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.

index (1)

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.

Spies Like Them

It’s a new year, time for a clean start and all of that. 2014 was my year of the hard-boiled detective. And so I wonder what 2015 will bring.

One book I’m currently reading is The Saint and The Fiction Makers by Leslie Charteris. The Saint is a spy, sort of in the mold of James Bond, excepting that he predates Bond by some decades, which would actually make Bond a spy in the mold of The Saint. At any rate, Charteris introduced Simon Templar, also known as The Saint, in 1928 and thereafter wrote a series of books featuring his indestructible hero. In the 1960s a TV show based on the character (starring a soon-to-be-Bond Roger Moore) ran, and a variety of authors novelized some of the teleplays. Altogether there are nearly 100 books featuring this dynamic savior of the free world.

The Saint and The Fiction Makers is difficult to describe without giving a bit of the surprise away. It begins as a typical spy story: Super-villain attempting to kill Heroic Spy with ingenious killing devices, Spy narrowly escaping attempt after attempt, Scantily-Clad-Woman adding sex appeal. As events continue to unfold we discover that Simon Templar is actually watching this spy movie, seated next to the actress who was somewhat clothed in the movie. Thus begins a post-modern romp through the spy genre.

Further into the story, a crazy man takes on the persona of the movie’s super-villain and re-creates his hideout and gadgetry in exquisite detail. Then, thinking that Templar is the author who created this fictional genius, he kidnaps The Saint and his “assistant”, the woman who is the real author. What a convoluted and fantastical plot!

While EPL does not (yet) boast any of The Saint catalogue, we do provide ample opportunities to enter the undercover secret world of spies.

39 StepsThe 39 Steps by John Buchan
This book is an early spy story, written in 1915 and centered on The Great War. An “ordinary” person is caught up in an effort to thwart a plot against the British war machine. Alfred Hitchcock made a classic movie based on this book in 1935.

 

North by NorthwestNorth by Northwest
Speaking of Hitchcock and unwitting heroes, in North by Northwest, one of my favorite movies, Cary Grant becomes a pawn of uncaring government spies who sacrifice him in order to bring their plans to fruition. Oh, and there’s a beautiful woman and people climbing Mt. Rushmore’s presidential faces, as well as human crop dusting, so all bases are covered.

Secret AdversawryThe Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
Tommy and Tuppence, two of Christie’s lesser known heroes, first see the light of day in The Secret Adversary (written in 1922), where the pair accidentally become entangled with post-WWI spies who are still looking to rearrange the European balance of power. In their second book, Partners in Crime, our heroes have married and now run a detective agency. So they see both sides of the coin, spy and detective.

George WashingtonGeorge Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade
One topic that has intrigued me since hearing about it in a documentary is the spy ring that George Washington put together during the Revolutionary War. Now I gotta say, when we learned history in high school they left out the good parts like this tidbit. I would’ve been all over a spy ring! These spies were very important to the war effort, and this book is firmly planted on my to-read shelf.

Harriet the SpyHarriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Finally, so as not to leave out the kids, we have Harriet. She is perhaps a different kind of spy, not in the overthrowing nations mold, but rather in spying on her friends and writing down what she observes. Here’s a lesson kids, which is a good one in this day and age of computers, cell phones and abacuses: Don’t write down stuff you don’t want other people to see. Harriet’s notebook falls into the wrong hands and her friends read what she has written about them. It’s then up to Harriet to repair the damage and rebuild her friendships.

Will it be a year of spies? I hate to speculate, but I think I can safely say they will at the very least turn up in my reading every now and again. Perhaps one is sitting next to me at this very moment, looking through the eyeholes cut in that newspaper, poisonous lipstick, bedazzling pouty lips, a sultry dress encasing curves in just the right places … Yes, a year of spies.

Year-end Roundup 2014

Meatloaf sandwich, fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Mmmmm. Comfort food. As I look back at 2014, I realize that I indulge in comfort books. So many books I want to read but dang it, Perry Mason is so entertaining. And comforting.

