A remarkably even-handed biography. Brands gets bogged down in details a few times, but he paints vivid and compelling portraits of Franklin and EleanA remarkably even-handed biography. Brands gets bogged down in details a few times, but he paints vivid and compelling portraits of Franklin and Eleanor. ...more
From the shores of Lake Patzcuaro to the cloud forest of Manatatlán to the mines of Zacatecas, Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury takes the armchaiFrom the shores of Lake Patzcuaro to the cloud forest of Manatatlán to the mines of Zacatecas, Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury takes the armchair traveler on a tour of western Mexico’s treasures, many of them little known. The author, geographer Tony Burton, gets off the beaten path time and time again, and provides detailed historical and cultural information about towns that many guidebook authors only mention in passing: La Barca, San Juan de los Lagos, Tamazula, and Lagos de Moreno, to name just a few.
Some chapters give walking tours of towns and ruins, while other sections are more focused toward historical narrative. I found the historical narratives fascinating, particularly since several were devoted to my favorite haunts, including places such as Barra de Navidad that seldom appear in ordinary history books. I read with great interest about the history of piracy on the Pacific Coast, and was delighted to read Burton’s mini biographies of famous characters from Colima, Jalisco, and Michoacán.
But Burton offers more than just history: he recommends scenic routes, obscure ruins, shopping expeditions, eco-reserves, and specific destinations within towns and cities. Among the areas covered are Zacatecas, Jalisco, Colima, coastal Nayarit, and Michoacán. I cannot wait to take this book to Mexico with me. Although I have already traveled in western Mexico extensively, I must have added a hundred things to my bucket list as I read. Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury would also be an ideal guide for planning an unusual and culturally rich itinerary.
Now in its fourth edition, Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury includes maps, attractive line drawings, a solid index, and a travel timetable.
note: I originally published this review at thepeoplesguidetomexico.com...more
A fast-paced story about two men: the famous Sam Colt (inventor of the gun) and his older brother John, who is tried for "the crime of the century". TA fast-paced story about two men: the famous Sam Colt (inventor of the gun) and his older brother John, who is tried for "the crime of the century". The 19th century, that is. Both of the subjects are kind of assholes and the crime itself isn't as fascinating as I wished, but the back story is interesting, the text is well written, the author has a keen sense of humor, and the book includes lots of choice details about other 19th century crimes. I would give this three an a half stars if I could. ...more
As far as history goes, nothing is as murky as the history of specific types of foods and beverages. Consider, for example, the chili cheese dog or thAs far as history goes, nothing is as murky as the history of specific types of foods and beverages. Consider, for example, the chili cheese dog or the margarita. Most mixed drinks have about eighteen different people who claim to have invented them. Bullshit origin stories abound on the web, and some of these tall tales are printed with gravitas in actual reference books. I guess it makes sense. I mean who wouldn't want to lay claim on inventing the margarita?
Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to "Professor" Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar soothes my soul by reconciling the two parts of my character, the bon vivant and the extreme nerd. Not only is this book all about booze, but it's also packed with arcane information. Better yet, Wondrich actually explains how he came by the arcane information. In other words, he doesn't just state facts, he also debunks all the stories he sifted through in order to get to them. Sometimes Wondrich falls into the trap of taking the whole mixology business a little too seriously, but he also has a great eye for the idiosyncrasies of history, and most of the text is quite funny. Also, it's loaded with good drink recipes. And if Wondrich is a little too serious about the art of the cocktail sometimes, I can forgive him. Drinking is a serious business, is it not?...more
A fascinating and well-written biography of Joseph Needham, the eccentric scientist who traveled to China in the 1940s and changed global perception oA fascinating and well-written biography of Joseph Needham, the eccentric scientist who traveled to China in the 1940s and changed global perception of China's contributions to science. I don't think the author quite succeeded in capturing the emotional dynamic between his characters---at points the book reads like an unusually interesting travel itinerary. That said, the information presented is fascinating and Needham is a compelling subject. Definitely an enjoyable read. ...more
