Baltimore is front and center in Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation by Steve Vogel. Vogel, a Washington Post military reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist, focuses on a six week period during the War of 1812 – specifically, the British attacks on Washington and Baltimore.
Vogel’s experience is evident in this fast-paced military account peppered with characters essential to the story. The book opens in the summer of 1814 (two years after America invaded Canada) and the British forces are looking for payback. None is more focused on destroying the upstart nation than Rear Admiral George Cockburn. Cockburn would quickly become America’s chief nemesis with his priority of destroying Washington D.C. He eventually advanced on the nation’s capital and ordered the burning of the city’s public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. Not content with that successful conflagration, he and his troops turned their attention to Baltimore.
In recounting the remarkable events that led to the last stand in Baltimore, other principals are introduced and their impact duly noted. In addition to the well-known actors in this drama such as James Madison and James Monroe, readers also learn more about Dolley Madison, who rescued so many White House artifacts and Mary Pickersgill, the seamstress responsible for crafting the flag. And a book about the Battle of Baltimore wouldn’t be complete without Francis Scott Key, an innocent prisoner of the British troops and witness to the brutal destruction during the defense of Fort McHenry that inspired him to write "The Star Spangled Banner". This is a colorful presentation of both sides of the story filled with details that complement the narrative of military events. The victory at Baltimore remains a turning point in American history that changed both the outcome of the war and the fate of our fledgling nation.
The Village: 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: A History of Greenwich Village by John Strausbaugh is a loving tribute to one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the world, Greenwich Village in New York City. In the modern era, Greenwich Village has been synonymous with radical art, poetry music and political change.
Since the very beginning of its settlement in the 17th century, the land that would later be known as Greenwich Village or just “The Village,” has always been an outpost for rebels and misfits. It was originally home to just a few hundred people, whose regular sources of entertainment included taverns and brothels. During the next 400 years, The Village continued to be home to radicals and rogues of every stripe.
Just browsing through Strausbaugh's history is a reminder of the Village’s amazing artistic output, in the late 20th century alone. Alan Ginsburg and Bob Dylan got their start in The Village, as did Andy Warhol, Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce. It was also an epicenter in the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn Bar had been raided many times before but the infamous police raid on a hot night in June of 1969. That particular raid has been memorialized as simply “Stonewall,” the event galvanized the LGBT community into civil rights activism. For anyone interested in New York City or American cultural history, The Village is a treasure trove of fascinating stories and personalities.
Everybody makes mistakes. Most folks get to learn from their errors and move on. On occasion, poor judgment leads to ruinous, far-reaching consequences, examples of which author Bill Fawcett examines in Trust Me, I Know What I’m Doing: 100 Mistakes that Lost Elections, Ended Empires, and Made the World What It Is Today. Starting with the dynasty-destroying actions of the first Chinese emperor in 229 BC and travelling through history to end with the 2011 post-tsunami nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, Fawcett analyzes the decisions which eventually led to disaster. Some scenarios analyzed by the author are readily familiar to readers, such as the epic failure of 1920’s Prohibition legislation banning booze; instead of routing out poverty and making “hell…forever for rent,” brutal organized crime activity skyrocketed thanks to the lure of the lucrative black market for alcohol. Other examples offer food for thought, such as the premise that President Eisenhower’s support of the tyrannical Shah of Iran paved the way for the current adversarial relationships between Middle East countries and the United States. Each situation presented by Fawcett provides an interesting retrospective on some of history’s seminal events.
Edward Steers also mines history in his book Hoax: Hitler’s Diaries, Lincoln’s Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds. Unlike the unintended consequences revealed in Trust Me, Steers deals with the intentional deceptions of forgers which are foisted upon a sometimes all-too-willing-to-believe public. Steers presents perpetrators who are sometimes motivated by money, as in the “discoveries” of the infamous Hitler diaries or sacred Mormon text. Other times, the finger is pointed by political rivals like those who wanted to taint President Roosevelt’s reputation by claiming he knew about Pearl Harbor prior to the attack but failed to act. The Shroud of Turin? The missing link? Steers weighs in on both outright cons and more subtle mysteries with careful detail and scientific evidence, making both convincing arguments and a fascinating book.
Anyone who has had annoying neighbors or lived in an apartment with thin walls can appreciate the level of irritation that led Charlie McDowell to begin tweeting comments that he overheard from his upstairs neighbors Cathy and Claire at all hours of the day and night. His tweets have now been compiled and expanded in his new book Dear Girls Above Me: Inspired by a True Story.
