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Bloggers

 

Cornucopia of the Curious

History abounds with innovators, leaders, peacemakers and visionaries, men and women who have performed great deeds in the world and have earned their respective chapters in the history books.  Chris Mikul’s latest work is no such history book.  Instead, The Eccentropedia: The Most Unusual People Who Have Ever Lived is a delightful hodgepodge of 226 of history’s most unusual characters – charmers, madmen and ne’er-do-wells who are worthy of an amusing footnote, if not a chapter in the hallowed halls of history.

 

One such is Edward William Cole, who rose to become the most successful bookseller in Australia. Born in 1832, the son of a laborer, Cole possessed an extraordinary flair for advertising, which he utilized to found increasingly successful book arcades and even to find a wife.  More than an excellent businessman, Cole was a generous spirit, who would allow patrons to read in his arcades all day without purchase. He also vehemently opposed racism and published pamphlets expounding its absurdity.

 

Mikul’s book is peppered with similarly curious histories. He reveals the darker side of Bobby Fischer, the genius widely considered to be history’s finest chess player. He also delves into the history of Hetty Green, one of Wall Street’s savviest and wealthiest investors, whose investment acumen was matched only by her obsessive stinginess, a predilection which ultimately cost her son his leg. Mikul offers the compelling tale of Moondog, the blind street dweller with an extraordinary gift for music whose Norse-inspired apparel earned him the moniker “Viking of 6th Avenue.”  A celebration of nonconformists, mavericks, and the just plain bizarre, Mikul’s collection of character vignettes is broadly recommended for readers who seek to be immediately engaged by their reading material.  

Meghan

 
 

Tommy Gun in a Black Violin Case

Gangster SquadPaul Lieberman’s Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles brings a new mob story to light. In the 1940s, L.A. officials were extremely concerned about gangster crime, so they created a new off-the-books squad of eight officers to combat mob crime called the Gangster Squad. The squad’s members were still listed on the rosters of their old stations. They had no office; they operated out of two old Fords and met in parking lots and on street corners. They made no arrests, handing cases off to homicide, robbery, or vice. Each squad member was assigned his own Tommy gun, which one squad member was known to keep under his bed in a black violin case. The gangster squad’s goal was to make life difficult for mob criminals. Since they were a shadow group, they didn’t bother with warrants. They bugged everything from television sets to a mobster’s mistress’s bed to gain intelligence on their targets.

 

Local gangster Mickey Cohen was one of the squad’s major foes. Pursuing Cohen was an obsession for Sergeants Jerry Wooters and Jack O’Mara, two very different men whose only common goal was taking down Cohen. Their separate plans to catch Cohen collided one night in 1959 at Rondelli’s restaurant in a shooting that resulted in the death of Jack “The Enforcer” Whalen. The fallout from that night brought this chapter in L.A.’s history to a close. Lieberman’s journalism background is evident in the way that he tells the story. He did extensive research and interviewed surviving members of both the squad and the mob. If this sounds like a story made for the big screen, it is. Gangster Squad will be coming to a theater near you. The film, which stars Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn, arrives in theaters in January 2013.

Beth

 
 

A City's Redemption

A City's Redemption

posted by:
September 6, 2012 - 7:01am

Season of the WitchSeason of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot is a deeply researched, fascinating cultural history of one of our most unique cities, San Francisco. Talbot focuses on the city’s slide toward the dark disillusionment of the 1970s and the devastating AIDS years of the 1980s. The founder of Salon magazine, Talbot knows how to tell a great story, offering fascinating glimpses into the lives several SF notables, including Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Harvey Milk.  Talbot rounds out his history with San Francisco’s redemption, as the City by the Bay transformed itself into one of the most innovative urban centers in America.

