Category: Non Fiction

May 03

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Non Fiction 12

Greetings Bookworms,

I am super stoked to discuss today’s book! *I received a complimentary copy of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore from the publisher for review consideration. All gushing is 100% reflective of my true opinion. I’m just THAT excited about this book.*

A little bit of background: my husband is from a small town in Illinois. It’s not close enough to Chicago to be considered a suburb, but not really part of what’s considered “Central Illinois” either. It’s known to locals as the Illinois Valley, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to people not from the area. I grew up in a Chicago suburb that had zero history. I mean, the “historical district” is a set of houses built in the 1960s. There are nearby suburbs with more history, but my town had been farmland for a very long time and it is seriously lacking in old time charm. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been so drawn to places with old brick downtown sections and interesting historical tidbits. My husband’s corner of Illinois is chock full of these types of stories, which I’ve been gobbling up since we started dating 14 years ago.

One of the stories he told me took place in the town right next door to his in Ottawa, Illinois. We were driving past the old Westclox factory one day (which is technically in Peru, another nearby town, but I digress) and he told me that back in the day, the dials of the watches made for Westclox were painted with radioactive paint and that it made a lot of employees sick. (To be fair to Westclox, these were third party dial painting operations, though, I’d be surprised if they didn’t have some problems with the radiation too, because it’s friggin’ RADIATION.) The mysterious sickness was due in large part to the fact that the workers were instructed to put the paintbrushes in their mouths. I was SURE my husband had gotten part of the story wrong, because seriously. I don’t put paint in my mouth, let alone radioactive paint. I thought it had to be an urban legend.

It. Was. Not. An. Urban. Legend. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is a fascinating account of what went on in these radium dial factories, both in New Jersey and small town Illinois. Women in the 1910s-1930s were employed in factories painting radium infused glow-in-the-dark material on watch dials and other clock faces. Toward the beginning of this time period, radium, in small amounts, was considered to be safe, and possibly even healthy. Workers were instructed to put those radioactive paint brushes into their mouths in order to get a precise point for the fine detail work. Yes. This is a real thing that happened. I’m still trying to process it.

Of course, a few years into this practice, it became clear that all was not safe and healthy where radium ingestion is concerned. The girls (and I say “girls” because some were as young as 14 and they usually left the company by their early 20s) began coming down with mysterious tooth and jaw ailments, muscle pains, and scores of other symptoms. And, as corporations are wont to do when they’re in jeopardy of losing a crap load of money, they tried to blame anything else (STDs, bad luck, other diseases) for the girls’ ailments rather than take responsibility.

The book covers the processes used in the factories, some rather gruesome details about the effects the women with radium poisoning suffered, and the legal battles that followed in order to get the women some compensation for having bits of jawbone fall out all over the place. It all just hit SO close to home considering that I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Ottawa. I’ve driven past Saint Columba, the church many of the girls attended, oodles of times. In later years, Argonne National Laboratory began doing followup studies on the remains of the women who perished and survivors of Radium Dial. The cancer rate for survivors was something like 80%, and they were cancers so rare that they couldn’t have been caused by anything but the radium poisoning. The remains of early victims have been studied as well and are, to this day, highly radioactive. It’s estimated they will be for another 1500-3000 years.

For the love, you guys, READ THIS BOOK. It was amazing and informative and it never dragged or got too bogged down in the science the way some non-fiction does. The human stories abound. It’ll break your heart. You’ll learn things. It’s amazing. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. All the stars.

Talk to me, Bookworms! Do your hometowns have any tragic and or fascinating stories?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Jan 24

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill

Audio Books, Non Fiction 10

Greetings Bookworms!

If you’re anything like me (and I imagine that you are) you’ve fantasized yourself into the plot of a novel every now and again. It’s difficult NOT to get swept up sometimes. Of course, whenever I’m in the throes of a particularly dreamy bout of “I wish I were Elizabeth Bennet” or, you know, any historical heroine, I like to remind myself about the lack of indoor plumbing. That usually helps. Which is why I was so flipping excited to get my paws on a copy of Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill. Actually, I decided to use an Audible credit to get the audio book version and OMG. It was an EXCELLENT use of a credit!

