City of Scoundrels is the masterfully told story of twelve volatile days in the life of Chicago, when an aviation disaster, a race riot, a crippling transit strike, and a sensational child murder transfixed and roiled a city already on the brink of collapse.

When 1919 began, the city of Chicago seemed on the verge of transformation. Modernizers had an audacious, expensive plan to turn the city from a brawling, unglamorous place into “the Metropolis of the World.” But just as the dream seemed within reach, pandemonium broke loose and the city’s highest ambitions were suddenly under attack by the same unbridled energies that had given birth to them in the first place. It began on a balmy Monday afternoon when a blimp in flames crashed through the roof of a busy downtown bank, incinerating those inside. Within days, a racial incident at a hot, crowded South Side beach spiraled into one of the worst urban riots in American history, followed by a transit strike that paralyzed the city. Then, when it seemed as if things could get no worse, police searching for a six-year-old girl discovered her body in a dark North Side basement.

Meticulously researched and expertly paced, City of Scoundrels captures the tumultuous birth of the modern American city, with all of its light and dark aspects in vivid relief. (description from publisher)

It’s Opening Day for Major League Baseball! We’ve got one more day before the Cubs start breaking our hearts (they open tomorrow at Wrigley Field against the Washington Nationals); here’s a reminder that the Cubs weren’t always the lovable losers.

Before the Curse: The Chicago Cubs’ Glory Years, 1870-1945 brings to life the early history of the much beloved and often heartbreaking Chicago Cubs. Originally called the Chicago White Stockings, the team immediately established itself as a powerhouse, winning the newly formed National Base Ball League’s inaugural pennant in 1876, repeating the feat in 1880 and 1881, and commanding the league in the decades to come.

The legendary days of the Cubs are recaptured here in more than two dozen vintage newspaper accounts and historical essays on the teams and the fans who loved them. The great games, pennant races, and series are all here, including the 1906 World Series between the Cubs and Chicago White Sox. Of course, Before the Curse remembers the hall-of-fame players  -Grover Cleveland Alexander, Gabby Hartnett, Roger Hornsby, Dizzy Dean – who delighted Cubs fans with their play on the field and their antics elsewhere. Through stimulating introductions to each article, Randy Roberts and Carson Cunningham demonstrate how changes in ownership affected the success of the team, who the teams’ major players were both on and off the field, and how regular fans, owners, players, journalists, and Chicagoans of the past talked and wrote about baseball. (description from the publisher)

The History of Love is a bittersweet novel that tells the intertwined stories of Alma Singer and Leo Gursky, a teenage girl and an old man whose lives collide under extraordinary circumstances.

When Alma explores her namesake, the main character of the book-within-a-book also titled “The History of Love,” she discovers a dense tapestry of love, heartbreak, and friendship that centers around another Alma, Leo Gursky, her deceased father, her bereft mother, an unknown writer from Poland by way of Chile, and the famous American author Isaac Moritz. Nicole Krauss makes this potentially convoluted tale feel truly magical by illuminating the long, tangled strings of time and events that bring her characters together. There are few detours from the plot and no wasted words, so the story is fully explored and feels deeper than its 272 pages. It’s sweet and sad and thought provoking, but doesn’t carry any depressing baggage to sour your mood. The ending is uplifting without being tidy and perfect.

I selected this book for my book club and I was delighted to see quotations from its pages popping up in my fellow members’ status updates and conversations. There are a lot of beautiful language moments and highly quotable passages (“her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” – *swoons*), which help make the book such a joy to read.

Krauss is married to author Jonathan Safran Foer, and their novels make lovely companions. If you loved his novels Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or  Everything Is Illuminated, you will fall for The History of Love, and vice versa. Both authors employ lyrical language to explore the topic of Jewish history (to put it broadly) through the eyes of fictional writers. In Everything is Illuminated, the protagonist is a writer who travels throughout eastern Europe looking for the history of his family and their village. In The History of Love, every major character and almost every minor character are writers in one form or another. Both books are so beautiful that it’s hard to decide which one I liked better, but either or both would make a great springtime read.

