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Graphic Journalism

Status: Bookseller Picks

Art Spiegalman's Maus is renowned for having dramatically pushed foward the artform of comics with his very personal tale of his family's experiences in the Holocaust.

Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde now pushes the form even further, taking us into the fractured Bosnia of the early 1990's with the eye of a journalist. The narrative concerns the city of Gorazde, a predominantly Bosniak (Muslim) area that is surrounded by Serb territory and which is only connected to the rest of the soon-to-be Muslim-Croat federation only by one narrow road on which UN convoys run. At first the story appears light-hearted as Sacco makes friends with the inhabitants of the town and gets his bearings - but as these inhabitants tell us their stories the truly gruesome nature of this conflict is unveiled and grotesquely illustrated through Sacco's detailed artwork. The narrative is supported not only by Sacco's illustrations (which provide a very realistic sense of the atmosphere of the place - something lacking in many other non-fiction books covering this conflict) but also by substantial research - at several points Sacco takes some time to explain the often confusing historical background to the conflict.

My only complaint is that the scope of the story is somewhat narrow and comes off as a bit biased - we never see anything from the Serb or Croat perspectives in this book, and that's a signifigant lack. But given the focus on a particular geogpraphic location it does to some extent make sense.

Anyone interested in the history of the Balkans or the recent conflict should certainly read this, as should anyone who is a fan of comics that truly push the artform in a new direction and show what it is capable of. 

Message Edited by Kevin on 03-05-2009 09:10 AM
The first American bank robberies were crude affairs; fumbling, improvised attempts to wrest cash from downtown vaults. That all changed with George Leslie, the prime mover in J. North Conway's King of Heists. Leslie was no inside job bungler; he was a polished Gilded Age gentleman, the brilliant, successful architect son of a prominent Cincinnati brewer. Like his table manners, his bank work was meticulous: He spent three years planning the 1878 Manhattan Savings Institution robbery, the crown jewel of all his heists. This masterful break-in netted nearly three million dollars in cash and securities, approximately $50 million in today's currency, making it the most lucrative bank theft in history. But, as Conway notes, Leslie was no one-shot wonder; in the decade before the Manhattan Savings heist, he and his gang were responsible for eighty percent of the bank robberies in the country. More startling yet, Leslie never spent a day in jail. King of Heists presents this notorious criminal as a captivating antihero, an enigmatic robber who dared to steal from the robber barons.
Categories: history, true crime
Not one of a hundred Americans knows its name, but Exposition Universelle of 1889 stamped its imprint not only on Paris, but also on the world. Its wrought-iron centerpiece and entrance arch Eiffel Tower became the most recognizable icon on the continent, but as Jill Jonnes shows in this captivating history, Gustav Eiffel's engineering marvel was hardly the only attraction at the fair. Visitors, as she notes, were invited to gawk at the four hundred inhabitants of a hastily counterfeited "Negro village" or watch as Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley displayed their Wild West skills. Among the other artists and personalities present among the fair's 28 million visitors were Thomas Edison, Paul Gauguin, James Abbott Whistler, and Claude Debussy. In Eiffel's Tower, Jonnes walks us through all the exhibits and controversies, giving us a fresh sense of the bright, brave new world that our ancestors were entering.
Categories: history, nonfiction

"The beginning of the end of War lies in Remembrance"

Status: Bookseller Picks

I keep racking my brain, trying to figure what the best adjective would be for me to sum up this double recommendation. I keep coming back to two: personal and epic.

 

The Winds of War (first published in 1971) and War and Remembrance (1978) represent a single, cohesive story that manages to capture the enormous sweep of World War II and the Holocaust, but tells it in a way readers can still feel connected to such a massive narrative. Through the fictional Henry and Jastrow famlies, readers are caught up in the currents and eddies of history and tossed around the globe, from London to Berlin to Moscow, from submarines and battleships to the most infamous of the Third Reich's extermination camps.

