The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

Oregon Trail

Please don’t laugh at me, but The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck is currently my favorite book. It’s hard to explain, but let me try. The book is hilarious while being thoughtful and packed full of history. There are scenes that are so hair-raising that I had to keep checking to make sure the author really made it to Oregon.

This work is a deeply moving and beautifully written memoir that tells the story of making a modern-day 2,500 mile trip with a mule driven covered wagon along the path of the Oregon Trail. While making his journey, Buck relates: the history of the Oregon Trail, Mormons in the West, and of mules, the pitfalls of wagon purchasing from the Amish, the kindness of strangers in the American West, and why so many children are being raised by their grandparents in Nebraska. More than this, it is Rinker Buck’s description of his complicated and unresolved relationship with his driven father that serves as the emotional trail-heart of this book. I loved every page. This book is a great way to “see America slowly.”


I recently drove the Oregon Trail (quickly!) while travelling from Washington State to Idaho and back. I snapped this photo of what you typically see while driving the old Oregon Trail these days: two straight lanes of highway dotted with semi trucks and passenger cars. It’s a relatively easy drive these days, unless you encounter foul weather over the Blue Mountains. I especially love driving in Idaho where the posted speed is 80 miles per hour. While in Idaho, we were lucky enough to watch the largest non-motorized parade in the west. There were young girls riding bare back and without bridles, and countless old wagons and buggies pulled by mules, horses, and ponies. I’ll include my video of the twenty mule team pulling no less than five wagons here:

Here are some other interesting materials on the Oregon Trail that can be found at the library. They will surely round out your knowledge of that complex and colossal migration.

indexThe Oregon Trail: An American Saga by David Day is the definitive one-volume and complete history of the Oregon Trail from its earliest beginnings to the present. It’s chock full of maps, photographs, diary excerpts and illustrations that give a very detailed picture of this American saga. As the book blurb says: “Above all, The Oregon Trail offers a panoramic look at the romance, colorful stories, hardships, and joys of the pioneers who made up this tremendous and historic migration.”

For an original recording made in Portland, Oregon in May of 1941 by Woody Guthrie, be sure to check out the Columbia River Collection. Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power administration to write music for a film about power and the Columbia River. Songs include: The Oregon Trail, Roll on Columbia, and Hard Travelin’. We unfortunately don’t have a photo of this CD in our library catalog, but the music is fantastic.

index (3)If you want to eat like the early pioneers, Wagon Wheel Kitchens: Food on the Oregon Trail by Jacqueline Williams is the book for you! This book puts you squarely on the Oregon Trail: baking bread in a Dutch oven over a campfire, searing buffalo meat, and trading for fresh vegetables and fish. Through emigrant diaries and recipes of the day, the author reconstructs meals that fed the emigrants as they crossed the Plains. To understand the contribution of trail women to the migration, simply try one of Williams’s ‘pinch and a handful’ recipes – and do it over an open fire in a rainstorm.

index (1)The Oregon Trail: A Photographic Journey is by Bill & Jan Moeller. The authors meticulously traced and captured on film the remnants of the Oregon Trail-surprisingly intact in many places.The resulting full-color photographs, accompanied by selected entries from emigrant diaries, evoke for the modern reader the frontier: strange, harsh, and beautiful-as the emigrants saw it.

index (2)Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark came highly recommended by a friend when he learned that I loved Buck’s Oregon Trail book. This story is simply a good adventure! It features a ship journey with threat of hostile boarding, wicked storms and the political ambition of Jefferson combined with the global trade scheme of Astor. It also features an overland journey with mountain passes, raging rivers, threat of native attack, and near starvation. In the end, the colony did change the trajectory of settlement on the west coast. It paved the way for the Oregon Trail, coming as it did just a few years after the Lewis and Clark expedition.

To travel the Oregon Trail from the comfort of your own home, come on down to the library and check out these wonderful materials! See you there.

My 2015 Summer Reading List

Ahhh summer! Freshly mowed lawns and the sound of sprinklers, grilled corn on the cob and cold slices of juicy watermelon and summer reading. Definitely summer reading. My summer memories are filled with trips to the downtown library, coming home with a stack of hardbacks and afternoons reading.