The old adage says that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but the folks at the Bata Museum in Toronto, Canada, would probably say it is in the foot.

The Bata Shoe Museum, whose tagline is “For the curious,” houses an astonishing 12,500 shoes and shoe paraphernalia covering over 4,500 years’ worth of human history.  From chestnut-crushing shoes to high heels for the men of the French court, the expansive collection is continually growing as a result of shoe-hunting excursions conducted by Bata Museum staff on a regular basis.

What makes this museum of interest to this blogger is the sheer amount of information and time they have invested in their website.  In the “All About Shoes” section the web visitor can select several different collections to view, from footwear of the Native Americans to a history about elevated shoes to wedding wear and more.

If you would like a shoe expert or curator to spend some time talking to you about the who, where, what, why, and hows of the shoe world, check out their dozens of podcasts on a variety of topics.  From dance shoes to wartime footwear and, yes, Justin Bieber’s sneakers, the Bata Shoe Museum has something for almost everyone (even Napoleon’s socks).

With hundreds of detailed and colorful photos, this visitor learned that high heels used to be closer to the center of the foot because early models did not have reinforced heels.  When they placed heels on the actual heels, the shoes kept snapping off at the arch.  I also learned that men used to wear high heels ostensibly because they helped them better keep their feet in the stirrups while horseriding.  I also found interesting that early heeled shoes came with sled-like clog contraptions that you could tie on to your shoes.  Why?  Because heeled shoes were invented before roads were paved, and wearers in heels would get stuck in the mud without them.

The Bata Shoe Museum is definitely “for the curious,” but I would also say that their website is so well done and so engaging that they could even claim that their museum will make you curious.

Persepolis is an exciting, heartfelt, unique story told in words and pictures; it deals with the Islamic revolution and how exile and oppression affect the individual. If you don’t know anything at all about the history of Iran (like me), you may have to supplement your reading with the occasional jaunt into Wikipedia, but it’s so worth it to put a little effort into this excellent book – it will give you much more in return. The action centers around a free-thinking Iranian family, author Marjane Satrapi and her mother and father, living in Iran during the downfall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic republic. Marjane, the author, illustrator, narrator, and main character, fills in the details of the revolution and ensuing war through her child’s eye, rather than describing events comprehensively. The result is a weirdly, wonderfully satisfying narrative that hinges on the way a child (and later teenager) balances her passions and rebellious spirit against an oppressive government.

The drawings are all in black and white and add to the story in subtle ways. There are few panels that don’t include text, and it’s rare for an illustration to convey a plot point without words to reinforce it – instead, the visuals enhance and deepen your understanding. I think this format along with the uniquely adult, realistic subject matter makes it a perfect starting point for readers who’ve never tried a graphic novel. It’s a moving story as well as a cultural eye-opener that will show you no matter how hard life is at home, life in exile is even tougher.

 

Persepolis was made into a movie in 2008.

Hearty praise for Bill Bryson isn’t new to the Info Cafe blog (both Lynn and Ann have gushed about him in the past), but he is new to me! The audiobook of At Home: A Short History of Private Life, read by the author, was the first Bryson book I’ve read, and one of the most entertaining nonfiction books I’ve ever encountered on any subject. Part of the appeal comes from the irresistible subject matter: Bryson deals with the everyday, but elevates it beyond the mundane into something fascinating. The greater part of the book’s success is Bryson himself – dry wit that had me laughing and quoting passages to friends, great writing that’s both intelligent and accessible, and (crucially) excellent narration.

No matter what you’re interested in, there is something for you in At Home: architecture, cooking, engineering, etymology, inventing, transportation, medicine, sanitation and hygiene, social history, entertainment, a dash of politics, and mostly, British and American history. If history isn’t your thing, don’t be intimidated – though much of the book deals with historical matters, it never feels stuffy or boring (with the possible, arguable exception of a lengthy chapter on British architecture that suffers from a lack of the visual aids present in the printed book). The comforts we’re accustomed to – bright lights, running water, soap, sturdy clothing, efficient laundry, regular bathing, doctors who wash their hands, and a reasonable expectation that rats will NOT nest inside your mattress even as you sleep above them – these things are all shockingly new.

