“The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

I was looking for a good book to buy for one of my friends who likes reading about history and medicine, and I remembered The Ghost Map, a book that many of the people I follow on LibraryThing read and loved. One of my pet peeves is buying someone a book that I don’t own myself, so I also bought myself a copy and read it when I was looking for a break from speculative fiction.

The Ghost Map is about the terrible Broad Street cholera epidemic in London in 1854. The epidemic claimed over six hundred lives, but also sparked an investigation that led to the foundations of the science of epidemiology and underscored the importance of proper sanitation and public health. We follow two investigators – local doctor John Snow, who had been looking for more data on cholera for a long time, and young assistant curate Henry Whitehead, who was increasingly concerned about his parishioners being decimated. Whitehead’s local knowledge and Snow’s methodical nature and medical skills combined helped prove that cholera was spread via contaminated water, rather than the ineffable “miasma” that was the prevailing theory of the time.

This book was well-written and well-researched, but I was far more compelled by the first half of the book. The author plops you down in the sights, smells, and sounds of Victorian London as he sets the stage for the start of the epidemic, and it’s pretty amazing. You really get a sense of what it was like for the residents of Broad Street, much of it is familiar, and the unfamiliar parts are explained with full context. However, once the investigation gets underway, it felt like there wasn’t a full book length of material there, and the author was trying to stretch it in creative ways. He talks up the opposing viewpoints of Whitehead and Snow, but there’s no drama there – Snow had the evidence, and Whitehead was convinced by it. Some of the later material also seemed a little repetitive. And occasionally the author goes on tangents where he draws conclusions that didn’t really matter to the narrative, but worse, didn’t seem backed up by anything (I checked the citations) – one example being alcoholism as an evolutionary predilection for some races of people.

The conclusion of the book was also somewhat weak, there was a bunch of tangential stuff about the various things maps are useful for, and the connection to the cholera outbreak map was extremely tenuous. The author also takes the opportunity to advocate strongly for his belief that humans should be striving for urbanization, which also didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book other than the fact that London is a city.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for its engaging portrayal of what it was like to live in 1854 London and to learn more about how humanity started making meaningful progress into investigating and managing epidemics. It’s definitely a popular non-fiction book though, and prioritizes shock value over thoroughness.


The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, 2005 | Buy the book


“Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” by Nathaniel Philbrick

I’m continuing on my quest to read more about world history this year, since I enjoyed India After Gandhi and A World At Arms so much last year. I bought a couple of books about American history – since I didn’t grow up here, I don’t know a lot of basic history that people learn about in school. I decided to start with Mayflower because the Pilgrims and their story are so embedded in the cultural consciousness of America, but I really don’t know much about what actually happened.

Mayflower is well-written and well-researched, but it isn’t the definitive history of the Mayflower voyage that I was hoping it would be. The first third of the book talks about the Pilgrims and their preparations for the voyage, the voyage itself, and the first year of their life in the colonies. This was the most fascinating part of the book. It covers things like why the Pilgrims chose to settle at the site of Plymouth, how their first contact with the Native Americans went (not well), what they did to survive (steal corn, for example), what they planned and how their plans went awry, how they finally established good relationships with the Native Americans, and things like that. Unfortunately this level of detail stops right after the “First Thanksgiving”, and the book skips ahead about fifty years to the story of how Native-British relations soured and led to King Philip’s War.

The rest of the book is a history of King Philip’s War, which was interesting as well since I didn’t know anything about that time period, but I find socio-political and economic histories much more interesting than histories of war, so I was a little let down. The author mentions that in the intervening time, New England was settled much more extensively and infrastructure developed (for example, a judicial system), but doesn’t go into any of the interesting details – how the governments were formed, how the settlers spread outside Plymoth, what kind of political relationships they had with the new settlers, how they managed to become self-sufficient and developed trade relationships – none of that is explored.