And so I overindulge in Mr. Mason.

I decided to do something at the end of this year that I’ve not done before, to list every book that I read over the past 12 months and to analyze my reading trends for the year. So prepare for the post that was one year in the making: Year-End Roundup 2014!

Mysteries, mysteries, mysteries
I read many mysteries. Surprisingly many. Almost exclusively.

Serious Series
Most books I read were part of larger series.

Ring in the old
Typically I try to read recently-written stuff, but this year found many pre-1960 books on my virtual nightstand.

May I have pulp with that?
I’ve long enjoyed pulp fiction, but this year I discovered heroes of old that I’d not heard of before.

Here are some of the titles I enjoyed.

Perry MasonPerry, Perry, Perry
The Case of the
Velvet Claws (1933) (#1), Sulky Girl (1933) (#2), Curious Bride (1935) (#5), Caretakers Cat (1935) (#7), Half-Wakened Wife (1945) (#27), Vagabond Virgin (1948) (#32), Cautious Coquette (1949) (#34), Fiery Fingers (1951) (#37), Moth-Eaten Mink (1952) (#39), Fugitive Nurse (1954) (#43), Long-Legged Models (1958) (#56) all by Erle Stanley Gardner

As an interesting side note, I’ve enjoyed all the Mason books tremendously except for The Case of the Fugitive Nurse. It is very poorly written, not at all the quality of the others. This leads me to wonder if Gardner farmed it out to a hack writer.

Spicy MysteryI’d like some pulp with that
These titles were previously obscure but are now being reissued as ebooks, mostly not available at the EPL yet, but we can hope…

Fast One (1933) by Paul Cain
Junkie (1952) by Jonathan Craig
Super-Detective Jim Anthony: Dealer in Death (1941) by Victor Rousseau
The Quick Red Fox (1964), and The Scarlet Ruse (1973) by John D. MacDonald
The Uncomplaining Corpses (1940) by Brett Halliday
The Dream Girl (The Hilarious Adventures of Toffee #1) (late 1940s) by Charles F. Myers
The Best of Spicy Mystery Vol. 1 (1930s) edited by Alfred Jan
Satan’s Daughter (1936) by E. Hoffman Price

Black CountryVarious mysteries
Love them mysteries. All of the titles listed are part of a series. My great author discovery of the year was Alex Grecian. Check out his books about the birth of Scotland Yard.

The Secret Adversary (1922) by Agatha Christie
Antiques Roadkill (2007), Antiques Slay Ride (2013) and Antiques Con (2014) by Barbara Allan
The Yard (2012) and The Black Country (2013) by Alex Grecian
Murder with Peacocks (1999) by Donna Andrews
The Spellman Files (2007) by Lisa Lutz
The White Magic Five and Dime (2014) by Steve Hockensmith
The Invisible Code (2013) by Christopher Fowler

One SummerNon-fiction
I’m never a big non-fiction reader, but this year was exceedingly sparse. However, One Summer was one of the best books I read this year, focusing on a few months in 1927, the important events that occurred during those months, and showing how seemingly unrelated happenings influenced each other.

American Pickers Guide to Picking (2011) by Libby Callaway
One Summer: America 1927 (2013) by Bill Bryson

RogueYA
It was a slow year for me in the YA category as well, but I predict a comeback in 2015. And Rogue was a highly satisfying conclusion to Damico’s trilogy on grim reapers.

Rogue (2013) by Gina Damico
Waistcoats and Weaponry (2014) by Gail Carriger

Garden on SunsetOther Stuff
Not too much read outside of the mystery/pulp genre this year, but The Garden on Sunset, a presumably self-published ebook, was one of my favorites. While the writing is not absolutely top-notch, the subject matter of regular folk living in early Hollywood and rubbing noses with stars of the golden age is intriguing.