Most summers I make two reading lists — one for me and one for our grandbabies. I get reading ideas from best seller lists, from what’s on the shelf, and by asking co-workers what they’ve read lately. Quite a few of their suggestions are on my list. Here it is:

index (4)I have currently dropped everything else to read  Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove, former Senior Orca Trainer at SeaWorld. John Hargrove loves killer whales. He was elated after finally realizing his dream to perform with orcas at SeaWorld. Once on staff, however, Hargrove began to realize that all was not right behind the corporation’s shiny, happy facade. I highly recommend this book and the film Blackfish, which tells the story of Tilikum, the notorious performing whale who has taken the lives of several people while in captivity.

index (6)I am listening to David McCullough read his impeccably researched and brilliantly written book, The Wright Brothers. It offers a rare portal into the turn of the century, but more than that it helps us understand ourselves as Americans. To say that focused perseverance is the key to the Wright Brother’s story would be an understatement. David McCullough demonstrates the fortitude of the brothers in the context of the family which made them possible. This book has been highly acclaimed and it lives up to every accolade. Read it!

index (7)The World’s Strongest Librarian is by Josh Hanagarne. He writes about everything: his parents, his doubts about his Mormon faith, his Tourette’s and the problems it causes, and his search to find a meaningful career. And he makes the reader want to keep reading. I’m glad that he described the reasons why he thinks books and reading are important. He also makes an impassioned plea for the future of libraries. For that, I thank him from the bottom of my library-loving heart. But most of all, his is an amazing story. You’ll be glad you read it.

index (8)The Heir Apparent:  A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley is more than a biography of the playboy prince. The whole family gets into the act. Edward was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and she thought he was stupid and lazy. He was pretty much stuck being the heir apparent for 60 years and made up for it by being a notorious gambler, glutton and womanizer. Surprisingly very few scandals had any impact on him and eventually he became very popular with the English people. He also spent a lot of time on the continent and by the time he became king, he was a very adept diplomat. His main worry diplomatically was his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany who was very paranoid and Edward thought war with Germany was inevitable. Having died in 1910 Edward didn’t live to see his fears come to pass. This is an interesting book for lovers of the British monarchy.

index (1)index (2)indexindex (3)That’s a lot of non-fiction! How about a novel for some real summer reading? I have any and all of the works of Kent Haruf on my list thanks to the recommendation of fellow librarian Sarah who says that his writing is simply beautiful. All of his novels are set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado which is loosely based on Yuma, Colorado, an early residence of Haruf in the 1980’s. These books are fabulous as his wonderful writing is reminiscent of Steinbeck. They come highly recommended and should be cherished as the author recently passed away and there won’t be anymore. I want to carry these around all summer if only for the beautiful covers.

indexA Room With A View by E.M. Forster portrays the love of a British woman for an expatriate living in Italy. For Forster, Italy is a country which represents the forces of true passion. Caught up in a world of social snobbery, Forster‘s heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, finds herself constrained by the claustrophobic influence of her British guardians, who encourage her to take up with a well-connected boor. When she regrets that her hotel room has no view, a member of the lower class offers to trade rooms with her.

index (1)And one more! I have to add Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee to this list. This long-awaited sequel will chronicle the adulthood of Scout in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Will this be another courtroom drama? Since it is set in the 1950’s, will it reference the civil rights movement? What’s gonna happen? Will they make it into a movie? We’ll have to wait for the book to be published on July 14th to find out.


And finally, here’s (part of) the pile of books for the grandbabies:

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So, that’s it for my summer reading lists. I hope that you have one and I’d love to know what’s on your list. Have you read any good books lately?

Go the Distance with Audiobooks

Yes Please coverFor those of you who don’t keep up with obscure monthly observances, June happens to be National Audiobook Month. This, in my opinion, is excellent timing. What better month to celebrate a form of reading that allows us to enjoy the best of summer? We can safely read while we run, garden, hike, or embark on long road trips. It should come as no surprise that our library employees are avid consumers of the audiobook in its many forms. In order to help you choose your next ear-read (I’m making that a word), we’ve asked our staff to review some of their favorite audiobooks. Place your holds now!