 

There's something for everyone in this story; Herman Wouk manages to expertly blend romance and melodrama with scrupulously researched analyses of historical events and military tactics that would be at home in the military history section of your local B&N. He creates a dizzying cast of characters and gives them each their own unique voice. The story centers on two families: the Henrys, a Navy family led by stalwart everyman Victor (nicknamed "Pug"), and the Jastrows — Aaron, a Jewish-American expatriate living in Italy, and his niece Natalie. Pug (who longs for command of a battleship, but instead ends up hopping around Europe as FDR's unofficial eyes and ears) and his sons Byron (a perpetual student) and Warren (a Navy pilot) are pulled into the war. Meanwhile, the attempts of Aaron and Natalie (who falls in love with, and marries Byron) to flee Europe and the Nazis are blocked at every turn, and they eventually find themselves on a collision course with Hitler's Final Solution.

 

While it's easy to get caught up in the family drama of Wouk's story, what impressed me most of all were his chapters of historical analysis. By and large these were presented as excerpts from the postwar writings of General Armin von Roon, a fictional German general. So not only is Wouk giving an incredibly well-researched analysis of German military strategy during the war, but he's doing it from the perspective of the other side!

 

The masterful writing evident in the Roon chapters is perhaps only surpassed by the addition in War and Remembrance of selections from "A Jew's Journey," a diary Aaron Jastrow keeps as he and Natalie pinball around Europe evading the Nazis, before ending up in Theresienstadt, the so-called "Paradise Ghetto." The diaries chronicle not only his physical journey, but a spiritual one as well; Aaron's ordeal reawakens his faith, expressed in some of Wouk's most moving passages.

 

These books certainly aren't for everyone; 1,900 pages is a lot of reading, and it took me the better part of a year to polish them off (I was reading other books simultaneously). It's well worth the effort. I came away from The Winds of War and War and Remembrance feeling not only emotionally moved, but also with a greater understanding of the Second World War and the Holocaust than before I started.

 

(NOTE: It's also worth your while to check out the TV miniseries The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988), both of which originally aired on ABC. They're outstanding adaptations of the novels, though the depth of Wouk's historical research isn't easily translated from the written page to the video screen.)

For the Truth Seekers

Status: Bookseller Picks

Half history book, half travel journal; Tony Horwitz rediscovers early American history by retracing the steps of the early settlers. Starting with the Norse in 1000AD up to the Pilgrims, Tony investigates the unadulterated history of our past. Always interesting and sometimes disturbing, ranging from topics such as the Spanish Conquistadors to the first Thanksgiving, this book will shake the foundation of what you thought you knew. Beware though- there are some hard truths in this book that most people may not be able to handle. But if you are the kind of person who doesn't believe that ignorance is bliss, then this book is for you.

Categories: history

 

This unconventional history justifies Jeffrey Toobin’s description of it as “[a] compelling intellectual detective story, one that illuminates the present as much as the dusty past.”

 

 On a frigid February day in 1650, Re Descartes was buried in the frozen ground of Stockholm, far from his French homeland. Sixteen years later, a French government official surreptitiously unearthed the philosopher’s remains and returned them to the country of his birth. That, however, was only the beginning of the posthumous journeys of “the Father of Philosophy. In this refreshingly heterodox history, Russell Shorto follows Descarte’s bones over three centuries and six countries, showing how the battle over his body and most especially his skull exemplifies a far more significant war between faith and reason. Descartes’ Bones deserves to be read by anyone who ever puzzled over mind/body problems.
Message Edited by Kevin on 02-19-2009 10:22 PM

Oil on the Brain

Status: Bookseller Picks

In the 150 years since "Colonel" Edwin Drake's well struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, the preeminent driving force in our world has been petroleum. Oil has been behind the expansion and collapse of global empires and personal fortunes. Oil was both a key factor in the collapse of Germany and Japan during World War II, and propelled the explosive growth in postwar America. Wars have been fought for it, and nations have revolted over foreign control of it.

 

Nowhere is this tumult better chronicled than in The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, Daniel Yergin's epic Pulitzer-winning history of oil and its affect on industry, geopolics, and world society. Spanning the globe, and featuring a colorful list of players ranging from titans of industry and wealthy desert sheikhs to Texas "wildcatters," The Prize is gripping history that flows off the page.

 

I first read this book in 1993, after my seventh grade social studies teacher showed the class excerpts from the eight-hour PBS documentary based on the book. It was incredibly informative then, and is even more relevant today as we face important decisions related to energy supply and consumption, and their effect on both the American and global economy. The Prize isn't just another business history title; it speaks directly to the political and sociological issues brought up by how we as a people consume oil in what Yergin dubs the "Age of Hydrocarbon Man." With the 2009 updated edition, which includes a new epilogue covering events and trends since its first publication, The Prize has maintained its place as the essential book on its subject.