It’s so easy to get caught up in false nostalgia, isn’t it? I mean, the past gets all obscured in mist and fog. It seems so idyllic, what with the nattily dressed gents and the waltzing and folks being so polite all the time. Therese Oneill is here to burst your bubble, but her fabulous and irreverent sense of humor takes some of the sting out of it. (The narration of the audio book is A+ hilarious. If you’re on the fence, go audio!) Did you know, my little erstwhile Austen-ite, just how horrendous everyone smelled in the Victorian era? Or just how much you really love your indoor plumbing and modern sewer systems?

Oneill walks the reader, a modern 21st Century woman, through the ins and outs of life in the Victorian era. From the fashions of the day to the complex social mores, this book is seriously eye opening. Then there’s the whole issue of things we take completely for granted- say, for example, that the medical community understands that mental illness is not caused by one’s uterus? There are a zillion reasons I’m grateful I live in there here and now, in spite of any daydreams about Mr. Darcy. That dude probably smelled really, really bad anyway.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It was so funny and so informative. I wish all non fiction were this delicious. If you have even a passing interest in the subject, do yourself a favor and give Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners a read (or a listen.) You won’t regret it!

Talk to me, Bookworms! What’s the one bit of modern living that you are most grateful for?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

 

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Oct 04

Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi

Audio Books, Book Club, Non Fiction 5

Greetings Bookworms!

I’ve discussed before that I’ve got a rather tenuous relationship with non fiction. Luckily, my relationship with bread, wine, and chocolate has always been top notch. Thus, when one of my neighbors chose Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi for book club, my curiosity was piqued.

breadwinechocolateThis  tome focuses on a series of five foods- the aforementioned bread, wine, and chocolate, as well as beer and coffee. Sethi takes the reader on a journey to explore the history and cultural importance of each of these foods, as well as delving deeply into the flavor profiles of some of the world’s most complex tastes. From far flung cacao fields to craft beer breweries, Sethi’s research is extensive and thorough. I learned a ridiculous amount from reading this book. I mean, genetic biodiversity? I didn’t even know this was a thing I should be concerned with. And now? I am CONCERNED, y’all.

I will forever sing the praises of listening to non-fiction audio books. I don’t know why they work so much better for me than just, you know, eyeball reading, but they do. I found the scientific bits fascinating and didn’t get bogged down at all even when things got super technical and scientific. My mind was legit blown several times. I mean, do you KNOW how chocolate comes to be? Like REALLY know? I’m willing to bet that a lot of you don’t. I always imagined little beans growing on a bush somewhere that were picked and ground and VOILA chocolate. Oh no. So many more steps. And bizarrely shaped fruits. And fermentation. And don’t even get me started on coffee.

Bread, Wine, Chocolate is the stuff of foodies’ dreams. It’s awesome, though, I’ll admit that NOT being a foodie, some of it was lost on me. I love to eat and drink and all, but I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to muster the intensity and enthusiasm Sethi and the professionals she interviewed had for flavor profiles. If you happen to BE a foodie though? THIS IS YOUR BOOK. SIMRAN SETHI IS YOUR PEOPLE. GO READ THIS.

Talk to me, Bookworms! Are you well versed in wine or does it mostly make you feel like a (tipsy) nincompoop?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Mar 14

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Civil War, Non Fiction 12

Greetings Bookworms!

I don’t typically read a lot of non fiction, which is a crying shame, really, considering there are some fabulous titles out there. Few things get my dander up more than the way women are written out of history and/or their contributions are glossed over. Blame it on the dual History and Women’s Studies minors. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott was an audio book offering I simply couldn’t pass up. When I try to read nonfiction with my eyeballs, my brain tends to get overloaded with facts and give up… Meaning I fall asleep. I don’t have a good reason for this, but audio works better for me.

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Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War tells the stories of four different women participating in some seriously scandalous (for the time) activities. Elizabeth Van Lew was a staunch Unionist who found herself behind enemy lines when the Confederacy decided to make her hometown of Richmond into their capitol. Emma Edmonds felt the need to serve the Union so strongly that she cut off her hair and went undercover as a man to serve in the army. Of course, the Union didn’t have a monopoly on undercover ladies. Belle Boyd started the war off with a bang by shooting a Union soldier and then became a courier and spy for the Confederacy. And let’s not forget Rose O’Neale Greenhow, widowed socialite whose dalliances with high powered politicians put her in the perfect position to become the Queenpin of a spy ring for the Confederacy.