Instead, Philbrick goes into a thorough history of the war – the various battles, the actions of the Native American leaders (with special attention paid to the infamous King Philip), and the troop movements of the British settlers. There are some interesting tidbits in there (I found the formation of Rhode Island interesting, for example), but the focus is definitely on war. I was a little bored by all the details. Philbrick compares the devastation of the war to the Civil War and World War II in terms of the percentage of population killed, but the fact remains that most of the battles involved a dozen to a hundred men. There were a few bigger battles, and it’s clear that the impact on the Native American population was significant, but with most of the sources available to reconstruct what happened being on the British side, it makes the telling very one-sided.

I think this is a book still worth reading, but I wish it had been called King Philip’s War instead of Mayflower – but the lack of name recognition means it probably wouldn’t have done so well.


Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking Adult, 2006 | Buy the book


“A World at Arms” by Gerhard Weinberg

a-world-at-armsAfter reading India After Gandhi, I was looking forward to learning about more contemporary history and I decided that World War II was the next topic on my agenda. World War II is prevalent enough in public consciousness that I knew a lot of random facts about it, but I wanted an overview of the war and how all the pieces fit together. I wasn’t sure where to start, but I found that the Ask Historians subreddit (which is pretty amazing) has a book recommendation list, which is where I found A World at Arms.

The recommendation entry for A World at Arms describes the book as “one of the best histories of the Second World War from a global perspective”, and although I haven’t read any other World War II histories, I would agree with that. Weinberg covers a vast scope – every theater and front, including the “home fronts” of all countries involved in the war, sociopolitical changes, international relations, economic changes, strategy, and so on. The book seemed meticulously researched, the references are extensive, and Weinberg often mentions which sources he used or did not have access to when proposing a theory for why something happened a certain way.

The writing style is somewhat dry, but there’s so much information packed into every paragraph that I didn’t mind at all. Even on days when I was only able to read 20 pages or so, I still felt like I was learning rapidly. Also, didn’t notice any huge biases by the author, which I found refreshing when compared to a lot of other non-fiction I’ve read. I guess it makes sense from such an academic book, though.

Because of the scope of the book, most of the detail in it is about high level strategy and machinations; there isn’t much of a perspective from the trenches. I happened to be watching the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (which follows the American “Easy Company” attached to the 101st Airborne Division) at the same time that I was reading this book, though, and I found that to be a nice “on the ground” complement to the global view that A World at Arms offered.


A World at Arms by Gerhard Weinberg
Cambridge University Press, 1994 | Buy the book


“India After Gandhi” by Ramachandra Guha

India-After-GandhiI’ve been wanting to learn more about history for a long time now, and I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and start reading more history books. I started off with a book I’ve owned for about eight years now, but never got around to reading. I think I’ve been avoiding non-fiction because it takes me much longer to read and comprehend it, but I guess I should stop judging my reading by total number of books read.

India After Gandhi is a post-independence history of India; a subject I didn’t know a lot about, despite spending the first seventeen years of my life there. In school, our history books pretty much stopped at independence. It starts off with the Partition and the formation of the Indian government, and goes until 2007 (when the book was written), although the final two decades are not covered with the same level of historical detail (due to the events being too contemporary.)

The book is extremely comprehensive, Guha clearly did a lot of research – the bibliography is humongous. It covered the process of transitioning from British rule (highlighting administrative problems like integrating over 550 kingdoms into India, setting up free and fair elections for a largely illiterate electorate, and settling millions of refugees from Partition), subsequent politics, economic policy, social movements, and there’s even a chapter on popular entertainments. I learned a lot, I’m certainly a long way away from knowing all that I want to know about Indian history, but I feel like I have a solid foundation on which to build on, and I wouldn’t have thought one book would have been able to do that. It also gave me the historical context to understand several things I’d been confused about when I lived in India (like the history of the political parties and how they came to have the positions they did, and how the Indian states came to be organized in their current configuration.)