 

I'm a firm believer in the old adage "those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it." The Prize should be mandatory reading if for no other reason than we can't afford to make the same mistakes again as we try and find our path forward.

"Behind us lay Atlanta smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air and hanging like a ball over the ruined city." -General William T. Sherman

 

For most Americans, Atlanta blazed most memorably in Gone With The Wind, but the real-life Civil War siege and destruction of the Georgia city possessed far more drama and lasting significance than can be witnessed in any single movie or bestselling novel. Carefully written and adeptly written, Marc Wortman's narrative history of the "hundred days' battle" and the double burning of Atlanta presents its still controversial events from the points of view of their participants, albeit victors or victims; generals or slaves. Like the conflagration itself, The Bonfire cuts through to the marrow of experience. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson writes, "Marc Wortman's vivid narrative proves that war is indeed hell."
Categories: history

 

Too refreshing to be restricted to an academic audience, this sprightly romp uses dozens of example to show us that Shakespeare still lives.

 

 

“The premise of this book is simple and direct: Shakespeare makes modern culture and that modern culture makes Shakespeare.” Award-winning Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber demonstrates her thesis with an often astonishing array of contemporary appropriations, including Stratford Bard influenced rock lyrics, advertisement campaigns, and management primers as well as more respectable plays, novels, and ballets. Her trenchant examination of ten major Shakespearean dramas shows how each has been mined not only for its archetypal messages, but also reshaped to reflect more modern preoccupations.

Message Edited by Kevin on 02-19-2009 10:23 PM
The French Empire was at its height. Napoleon Bonaparte had vanquished most of continental Europe; now, in 1812, the self-crowned emperor set out to conquer Russia. Angered by czarist actions, he organized the best-trained, best-equipped land army ever assembled. With his aptly named, 700,000-man Grande Armee, he began his march towards Moscow. At that point, the grandeur stops and the terror begins. Stephan Talty's The Illustrious Dead etches a picture of war far different from standard Napoleonic histories. He demonstrates convincingly that the brilliant French military strategist was defeated not by enemy armies, but by typhus, tiny bacterium transmitted in the feces of fleas and lice. During the ill-fated campaign, he notes, more troops died from disease than from battle. This account is so gripping that like the best histories, it cuts across subjects.
Categories: history

The History of Ideas

Status: Bookseller Picks

Ideas  

 

If you ever wanted to read about, well, everything Peter Watson's book would do "everything" justice.  He covers the development of human thought, what factors made human ingenuity possible, and how humans branched out in thought to create religion, philosophy, astronomy, and just about anything else you can think of.  "Fire to Freud" is not just for the seconary title.  This is a well-researched history book and Watson has a whole raft of notes and endnotes so if you were curious about a source you could go look that book up to read on your own.  I received this as a Christmas gift several years ago and happily spent many evenings curled up in bed, reading away about the development of writing, literacy, agriculture, and scientific theory.  I enjoyed Ideas more than I did A Short History of Nearly Everything (also a good book for reading on lazy evenings and rainy afternoons) primarily because while Bryson really did go for a "short history," Watson went further and tried to show how idea and thought built off of established methodologies.

Categories: history

Seceding From Secession

Status: Bookseller Picks

This is a fascinating new book from Sally Jenkins (co-author of It's Not About the Bike  with Lance Armstrong) and John Stauffer. As a long-time Civil War guy, I was aware of the amazing story of Jones County, Mississippi, but knew I was one of few who did. With this new work, this almost-lost history is memorialized for all.

It's generally well-remembered that there was opposition to the war in the loyal states, most general Civil War books will touch on Copperheads, and the 1863 draft riots. But almost never is it mentioned that the war was also widely unpopular in the South. Nowhere was this opposition stronger than in Jones County, Mississippi. The State of Jones is the story of Newton Knight, poor farmer and Confederate draftee, who deserts the rebel army and leads a violent opposition to Confederate rule from the swamps and thickets of backwoods Mississippi. His story makes for a compelling narrative, from it's realistic, Gone With The Wind-busting coverage of antebellum class tensions, to its frank portrayal of the horrors of war (The phrase "rich man's war, poor man's fight" actually originated in the wartime Confederacy, after the draft was imposed and it exempted wealthy slaveowners.)