Harold Fry coverThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel  Joyce (CD and eAudio).  This novel is about a man who is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance. I enjoyed listening to it partly because of the narrator’s British accent but mostly because of the well written and compelling story.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is also by Rachel Joyce (CD) and it is the story told from the perspective of the woman who Harold Fry is walking to visit. It features another charming British accent and there’s a surprise at the end.

Short Nights coverShort Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan (CD and eAudio) is the story of photographer Edward S. Curtis and his passionate project of documenting the remaining Native American tribes in stunning photographs. An incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, Egan’s book tells the remarkable untold story behind Curtis’s iconic photographs. You obviously don’t see the photos while listening to this book, but the images created by this author are still vivid in my memory. I associate it with painting our basement as that’s what I did while ‘reading’ this fabulous story. Now if I could just have a Curtis photograph for my basement walls…

These Few Precious Days by Christopher Andersen (CD) will amaze you with the whole story of Jack and Jackie’s final year together. This book is a glimpse into the twilight days of Camelot.

One Summer coverYes, Please! By Amy Poehler (CD) is simply hilarious and made even better by being read by the author herself. Listen to this one if you need a good laugh, and who doesn’t? (Lisa here – I have to second this choice – it’s fantastic!)

One Summer: America 1927
by Bill Bryson (CD and Playaway) is about just that: America in the summer of 1927. This is a big story about the big personalities of the day: Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, Al Jolson and more. Do yourself a favor and let someone else read it to you! It’s fascinating.


Grapes of Wrath coverThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (CD)
I had always meant to read this and once I had a long commute, I was able to find the time. The book about the plight of American farmers who were forced off their farms by drought and foreclosure during the 1930’s is everything you’d expect. But the narration adds so much to the story. When you finish the audiobook, cue up Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, which the library also owns.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B. J. Novak (CD and eAudio)
Very funny, well worth hearing B. J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Mindy Kaling, and many, many others perform the occasionally brilliant, sometimes underdeveloped, always funny pieces on the audiobook version of this short story collection from a writer of the American version of “The Office.”

Fighting Chance coverA Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren (CD and eAudio)
Elizabeth Warren’s story of her bumpy rise to fame and political power not only sets the stage for (likely) a higher office, but serves to inspire and make her as relatable as she appears in interviews and speeches. Read by the author/politician, Warren has a wonderfully rich voice, elevating the telling nicely.


Born Standing Up coverBorn Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, written and read by Steve Martin (CD). Listening to the long-time writer/producer/actor/musician/comic’s audiobook gave me a jolt of intimacy and pleasure that his book—no matter how well written—could not have delivered on. Born Standing Up had me marveling at not just the words, but his voice: the tone and timbre, and timing, and Martin’s is impeccable. Martin’s memoir about growing up in southern California, working and learning magic at Disneyland, playing banjo in coffeehouses, his unusual, breakthrough comedy routines and becoming hugely popular on Saturday Night Live was a funny, enthralling life story.


I have become an audiobook fanatic since acquiring an MP3 player several years ago. I listen when I’m gardening, walking, cooking (sometimes this is not a good thing), ironing—in other words whenever I’m doing something that doesn’t take a lot of concentration.

I have several favorites. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (CD and Playaway) is one I heard early in my career as a book listener, and it still comes back to haunt me. The reader’s voice was perfect for conveying Didion’s sense of loss and hopelessness as first her husband then her daughter die in the same year.

Bringing Up the Bodies coverI listened to both of Hilary Mantel’s books about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his association with Henry VIII.  Several people had told me that they found it difficult to track who was who when they attempted to read Wolf Hall (CD and eAudio), the first book in what is expected to be a trilogy. Listening to it there was no such difficulty. The right reader is critical to my enjoyment of an audiobook, and Simon Slater was the perfect choice for my ears. But then I also enjoyed hearing Simon Vance read Bring up the Bodies (CD and eAudio), Mantel’s sequel.

