My favorite obscure non-fiction genre is travelogue retracing famous historical routes. They tend to be a third history, a third anthology and a third...moreMy favorite obscure non-fiction genre is travelogue retracing famous historical routes. They tend to be a third history, a third anthology and a third pure wanderlust, and I will read every single one I can get my hands on. Wandering along the Inca Trail? Please write a book so I can read it. Recreating Captain Cook’s famous voyage? I will definitely read about it. Following any major river from the sea to its source? I’ve read two like that this year. Safe to say, I was predisposed to like The 8:55 to Baghdad, which retraces Agatha Christie’s 1928 voyage to Baghdad along the Orient Express.
Eames takes his time wandering through the Balkens and Eastern Europe (as someone who is currently planning a trip there, it was actually problematic because I kept adding places to my list of destinations) and then wanders from Turkey to Syria across to Iraq just months before the US invasion. While I prefer travelogues where the author can speak the local language (as oppose to only talking to people who speak English), Eames is inquisitive and has a genuine respect for the people he meets, which made for a fascinating look at life in parts of the world I know little about.
In addition to being a travelogue, The 8:55 to Baghdad is the story of the second half of Agatha Christie’s life. She’s best known as the author of hundreds of mysteries, but after her mysterious disappearance, she travelled to Baghdad, fell in love with a much younger archaeologist and spent the rest of her winters on digs in Syria and Iraq. Despite being a big fan of Christie, I had no clue about this second half of her life, and I found the biographical portions of the book as interesting as the rest.
The Forger's Tale is the story of one of the greatest - and most improbable - art frauds of the twentieth century. Han van Meegeren was a mediocre Dut...moreThe Forger's Tale is the story of one of the greatest - and most improbable - art frauds of the twentieth century. Han van Meegeren was a mediocre Dutch artist whose original artwork was panned by critics as shallow and insipid. After years of trying (and failing) to win recognition and respect with his own work, he decided instead to turn to forgery, and in the 1930s, he forged seven paintings by the great Dutch artist Vermeer, as well as paintings by ter Borch and Hals. Today, it's almost impossible to look at van Meegeren's "Vermeers" and understand how anyone, let alone art critics and museum curators, fell for the hoax, but in the 1930s, van Meegeren's forged Christ at Emmaus was lauded as Vermeer's greatest masterpiece. He fooled Naxis and the art intelligentsia alike, and his paintings sold for $30 million dollars.
The Forger's Tale is less about the art though, and more about HOW exactly van Meegeren managed to pull off this fraud. It's the story of how and why people thought was better than ?
Dolnick talks about the history and the art of forging. He talks about other famous scams and about the psychology that leads to successful art forgeries. He looks at the unique historical circumstances that allowed van Meegeren to get away with his hoax and the people that unwittingly helped him pull it off. He explains the science of creating a convincing forgery and the science of unmasking one. It's an exhaustive look at the topic, but perhaps it's a little too exhaustive. Dolnick has a unique approach to organizations, and the book jumps all over the place with each new chapter, sometimes leaving the reader confused about where exactly things happen in the timeline, but it was overall an enjoyable and informative read.(less)
This book is so good. SO GOOD! In Empires of the Indus, Alice Albinia travels along the Indus from its delta in the Arabian Sea to the Senge Khabab -...moreThis book is so good. SO GOOD! In Empires of the Indus, Alice Albinia travels along the Indus from its delta in the Arabian Sea to the Senge Khabab - the Lion's Mouth - its source in Tibet. As she travels along the river, she also travels back in time and traces the river's history from modern Pakistan to the Stone Age hunters living in Kashmir, Baltistan and Ladakh. The scope of Albinia's travels are impressive - she visits Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Tibet - and the the breadth of her research is staggering, covering 5,000 years of history and drawing upon research from historians, geologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and sociologists. While much of The Empires of the Indus is about the history of the river, Albinia, who speaks Urdu and Hindi, doesn't ignore the Indus River's current inhabitants. She befriends people as she travels, giving us a glimpse at the lives and believes of the people still living in the banks of the Indus. She is adventurous and compassionate without being patronizing to the people she meets. One of the best travelogues I've ever read.(less)
I knew the Nazis looted artwork - everyone knows the Nazis looted artwork - but I had no idea the extent of the looting and I had never heard of the A...moreI knew the Nazis looted artwork - everyone knows the Nazis looted artwork - but I had no idea the extent of the looting and I had never heard of the Allied efforts to recover, preserve and repatriate that artwork. The Monuments Men were artists, architects, conservators and museum professionals who enlisted, not as soldiers, but to try and preserve Europe’s cultural patrimony from the ravages of WWII and, as the Allied war machine rolled into Germany, to find and save Europe’s great artistic treasures before they were lost or destroyed forever. The Monuments Men starts a little show, but it picks up steam as the war rolls on and becomes a the story of one of the greatest treasure hunts in history. However, in the midst of the spies and the espionage and frantic races to beat bombs and Nazis and Russians, The Monuments Men is also a look at how to deal with the atrocities of war, questions the importance of our cultural heritage and how to deal with an enemy’s culture. Highly worth the read.(less)
In January 2002, just six weeks after the fall of the Taliban, Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan. He retraced the route of Emperor Babur, and wal...moreIn January 2002, just six weeks after the fall of the Taliban, Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan. He retraced the route of Emperor Babur, and walked from Heart to Kabul in the dead of winter. I've read a lot of books about people retracing famous historic journeys; it's apparently my favorite genre of non-fiction - part travel, part history, part anthropology - but The Places in Between might be my favorite. Stewart speaks Dari and is knowledgeable enough about Islam and Afghani culture to put the people he meets and the stories he hears in the correct context. While well-informed about Afghanistan's past, he doesn't get bogged down in the history of the area and The Places in Between stays focused on modern day issues in a rapidly changing landscape. The Places in Between is a fascinating glimpse into a part of the world few people will ever visit and lives radically different from our own.(less)
The Romanovs is an through survey of the Romanov family post-Russian revolution. Massie discusses the execution of the Imperial family, the contempora...moreThe Romanovs is an through survey of the Romanov family post-Russian revolution. Massie discusses the execution of the Imperial family, the contemporary theories about their deaths, the search for the remains, the academic and legal debate surrounding the identification of the bodies and a history of Romanov pretenders. Massie has done his research, and provides a well researched and organized account, especially the confusing scientific and legal battles. In addition, Massie talks about the other branches of the Romanov family that escaped Russia before the revolution.