After breaking up with his girlfriend, Charlie found himself at home more often. He soon discovered that he could hear every word his neighbors said to each other, but they were blissfully unaware of the noise coming from his apartment, even when he screamed at them or blew an air horn. He began sharing his observations in 140 characters or less, all beginning with the phrase “Dear Girls Above Me.” His tweets soon gained the attention of celebrities and major media outlets like the website Gawker, and magazines Glamour and Time. In the book, he expands the stories about his life and his neighbors, but there are still plenty of tweets included. They are at the end of each chapter and organized by topics like "The Girls on Singing and Lyricism", "The Girls on Dieting", "The Girls on Drinking", and "The Girls on Current Events". The girls’ vapid comments combined with Charlie’s snarky responses create a hilarious pop culture commentary. He is, as actress Lena Dunham says, “a very skilled, and freaking funny, anthropologist of the Kardashian era.” For more updates on Charlie and his neighbors, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.
The veil has lifted on the young woman dubbed “Foxy Knoxy” by the media. In Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir, Amanda Knox recounts how her promising start as an American exchange student in Italy quickly spiraled into a nightmare and kept her abroad much longer than anticipated. Barely two months into her study abroad program in the city of Perugia, Knox found herself at the center of an international media frenzy when her roommate, British exchange student Meredith Kercher, was found murdered. Within days, she was ensnared in the Italian police and justice systems, having little understanding of the language, much less their laws and politics. She and two others were convicted of murder in 2009. Her conviction and that of her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, was overturned on appeal in 2011. The Italian courts are currently reviewing the case.
Knox is studying creative writing, and did pen the entire book. Although it can be burdened at times with staged-sounding conversations and details that fall into the “TMI” category, it is an honest reflection of a young woman who grew up very quickly during the four years she was imprisoned. Knox has recently given several high- profile interviews in conjunction with the release of this book, including with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Other sources which provide insightful perspective about the case are Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox and John Follain’s A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case, previously written about here. However, for anyone following the case, the perspective you don’t want to miss is from the person at the center of it all. Finally, Knox herself has her say.
How far would you go to get out of debt? Would you sell your car? Move out of your house? Take a minimum wage job scrubbing toilets in Alaska? Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, was willing to do almost anything to free himself from the burden of his student loans. Living as frugally as possible, he worked as an Alaskan janitor, hitchhiked his way across the country, and lived in a van to pursue his dream of a debt-free life. With the ideals of Thoreau and the heart of Kerouac, Ilgunas’ journey from loan-ridden student to financially-independent ascetic is in turns humorous, touching, and inspiring.
Ilgunas started his college career similar to many millennials in the mid-2000s, largely oblivious to the quiet specter of loan debt that would slowly accrue over the course of his degree. Purposeless and skill-less, he graduated with a liberal arts degree, no job prospects, and a burning desire to pay off his debt as quickly as possible. But unlike other students who begin a traditional career, Ilgunas set out on a haphazard, occasionally reckless, and strangely successful quest to live as cheaply as possible while earning money in low-wage jobs in very odd circumstances. After working himself out of debt, Ilgunas vowed to remain debt-free forever while also trying to go to graduate school, a feat that seems impossible until he stumbles on the idea of eliminating housing expenses by living secretly out of his “creepy red van.”
Part social experiment, part return to the wild, part ultimate road trip, Walden on Wheels blends idealism and practicality into a remarkably effective solution to the increasingly pervasive problem of coping with a suffocating amount of debt. Millennials, parents of millennials, and those longing for financial freedom will rally around this account of a unique approach to a very common dilemma.
Sheri Booker brings her unique story to readers in her new memoir Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home. Booker began working evenings at Albert P. Wylie Funeral Home on Gilmor Street in West Baltimore when she was 15. Over the nine years that she worked there, she saw families in the most difficult times of their lives as they mourned the loss of loved ones to old age, suicide, disease, and, all too often, street violence. Booker writes that she eventually had to let go of her own feelings to continue to work with their grief-stricken customers every day. In Nine Years Under, she brings their stories to life along with her own.
Readers see the behind-the-scenes world of the funeral home, shedding a new light on a business that is largely unknown to most of us. Although death and grief are constantly present, Booker also brings humor to her story. Some of the stories from her job are too bizarre for most of us to imagine—like the day that she hit a pole at a McDonald’s drive-through while she was transporting a body in the funeral home’s van. Booker’s dark sense of humor and distinctive voice make this memoir one that you won’t want miss.
