History

"...a song that was a hit before your Mother was born."

Image 2011 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Robert Johnson. He has been called the "King of the Delta Blues Singers". Legend has it that he sold his soul to the Devil. It has been said that he faced away from his audience when he played certain licks on his guitar so that no one could copy his style. People claim that he died as a result of being poisoned by a jealous husband. but what of his music and its legacy?

The Paris Wife

To be an American during the 1920s in Paris? What could be more trendy and romantic? Especially, if you've just married the dashing young fiction writer, Ernest Hemingway. This absorbing novel introduces you to all the famous ex-pat writers of the time period: everyone from Gertrude Stein ("a rose is a rose is a rose") to Scott Fitzgerald with the wild Zelda on his arms to Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos.

But it's not primarily a biographical novel about Papa Hemingway; it's more the story of a marriage between two smart, witty people who each possess an incredible zest for life and adventure.

Fiction! Fiction! Fiction!

I admit to being a streaky reader and will often go through several books on the same subject over the course of a month or so. While not as exotic as reading books about bananas (What? Not exotic either? Well you get the point), I have lately been reading some excellent literary fiction.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
I have read some critiques of this book that there are plot holes and lapses of logic. Upon reflection, I would have to agree with this, however it in no way changes my reading experience. I loved this book and was completely emotionally invested in the characters and outcome of this story. I both devoured the last pages, and didn't want the book to end.

Queen of the Falls

In a couple weeks, I get to visit the Adirondack region of New York State. (Can't wait!) On the way, we plan to stop at Niagara Falls. When I get there, I'll be thinking of a woman named Annie Edson Taylor, who in 1901, on her 63rd birthday, dared to cram herself into a wooden barrel and go over Niagara Falls! I had never heard of Taylor, but author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg brings her back to life in Queen of the Falls, the fascinating tale of a determined ex-teacher who wanted to make her mark on the world. Watch Van Allsburg talk about how he created this carefully crafted book . Recommended for grades 1 and up.

Gone With the Wind turns 75

I ran across an article this morning that mentioned that Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind turns 75 this month. In June of 1936, Mitchell published this now classic saga while recovering from a broken ankle. It was an instant hit, and brought immediate fame to the Atlanta journalist.

What is it about? Well....er...I haven't actually read it. "I'll never go hungry again!", right? But I only know that from the movie. It is high time to put this book on my to-read list.

Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State

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This six part documentary produced by the BBC looks not only at the horrors that took place in Auschwitz; but at the developments, both political and technological that resulted in what many consider the worst of all the Nazi internment camps -- Auschwitz, along with its immediate aftereffects. I can't say that this documentary was a pleasure to watch but it was educational, important, and horrific.

The Book of the Maidservant

Do you think you've had bad luck being squeezed between two obnoxious air travelers? Imagine what it was like in the 15th century to be forced to take a religious pilgrimage to Rome with your boss (a fervent woman who screams her prayers out loud) and a fierce man from your English town who threatens you daily. Plus, after an arduous day climbing mountains and fording dangerous rivers, the other pilgrims demand that you cook their evening meal (dried peas, anyone, or how do you skin a rabbit?) Afterwards when the pious folk are resting by the fire, they send you out to do their washing in the nearest frigid stream.

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Amelia Earhart and her doomed final flight, but this well-researched account, Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming, is both surprising and fascinating!  Starting with a haunting account of the coast guard cutter Itasca's fruitless wait for Earhart to land on tiny Howland Island the morning of July 2, 1937, this book is hard to put down.  Earhart's early childhood was a happy one, but by the time she was in high school, her father had descended into alcoholism, sending the family into poverty and shame.  Fleming implies that Earhart's desperate wish to fly was at least partly a result of a need to free herself from the unpleasant realities of everyday life.

Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys

I am deep in the middle of Adam Hochschild's new book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 about the anti-war movement before and during World War I (and is thus far excellent). And I recently slogged through British historian Antony Beevor's 500+ page D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, which was a bit too detailed, but very fair in representing Allied incompetence and portrayed some of the major players, including Montgomery, Eisenhower and Patton in a new light for me. Can you tell I was a history major? Standing out so far in this recent WWI/WWII kick was Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys: An American Woman in WWII by Indiana University history professor, James H. Madison.

Cleopatra: A Life

Forget what you know about Cleopatra - she was neither Egyptian, nor did she commit suicide with a live snake (though it remains a tenaciously romantic symbol) - and discover a much more complicated and interesting person. She was not the beauty as Elizabeth Taylor would make us believe, but was able to charm two of the most powerful men in history, and was lucky enough to bear sons by both. Stacy Schiff argues in this new remarkably readable biography, Cleopatra: A Life, that her death marked the end of an empire, the end of a dynasty and the end of ancient history.

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