I learned a lot reading The Romanovs, including quite a bit about the science of DNA testing, which I wasn't expecting. It was interesting to read about the legal debate surrounding Anna Anderson's remains and the different methods of identifying the skeletal remains. Russian and American scientists used different techniques, which resulted in different results, and it's still not known which Grand Dutchess - Maria or Anastasia - was found in the mass grave.
My only real quibble with The Romanovs was the lack of background information provided about the family and the Russian Revolution. It reads more like the final section of a book about the Romanov family and prior knowledge of the family and the Russian Revolution (which I know very little about) is required to fully understand the story. I know that The Romanovs is suppose to be the "final chapter" of the Romanov family and Massie has written a biography of the Nicholas II, his family and their political demise, but providing historical context would have been helpful and is standard practice in popular nonfiction.
One last caveat, The Romanovs was written in 1996 and there have been some significant developments in the past fifteen years, including the discovery of the remains of the missing Romanov children (Alexei and either Maria or Anastasia), that are obviously not addressed in the book. It's still a worthwhile read, but The Romanovs no longer presents a complete picture of what is known about the Romanovs. (less)
Simon Winchester is an author who writes about topics that fascinate me, but whose writing annoys me. I find his books and think, “Oooh, a history of...moreSimon Winchester is an author who writes about topics that fascinate me, but whose writing annoys me. I find his books and think, “Oooh, a history of Krakatoa and volcanic geology! Sounds fascinating!” or “A walk through Korea, excellent!” And then I read it and it is fascinating and excellent, but I also find myself annoyed at Winchester’s writing and his habit of self-insertion when self-insertion isn’t needed. (Or perhaps I’m just annoyed by the personally he’s inserting.) So when I stumbled across The Professor and the Madman in the library, I thought, “Oooh, a history of the OED and the insane murder who helped write it. Awesome!”, but I also thought, “Man, this is going to annoy the hell out of me.” I grabbed the book anyway, and I’m glad I did. This is by far my favorite of Winchester’s books.
The Professor and the Madman is a manifold story. It’s the story of Dr. W. C. Minor, crazed American murder/bibliophile, who was the most prolific of the OED’s many volunteers. It’s the story of the American Civil War and the Battle of the Wilderness that drover Minor mad. It’s the story of Professor James Murray, the self-taught genius who spearheaded the OED project, and it’s the story of the OED, the greatest literary undertaking of the Victorian era. It’s the story and the history of English dictionaries. It’s complex and layered, but beautifully woven together. An excellent book for anyone who loves words and the English language.(less)
I thought I knew a lot about Columbus. I took several classes on European expansion in school and I know I've read at least most of Columbus's diary o...moreI thought I knew a lot about Columbus. I took several classes on European expansion in school and I know I've read at least most of Columbus's diary of his first voyage, so I was surprised by how little I knew about his subsequent voyages, especially the fourth trip. This isn't a revisionist history, but nor is it entirely harsh. Bergreen walks a fine line and depicts both Columbus the brilliant navigator and the European discoverer of a new world (even if he never understood what he had found) and Christopher, middle name All Your Gold Are Belong To Me And Also Your Women And Personal Liberties, Columbus.