Dance with Dragons coverLastly I thoroughly enjoyed all of the George R. R. Martin series, Song of Ice and Fire (CD and eAudio).  I didn’t expect this to be true because I don’t normally read fantasy or science fiction, but I was hearing rave reviews from library patrons, and thought listening to the audio version would be easier than reading all 694 pages of A Game of Thrones. Many hours later—and I mean many hours since each of the books in the series so far run more than 30 hours—I came to the end of the fifth book,  A Dance with Dragons, and all I could think of was when would he finish writing the next book so I could find out what happened!


Misty imageMy all-time favorite audio book has to be Misty of Chincoteague read by Edward Hermann (Playaway). His voice is so great and friendly, making me feel like a grandpa is reading it. I also like that it is a playaway so I can walk around with it. My commute is only 1.5 miles, so a book on disc would take me ages!


I blogged a little while back about some excellent non-fiction audiobooks that I really enjoyed; you can find that post here. More recent favorites include:

The Road coverThe Road by Cormac McCarthy (CD). Imagine the Walking Dead, sans walkers. The world as we know it has been obliterated by an unspecified disaster. Father and son find themselves on a furtive journey to the sea. What they hope to find there is unclear, but it has to be better than where they’ve come from. Doesn’t it? Haunting, anxiety-ridden, but strangely beautiful at times.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (CD). Young love is rough and often prone to failure. What happens if it never truly dies? Love in the Time of Cholera is a fairly humorous and slightly dark look at one man’s 1/2-a-century struggle to overcome his first heartbreak. It may leave you asking: does love ever truly die?

Where Were You? The Eruption of Mount St. Helens

It may be surprising to note that we’ve reached the 35th anniversary of the disastrous eruption of Mount St. Helens. On May 18, 1980, a beautiful Sunday morning was shattered by a 5.1 earthquake near Spirit Lake, starting a chain reaction that resulted in the explosion of the active volcano we have come to fear and respect. As stated on the USDA’s Mount St. Helens website:

The eruption lasted 9 hours, but Mount St. Helens and the surrounding landscape were dramatically changed within moments.

Everything I just told you is fact. And while I’d love to share some facts from my life surrounding this epic event, I was not yet born. Therefore I have pestered my colleagues into sharing their personal stories and memories of this momentous day.


Mount St. Helens had been active for quite a while when I made a trip past it on the way to visit a friend in Washougal, WA. Near Longview, I dropped off a hitchhiker who said he intended to sneak into the red zone set up around the mountain. Two days later, back home in Bellingham on Sunday morning, a noise loud enough to cause waves in my water bed woke me up. My home was near enough to a railroad switching yard that I assumed it was connecting train cars that had jarred me out of sleep. Because I didn’t have a television, and didn’t listen to the radio that morning, it wasn’t until afternoon that I discovered that the noise that shook me out of bed was Mount St. Helens blowing up! I often wondered if that hitchhiker managed to sneak into the red zone and if so, did he make it out alive? After a hike in the North Cascades later in the year was cut short by ash fall, my hiking buddy gave me a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t come to Washington, Washington will come to you. Mount St. Helens.” I had it on my car for years until someone pointed out that the lettering had faded so that all that remained was “Don’t come to Washington.”

When Mount St. Helens erupted, I was in Victoria, B.C. with my high school marching band, getting ready to perform in the Victoria Days parade. I think we didn’t find out about the event until returning home, which was in Des Moines (WA, not IA). There wasn’t much evidence of the explosion in my neighborhood, but the following September I headed to Walla Walla for my first year of college, and ash was still quite prevalent in that area. And to bring things full circle, we put together a very small marching band for our soccer homecoming game, and the other trumpet player (to be silly) wore a surgical mask (which were recommended after the blow up) while marching.

It was a beautiful sunny spring day. My mother and I were in church at Saint Mary Magdalene’s. Because it was such a warm lovely day, the church doors were propped open. Suddenly there was a loud Ka-Boom! We thought it was probably a sonic boom.  When we returned home we discovered that Mount St. Helens had exploded. I don’t know why we didn’t think it was the volcano right away when we heard the explosion. The bulge in the mountain was on the news every night, as well as the many interviews with Harry Truman at Spirit Lake Lodge.

st.helensYou might think the explosion of a volcano would leave a large impression on a young man, but sadly the eruption of Mount St. Helens was just a news headline for me in 1980 as I prepared to enter junior high school in the wilds of Wisconsin. Bouncing around in my self-absorbed pre-adolescent mind were songs like “Cars” by Gary Numen or “Refugee” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with little room left for significant geological and national news events. Oddly though, I do remember a rather dreadful direct-to-cable movie that came out a year or two after the event titled, St. Helens. It was your classic, and cheesy, disaster movie starring Art Carney as Harry Randall Truman, the lodge owner who refused to leave despite ample warning that the mountain was going to blow.

