunting and dry read, but Shlaes keeps things moving and the book is hyper-informative.

I learned a couple things, and I’m not sorry I read it.

So there.

Ms. Vowell goes to Hawaii – “Unfamiliar Fishes” by Sarah Vowell

While on my Hawaiian honeymoon last August, I became a bit of a Hawaii-phile.

It’s hard not to visit the gorgeous place and not become enraptured not only by it’s spectacular beauty (it really does look like a postcard) but also it’s fascinating history. Well, at least for my husband and I – history nerds – it wasn’t.  There were certainly tons of bikini-clad tourists around who were there only for the sun and shopping and didn’t care to learn a thing about history.

That’s not how I roll.

So it pleased me immensely when I heard that Sarah Vowell’s next book was about the annexation of Hawaii.  In previous books, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain have attempted to write about this most unsettled of lands – and the results are fine, if incredibly dated. Vowell is one of those writers whose books I will buy the day they’re released, and to wrap all her genius and smarts and modern sensibilities into a topic I’m fascinated by seemed like pure perfection.

“Unfamiliar Fishes” is really, really good. I knew I was going to love it when the opening line contains a reference to “plate lunch,” which is a remarkable Hawaiian THING that you have to eat to understand. (Chicago-ites, you should try Aloha Eats on Clark for the only real Hawaiian plate lunch in town.)  From there, Ms. Vowell launches into the history of how Hawaii, once a kingdom all it’s own with a monarchy, got visited by missionaries, had some revolutions, and eventually became part of the United States of America.

As always, Vowell comes off as your really smart, funny, and interesting friend explaining history to you.  She travels to Hawaii in addition to several other places, and for those who’ve read some of her other books brings her young nephew Owen with her to provide his adorable (and normally spot-on) commentary along the way.

Reading “Unfamiliar Fishes” reminded me of my favorite parts of my vacation there – namely, visiting the I’olani Palace where Queen Liliuokalani lived (and was held in a room for eight months) and the overwhelming sense of history and broken ties.

(Note: One of my favorite historical figures, Liliuokalani was also a noted songwriter.  In fact, in 2009 when Barack Obama – the first Hawaiian born President of the United States – was inaugurated, it was the Queen’s song “Aloha O’ie” that was played.  Seems crazy that it was a previous US president who essentially overthrew her reign and toppled her kingdom, doesn’t it?)

The history of Hawaii isn’t always as beautiful as the land, but it’s just as captivating.

When good ideas don’t reach fruition — “A Summer of Hummingbirds..” by Christopher Benfey

Books often wind up in the bargain bin at bookstores when, in reality, they’re well-written and thoughtful.

Sometimes, it’s because the bookstore ordered too many copies.

But sometimes, it’s because the book simply never caught on, due to whatever forces.

“A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade” is one of those books.

On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, I stopped by the bargain section, and it caught my eye.  (Books about authors are always interesting to me.)  Being that it was $6.00, I bought it on the spot.

While a sweet idea, the hummingbird thread that is supposed to connect all these notables eventually wears thin and just breaks.  In the time period of the civil war, Hummingbirds were all the rage. Everyone liked them, not just these specific famous people of the era.  The specific people he calls out all moved in a sort of vague and wide-ranging social circle (mainly, they all have ties to New England, it seems.)

However, there’s no grand explosive theory here to make the book a blockbuster.  Benfey has researched these people and these times in minute detail, but alas… the very concept he’s working from isn’t that interesting.

It’s really a book about what a few noted people were doing over the course of a few years before, during, and after The Civil War.

Dickinson is, as always, written as hermit-like and practically a saint.  Twain actually barely appears – which is a shame, as by nature he’s an interesting dude. By far, the most interesting figure of the book (and the information I enjoyed the most) was about Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Other than knowing she wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” I knew nothing of her life, which was pretty fantastic and interesting.  She had a war-veteran son vanish,  as well as a friendship with Lady Byron (who’s story she tried to tell during a time when the world was feeling Byron-fever.)  If there was a book about Stowe and her crazy life, I’d be curious to read that.  Unfortunately, the coverage of her in this book is all-too-brief, thanks to the other plots it’s trying to follow.

Frankly, though it’s charming in places, this book is a little bit like a train of thought that starts off promising but winds up amounting to not much. This is unfortunate, because it starts off with such incredible promise.

Was reading it a waste of time? Absolutely not. Benfey is a historian and there’s things to be learned here.

However, alas, it was far from a riveting read.