Thursday, January 11, 2018

Throw Back Thursday: Second Looks at Books

For Throw-Back Thursday on this January 11th, 2018, I'm going to revisit a few of my favorite non-fiction books.  One of my reading regrets every year is that I don't seem to be able to fit in many, if any, non-fiction books, and I do enjoy them, too.  So, here are a few that make me wonder why I'm not making more room for these books.  

Ring around the rosies,
A pocketful of posies,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down.

—"Ring Around the Rosies," a children's rhyme about the Black Death

The Black Death was the fourteenth century's equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe's population, taking some 20 million lives. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the Plague etched in the minds of terrified schoolchildren—the hideous black welts, the high fever, and the awful end by respiratory failure—are more or less accurate. But what the Plague really was and how it made history remain shrouded in a haze of myths.

Now, Norman Cantor, the premier historian of the Middle Ages, draws together the most recent scientific discoveries and groundbreaking historical research to pierce the mist and tell the story of the Black Death as a gripping, intimate narrative.

(Reading Room Note: Norman Cantor is quite the expert on the plague and Medieval times.  His writing style makes reading facts a pleasurable experience.)

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

(Reading Room Note:  If you want to learn something and you want to have lots of fun doing so, then reading the non-fiction books by Sarah Vowell is a must.  Her witty, story style writing will make you realize how history should be taught.  The titles alone are wildly entertaining.  Some of her other books include Assassination Vacation, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, The Wordy Shipmates, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot.) 

Erik Larson's gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.

Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America's rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.

(Reading Room Note:  Erik Larson has established himself as one of the best storytellers of non-fiction published today.  You will hang on every word and then realize when it's over, it was all true.)

1 comment:

  1. The wake of plague seems very interesting..The way this reviww has described about the book actually kindles the curiosity to knkw the secret behind it.