I remember that it was a Sunday and my fiancée (now husband of almost 25 years) and I were headed into an opera at the Seattle Center. It was Wagner, I believe. We saw an ash plume when we emerged. What’s that? It took a while to find out since in those days we didn’t have a mobile phone, of course. We had to go home and wait for the 5 o’clock news to find out that a volcano had erupted.

My memory of that day is similar to thousands of others…I was working in the backyard in my north Everett home, and my 5-month-old baby was napping in the house. Suddenly I heard what I thought was the loudest sonic boom I’d ever heard! (I just knew that’s what it was because I’d grown up in Eastern Washington, where we heard these things all the time.) It rattled the windows and really shook me up. I thought those military planes weren’t supposed to fly that low! Boy, was I stunned over the next few days; every time we turned on the TV we saw more our state being choked with ash – ash that eventually made its way around the world. It was so sad, mostly for cities to the northeast of the mountain, and for mountain resident Harry Truman, who’d been interviewed repeatedly since the mountain started rumbling, and who refused to leave his home.

It was a Sunday, middle of the afternoon and my mother was driving us kids back home to Colfax from Spokane. The sky got really dark, like it was going to storm…and boy did it rain down this silvery white ash like snow. Our car, a little Corvair, choked on all the ash in the air filter and broke down. Luckily, the high school principal was just a few cars back and gave us a ride back to town in his big Suburban. When we got home, we had students from WSU camped out in our living room because they couldn’t get back to school. We ended up with over a foot of ash…we cleared it off the roof and sidewalks with snow shovels. I was in eighth grade at the time and the spring quarter ended then, on that day…Yippee, early summer vacation! The town where I grew up was in the Palouse, famous for our wheat fields and other agricultural products. Everyone was worried what the ash would do to the crops; in the end, it didn’t hurt them, and may have even fertilized them some. I remember we all had to wear these ash masks when we went outside. At first they were afraid that the fallout might hurt us (possible radiation or contamination), but when it didn’t, they let us kids play in the muck just like we played in snow. It was scary at the time but fascinating to watch on television.

The weekend Mount St. Helens erupted my best friend had come up from Longview to visit me in Seattle. She got a phone call from her parents telling her the mountain had erupted and she should come right home before the road was cut off.  All predictions were expecting the I-5 Bridge to go once the massive flow of debris on the Toutle River met the Cowlitz River.  I was immediately frightened for my Grandma; she lived in Kelso just five blocks from the Cowlitz River and her neighborhood was right at river level.  The quick action of evacuation efforts got them out of potential harm’s way.  I had a number of other friends and relatives in that area, and in the path of the heaviest ash fallout; thankfully the only harm suffered was to their vehicles. I had been on an outing to Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake just a few years before. I had a vivid memory of what it looked like before the eruption, making it even more amazing to compare to the devastating images I was seeing on TV.

We were planning to go on a hike to the ice caves. It was before I was married to my now-husband Rob. We also were planning to go with two friends of ours. Rob called and asked if I had heard that Mount St. Helens had blown up (I didn’t have a TV, but it was on the radio). It didn’t seem real at the time. I know that sounds clichéd but at the time it seemed like the news media was exaggerating everything. That couldn’t be really happening, could it? So we decided that it wasn’t a good idea to go hiking that day, but we still went outside anyway—3 of us ended up over at my apartment. They weren’t saying right away that people should stay inside. Later that evening, it seemed, they were warning people to avoid going out in the ash. Anyway, we still went outside to investigate. You could see it in the sky that afternoon and for days afterward you had to go around wiping ash off of every surface. You could see it everywhere.