 

This epicenter of “flower power” took a more ominous turn toward the end of the 1960s. Harder drugs like heroin became more prominent. City government was less effective. Crime was rampant. Talbot illuminates the dark underbelly of the city during the 1970s and 80s. He writes of its overall dangerous quality during this time. He also highlights several major San Francisco crime stories that transfixed the nation, such as Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, Harvey Milk, Jim Jones and the Zebra Murders.

 

Still reeling from the difficult 1970s, San Francisco was then ravaged by the AIDS epidemic in the 80s.  Talbot reminds us of those dark years when San Francisco virtually became a ghost town, a time when it seemed like everyone knew someone (or many people) who had died of AIDS. Coming out of these harrowing years, San Francisco emerged to be one of the most vibrant, progressive cities in the country. Talbot does an outstanding job of describing San Francisco’s lowest years in modern history and then tracing this city’s path to greatness.

Zeke

 
 

Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson

Mrs. Robinson's DisgraceBefore British Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act, marriages could only be dissolved in a private Act of Parliament, the cost and scandal of which made divorces rare. During the summer of 1858, that changed. The new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes began to grant divorces to the English middle class. On June 14, 1858, a man named Henry Robinson petitioned the court to dissolve his marriage to his wife Isabella on grounds that she had committed adultery. The evidence came from her own diary, portions of which were read aloud over the course of the trial and then widely published in London newspapers. London was riveted by the scandal. Kate Summerscale brings this fascinating story to modern audiences in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady.

 

In her diary, Isabella Robinson regularly reflected on her unhappiness with her life and marriage. She also wrote about a relationship with a man named Edward Lane, who publicly denied the affair. Standards for proving a wife’s adultery in divorce cases were so low that the diary was potentially enough to condemn Isabella in court despite her husband’s multiple infidelities. To protect Lane’s reputation, Isabella’s attorneys and doctors convinced her to present the diaries as fictional, and her only viable legal defense was to claim that she had imagined the affair because she suffered from sexual mania.

 

Summerscale first read about this story in a book about Victorian scandals while she was researching her previous bestseller, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. She began to investigate the story because she was intrigued by the double standards that women faced in Victorian divorce courts; she wanted to know the truth about Isabella Robinson. Her storytelling results in the gripping tale of Mrs. Robinson’s fall from grace and the ensuing scandal.

Beth

 
 

A Feast of Knowledge

A Feast of Knowledge

posted by:
August 9, 2012 - 7:03am

The Cookbook LibraryNowadays it seems that every day a new cookbook is published, filled with gleaming pictures of succulent dishes and step-by-step recipes for tantalizing sweets. But where did the idea of the cookbook come from? And when? Anne Willan, founder of the La Varenne Cooking School and cookbook author, with help from her book collecting husband Mark Cherniavsky, tackle these and similar questions in The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook. Willan intelligently explores the evolution of the European and American cookbook as cooking and the culinary arts blossomed over the course of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.

 

Willan draws most of her information and recipes from her and her husband’s personal library of antiquarian cookbooks, and the text is studded with captivating illustrations and woodblock prints from their collection. Each chapter encapsulates a century and contains first a history of the cookbooks and cuisine of the time and then is followed by a selection of recipes that have been reworked for a modern kitchen. These recipes give the reader a sense of reaching backward in time to explore dishes that are both foreign and strangely familiar. Recipes vary widely in difficulty from a very simple pork loin roast from the fifteenth century to the tremendous Yorkshire Christmas Pie of Five Birds from the eighteenth century. But perhaps the most intriguing portions of the book are the inset articles that are sprinkled throughout each chapter. These short sections feature fascinating and often quirky themes, like the menus for the court of Mary Queen of Scots, a history of ice as a cooking ingredient, and how to set an elaborate eighteenth century table. Each vignette tangentially relates to the larger chapter that frames it and contains interesting factoids and trivia. 

 

Part cookbook, part culinary history, part history of the book, The Cookbook Library is as accessible as it is entertaining. You don't have to be a scholar to get some serious enjoyment from this unique read.  Cookbook enthusiasts and history buffs should definitely add this title to their to-be-read list.

