Tag Archives: history

Michael Lesy — Murder City

After watching a few episodes of Boardwalk Empire, my interest in Chicago’s violent Prohibition-era past was rekindled. In the process of browsing around on various message boards, Lesy’s book came up as a recommendation and I was duly excited about reading it. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a let down.

The book is a history of murder in the 20s, though not as gang-focused as you might think. Instead, the average person’s romantic entanglements gone awry, their intrigues and violent outbursts. It sounded promising and I was really excited to read it. Once I started, however, I was quite disappointed. The author’s writing style is very choppy but seemingly without rhyme or reason; he would create sentence fragments constantly throughout a paragraph but with little regard for emphasis. It made the reading very rough and occasionally confusing. It didn’t help that the chapters were poorly organized and the subjects chosen without rhyme or reason (yes they were all murders but the order seemed totally arbitrary).

You’d probably be better off just reading newspaper accounts of the incidents in question. Sadly, this was not a good use of my reading time.

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Lucky book find of the day!

The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks
It’s going to take me a little while to get through my next book, Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, and I couldn’t find Shades of Milk and Honey ANYWHERE in the city (can you believe it?) so here is a little book-related post to tide you over. (Also, please ignore my ridiculous hair, it’s been hot out and I was running all over to meet my boyfriend and his coworkers for tortas at lunch.)

While browsing through the Penn bookstore’s bargain section, I found The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks. Banks was a baronet and a naturalist and the voyage this journal is from was dated 1768 – 1771, he sailed to Brazil, then Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia, stopping in Botany bay and also discovering something like 800 new species and cataloging them all extensively. He was also a pretty interesting character in his own right. I was thrilled to find this because not only did I have no idea it was still even in print (I’d been reading it on Project Gutenberg), but it was only $4! I’m assuming some professor had it printed for a class and then it got remaindered. Either way, this was a pleasant surprise this morning. And I also renewed my library card. Vacation is treating me well so far.

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Karen Abbott — Sin in the Second City

This book caught my eye because early 1900s-era Chicago is the sort of ridiculous and awesome place that makes for a rollicking story. The specific subject here was also interesting: it’s the story of Ada and Minna Everleigh, two sisters who were the proprietors of one of the most lavish and successful brothels in the city, founded upon the ideas that no women should be forced into anything they didn’t want to do, they should be treated and paid well, and kept healthy. It worked. And the story of the Everleigh sisters doesn’t need much embellishing; the eccentric customers and habits of the women themselves make for a fascinating story. And Abbott writes well, mostly, a mix of short chapters, long chapters, and photographs and illustrations. I wasn’t totally wild about certain parts of the book’s writing, however, when she seemed to delve more into historical fiction style than history–I don’t really know how to explain it other than that. I started skimming when I got to those bits. But if you’re looking for a colorful, lively depiction of sinning in the early 1900s, and in particular, the grandiose version of the American dream that Ada and Minna managed to pull off on their own, I’d definitely recommend this book. Serious history–maybe not so much. But there’s a place for pop history in every shelf.

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Max Hastings — Winston’s War

This is going to be a short review, simply because it’s harder for me to talk about history books than it is about fiction, even though I read them just as often. Max Hastings is one of my favorite authors who focus primarily on WWII; he’s a great stylist (which is occasionally lacking in good solid historical analysis), has a dry sense of humor, and a good perspective–he’s not going to ignore anyone’s faults, and his other books on various battles of WWII can be quite scathing. This book covers the war, from Churchill’s involvement and perspective. Here, you can tell that Hastings really reveres Churchill (as many, many people do), but also gives him a fair and balanced portrayal, with all of his warts and faults. It was incredibly readable and isn’t just repetitive of the approximately 100 million books already written about Churchill, I feel like it offered a bit of a fresh perspective as well. Recommended if you’re interested in military history, Churchill, or the Second World War.

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T. E. Lawrence — The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is to be immersed in a world that is totally gone. The accuracy of Lawrence’s recollections might be debated, but the literary quality of his memoir cannot be denied. The book centers around Lawrence, a British soldier, and his experiences as a liaison officer during the Arab revolt against the Turks in 1916-1918. His friendship with Feisal al Husayn is notable; similarly, Lawrence’s ability to blend in and observe and report is noteworthy, especially for the time. It is a dark book; the Deraa fiasco particularly, though Lawrence glosses it over. He presents his own involvement in the revolt, including his guerrilla tactics against the Turks, in a modest way, which is interesting to consider. But overall, though the book is quite long and covers a LOT of ground in a relatively short time, it is above all a pleasure to read–Lawrence’s words are particularly and wonderfully poetic.

Read him here:

We had learned that there were pangs too sharp, griefs too deep, ecstasies too high for our finite selves to register. When emotion reached this pitch the mind choked; and memory went white till the circumstances were humdrum once more.

And on the Bedouins:

They were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail. Since the dawn of life, in successive waves they had been dashing themselves against the coasts of flesh. Each wave was broken, but, like the sea, wore away ever so little of the granite on which it failed, and some day, ages yet, might roll unchecked over the place where the material world had been, and God would move upon the face of those waters. One such wave (and not the least) I raised and rolled before the branch of an idea, till it reached its crest, and toppled over and fell at Damascus. The wash of that wave, thrown back by the resistance of vested things, will provide the matter of the following wave, when in fullness of time the sea shall be raised once more.

Simply lovely; the words are so simple, but somehow together they conjure up a most evocative picture of the desert, the war at that time. Lawrence’s writing is transporting and just beautiful, you can get absorbed in this book to the exclusion of the outside world. And sadly I feel as though this is a book that is often ignored nowadays, though Lawrence of Arabia is still in currency. If you’ve any interest in the man or the time period at all this is more than worthwhile to pick up and read.

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