Almost every summer, my father taught a summer session at UW on volcanoes and we traveled up from Colorado. Part of our summer trip up here was a stay near Mount St. Helens at Spirit Lake. It was a favorite childhood place of mine, and we continued to travel there as a family throughout my college years. I had been following the Mount St. Helens rumblings on TV. We were living in Panama and I was following this on CNN because of my childhood memories of going there. I was fascinated, glued to CNN and very upset whenever the armed forces TV service would cut away to something else. When I found out it blew up I learned it had forever changed Spirit Lake. My mother had said it was the most beautiful, perfect volcano in the world. It was all very, very sad.
Pat B.

I was a young wife and new mother living in the town of Carnation. I had just given birth to our eldest child Carla, born April 20th 1980. The thought that the world was coming to an end crossed my mind fueled by an excess of postpartum hormones. I don’t even think we had TV at the time nor did I need one to see the monumental plume. I was able to step out into our yard and see the ash dust. I would later be given a small vile of the dust that I held onto for years. We hope to visit Mount St. Helens this summer and see how life has returned in the aftermath.

I was only 3 at the time, but my mom said she went outside. We didn’t get a whole ton of ash on the ground at first, but she said it was really dark out. She said it seemed like the beginning of a snowfall, and that it was so freaky to see the sky that way. It was in the middle of a nice day and then the sky just got dark so very suddenly. She was always on the move so she didn’t spend a lot of time watching TV. So it came as a shock to see it happening in the middle of her day. She wasn’t scared, but was confused and wanted to see what was going on.
Jennifer H.

I honestly don’t remember the Mount St. Helens eruption. I just remember that massive tire fire that started a few years later. I went to North Middle and we couldn’t go to school after the tire fire since the ventilation system at the school sucked in all the fumes.

Game Over, Man

I’ve always been a bit of a history geek. Well, okay, pretty much a full-blown history geek. My second major in college was history, not because I planned it that way, but because almost all the elective courses I took for fun were in the History department. Come my senior year, I found that all those credits actually added up to a second degree. Lest you think I was a practical youth, my ‘major’ major netted me an equally bankable English degree. Hey, at least it wasn’t in philosophy or basket weaving…

While I will give almost any history book a try, one of my favorite types features the ‘they’re all doomed’ scenario. These are the stories of expeditions, explorers, military campaigners, or just ordinary citizens who come face to face with imminent destruction. The historical reason for their demise varies, but there are often few, or no, survivors. While gruesome, this sense of doom adds a layer of mystery to the historical tale. The fewer witnesses, the harder it is to piece together just what happened and historians are forced to speculate. Listed below are a few historical events worth revisiting to find historians’ new takes on ill-fated individuals.

Trouble on the Bay of Naples

frompompeiiMy interest in the fate of the ancient city of Pompeii was recently reignited (ha-ha!) by an exhibit at the Pacific Science Center titled Pompeii: The Exhibition. What actually destroyed Pompeii is hardly a mystery; the smoldering nearby Mt. Vesuvius and lots and lots of ash provide the obvious answer. What is intriguing is trying to piece together how the people of Pompeii lived and died by sifting through the ample evidence. There are many great books that try to do just that and the library has a great collection of them. Recently, though, I came across a title that has jumped to the top of my ‘must read’ list: From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town.  This book is a history of the archeological site after its discovery and the way it has influenced visitors for centuries. A varied number of interesting people were influenced by the site including Mozart, Dickens, Twain, Renoir, Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.

A Bad, or Good Depending on Your Perspective, Day at the Little Bighorn

laststandAs with Pompeii, the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry by a combined force of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho nations in June of 1876 has a long paper trail with many books written about the event.  What exactly happened to Custer and the troops he personally lead on that day (other than the obvious: they died) is a source of endless speculation. Having been influenced early on by Evan Connell’s book Son of the Morning Star and the film Little Big Man I must admit that I have a rather dim view of Custer, but that doesn’t stop my curiosity for trying to find out the particulars of his fate. While not the newest, the last book I read on the topic was The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick. The work does cover the final battle in gripping detail, but it is far from a simple military history. Instead, Philbrick, fleshes out the characters and careers of all the participants. This gives the events much more significance and breathes new life into a tale that has been told many times.