Rachael

 
 

Of Roots and Stones

House of StoneHey America, Your Roots Are ShowingPulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, a Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, was an Oklahoman of Lebanese descent. In 2006, faced with a crumbling marriage stateside, Shadid focused on restoring his great-grandfather’s abandoned home in the village of Marjayoun, Lebanon. His book, House of Stone, is as much of a lesson on the political and cultural history of the Ottoman empire as seen from Marjayoun as it is a chronicle of an American trying to conduct the frustrating business of home improvement with local contractors while recreating his “bayt.” A nuanced Arabic word roughly meaning home, a bayt is the place of one’s roots. Mr. Shadid’s poignant story merging his family’s past and present was published posthumously; he died of an asthma attack this past February while attempting to leave Syria on horseback. Surprisingly, especially in light of the beautifully detailed architectural descriptions of the home, the book does not include photographs.

 

Also dealing with family history but on a far lighter note is Megan Smolenyak’s Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing.  Smolenyak is a professional genealogist and chief family historian at Ancestry.com. Her clients have included the U.S. Army (finding primary next-of-kin for soldiers,) the FBI (civil rights cold case crime-solving,) the BBC (tracing family members of sailors who died on the USS Monitor), and even her own curiosity, as she sketches the family tree of Michelle Obama.  These assignments and more are covered in her latest book as she utilizes the traditional paper trail and oral interviews, supplemented by DNA testing, to solve family mysteries. Entertaining but always respectful toward her subjects, Smolenyak finds an unlikely link between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond, and debunks the myth that immigrants’ surnames were mangled at Ellis Island by uncaring clerks. Hey America, Your Roots are Showing is an enjoyable look at genealogical detective work.

 

Lori

 
 

Father of Mine

A Good ManA Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, is a love letter to a man who was constantly referred to as “A Good Man” at the time of his funeral in 2011. His son Mark Shriver wanted to explore what made so many friends, journalists, and family members talk about his father in those terms. This memoir brings Sargent Shriver to light through episodic remembrances. Mark Shriver freely admits that he needed a village of former colleagues as well as his own family and friends to unearth the memories that he didn’t realize were still buried in his mind. While the list is long, this is largely a son’s fond thoughts about the man who made him who he is today. This is a personal look into the man who worked hard for what he believed in, yet remained a humble, beloved father to his five children.

 

Founder of the Peace Corps, Head Start, and along with his wife Eunice, the Special Olympics, Sargent Shriver was one of the larger-than-life figures of the last century. His accomplishments are legion. Jacqueline Kennedy even asked him to take responsibility for planning JFK’s funeral.

 

Documented with two inserts that include many Shriver and Kennedy family photos, the book is a nice addition to the canon of books that explore what many consider “America’s Royalty”. Particularly moving is the sad decline into dementia and Alzheimer’s that felled Sargent Shriver, and the situation his wife and children dealt with in its wake. But this is mostly a celebration of a good man and a good father, well told by a son who is rightfully proud of his dad.

Todd

 
 

Criminal Minds From Other Times

Deadly ValentinesDeath in the City of LightLooking for a little history to go with your true crime? Two recent titles provide thrilling accounts of historical murders. One is set in Chicago and chronicles the rise and fall of Al Capone’s chief assassin, Jack McGurn. The other is about a serial killer in World War II Paris. Both are thoroughly researched, emphasizing the mayhem and extremism prevalent in these time periods. In Deadly Valentines: The Story of Capone's Henchman "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and Louise Rolfe, His Blonde Alibi, Jeffrey Gusfield opens with an account of the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 Chicago.  Known assassin Jack McGurn and his girlfriend Louise Rolfe are the likely suspects.  But how does a boy from an immigrant family and a middle-class Midwestern girl end up embodying the Roaring Twenties’ hallmarks of excess, liquor, and grisly murder? By tracing their lives from childhood, Gusfield draws a connection between humble beginnings and a gangster lifestyle rife with crime and corruption. 

