Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Day 11: It's All in the Past

Welcome to Day 11 in our 24 Days of Books. I love reading books on historical subjects. Do you? Here's just a sampling of what's on the top of our history list these days.

For me it's always a happy celebration when we get a new book by Timothy Egan, one of my all-time-favorite narrative nonfiction writers -- and judging by the awards he's received (including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award) I'm not alone in that assessment.

Hot off the press is Egan's new book about Edward Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($28). Edward Curtis was charismatic, handsome, a passionate mountaineer, and a famous photographer, the Annie Leibovitz of his time. He was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave it all up to pursue his Great Idea: to capture on film the continent's original inhabitants before the old ways disappeared.

He spent the next three decades traveling from the Havasupai at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Acoma on a high mesa in New Mexico to the Salish in the rugged Northwest rain forest, documenting the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes. It took tremendous perseverance -- ten years alone to persuade the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony. And the undertaking changed him profoundly: from detached observer to outraged advocate. Eventually Curtis took more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings, and is credited with making the first narrative documentary film.

Reviewers have called the book "a darned good yarn," "a rollicking page turner," "a story for the ages" -- at its essence a book about the extreme personal cost of outsized ambition. An interesting subject in the hands of one of our most talented narrative nonfiction storytellers; what more could you want?

Ross King is known for his deep scholarly research presented in a narrative that appeals to both academics and general readers, primarily tackling topics in the worlds of art and architecture. Some of his previous books include Brunelleschi's Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, and The Judgment of ParisNow he brings us a fascinating look at an artist's life in Leonardo and the Last Supper (Walker and Company; $28).

Leonardo da Vinci was at his lowest point, both professionally and personally, in 1495 when he began work on The Last Supper, the masterpiece that would forever define him. King paints a complex portrait of the artist, and explores dozens of stories that are embedded in the painting, bringing to life a fascinating period in European history and presenting a portrait of one of the world's greatest geniuses through the lens of his most famous work. As one reviewer says, "the book is meticulously researched, gracefully written and fascinating to read.”

Moving back to this side of the pond,  we have the new book by Kevin Phillips, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution. In this new book, the iconoclastic historian and bestselling author attempts to puncture the myth that 1776 was the watershed year of the American Revolution, arguing that the great events and confrontations of 1775 are instead the true beginning of the revolution. Along the way, Phillips explores the ethnic, religious, demographic, political, and economic roots of the revolution. (Penguin Viking; $26)

Another nuanced study of a complex period is 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End, by Scott W. Berg (Pantheon; $27.95). While Union and Confederate armies clashed at Bull Run and Antietam, another epochal but largely forgotten war was being waged along the Minnesota frontier, as the Dakotas clashed with settlers and federal troops, culminating in the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors—the largest government-sanctioned execution in American history.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Crown; $27) tells the little-known story of General Alex Dumas, the man his son (the novelist Alexandre Dumas) used as inspiration to create some of the best loved heroes of literature. This is Tom Reiss's first book since The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, a highly lauded book that is part history, part cultural biography, and part literary mystery, as it traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. 

Finally, I must give one more shout out to one of my favorite books of narrative nonfiction of the past few years, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson, a fascinating story beautifully told. [Wilkerson will speak in Portland on April 16, 2013, as part of the Mark O. Hatfield Distinguished Historians Forum. Also on tap for this year's series are Michael Duffy (The Presidents Club), Erik Larson (In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City), and David Eisenhower (Eisenhower: At War)]. 

As always, you'll find many more gift ideas in our Holiday Books guide, available at our store. See you soon! 

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