Guys, I learned SO MUCH from this book! The only one of these ladies I knew much about was Elizabeth Van Lew, thanks to good old historical fiction in The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini (review). Now, I’m no Civil War scholar. So much of this book was new information for me and I just gobbled it up. There was one thing though that really stuck with me. While reading this I kept being like “OMG General McClellan, you are really bad at war.” The North seems to have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to military leadership. On paper, this war should not have been this hard to win or lasted this long or cost so many lives. I’m sure there are many varied and complex reasons for the war stretching on the way it did, but this was my takeaway. General warring ineptitude. This is why I should never, ever be used as a source in a research paper!

Talk to me Bookworms! What’s your favorite non fiction title? I might need to make a little reading list. For my ears.

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Mar 04

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker

Memoirs, Non Fiction 9

Howdy Howdy Bookworms!

You know what’s super inconvenient? Books with the same title as other books. Take for example, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. About a year ago I read a book by this title which was written by David Shafer. It was pretty weird (and not my favorite, to be honest, here’s the review.) Of course, it was quirky and partially set in the Middle East with at least one female protagonist, so when I saw that Tina Fey had a movie coming out called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I assumed it was based on Shafer’s book. I literally looked at my husband when I saw the first preview and was like “Uh… They seem to have taken a lot of liberties…” Turns out, I was wrong. Well, probably not about the liberties, because you know how Hollywood is, but it’s definitely not based on the aforementioned novel. I know this because I was recently contacted by the publisher of the book the movie is ACTUALLY based on. It is also called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, BUT it was originally published as The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s by Kim Barker, a foreign correspondent who worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the early 2000s. Are you confused yet? I sort of am. Whew. *As I mentioned already, I received a complimentary copy of this book for review consideration. I’m not good at lying, so you don’t need to worry about compromised integrity. I’m like… the Pinocchio of book reviews. I try to lie and everyone can tell. It’s just not worth the effort.*


whiskeytangofoxtrotWhiskey Tango Foxtrot
AKA The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan is Kim Barker’s memoir based on her years working as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. It’s a delicious “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” sort of book. It contains the things you might expect from a war correspondent’s memoir. I mean, there’s plenty of sadness and danger and tragedy, but Kim Barker’s also got a dark sense of humor about her, which is just the sort of thing I admire in a writer. Barker shares not just the news she covered, but the news behind the news. All the dishy side notes about the foreign journalists’ frat house shenanigans. The relationships gone awry. The adrenaline junkie colleagues. That one time a warlord taught her to wield a Kalishnikov…

If you have any interest in a first hand account of the political machinations of Afghanistan and Pakistan during this time period, you will love this book. If you are interested in the secret life of journalists, you will love this book. If you enjoy explorations of culture clashes, you will love this book.

I must admit that though I do try to stay informed, I hadn’t heard of Kim Barker prior to reading this book. I’m not much of a newspaper reader, which is not a fact I’m particularly proud of, but there it is. Like I said. Pinocchio. I do, however, listen to a lot of NPR. Which is why, upon reading the author’s notes I had a “SANTA?! I KNOW HIM!” moment when Kim Barker thanked Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson for talking her into taking an early morning shot of whiskey. I’m sure there’s a really excellent story there, probably involving extreme awesomeness and nerves of steel. Could these journalists BE any more badass? I think not.

Tell me something, Bookworms! Have you ever gotten your signals crossed with books and movies having the same (or strikingly similar) titles?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Nov 23

The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

Memoirs, Non Fiction 6

Greetings Bookworms!

You know how they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? Since I do a lot of my reading digitally, I’m not usually prone to that, but I am guilty of judging a book by it’s title. I was browsing NetGalley not too long ago and I ran across a title called The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird. I didn’t request this solely based on the title. The cover art and the blurb indicating a real life penguin was involved also influenced my decision. I make no apologies for my penguin enthusiasm. Not a single one. PENGUINS FOREVER! *I received a complimentary copy of this book for review consideration. My good opinion cannot be bought with a free book. It can be bought with charming penguins, however.*

thepenguinlessons

Tom Michell was a 23 year old Brit with wanderlust when he decided to accept a post teaching in Argentina in the 1970s. While on holidays from school teaching, he often went exploring other South American locales. While visiting a beach in Uruguay, he happened upon a heartbreaking scene. An oil slick had caused hundreds of penguins to wash ashore. (I had such a hard time reading this part, it was worse than those ASPCA commercials where the dogs with injuries look at you so pathetically while Sarah McLachlan sings.) Among the sea of perished penguins (SOB), there was but a single sign of life. Acting on a crazy impulse, Michell decided to take the surviving penguin home, wash him off, and release him back into the wild. It was the 70s, you guys. There weren’t hotlines for wildlife rescue and whatnot. After an eventful de-oiling, the penguin, now known as Juan Salvador, refuses to leave Tom’s side. Naturally Tom does the only logical thing- he smuggles Juan Salvador across the border and takes him home.