Guha does an admirable job of approaching things from a historian’s point of view, you can see that he has his own opinions as an Indian citizen, but he makes it pretty obvious that they are his own opinions when they crop up. I’m sure there are biases in what he chose to talk about and how he presented it, but those are unavoidable. My only complaint on that front was that Guha chooses to emphasize India’s successes, but doesn’t spend as much time talking about India’s failures. It’s not like he doesn’t acknowledge them, but because he doesn’t give them as much detail, they come across as relatively unimportant. For example, at one point he mentions that an election would be the first “free and fair” election in Kashmir, but all the talk of previous elections in the book so far had been about the heroic efforts of India’s Election Commission to set up elections that actually worked, so how did the Kashmir elections end up unfair?

Overall, I thought that this was a great book, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about India. It did make me very sad, though – seeing India start out with such well-intentioned and smart leaders and devolve into the mess that it is now.


India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha
Picador, 2007 | Buy the book


“The Lions of Al-Rassan” by Guy Gavriel Kay

thelionsofalrassanGuy Gavriel Kay is one of the most consistently praised fantasy authors; for instance, Brandon Sanderson calls him the “the greatest living author of epic fantasy“. I had read the first Fionavar Tapestry book, The Summer Tree, but I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about – I thought it seemed like a cross between a more adult Narnia and The Wheel of Time (“Tapestry” instead of “Pattern”). I figured I should give him another shot though, and I’m glad I did, because now I understand, and only the pile of unread books in the house is keeping me from buying his entire bibliography right now.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in the equivalent of the Iberian peninsula in the era of Moorish Spain. The Asharite city-states of the south and the Jaddite kingdoms of the north have had a tenuous peace despite their religious differences, but the winds are changing. Rodrigo Belmonte, the celebrated Jaddite captain, and Ammar ibn Khairan, the notorious right-hand man of the Asharite King Almalik of Cartada both find themselves driven away from their countries, and end up in the same city. Jehane, a Kindath physician, finds that her life is increasingly interwoven with theirs, as the world that she knows slowly begins to fall apart around her.

Despite being set in a secondary world, The Lions of Al-Rassan is clearly meant to evoke history – the names of the countries are different, and the religions are based on the celestial bodies of their world – but the map of the world is the same, and the Asharites, Jaddites, and Kindath represent the Muslims, Christians, and Jews, respectively. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that at first, but it’s a brilliant way for the author to take readers into how it felt like to live in that world without having to be too closely tied to historical accuracy.

Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan are the heart and soul of this book. They’re from very different worlds, but have a lot in common – both are larger than life, principled, intelligent, compassionate – heroes that actually deserve their reputation. When they finally meet, the world itself shivers a little bit. We see their story play out from many points of view, but the most important (and third protagonist) is Jehane, who is exceptional in her own right, but not as relevant to history. These three break the barriers of faith and country to develop an enduring friendship, but even the greatest of men are just men, and cannot resist the inexorable pressure of history waiting to be made.

The characterization of this book is exemplary – I’ve already talked about Rodrigo and Ammar a little bit, but Kay takes what would have been trite and cloying in less subtle hands and makes you truly believe in their legend. They’re not flawless – Rodrigo is somewhat reckless, and Ammar is a master of manipulation, but they still manage to make you believe in the ultimate goodness of humanity. I loved Jehane – the book blurb describes her as “increasingly torn by her feelings” which made me dread some sort of love triangle, but thankfully there’s none of that – she’s capable, intelligent, mature, and extremely skilled at what she does. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she’s also fully in control of her own sexuality. The supporting characters were fantastic, too – Alvar, one of Rodrigo’s young soldiers who gradually opens his eyes to the complexities of the world around him, and Rodrigo’s long-suffering, loving, and frankly, impressive wife Miranda were two of my favourites.

One of the biggest themes in this book is conflicting loyalties – to king, country, church, and family/friends. Rodrigo and Ammar are exiled by their respective monarchs, but they still don’t lose their love for where they’re from. Alvar loves where he’s from, but when he realizes what the world is actually like, he makes very different choices from what he would have imagined when setting out as a young soldier. Ramiro’s wife, Ines, is loyal to her god and her church, but that is tested when it endangers her country. Even the Belmonte’s cleric, Ibero, makes a terrible choice, and ends up regretting it dearly. Many of the choices made could have almost gone the other way, and are sometimes influenced by almost-random events (like Ramiro’s decision after the meeting with his fellow Espereñan monarchs) and it ends up making the coming war and its effects seem even more tragic.