I particularly recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of historical novels, from Jane Austen through Diana Gabaldon; once you learn about the privy fixtures and habits of cleanliness in the pre-modern era, your reading of Emma will never be the same!

Super-duper seal of approval: after hearing a snippet while riding in my car, my book-phobic husband insisted on taking it off my hands to listen himself!

This summer there are some major movies coming to theaters that were originally books!  Here are a few of them:

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin – This one is already in theaters!  It is about a girl who falls in love with her best friend’s husband-to-be after a one night stand, and the movie stars Kate Hudson, Ginnifer Goodwin, and John Krasinski. Guest blogger Bethany wrote about it just yesterday.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling – The final part of this saga is finally coming to an end with the epic battle between good and evil.  Before the midnight showing of the movie, I might have to flip through a copy of the book again.  After all, I have to get my costume just right!

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay – This book club favorite tells the story of a journalist writing about a girl caught up in one of the raids of World War II.  The movie will star Kristin Scott Thomas. Ann blogged about this book here.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – Set in Jackson, Mississippi during the civil rights movement, this bestseller is about a girl fresh out of college who has taken on a writing project about the experiences of African-American maids.  The film version boasts an all-star cast, including Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, and Allison Janney. Read Ann’s blog about this book here.

If you want to read the book before heading to the theater, stop by the library to see if there’s a copy available!

Here is almost 70 years of history one cookie at a time. The editors of Gourmet magazine (which recently ceased publication) went through their vast files of cookie recipes and chose one “best” cookie for each year, 1941-2009. The result is The Gourmet Cookie Book, a treasure trove not just of recipes, but as a reflection of our history.

Presented year by year, it is remarkably easy – and fun – to watch how recipes and baking have changed over the years. Early recipes are much more casual than what you may be used to now  with instructions like “bake in a moderate oven until done” or “add flour until stiff”, indicating that they assumed that the reader was an experienced cook;  more recent recipes give precise measurements and directions.

The style of recipes has also changed – early on, they are written in an almost conversational style, in paragraph form very different from the now standard list of ingredients followed by mixing instructions. Each recipe is presented as it originally appeared in the magazine but never fear – added notes take the guesswork out of anything that might be unclear.

It’s also interesting to track the trends and interests of the country through the years. The 40s reflect the lean years of wartime shortages and food rationing – cookies are simple and plain, using few ingredients. Recipes became more daring in the 60s with many international flavors, the 80s were the decade of chocolate and the 90s see the introduction of espresso as a regular ingredient. The look of cookies changes through time too, from simple shapes to colorful and complex. Yet they all hold one thing in common – they’ve all stood the test of time and they all taste great.

As someone who is not a history buff at all, I was hesitant to pick up The Partly Cloudy Patriot.  But at the urges of my best friend, I gave it a shot, and I am so glad that I did.  Sarah Vowell makes her nerdiness wholly endearing in this series of humorous essays with topics ranging from the Salem Witch Trials to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the 2000 election of George W. Bush.  Vowell fully embraces her nerdiness, especially when describing her “nerd voice” and her various vacations to (often depressing) historical landmarks.  Though I always found myself bored in history class, Vowell’s book taught me some things I didn’t know all while making me laugh.  She makes the information simultaneously humorous and personal; one of my favorite chapters was about Al Gore speaking to a group of high school students and having his remarks taken wildly out of context by the media, changing his message of hope into something egotistical.  Not all her stories are aimed at those interested in politics and history; she also has some gems about how to deal with her parents visiting  for the holidays and her fear of Tom Cruise.

Just for a taste of her dry wit, here’s one of my favorite passages:  “I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much.”

Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835. 

Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives;  Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt.  Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States.  Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government.  In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.   

In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent.  Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing  most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception). 

As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude.  Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives.  I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.  And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!