A pet penguin!!! You guys, this is the DREAM. Juan Salvador is a Magellanic penguin, which resonated with me especially as the penguin I met face-t0-face was a  Magellanic penguin too! Juan Salvador was beyond charming. He became the school’s de-facto rugby mascot, party host, and swimming coach. It’s worth noting that Michell DOES mention all the weirdness that comes with keeping a penguin as a pet, particularly the fact that they poop wherever the heck they want to and need a rather large supply of fresh fish. Still, Juan Salvador seems to thrive in his new home and it’s the cutest thing ever. EVER. This book is not for those who are interested in flowery prose as Michell is quite plain spoken, but who needs flowery prose when you had a penguin pet?! This book is definitely worth a read, even if you’re not an insane penguin lover.

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I met a penguin, and it’s one of the highlights of my life. Not even kidding.

It’s worth noting that at the end of the novel, Michell, who thinks he’s lost all his photographs from that period of his life, runs across some old video footage of Juan Salvador. I tried to locate this clip online, and when I couldn’t find it, I contacted the publisher because I just couldn’t NOT see it. They were kind enough to oblige me with a clip that I’ve loaded below for your viewing pleasure. It’s the best. Many thanks to George Foster at Penguin Random House for supplying me with the footage, and many thanks to Tom Michell for being my penguin rescue hero! Obviously, I think everyone should go procure a copy of The Penguin LessonsFor the love of penguins!

Talk to me Bookworms! Don’t you wish your high school had a live penguin mascot that you could swim with?! Gaaaah I’m dying. DYING, you guys!

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Nov 02

Speed Kings by Andy Bull: Review and Giveaway!

Giveaways, Non Fiction 6

Happy Monday Bookworms!

Let me tell you a story about bobsledding. No, not THAT story about bobsledding (I’m assuming you immediately thought of the classic and heartwarming film, Cool Runnings. That’s where my head went, anyway.) But I’m talking old school bobsledding. Back when it was all sexy and dangerous. Oh yeah, you didn’t know that bobsledding was sexy and dangerous? Well you WOULD know that if you’d read Speed Kings: The 1932 Winter Olympics and the Fastest Men in the World by Andy Bull! *I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. You needn’t worry about a biased review though. I never, ever lie about bobsledding. Ever.*

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That leaning is super important for SPEED!

Whenever I think of Olympic athletes, I think of people who have trained since childhood in their given sport. I think of athletes so focused on the quest for the gold medal that they forgo traditional schooling and miss their proms in exchange for private tutoring on planes between competitions. The team that would eventually become gold medalists at the 1928 and 1932 Winter Olympic games in bobsledding were anything BUT the athletes I imagined. They were, in the immortal words of Maya Rudolph’s character in Bridesmaids “a stone cold pack of weirdos.” Here’s what the Goodreads synopsis had to say: “There was Jay O’Brien, the high-society playboy; Tippy Grey, a scandal-prone Hollywood has-been; Eddie Eagan, world champion heavyweight boxer and Rhodes Scholar; and the charismatic Billy Fiske, the true heart of the team, despite being barely out of his teens.” As you can imagine, bobsledding is a mere sliver of the story surrounding this charismatic crew.

speedkings

So, Katie, what did you think of Speed Kings: The 1932 Winter Olympics and the Fastest Men in the World? Thoughtful of you to ask, Katie! It took me longer to read than I expected, but that’s virtually always the case when I read non-fiction, no matter how interesting the subject matter. This book wasn’t what I expected at all, but it was pretty awesome. I mean, do you have any idea how dangerous bobsledding can be? Or that Hollywood has been a crazy bag of scandal since the dawn of time? Or that the dude who invented the Dewey decimal system was kind of a horrible human being? All sorts of craziness goes down in this book. But you don’t have to just take my word for it. The awesome folks at Avery Books are sponsoring a giveaway! Enter below to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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Mar 23

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Audio Books, Non Fiction, Women's Studies 8

Salutations Darling Bookworms!