Kay is an incredible writer –  he uses the common themes of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice but elevates them to a whole different level – I thought I was beyond being moved by those things. He’s also tricky sometimes; there are several scenes in which you think you know exactly what’s going on but his cunning phrases and slight omissions mean that what actually happens is a complete surprise. The scene at the end of the Carnival in Ragosa, and the epilogue are two examples. I don’t think I could read his books all in a row if they’re all this intense, but I’m so glad I have them to look forward to.

I could keep going on, but I don’t think I could convey any better how amazing The Lions of Al-Rassan is, so I’ll stop here. I highly recommend it, I think it’s one of the masterpieces of fantasy.


The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
Harper Prism, 1995 | Buy the book


“The Black Count” by Tom Reiss

The-Black-Count-by-Tom-ReissI’m trying to read more diversely this year, and I finally read some non-fiction. I won an ARC of this book way back in 2012 but never got around to reading it, and I was intrigued to find out that it won the Pulitzer and a host of other awards in that time.

The Black Count is a biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas and the inspiration for many of his stories, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was the son of a French nobleman and an African slave. He was also a martial hero, rising from a lowly private to general-in-chief of an army in only a few years – the highest ranking person of color in the Western world until the 1970s. His story rivals the ones in his son’s books – a shipwreck, suspected poisoning, foreign dungeons, and finally being ostracised because of changes in France’s political climate and Napoleon’s personal ire.

I really enjoyed this book – Tom Reiss is a great writer working with a great subject. I couldn’t wait to see where Dumas’ life took him, but I also never felt like Reiss took any liberties with the truth – everything was meticulously cited. I learned a lot about France’s colonial history as well, which I didn’t know much about. I can’t believe that someone who broke as many barriers as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas isn’t more well known, but thanks to Reiss’ efforts, that will hopefully now change.

I’m also hoping that Thomas-Alexandre Dumas shows up in the recently announced Assassin’s Creed game set during the French Revolution.


The Black Count by Tom Reiss
Crown, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“The United States of Arugula” by David Kamp

United States of Arugula coverI needed a break from fantasy, so today’s review is non-fiction: The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution. I really love both food and history (see my reviews of Curry and Fannie’s Last Supper), so this book was a natural choice for me.

In the last 40 years, the predominant food culture in America has become “gourmet”. Salsa and sushi have gone from unknown to ubiquitous, and local ingredients,  specialty cooking tools and celebrity chefs have become routine. The United States of Arugula attempts to tell the story of how this happened.

This book is a fairly fun read, although it meanders quite a bit. We start with the Big Three that popularised inventive cooking and dining – James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne, and go all the way to Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant empire. Kamp has certainly done his research, and the text is packed with all kinds of little asides and tidbits that make the events in the book come to life.

Any revolution always begins with a few people, and it is always interesting to read about those people’s motivations and understand the movement itself in context. Kamp takes this a little too far, though and the book comes off as overly gossipy. Beard and Claiborne’s (among others) sexual preferences are exhumed in detail, and there’s a lot of focus on who did and didn’t get along. For instance, Graham Kerr, a contemporary of Julia Child who also had a popular cooking show, is introduced as “Everyone in the food world agreed on one person they could hate”, even though their hate of him had no bearing on any significant events. I wish that Kamp had instead devoted that space to the events he mentions omitting in his introduction.

Another problem with this book is that it was really hard to follow. I usually read epic fantasy and have no trouble keeping hundreds of characters straight in my head, but Kamp introduces so many names that it detracts from the flow of the book. Many of the people mentioned by name are only mentioned once, which adds to the confusion (is this a person I’m supposed to know?) Adding to this is Kamp’s love of tangents, he does not stick to one person or one chronological period or even one story. Chapter 2 starts off with an introduction of Pierre Franey entering the US, but jumps quickly to Jacques Pépin’s childhood, and then to French cooks’ propensity for local foods, to an explanation of “classic French cooking”, to a biography of Antonin Carême and so on… and when the book got back to Franey’s story after he gets off the boat, I had a hard time remembering who he was.