But The State of Jones is also a personal story, haunted by a forbidden love whose details are shrouded by the mists of time. What brought Newton Knight and Rachel (a former possession of Knight's extended family) together is unknown; but both this relationship and Newton's stand against secession have echoed through family and Mississippi history, from Reconstruction to the present day.

A few of the niggling details about the war itself and army life are incorrect in this book, but unless you're a dedicated Civil War buff, you'll never notice- and they're so minor, I can't even begin to call them "inaccuracies." Jenkins and Stauffer do a great job of making Newton Knight's story accessible to non-experts, so don't be scared of this book if you're not a Civil War expert.

Categories: history, nonfiction
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12 defining days in American history

Status: Bookseller Picks

Manhunt is the incredible story of the plot to kill a group of top government officials, the assassination of a president, the dramatic escape of the conspirators and the national manhunt that ensued. It may sound like the latest Brad Thor thriller, but it is in fact the true story of the Lincoln assassination and the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth.

 

Author, James L. Swanson, wholeheartedly admits his obsession with the topic and his lifelong pursuit of all things related to this important event. This passion, combined with historical records, newspaper articles from 1865 and thousand of recorded first-hand accounts of each facet of this 12-day portion of American history, makes Manhunt the most comprehensive and intimate work to date on the Lincoln assassination and its surrounding events.

 

Swanson paints an emotional and very tangible description of all the players in this drama and gives you a real sense of being there, whether it is along side the doctor resuscitating an already- dead Lincoln, knowing that he was only delaying the inevitable, or tensely hiding in a dense woods with a wounded, but jubilant assassin.

 

A great book for fans of Erik Larson (Isaac's Storm, Devil in the White City), Lincoln and Civil War aficionados or anyone who loves history.

Categories: biography, history
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I must admit that I approached this book with some hesitation. For one thing, I worried that it would be just a footnote to World War II military history or yet another account of Nazi misdeeds. Instead, I found a fascinating story about a war within a war; the not far behind the battle lines struggle to save European cultural treasures from plunder and destruction. Robert Edsel and co-author Bret Witter describe how a relatively small team of "Monuments Men," male and female curators, artists, and art historians raced to locate and preserve unique artifacts while bombs were still falling on European cities, even as Hitler's henchmen were working overtime to thwart them. To me, The Monuments Men possesses a cinematic vividness, capturing as it does real people becoming heroes.

 

Categories: history
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Depressions are, by very definition, depressing; but as Morris Dickstein's dexterous history shows, that is not always completely so. Dancing in the Dark reminded me that the Great Depression produced an overflowing trove of buoyant popular culture: from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers elegance to screwball comedy zaniness. Nor was this all escapism. Dickstein shows us that this "New Deal in Entertainment" encompassed a varied stimulus package of social consciousness, individualism, and sheer speed and energy; a mixed bag of Steinbeck, Agee, Ellington, and, yes, Busby Berkeley. Reading this ultimately exhilarating history gave me a renewed appreciation of how rich the arts can be in impoverished times. It also convinced me that Norman Mailer was right when he called its author "one of our best and most distinguished critics."

 

Categories: history, social sciences
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An exciting saga about a brilliant 18th century iconoclast that matches a talented storyteller with a superb subject.

 

Internationally famous in his own time, British polymath Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is best remembered today, if at all, as the discoverer of oxygen, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and other “different kinds of airs.”  Few of us know that this eminent scientist was also a prominent participant in the early shaping of our republic. Steven Johnson’s riveting The Invention of Air  renders that story with all its implicit drama, tracking this protean thinker through an active life punctuated by controversy. In England, Priestley’s radical religious views and support of the French Revolution made him the target of violent riots; when he and his family emigrated to the United States in 1794, his ideas and writings became political lightning rods, influencing many thinkers, most significantly Thomas Jefferson. This carefully researched narrative by the author of The Ghost Map provides a revealing view of a history we thought we knew.

Message Edited by Kevin on 02-19-2009 10:21 PM

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