Shada: The Lost Adventures of Douglas Adams (2012) by Gareth Roberts
Bombshell (2012) by Max Alan Collins
The Garden on Sunset (Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels Book 1) (2014) by Martin Turnbull

And there you have it, my reading year in a nutshell. Help! I’m in a nutshell! How did I get into this nutshell? Look at the size of this bloody great big nutshell! What sort of shell has a nut like this? This is crazy!

Heartwood Favorites – 14 from ’14

Below you’ll find the list of books published this year that I most enjoyed.

Heartwood readers know that my main reading interest is older international literary fiction, but I also read new releases, as well as some non-fiction and poetry. Additionally, the old and the new come together when foreign books that were published years ago finally get their first (or a new) English translation.

What I most admire about the books below is what makes them so difficult to write about – their dexterous and creative way with words; their narrative idiosyncrasies, interiority, and perspicacity; the frequent interweaving of other cultural material (especially literature and art); a sense of place uniquely realized and expressed. These books offer fascinating, richly satisfying pleasures to the reader, but consternation to the list-maker who wishes to convey the essence of these reading experiences.

So rather than write my own capsule summaries, I’m simply listing the titles. But you can read summaries or brief reviews in the library catalog by clicking on the titles. For most of the books I’ve also linked to longer reviews from a variety of sources, and for two of them I’ve linked to reviews I did manage to write earlier this year.

I liked most everything I read that was published this year – a rare and happy situation –but these were the cream of the crop. If you like good writing I think you’ll find something here to enjoy.

Fiction

BridgeBridge
by Robert Thomas
BOA Editions   156 pgs.
read more: Bookslut, Kirkus, author website

 


Hotel AndromedaHotel Andromeda
by Gabriel Josipovici
Carcanet   139 pgs.
Heartwood review

 

 

HarlequinsHarlequin’s Millions   (orig. pub. 1981)
by Bohumil Hrabal
trans. Stacey Knecht
Archipelago Books   312 pgs.
read more: Tweed’s, WaPo, Words without Borders
see also: Heartwood on Hrabal’s I Served the King of England

Pushkin HillsPushkin Hills   (orig. pub. 1983)
by Sergei Dovlatov
trans. Katherine Dovlatov
Counterpoint Press   161 pgs.
Heartwood review

 

ProfessorThe Professor and the Siren   (orig. pub. 1986)
by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
trans. Stephen Twilley
New York Review Books   69 pgs.
read more: Complete ReviewParis Review
see also: Heartwood review of Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard

ConversationsConversations   (orig. pub. 2007)
by César Aira
trans. Katherine Silver
New Directions   88 pgs.
read more: Three Percent, Entropy, Public Books

 

Unnecessary WomanAn Unnecessary Woman
by Rabih Alameddine
Grove Press   291 pgs.
read more: LA TimesBoston Globe, WaPo, SFGate 

 

 

Unclassifiable Comic Book / Fiction / Non-Fiction Hybrid

FantomasFantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires   (orig. pub. 1975)
by Julio Cortázar
trans. David Kurnick
Semiotext(e)   87 pgs.
read more: Complete Review, MIT Press, Three Percent
see also: Heartwood review of Cortázar’s Hopscotch

 

Non-Fiction

Place in the CountryA Place in the Country: On Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Robert Walser, and Others   (orig. pub. 1998)
by W.G. Sebald
trans. Jo Catling
Random House   208 pgs.
read more: NY Times, The Spectator, LA Review of Books, Slate             

Collection of SandCollection of Sand   (orig. pub. 1984)
by Italo Calvino
trans. Martin McLaughlin
Mariner Books   209 pgs.
read more: The Guardian, The Independent, Bookanista 

 

SidewalksSidewalks
by Valeria Luiselli
trans. Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press   110 pgs.
read more: Asymptote, LA Review of Books, Music & Literature

 