Her by Christa Parravani is a powerful memoir that explores sisterhood, the bonds of twins and the nature of grief. Christa Parravani is an identical twin to her sister, Cara. Cara dies a tragic death and Christa nearly destroys herself, in an attempt to follow in her footsteps. Her is the biography of the twins but it also serves as a lovely and unflinchingly honest memorial to Cara.
Cara and Christa did not have an easy childhood. As teens and young adults, their behavior veered toward the destructive, including eating disorders and drug abuse. Both sisters were incredibly creative, with Cara as the writer and Christa, the photographer. Cara and Christa remained close throughout their adulthood and continued to experiment with unhealthy habits. After Cara is raped, she begins a downward spiral and never really recovers.
Her is a fascinating memoir about the highly unique dynamic between identical twins. Parravani addresses all the usual perceptions people have about twins such as “twin language” and “twin ESP.” Given the intense connection between twins, the death of one can nearly destroy the other. This is essentially what happened to Christa after Cara’s untimely death. She tried to follow her into death, taking up her most damaging habits, just to be closer to Cara. Parravani has written a touching, raw new memoir. Her love and grief for her sister is almost palpable. Although Her is a very emotional book, Parravani writes in clear, crisp prose, telling the story in an almost matter-of-fact tone that results in powerful, clear-eyed memorial to her twin, sister and best friend.
Anne Perry is an award-winning, bestselling crime and mystery writer, but few know that nearly 60 years ago, she herself was a defendant in one of New Zealand’s most infamous murder cases. Peter Graham details this case in his book Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century. Born Juliet Hulme, an adolescent Perry and her best friend Pauline Parker shocked the country and the world when they brutally murdered Parker’s mother in 1954. The subsequent trial and conviction of the girls led to prison sentences, after which the two partners in crime went their separate ways. Hulme eventually reinvented herself as Anne Perry and launched a successful writing career, while Parker vanished into obscurity and lives a reclusive life on a Scottish island.
Graham does an amazing job bringing the story of the girls’ friendship and the sheer barbarity of the murder to life. He provides the back stories of Hulme, Parker and their family members without bogging down the writing. Hulme and Parker both suffered from illnesses as children, and as a result spent long stretches of time isolated from family and friends. Although professional opinions differ, it’s hypothesized that because of this isolation, both girls developed vivid imaginations and were drawn to each other when they met as young teenagers at school. The girls created their own complex fantasy world which overtook reality, and when threatened with separation from each other, they plotted to kill the person they saw as responsible.
Interest in the case was renewed in the 1990s, with newly published research and several dramatizations of the murder, most notably the critically acclaimed film Heavenly Creatures. For true crime aficionados, this book will leave questions about the true nature of Anne Perry. When asked in one interview if she ever thought of Parker’s mother, she replied, “No. She was somebody I barely knew”.
Most of us have heard the term sociopath before, but we probably don’t know what it really means. We usually hear it in conjunction with criminal activity. It will probably surprise you to learn that one out of every 25 Americans is a sociopath, which means that it’s highly likely that someone you know fits the definition. Most sociopaths aren’t criminals or serial killers as television shows would lead us to believe. They often live their lives without anyone around them realizing what they are. M. E. Thomas brings the reality of the disorder to readers in her unique new memoir Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. Thomas (a pseudonym to protect her identity) is a successful attorney and law professor and the voice behind SociopathWorld.com. She teaches Sunday school at her church. She is intelligent, confident, and charming. She is one of the 4% of Americans who are sociopaths.
So what exactly is sociopathy? Sociopaths lack the moral compass that directs the lives of most people. They feel no remorse or empathy. Thomas shows readers the reality of life from a sociopath’s unique point of view. She explains that she is neither crazy nor evil. She does interact with others differently than the average person. Like all sociopaths, Thomas’s interactions with others often involve manipulation. To put it bluntly, she is a predator. She lives behind a mask, mimicking others’ behavior to pass for normal. She freely admits to destroying others’ careers to get ahead in her own and is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. Thomas’s story is simultaneously engaging and unsettling. This fascinating first-person narrative may change your view of sociopaths.
Do you know a sociopath? The quiz found here may be both enlightening and unnerving. As Thomas explains, “It is statistically very probable that some people reading this book are sociopaths and have never realized it. If this is you, welcome home.”