I loved this book, all 800 pages of it. The author, Peter Acroyd, succeeded in his mission, which is hinted at in the book's subtitle. London, A biogrI loved this book, all 800 pages of it. The author, Peter Acroyd, succeeded in his mission, which is hinted at in the book's subtitle. London, A biography is not about the political history of London or the people that shaped the political history of London. The book is somewhat chronological, but Acroyd doesn't seem overly concerned with adhering to a clear timeline. Aside from paragraph-long sketches of interesting London characters, the author barely focuses on individuals at all. Instead he attempts to capture the heaving, mysterious soul of London in a giant compilation of essays arranged by subject matter. He writes about Roman walls, ancient tunnels, bickering fishwives, ice carnivals on the Thames, unlikely murders, the city's bars and eateries throughout its immense history...This can feel haphazard, but in the end it works--I got the impression he just focused on the interesting bits and left out all the rest. Occasionally the rhythm of the writing gets a bit dirgelike, but in general this is a fantastic book--amusing and enlightening and absorbing. ...more
Aimed at a rarefied audience of pretentious booze nerds, of which I am ashamed to admit that I am descending into. Proof: I enjoyed this extremely detAimed at a rarefied audience of pretentious booze nerds, of which I am ashamed to admit that I am descending into. Proof: I enjoyed this extremely detailed history of punch-making....more
A series of first-hand accounts from the victims of the Tokyo subway gas attacks, followed by interviews with some of the members of the cult that perA series of first-hand accounts from the victims of the Tokyo subway gas attacks, followed by interviews with some of the members of the cult that perpetrated the attacks. Fascinating, though the section of victims stories starts to feel overly repetitive. That said, Murakami's rendering of the stories creates clear windows into Japanese culture. Recommended to anyone interested in Japan or the psychology of alienation. ...more
With barely concealed glee, masterful cultural historian J.C. Furnas tackles the shrill champions of the temperance movement. The Life and Times of thWith barely concealed glee, masterful cultural historian J.C. Furnas tackles the shrill champions of the temperance movement. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rumis a detailed, thoughtful, and often very funny history of how the idea of temperance, a word that initially meant moderation, eventually evolved into a hysterical assault against a key element of human culture: social drinking. In the course of the story, Furnas introduces many altruistic and wonderfully eccentric characters, as well as a battalion of out-and-out nut jobs. His reviews of the propaganda that gave the movement momentum are at once hilarious and disturbing. Although Furnas is quick to acknowledge the actual dangers of heavy drinking, he's also quite adept at lampooning the maudlin rhetoric that brought about Prohibition. Reading this book gave me a deeper understanding of America's dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. ...more
I had never heard of the author when I found "The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914" tucked away on a bookshelf at the GoodwI had never heard of the author when I found "The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914" tucked away on a bookshelf at the Goodwill in Florence, Oregon. This book contains 920 thin pages covered in small print. It was published in 1969. When I finished reading it, I was tempted to start back at the beginning and read it again. Furnas, who was born in 1906, writes sentences so tart and exquisitely elaborate that his writing is somehow reminiscent of Emily Post, though etiquette is but one of thousands of topics he revisits in this comprehensive and fascinating cultural history of the United States. To whit:
Furnas on early 20th C. journalism:
"Ambrose Bierce, a longtime fixture in Hearst's papers who combined high writing skill with the disposition of a molting rattlesnake, presently contributed to Hearst's current war on President McKinley some grimly tasteless verses..."
Furnas on 19th C. fashion:
"Changes in women's fashion were not so benign...The bizarre successor of the hoop was the bustle--a horsehair pad or wire frame tied on behind under the dress to make a lady's rear look like the rear view of a horse and rider. This not only gave the illusion of a really monstrous streatopygia but also prevented sitting comfortably on anything but a stool. In that era of jigsawed verandas and rococo hatstands, fashionable gowns were naturally more elaborate than they have ever been before or since--amazing complexes of overskirts, capes, flounces, trains, ruchings, jabots, cravats, frogs, pointless buttons, lace insertions--often in dark, heavy-rich materials dragging in the dirt unless the wearer confined herself to house and carriage."
On the history of refrigeration: "But every plus implies a minus somewhere. Mechanical refrigeration also greatly heightened the breweries' capacity to age beer. Ensuing overproduction led to the consolidation of breweries into savagely competing giant concerns. Desperate for outlets, they set up chains of captive saloons owned outright or controlled by mortgages on building or fixtures and forced to sell only Brand X beer. Too many saloons per capita in large cities meant lowering what standards of decent operation there were and an increasingly blackened reputation for the enemies of the saloon to exploit. That had much to do with the success of the Anti-Saloon League's strategy of "The Saloon Must Go," which, embarked on in the late 1890s, led to the Eighteenth Amendment."