The Frozen North (or South)

inthekingdomoficeWhile being a fan of all doomed exploratory expeditions (yeah I’m weird) I’ve always been particularly fond of attempts made in frozen conditions. In addition to the bleak landscape and the incredible endurance of the explorers to admire, there is an absurdity to these expeditions that I find irresistible. Risking your life to find an arbitrary concept like a pole or the Northwest Passage is pretty amazing/borderline insane when you think about it. Whether you go north or south there are plenty of books about these ice encrusted missions here at the library. A recent standout for me was In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette by Hampton Sides. This book is the story of an 1879 expedition to reach the North Pole led by U.S. naval officer George DeLong. Based on a faulty assumption, the odd notion that there was an open ocean surrounding the North Pole, the expedition quickly got locked into the pack ice. As you can imagine, things didn’t go well from there. The author creates a gripping narrative full of struggle and sacrifice with a predictably dire outcome for many of the participants.

So, if there is a little history geek in you as well, check out a few of these historical stories of the doomed. Now all I need to make my life complete is a film version of The Last Stand staring Bill Paxton.

I Didn’t Expect the Spanish Inquisition!

In one of the greatest Monty Python skits, Cardinal Ximinez of Spain pontificates, “Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms…”

Perhaps this bit of comedy has influenced my books-to-read list. I find myself thinking, “Amongst my reading objectives are forays into such diverse categories as non-fiction and YA, ruthless non-stop reading, an almost fanatical devotion to new books, and snazzy high tops…”

And then I forget everything and read another Perry Mason novel.

Dave BarryBut slowly I am expanding my choice of reading materials. After compiling a list of non-fiction titles I would like to attack, I promptly ignored it and read Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster): Life Lessons and Other Ravings from Dave Barry. By Dave Barry. As I ponder the world of non-fiction, it seems odd that humor is classified as part of it. One can certainly write a true story in a humorous style, but conversely, humor can just be made up stuff. This sometimes bothers me at night, interrupting much-needed sleep, but Dave Barry is funny and seldom bothers me (since the restraining order). And sure, there’s not much new under the sun in his approach to writing, but each of his books makes me laugh out loud, which is no mean feat. This collection of essays, ranging from teenage insecurities that never go away to the stupidity of refrigerating mustard and ketchup, kept me figuratively on the edge of my seat rolling on the floor with laughter, and then signaling for help up off the floor.

TinseltownTinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
I don’t seek out true crime unless it is exceedingly well-written (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote), educational and fascinating (Breaking Blue by Timothy Egan), or both. I chose to read Tinseltown because I’m starry-eyed about early Hollywood, a time when southern California was still a bit rural, when the status of movie stars and the content of movies were being defined. Here we find the true story of the murder of William Desmond Taylor, president of the Motion Pictures Directors Association. Not a household name in this day and age, nor perhaps during his lifetime, but an important person in Hollywood none the less. This tale is as vivid as any well-penned novel, bringing century-old events to life. We learn a tremendous amount of history, of the growth of the film industry, the control that studios exerted over theatres, and the extreme power wielded by Adolph Zukor. And, somewhat surprisingly to me, of the drug and sex-crazed lifestyles of many of the early movie stars, which of course brought backlash from conservative religious groups. Be warned, this crime remains unsolved. I was looking forward to a nice wrap up with the detective in charge solving the crime some 30 years later, but it was not to be. The author does offer a solution, and it is plausible, but it is still guesswork rather than closure. However, that aside, this is one of the most entertaining, educational and enjoyable non-fiction books I’ve ever read!

AtlantisMeet Me in Atlantis: My Quest to Find the 2,500-Year-Old Sunken City by Mark Adams surfaced next on my random unplanned reading list. I have no particular interest in Atlantis, but this book seemed to be about the people who are interested in Atlantis. Now that I’m nearly finished I find that it’s also about theories, possible locations of Atlantis, and whether or not it was a real place. Amazingly, the only ancient reference to Atlantis was an extensive one made by Plato in two of his later works. As a kid watching cartoons, fictional shows and even documentaries, I thought that Atlantis was a widely documented lost continent, even though its authenticity was in doubt. Now I find out it was mentioned by one person in all of antiquity! Adams interviews philosophers, scientists, and Atlantis enthusiasts in an attempt to find out what’s the hubbub, bub? The author seems to vacillate in what he believes as he encounters one plausible theory after another.