Aside from those two issues, the book was a great primer on recent food history in the United States.


The United States of Arugula by David Kamp
Broadway Books, 2007 | Buy the book


“King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild

King Leopold's Ghost coverMy grasp on world history is somewhat lacking, and I’m always looking for good books so that I can fix that – Wikipedia tends to be too dry for me. I’d vaguely heard of King Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo, and I thought it was something I needed to know more about, so I was excited to find King Leopold’s Ghost a few months ago in the clearance section at Half Price Books.

If you’ve heard of King Leopold II of Belgium, I don’t need to tell you what this book is about. If you haven’t, he was the second monarch of Belgium, and at one point, the sole owner of the Congo (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

How did that happen? Belgium was surrounded by countries that held vast colonies in the Americas, Asia and Africa, and Leopold badly wanted a colony of his own. However, all around Europe, monarchs were losing power to parliament, and colonialism was losing favour. After looking all over the world and attempting to buy colonies from every major power, he set his sights on the unexplored parts of Africa, and shrewdly declared his interest as purely humanitarian and scientific. For more details, you’ll have to read this book (or some other account.)

This is a very well-written and readable book – Hochschild did an admirable job of sketching out the characters of the major players involved in the story of the Belgian Congo. I really felt like I got to know every one of them – I despised King Leopold for his avarice and ostentation, I admired Casement’s sheer passion and Morel’s determination, I rooted for Sheppard. Even though the things that happened were unspeakably horrific, it was never forceful or melodramatic. Hochschild states the facts and quotes accounts and lets you draw your own conclusions.

Hochschild clearly does have a few biases – his tone is sometimes a bit too moralistic for my taste. For instance, although King Leopold seems like an intensely loathsome person, I think his part was a result of apathy rather than an actively evil personality.

I wish I’d read this before I read The Poisonwood Bible – it would’ve given me some much needed context. Highly recommended.


King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin, 1998 | Buy the book


“Yseult” by Ruth Nestvold

Yseult coverI won a PDF of Yseult: A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur in the LibraryThing member giveaway a couple of weeks ago. After finishing White Planet, it occurred to me that I had another e-book to read and review, so I opened up Yseult to flip through it and see what kind of a book it was. I’m usually not the biggest fan of romance, even though I love fantasy and historical books, so I wasn’t really expecting to get sucked into this book like I was. I started reading, and couldn’t stop.

Yseult is a retelling/interpretation/whatever-you-want-to-call-it of the classic Tristan and Isolde story. I was vaguely familiar with the story (“basically Romeo and Juliet”), but only to the extent that I recognise some characters and plot elements. I didn’t even know that Tristan was one of Arthur’s knights

The book is much more than a love story. It is truly an epic, exploring the conflicts between paganism and Christianity, political maneuvering between the various kings of Britain and Ireland, the wars between themselves and with the Saxons, and a lot more. It reminded me a bit of The Mists of Avalon, although Yseult was much more fun to read.

Anyway, onto an actual description of the book. Yseult the Fair is an Irish (“Erainn”) princess descended from the Feadh Ree, the original race of Ireland.  She grows up in a time where Christianity is trying to make inroads into Ireland, and has already taken over much of Britain. The Feadh Ree, who were once universally respected, are even being attacked by some Gaul kings. War is everywhere, and any available peace seems to be temporary. Yseult tries to make the best of her situation, defending her home when necessary. Along the way, she meets Drystan, and falls in love with him. However, for political and personal reasons, she agrees to be married to his father Marcus, one of the Kings of Dummonia. She can never forget Drystan though, and he cannot forget her, either.