Geek SublimeGeek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
by Vikram Chandra
Graywolf Press   236 pgs.
read more: NY Times, New Republic, Complete Review

 

 

Poetry

CaribouCaribou
by Charles Wright
Farrar, Strauss, Giroux   82 pgs.
read more: World Literature Today, NPR, TweetSpeak

 

 

Moon Before MorningThe Moon Before Morning
by W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press   121 pgs.
read more: The Rumpus, Poets@Work, The Wichita Eagle

 

 

Heartwood | About Heartwood

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Warmth of Other Suns coverThe other day I was walking out with an armload of books on CD, and Richard our audio book selector got all excited because he thought I was getting non-fiction (something he’d like to see checked out more). Shamefacedly I had to admit that it was all fiction, and that I had been slacking a bit on listening to anything factual. His enthusiasm for promoting our non-fiction audio books inspired me to put some of my selections back and browse the other shelves.

I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, but for some reason this passion hasn’t translated well to audio books. I have a long commute and like to pass the time listening to stories. I’ve found them to be easier to listen to in the little 35 minute drives I have to do throughout the week because I don’t have to pay too close attention to make sure I’m not missing any important points. It’s also easier to pick up where I left off if I haven’t listened in a while because we’ve been using the other car; often with non-fiction audio books I have to rewind a bit to refresh my memory. The only things that combat these issues for me when listening to non-fiction books is to find ones that are written in a very narrative style and have great readers.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of non-fiction audio books that I’ve listened to recently that have kept me enthralled from start to finish.

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (read by Robin Miles). I guess if you need a place to start, choosing a Pulitzer Prize winning book generally isn’t a bad idea. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration by tracing the paths of four African-Americans who migrated north and west to escape the Jim Crow world of the South. Because the author interviewed all four individuals, the book is rich with dialogue and personal stories. Miles does an excellent job of reading Wilkerson’s work, making each individual’s personality shine through, and adding appropriate emphasis and emotion to some of the more difficult passages.

Mushroom Hunters coverThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook (read by Kevin R. Free). Foodie, traveler, hiker, lover of the Pacific Northwest – no matter what you consider yourself to be, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this title. Mushroom Hunters reads like investigative journalism mixed with Food Network programming (in the best way possible). Cook tells the story of his quest to learn about the secret not-always-legal world of commercial mushroom harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. I really enjoyed driving back and forth on Highway 2 as Free described the kinds of lush rainy mountains that surrounded me, and all the secret things that may be happening in them.

Detroit cover imageDetroit: an American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (read by Eric Martin). This is a book that I would have loved even if Mickey Mouse was reading it, but Eric Martin’s narration took it from good to perfection for me.  Martin’s gravelly no-nonsense delivery perfectly matches the tone of LeDuff’s vignettes of the rough, hard-working, beautiful, disturbing, hopeful, and troubled City of Detroit. This book isn’t another work of ruin porn aimed at exploiting what befell Detroit after the decline of its industrial might. It’s the honest collected experiences of a journalist who has spent his entire career covering every side of a city that seems to be almost universally hated and feared by the rest of America. No predictions are made about the future. No excuses are made for the past. It’s just the facts as he saw them happen, and it’s dark, light, and magnificent.

Naked coverNaked, by David Sedaris (read by the author and his sister, comedian/actress Amy Sedaris). Ending on a lighter note, I just have to say I’m a sucker for David Sedaris in any format, but I think experiencing his writing performed by himself is always the best. Whether it be appearances on This American Life, or full-length readings of one of his many titles, you’d be hard-pressed to not be entertained. Well, at least you would be if you and I share a similar sense of humor. In Naked, Sedaris tells stories about his upbringing; considering that his family spawned two comedians, you know things had to be unorthodox.  Even though he may be describing something completely ridiculous, his sense of humor remains dry and ironic. This tone is amplified when you hear him perform his work. His readings are so well-timed and pitch perfect that it’s almost impossible to later read something of his without hearing his voice in your head.