An excellent guide to understanding Maya iconography. The writing is vivid, but very detailed. If you are not an avid student of the Maya, some passagAn excellent guide to understanding Maya iconography. The writing is vivid, but very detailed. If you are not an avid student of the Maya, some passages may seem a bit thorny. ...more
This memoir has the advantage of a fascinating topic: the author's family, particularly her mother and stepfather, who both escaped Russia during theThis memoir has the advantage of a fascinating topic: the author's family, particularly her mother and stepfather, who both escaped Russia during the revolutionary era to resettle in Paris. A chunk of the book is set in France prior and during the Nazi invasion, and the rest in the parlors of New York City's fashion elite. Full to the brim with interesting characters, including Marlene Dietrich and Salvador Dali. The one real flaw is that the author occasionally sounds whiny and vindictive. ...more
Unlike most biographers, Starkey doesn't seem in love with his subject. He's able to describe Elizabeth's good points, but he doesn't try to excuse heUnlike most biographers, Starkey doesn't seem in love with his subject. He's able to describe Elizabeth's good points, but he doesn't try to excuse her bad behavior. The cast of characters is a little hard to keep track of and the last 100 pages get bogged down in boring court politics, but in general this is a fast, interesting read that seems to be based on solid research. ...more
I am not a big online shopper and I rarely have spare money, but there was no way I could restrain myself from ordering a book called Alcohol in AncieI am not a big online shopper and I rarely have spare money, but there was no way I could restrain myself from ordering a book called Alcohol in Ancient Mexico. I’m sorry, but even I can’t actually come up with a title better aimed to entrap me. Cheese in Ancient Mexico comes close, but would of course have to be a fantasy, since obviously dairy products were not a part of the ancient Mexican diet. Not to, uh, sound like a nerd or anything.
I’m sure it’ll come in handy, I told myself as I spent 14 vital dollars worth of grocery money at Amazon.com. I imagine I am part of a fairly small subclass of people who believe that a manuscript originally published in 1940 as a P.h.d. dissertation on native corn beers is going to be useful.
Actually, I am currently writing an article (upcoming here on the blog) on Mexican brewing, and will be pleased to get my 14 dollars worth when I reference Mexico’s original craft brewers, the Huichol indians. In fact, Henry J. Bruman’s book is full of interesting descriptions of ancient methods of fermentation, many of which he observed firsthand when he did fieldwork in the late 1930s. The author trecked across Mexico’s sierras, spending time with the Huicholes, the Totonac, the Maya, and a number of other tribes. Over the course of a year of research, he traveled as far south as Honduras.
Naturally, he was able to observe and record many practices that are extremely rare (if not extinct) these days. The picture on the dust jacket shows a smiling, mustachioed guy in a work shirt, glasses, and a felt hat. His shoulders are strung with Huichol bags, not a typical fashion statement for a gringo geographer in the 1930s. The photo reminds me of old pictures of my parents from the days when we used to travel with the Huicholes and it makes me think that Henry J. Bruman was not your average bird.
Unlike their sober counterparts to the north, the native people of Mexico were enthusiastic and creative in their brewing and fermenting endeavors. The book includes chapters on pulque, tesquino, mescal and sotol, as well as explorations of more obscure indigenous beverges such as Yucatecan balché bark mead and toad infused chicha. Fascinating appendixes called things like “checklist of intoxicating beverages” are also a pleasure to peruse. As you may gather, Alcohol in Ancient Mexico is pretty much for nerds only, but if you are a brew nerd or a serious student of Mexican history and customs, Bruman is your guy and I highly recommend the book.
(this review originally published by me at the peoplesguidetomexico.com)...more
A bit sensationalistic (but of course), but the author takes care to be accurate where it counts: for example, he presents a convincing defense of FatA bit sensationalistic (but of course), but the author takes care to be accurate where it counts: for example, he presents a convincing defense of Fatty Arbuckle, and (correctly) dispels the notion that Katherine the Great ever had sex with a horse.
History's Greatest Scandals: Shocking Stories of Powerful People benefits from its range (subjects from Carvagio to Richard Nixon, with a nice sampling of more obscure cases). Some passages seem overly expository and clumsily written, but others not so. The research was solid in the subject areas where I have some expertise, and the chapter about British spies is fascinating....more
David McCullough is a lion of a historian and a brilliant writer. He's at his best when he writes biography, as clearly demonstrated by Truman. At 992David McCullough is a lion of a historian and a brilliant writer. He's at his best when he writes biography, as clearly demonstrated by Truman. At 992 pages, the book is a bit of a beast itself, but fascinating to the very end. McCullough's clear, direct style is admirable, and he has a talent for bringing his subjects to life and making you love them.
I originally picked up the book because I was curious how a man who seemed essentially good could have decided to hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As I read, it became clear to dropping the bombs were not Truman's only foreign policy mistakes. (Though mistake hardly seems strong enough a word.) McCullough's examination of Truman's record is unflinching, yet the portrait that emerges is of a good, bright, incredibly kind man who made decisions based on his morals, even when he knew that he was hurting himself politically. It's amazing and scary to see how Truman's decisions, many of which seem sensible when taken in context, laid the groundwork for the the arms race and Vietnam, among other atrocities that have shadowed the world I grew up in. But Truman was multifaceted: he has a deep desire to help the common man, as manifested in his surprisingly progressive domestic policies and his loyalty, and even tenderness, as a friend and employer. He was also funny and genuinely interested in just about everything, and McCullough is adept at choosing the details and anecdotes that make Truman both accessible and remarkable.
Highly recommended to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of modern American history....more