I would have liked to see more current research on Columbus's voyages and the world he found. Also, while the book was very detailed about Columbus's voyages, there was a bit of tunnel vision and Bergreen overlooked or glossed over contemporary developments in the Americas that didn't involve Columbus, which made the latter chapters a bit confusing. The whole context of the story is important too. Still, a well researched and well written biography of an undeniably fascinating man.(less)
Travels with a Tangerine, Tim Mackintosh-Smith's account of retracing Ibn Battutah's 14th century pilgrimage to Mecca, is a book that falls into the c...moreTravels with a Tangerine, Tim Mackintosh-Smith's account of retracing Ibn Battutah's 14th century pilgrimage to Mecca, is a book that falls into the category of topics I love (travel/history writing, modern day recreations of famous voyages) but executions I dislike. I found Mackintosh-Smith's writing overly pedantic and dense. I don't know much about 14th century Arabic history and spent much of the book wishing that Mackintosh-Smith had provided more of a historical overview. Mackintosh-Smith seemed more concerned with a long dead traveler and historical monuments than it was with the modern lands he traveled through, and Travels with a Tangerine lacked the humor that would have helped make it relatable.(less)
In 1974, archaeologist J.M. Adovasio found two hearths at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter excavation that dated to 13,000 B.C. The only problem was that u...moreIn 1974, archaeologist J.M. Adovasio found two hearths at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter excavation that dated to 13,000 B.C. The only problem was that until Adovasio found those dates, no one though there were humans in the New World, much less living at the edge of a glacier in Pennsylvania, thousands of miles away from the landbridge to Asia. Thus began an academic controversy about the origins of New World colonization that is still raging. The First Americans is an excellent book on what might be my favorite arcane academic topic!
The first half of the book - a introduction to what is known about New World colonization and what the prevailing theories have been - is excellent and easily five stars. It's well written and factual, but also manages to be engaging and humorous. It's some of the best popular science writing I've read, and I read a lot of popular science.
The second half, where Adovasio goes into the controversy surrounding his dig at Meadowcroft and his friend Tom Dillehay's dig at Monte Verde, sours a bit for me. Adovasio is both understandable biased towards his own dig and theories and bitter about the reactions of his colleagues when he published his findings (findings which, at the time, were something that few archaeologist have ever considered possible and completely against the canon of New World archaeology), but in my opinion, he spends to much time lambasting his opponents and calling their credentials and intelligence into questions, especially since by the time Adovasio wrote The First Americans, he had been vindicated and the results of his excavation (more or less) accepted without reservation. He also tends to over-simplify theories that contradict his own while at the same time accusing his detractors of doing the same thing. This isn't to say that the second half of the book is bad, just that it needs to be read with an eye towards the bias.(less)
I took AP US History my junior year of high school, and one of the things I remember most about the class (besides all the presidents, in order of ter...moreI took AP US History my junior year of high school, and one of the things I remember most about the class (besides all the presidents, in order of term, which ten years after the fact helped me win a free bar tab at trivia night, thank you overachieving high school Cait) was a line in the textbook talking about the Puritans surprisingly healthy and active sex life. Five years later, I became a tour guide at a Victorian living history museum, and spent a lot of time talking about vampires (the ones that were actually tuberculosis patients that Bostonians disinterred and dismembered because they thought they were vampires, not the ones that sparkle), creepy Victorian mourning jewelery made from the hair of the deceased and the proper use of a chamber pot. (I was super popular with the school groups.) So the surprise isn't that I loved The Wordy Shipmates, it's that it's taken me this long to discover Sarah Vowell.
Vowell is exactly my brand of irreverent, sarcastic and highly researched history. The Wordy Shipmates book is excellently researched, but interspersed with enough of Vowell's own opinion (clearly marked as her opinion), modern day anecdote and the occasional joke, or even swear word (scandalous!), to make it not just interesting, but funny. Puritan history, especially Puritan history of religious controversies based on the writings of William Bradford, Roger Williams and John Cotton, runs the risk of being dry, but this book couldn't have been more engaging.
I'm so glad I discovered Vowell, and I can't wait to read her other books.(less)
A good book, but not a great book. Weir's rehabilitation of Katherine Swynford, royal mistress of John of Gaunt and mother of the Beauforts (who would...moreA good book, but not a great book. Weir's rehabilitation of Katherine Swynford, royal mistress of John of Gaunt and mother of the Beauforts (who would go on to found the York, Tudor and Stuart dynasties) is superbly written and excellently researched, but suffers greatly from the lack of first source documents. There are no surviving documents belonging to Katherine Swynford, no letters, household records, her will or even a pictures. All Weir had to rely on were hostile references by contemporary chroniclers and oblique references to Swynford in John of Gaunt's household records. As a result, much of the information has to be assumed or inferred, which is problematic in revisionist history.
I think the book would have been better as a more general history of Medieval England. Katherine Swynford lived through the Peasant's Revolt, the Black Plague and the Hundred Year War, but Weir often glosses over these events in favor of making unsubstantiated assumptions about people's emotions and motivations. I would have enjoyed the book more if more attention was payed to the events of the period and less to attempting to recreate the minutiae of Swynford's life.
Lastly, I do question whether Swynford even deserves a biography. Not only is there truly not enough information about her to warrant a book, she lacks the agency that would make her a compelling figure. I have no idea what type of woman she was in life because there's no record of her life, but the view we have of her in the historical record shows a passive woman whose only importance came from who she slept with, who she gave birth to and who she married.
Despite my criticisms of this particular book, I think Weir is one of the better popular historians writing today. Mistress of the Monarchy was excellent researched, using every possible source, and was well written and easy to read without sacrificing the scholarly content. I'm looking forwards to reading more of Weir's books.(less)