I hope some of these recommendations inspire you to treat yourself to some of the many excellent non-fiction audio titles we have in our collections. I know I’ll continue exploring!

A History of Things

Historical nonfiction comes in all shapes and sizes. There is the grand sweeping kind that tries to tell the story of a whole era or a monumental event. Then there are the social histories that see history from the perspective of a particular class or group of people. Another popular type is the historical biography that illustrates the life of an important individual. I’m an indiscriminate lover of all these varieties but I must admit I hold a special place in my heart for a historical work that zeros in on a specific object and tells its story through time. In addition to having a pleasingly quirky and often obsessive focus, these books also provide the service of telling history from a different perspective. At their best, they can help us to rethink assumptions about what is truly important and give us the rare gift of learning something new.  Here at the library, we have many of these histories of things. Listed below are a few of the standouts.

Concrete Planet by Robert Courland
concreteplanetWe take it for granted every day. The house you live in, the sidewalk you walk on, the countless bits of infrastructure that make civilization possible: they all rely on concrete. But where did it come from? Courland guides the reader through the fascinating tale of a substance that was created long ago, but only recently rediscovered after centuries of being lost. In addition to many interesting facts, the author also reveals a few disturbing ones. Chief among them is the fact that the concrete of today is not as strong as that of our ancestors despite many modern manufacturers’ claims. It turns out that those Roman ‘ruins’ have a much longer shelf life than a modern office building.

Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt
airstreamThis book is many things. It is a biography of Wally Byam the inventor of the Airstream. It is a cultural history of the Airstream, documenting its effect on the idea of recreation in America. Interestingly, it is also a history of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Airstream caravan. All of these parts are skillfully told with a dazzling array of archival images that make this book quite beautiful. If you want to learn more about the trend of mobile living in America definitely take a look at Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America by Roger White for a wider angle view of this phenomenon.

cellphoneThe Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World by Guy Klemens
It is now a cliché to have a film demonstrate to the audience that it is ‘from the 80s’ by having a character whip out a cellphone the size of a loaf of bread. But this book goes way beyond that image to tell the history of the cellphone, which actually dates back to the 1940s. While a fun book, this title is definitely heavy on the technology of the cellphone with detailed discussions of concepts such as bandwidth and analog vs. digital so don’t feel guilty about skimming a chapter or two.

Digital Retrodigitalretro by Gordon Laing
This book tells the story of the formative years of the personal computer, 1975-1988, through the machines themselves. Each model is lovingly documented, photographed and provided with a detailed backstory. This was a frenetic period for the personal computer, with big corporations going head to head with eccentric professors, amateur inventors and kids working out of their garages. Definitely check this book out and visit the thrilling days of yesteryear when we were bowled over by the fact that the Commodore 64 had 64KB of RAM and BASIC was considered the programming language of the future.

theyugoThe Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic
You tend to think of history as a record of the ‘winners’ but as this book points out, epic failure can be instructive as well. Hailing from the former Yugoslavia, and riding a very brief wave of popularity in the mid1980s primarily due to a price tag under $4000, the Yugo turned out to be one of the most flawed cars ever built. The tale of how it even got to the commercial market in the first place, with the help of an overeager U.S. State Department and a Detroit auto industry reluctant to build cheap subcompact cars, is fascinating and instructive stuff.

jetpackdreamsJetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon
This is the story of one man’s quest to answer the burning, to some, question: Why can’t we all have our own working Jetpack? Popular culture, think Buck Rogers or Boba Fett, has been promising us one for a long time now. It turns out that prototypes were actually developed in the 1960s but funding quickly dried up so the Jetpack is now the province of a dedicated band of aficionados. The author travels the country to seek out these dedicated few to see if any of us will be able to commute to work via Jetpack in our lifetimes.

So if you are planning a foray into historical nonfiction, why not avoid the big picture and focus on the small stuff? The Devil is in the details after all.