Reading Roundup #15
Here’s a look at some of the books I’ve read over the past couple of months. My reading tastes are eclectic but I mainly enjoy historical fiction and non-fiction, and the occasional gripping novel.
The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush
As I mentioned in a post from last year, after my cruise to Alaska, and specifically visiting Canada’s majestic Yukon Territory, I had immense interest in reading Howard Blum’s work, The Floor of Heaven. I think when most people, (and by people I’m mainly referring to Americans) , hear the name “Gold Rush” they immediately think of the California Gold Rush which lasted from 1848 until 1855, was more hype than reality, and brought hundreds of thousands of people to California in search of their fortunes. And yet there was another gold rush, one that occurred half a century later and took place much farther north and in another country, Canada’s Yukon Territory. Blum’s narrative tells of both the Yukon Gold Rush and what life was like on the Last Frontier (i.e. a lawless entity) through three real life persons-a Pinkerton hero, a hustler/criminal, and a man who was one of the few who did find his fortune in the gold fields. The parts that took place in Skagway, Alaska (one of the ports I visited on my cruise), were probably my favorites since I had literally just been there and so much of “downtown” Skagway still looked the same. Like several other historical nonfiction books I’ve read (In the Garden of Beasts and In the Kingdom of Ice), Blum’s work read like a fast paced novel. I can’t recommend this enough for anyone who enjoys reading about the Wild West.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Normally I’m not into “true crime” books but since this was historical true crime, I made an exception. That, and of course because David Grann’s latest work was getting exceptional buzz last spring when it was released. I’m ashamed to admit I had never heard of the Osage murders, when dozens of the Osage Native American tribe were killed in cold blood in Oklahoma during the 1920s. The murders were all tied to the fact that these Osage were not only wealthy due to their land which was producing valuable oil, but who also had headrights (a legal grant of land to settlers) that earned lucrative annual royalties. If you’re wondering how the birth of the FBI fits into all of this, well, the number of murders of the Osage was only increasing and local law enforcement in Oklahoma was either complicit with the murders and the potential suspects or flat out indifferent to justice being served. Hence, the FBI became involved and this became one of its first high profile cases. The latter half of the book focuses on the back story of the FBI lawman who ended up heading the investigation. It was interesting and anytime I learn something new is a positive thing, but I definitely enjoyed the Osage murders part the most. These murders demonstrate one of many instances where the American legal system horrifically failed the Osage Indians, the people it was entrusted with protecting.
For whatever reason, Adriana Trigiani’s works have never really interested me, but when I saw that Kiss Carlo was set in my hometown of Philadelphia, I was intrigued. So I ended up getting it for my commute to work. (I find I do better listening to fiction during my drive and then reading non-fiction in physical book format.) Kiss Carlo takes place in post-World War II South Philadelphia and centers around the Palazzini family, specifically the orphaned cousin of the clan, Nicky Castone, and his decision to stop doing what he had always done, breaking off his engagement to his fiance, and quitting his day job to take up acting, a secret passion he had always harbored. Trigiani really is a master storyteller as the tale of the Palazzini family is told against the backdrop of various Shakespeare comedies. I often read books set during World War II so this was a nice change since it was set in the years following the war but still close enough to feel its lingering effects and influences. This was a wonderfully engaging read with all the right amounts of family drama and romantic attachments to keep things interesting for the reader the whole way through.
The Hundred Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey
Chris Bohjalian’s novel The Sandcastle Girls was my first time reading about the Armenian Genocide and it was a heartbreaking read. But then I read Dawn Anahid MacKeen’s nonfiction work about the experiences of her grandfather and his family during the Genocide and it was absolutely devastating. After reading MacKeen’s book, you’ll wonder how on earth her grandfather was able to survive this systematic annihilation of his people after all he went through, beating the unimaginable odds. But what makes The Hundred Year Walk particularly interesting is that MacKeen travels to Turkey, Armenia, and Syria and retraces her grandfather’s harrowing journey. MacKeen did this in the late 2000s when obviously this was still possible to do in a place like Syria, even though she writes of being followed by Assad’s police force. My brief summary here doesn’t remotely begin to do this must read book of modern history a remote ounce of justice.
Back Over There: One American Time-Traveler, 100 years Since the Great War, 500 Miles of Battle-Scarred French Countryside, and Too Many Trenches, Shells, Legends, and Ghosts to Count
As soon as I saw this title, I was immediately intrigued. I love anything having to do with World War I and even though I’ve watched my fair share of World War I television programs, I’ve not read a ton of works that aren’t Hollywoodesque (i.e. heavy on the drama and historical liberties being taken). The crux of Back Over There is Richard Rubin explaining to the reader that while here in the United States the First World War is largely forgotten, reserved for the pages of history books, in France, “over there,” he finds it’s the opposite. That even though 100 years have passed, the war is still as present as ever and he’s not just referring to the bullets and land mines and other artifacts from battle that local residents continue to find on their property to this day. This is only one snippet of many from the book where I learned something. While the poppy flower is always thought of as the flower of remembrance, that’s only the case in English speaking countries. In France, it is the cornflower that serves as their flower of remembrance.
Other books I read during this period that receive an honorable mention-
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson
This was the fourth book of his that I’ve read and it was probably my least favorite. It was about the connected tale of a British murderer and Guglielmo Marconi and his modern invention that helped catch the criminal. I liked the murderer parts the most; the parts with Marconi were a trifle boring and too scientifically involved for my reading tastes.
The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman
This isn’t the best World War II era book I have ever read, but it centered upon the experience of German civilians during the war, something I’ve started to read more about and for that reason, I did enjoy it. It’s so easy to paint a broad stroke and castigate the entire German population and yet there were many brave and heroic people who stood up in the face of evil for both the good of their country and their fellow man.