Both Yseult and Drystan are well-rounded and utterly likeable characters. I couldn’t help but root for them, even as they spiraled into the unavoidable tragedy that is their story, and made decisions that I knew were going to end badly. I never doubted the intensity of their love, even though I(and they) recognised that it was a terrible idea. I’m generally pretty unromantic, and even I felt this way.

But as I said above, Yseult isn’t just a love story. It’s the story of Yseult the Fair, which includes a love story, but also includes all the stories of all the other people in her and Drystan’s life – an amazing supporting cast, including Arthur and a few people associated with his story, Patriac (who I didn’t realise was St. Patrick until I read another review of this book), Yseult the Wise, Cador, and of course, Kurvenal and Brangwyn. All of them change and grow extremely believably.  The religious conflicts are very well-portrayed and almost unbiased, demonstrating the inevitability of change and the futility of fighting against it. It was also very interesting to  read about the political side of things, shifting loyalties, values or lack thereof and the kinds of risks taken. Yseult also sounds pretty historically accurate, and it was pretty fun to read about fifth century British and Irish civilisation and traditions.

Oh, and why is this a fantasy, and not just historical? The Feadh Ree and their descendants have one or more of three magical powers, the power of knowing, the power of calling, and the power of changing. These magical abilities do not dictate the course of the story, they just help enhance it.

This book is only available in English on Kindle right now (for the very reasonable price of $4.95), and I urge you to read it! The author says that she has plans to release it in paperback, and I’m definitely going to buy myself a copy when she does.

Amazon US: Yseult: A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur
Author Blog: http://ruthnestvold.wordpress.com/
Author Website: http://www.ruthnestvold.com/


Yseult by Ruth Nestvold (The Pendragon Chronicles, #1)
Red Dragon Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.


“Fannie’s Last Supper” by Christopher Kimball

Cover for Fannie's Last SupperI’m a big fan of America’s Test Kitchen, and I love reading about food and history, so I was really looking forward to reading Fannie’s Last Supper by its host and founder, Christopher Kimball.The book’s tagline is “Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook”, and is (purportedly) about recreating an elaborate dinner party from Victorian-era Boston, based on the recipes of Fannie Farmer, a famous cooking teacher and businesswoman from the time.

About the title – although Kimball was certainly inspired by his discovery of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, I would not go as far as to say his meal was a recreation. He does not seem to respect Farmer as a cook or as a person, which makes for odd reading. His reactions to exact recreations of her dishes range from “inedible” to “truly horrible” to “rather uninspired” to “second rate.” (There is the occasional “good”, but it is rare.) This means that pretty much all of the recipes were changed quite a bit. A few of the recipes were even sourced entirely from other books, after Farmer was deemed unsatisfactory. This is all fine, but it seemed like false advertising.

The book is peppered with fascinating facts and insights into the world of the 19th century cook. The industrial revolution was changing cooking at an extremely rapid rate, plus domestic servants were no longer common. Kimball likens it to a music aficionado in the late 1990s (p. 193):

who used a turntable for his LP collection while relying on a large group of CDs and then a smattering of digital downloads from iTunes on his MP3 player.

I loved that description (although, what about cassette tapes? that’s what I used in the 90s) – I think it’s a great analogy.

I think the structure of the book could have been easier to read – part of it deals with the evolution in cooking methods and ingredients in the US, some of it is about how Boston’s food culture and how that changed (including random little details like the price of gelatin), some of it is about Fannie Farmer’s life, and then there’s the story of Kimball’s journey to making this dinner, testing recipes, finding silverware, etc. The trouble is that each chapter contains a bit of everything. I think it would’ve showcased the material far better if it had been better structured, although it is still really interesting.

I also appreciated a lot of the trouble that they went to to make the dinner accurate – mock turtle soup using calf-brains, and making gelatin from calf-feet stand out. It sounded like a horrendous amount of work.

Apparently PBS did a special to accompany the book (or vice versa), also called Fannie’s Last Supper. Here is the trailer for it. I really want to watch it, but I’m not sure how it can be obtained.

This is book 10 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.


Fannie’s Last Supper by Christopher Kimball
Hyperion, 2010 | Buy the book