 

David King’s Death in the City of Light follows the rise of Marcel Petiot, who was regarded as a kindly doctor of the less fortunate until multiple human body parts were found in the basement of his Paris home in 1944.  His subsequent trial quickly devolved into a media circus. The Nazi occupation and government corruption further complicated matters and added to the train wreck of judicial proceedings, leading to a frustrating and perplexing conclusion.Perhaps most fascinating about both books are the unanswered questions.  Was Louise cold-blooded, or just someone unable to live a conventional life?  How did Petiot actually kill his victims? Those who enjoy historical accounts full of drama, danger and mystery (like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) will find these books to be satisfying page-turners. 

 

Melanie

 
 

Hail to the Chief

Hail to the Chief

posted by:
June 4, 2012 - 6:01am

Grover Cleveland's Rubber JawThe Presidents ClubDid you know that every American president has worn glasses? Or that John Quincy Adams had a pet alligator that he kept in the White House bathtub? If you’re looking for quirky presidential trivia, try Stephen Spignesi’s Grover Cleveland’s Rubber Jaw & Other Unusual, Unexpected, Unbelievable but All-True Facts about America’s Presidents. For example, Millard Fillmore’s favorite color was fuchsia.  Ronald Reagan was claustrophobic. A man once attacked Franklin Pierce and threw a hard-boiled egg at him. This book has all of the facts that you didn’t learn in U.S.history, but should have!  Spignesi includes the good, the bad, and the just plain weird. It will appeal to presidential history buffs, as well as fans of trivia who just want to flip through the pages and have fun with history.

 

Those interested in a more serious look at the presidency should try The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity.  Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, both editors at Time magazine, explore the relationships among the last 13 presidents. The book gets its title from the informal group jokingly named by Hoover and Truman. Now, it describes the bond that exists between former presidents regardless of their different political viewpoints. Many former presidents have assisted sitting presidents by serving as advisors or in diplomatic capacities. Reagan even stepped in to teach Clinton how to salute uniformed military personnel properly, and Clinton has developed a deep friendship with George H. W. Bush. In The Presidents Club, Gibbs and Duffy explore these little known connections and the history that created them.

Beth

 
 

Indian Nation

Rez LifeRez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation by David Treuer is part memoir, part history, and part cultural study of Indian reservations. There are approximately 310 Indian reservations in the United States today; Treuer says reservations are as “American as apple pie.” Americans are captivated by Indians yet many people will go through their entire life without knowing an Indian or spending any time on a reservation.

 

Life on a reservation or “rez life” is often associated with poverty and alcoholism. Treuer does not shy away from these realities. There are heartbreaking stories of unimaginable poverty throughout the book. Numbers also reveal a bleak existence: no running water until the late 1990s, 80% unemployment rates and a median household income of $17,000. This does not sum up “rez life” completely, though. Treuer writes, “What one finds on reservations is more than scars, tears, blood, and noble sentiment. There is beauty in Indian life, as well as meaning....We love our reservations.”

 

Rez Life is not a dismal book, by any means. There are touching (and often very humorous) stories of family life throughout. Treuer reminds us that not all Indians are poor and not all reservations are poor. The wealthy Seminole nation is the current owner of the Hard Rock Cafe franchise. This proves, as Treuer puts it, that the Seminoles have been “kicking ass and taking names for a very long time.”

 

Treuer is the perfect writer for this book. He is a journalist and creative writing professor who knows how to synthesize a massive, complicated subject into personal, engaging stories. He has a keen attention to detail and is a master storyteller who also grew up on a reservation. Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian, raised on Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota. His father is an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor, his mother a tribal court judge. Indeed, his personal story (interspersed throughout the book) makes for a fascinating biography. Readers who enjoy biographies, modern history and cultural studies will not want to miss Rez Life.

 

Zeke