After a year trapped in fiction I am excited to re-encounter the world of reality. The breadth of topics is astounding, and if one can find a good writer, learning becomes fun. I’ll be posting more new non-fiction reads as I continue my quest, so stay tuned!

Erik Larson’s New Book

I’ll read anything by certain non-fiction writers. Timothy Egan has gotten me to read about the dust bowl era in The Worst Hard Time and forest fires in The Big Burn. Susan Orlean has fascinated me with orchids in The Orchid Thief and a German Shepherd dog in Rin Tin Tin. It’s not really the subject, but the writing that captivates.

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And hey, you guys, the writing of Seattle author Erik Larson really captivates! I have a hold on his newest book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania and haven’t read it yet but couldn’t wait to share it with you. When a new Erik Larson book arrives, I drop everything and read it. In my opinion, he’s one of the few authors who can make history positively come alive. And his opening note held forth a big promise: “I give you now the saga of the Lusitania and the myriad forces, large and achingly small, that converged one lovely day in May 1915 to produce a tragedy of monumental scale, whose true character and import have long been obscured in the mists of history.”

The book is filled with questions worth asking: why did the Admiralty not provide an escort to the Lusitania, given that the ship carried nearly 2,000 passengers and a vital cargo of ammunition and artillery shells? Why did British intelligence obsessively protect the HMS Orion and provide no protection to the Lusitania? Why did they not divert the Lusitania to the newer and safer North Channel route? And most of all, “why was the ship left on its own, with a proven killer of men and ships dead ahead in its path?” Did the British deliberately set up the Lusitania to force America’s hand to enter the war? Read Dead Wake and find out!

index (2)If you’re stuck in the hold queue for Dead Wake, why not try one of Larson’s earlier books? The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America reads like a murder mystery, full of suspense, creepy characters and scary settings. It tells the dual tales of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (mostly through the eyes of lead architect Daniel Burnham), along with the sordid tale of H.H. Holmes, one of the first-ever modern serial killers. Holmes built a block-long hotel across the street from the fair which turned out in reality to be a massive multi-floor torture chamber, including secret passageways, dissection tables, and a body-sized gas oven in the basement. He used this location to kill up to perhaps as many as 200 young good-looking single women before he was finally caught. It’s an utterly fascinating, well-done and easily readable book that deserves its reputation and awards.

index (3)In Thunderstruck Larson again weaves a fascinating story of two men, an inventor named Guglielmo Marconi (who raced other inventors and scientists to be the first to find a way to transmit signals wirelessly) and a doctor and murderer named Hawley Harvey Crippen who married an overbearing gold digger in England and then met his true love. Parts of Crippen’s wife’s body were found buried in his basement and he fled with his mistress by boat to Canada. He was captured due to a trans-Atlantic wireless transmission and was tried and hanged in England. The key connector between these two men comes from the critical use of Marconi’s technology in the pursuit of our murderer on the lam.

index (4)In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin tells the story of Hitler’s consolidation of power in his first year as chancellor of Germany. William E. Dodd was the seventh or eighth choice of candidates FDR proposed for the post of US ambassador to Berlin in 1933. Dodd, in his 64 years, had been a professor of history at the University of Chicago and amateur farmer, and was known for his impeachable integrity and forthrightness, traits that would distance him from the courts of diplomacy. Daughter Martha was 24 years old and estranged from her banker husband. Initially seduced by the resurgence of Germany’s vitality and intellectual and political pursuits, Martha was involved with Rudolph Diels, the first commander of the Gestapo and other Nazi officials who even tried to fix her up with Hitler. Drawing on the diaries of father and daughter, Larson creates what it was like to live in Berlin: to shop, lunch, attend galas and absorb news of Hitler’s maniacal hatred for the Jews and his terrorizing of all who questioned his absolute power.

Larson’s body of work makes for fascinating reading, so don’t hesitate to check out these great books for yourself.