I love learning new things. I think that’s sort of a bookworm thing, no? Unfortunately, a lot of times I struggle with reading non fiction (with the exception of memoirs.) Thank heaven that audio books exist! I recently downloaded Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff from my local library and holy cats! I went into this book knowing virtually nothing about Cleopatra and came out of it feeling like an expert. Seriously, I hope Cleopatra is an entire category at my next trivia night because I will OWN it.

cleopatraPrior to reading this book, Cleopatra evoked images of cheesy Halloween costumes and Elizabeth Taylor. I knew she had flings with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and that she maybe killed herself with the help of a snake, but that was the extent of my knowledge. What a fascinating life this woman led! She was a brilliant and occasionally ruthless politician. Born into an incestuous dynasty any Targaryen would approve of, Cleopatra’s rule was often mired by familial infighting and assassinations. She became the paramour of two famous Roman rulers and deftly juggled an insane political climate.

Why is it that this powerful woman went down in history as little more than a temptress and minimalist Halloween costume? Stacy Schiff explores the historical records through a modern lense. Schiff strips away some of the cultural bias and explores what Cleopatra’s life and motivations truly were in a historical context. Ancient male historians were pretty quick to dismiss women’s achievements or chalk them up to feminine wiles and witchcraft. Also, the whole snakebite on the boob thing probably didn’t happen. Talk about your inefficient means of suicide. Our girl was smarter than that, y’all. If you have any interest in the life of Cleopatra, I cannot recommend this book enough!

Alright Bookworms, let’s experiment. What is the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the name “Cleopatra”?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission. I do not have Cleopatra’s insane wealth, so, you know. Every penny goes back into keeping me in books!*

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Feb 26

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach is Out of This World!

Audio Books, Non Fiction, Science 18

Bookworms, We Have a Problem.

I’m LYING. I’m just trying to make space jokes because I just finished listening to the awesome audio book version of Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. I don’t read a lot of non fiction, but now that I’ve discovered Mary Roach, that may all change.

packingformarsPacking for Mars is ostensibly about what a mission to Mars would entail mingled with a history lesson of human space travel. Sound awesome? Not so much? Well what about if I tell you that Mary Roach researched all the interesting bits of space travel for you? I mean, you were always curious about motion sickness in zero gravity, right? And what happens when you have to go to the bathroom? What about keeping yourself clean in space? Or, you know, what would happen if a pair of astronauts fell in love and, well, stuff happened in space?!

Mary Roach told me all the gross stuff that I really care about. I mean, sure, there’s plenty of science in there, but it’s the science of every imaginable bodily fluid in space. It’s about just how long an astronaut can go without bathing before stinking their suits up so badly they make themselves ill. It’s about how teams of dietitians study which foods to feed space travelers that will produce the least amount of solid waste. It’s about filtering pee, you guys! If you were ever THAT KID in science class who was interested in the science of boogers, Packing for Mars is 100% your guide to space travel. Take my word for it, kids, this book is a winner!

Talk to me Bookworms! Did you ever daydream about being an astronaut?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission. Am I too old to go to Space Camp?*

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May 22

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

Non Fiction 21

Howdy Bookworms!

Have I ever told you how directionally challenged I am? It’s true. I’m quite pathetic at navigation, and frequently blame demonic possession of my GPS, lighting, and confusing road signs for my endless missteps. That’s part of the reason that when I was offered a copy of The Map Thief by Michael Blanding, I took the publisher up on the offer. Learning a little more about maps could only help me, right? *I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.*

themapthiefThe Map Thief was about SO much more than simple navigation, though. The full title is The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless MapsA mouthful, but an extremely helpful description. A HEIST is afoot, people!

So, this dude named Forbes Smiley (his real name, not a moniker adopted to better serve his dastardly doings) got into rare maps. He’s a gregarious eccentric oddball who frequently bounces checks, but he’s so super knowledgeable about maps and their history that he’s forgiven a multitude of sins… Until it comes to light that he’s stealing his inventory of rare maps from libraries and selling them to maintain a super lavish lifestyle. The book follows the life of the mysterious Forbes Smiley through his rise and fall.

It also gives all kinds of cool background information on maps. I never really considered the historical significance of maps, other than to marvel at their inaccuracy, but there’s so much more to them. You can trace the history of a particular region based on maps throughout the years. You can peek into disputed territories, get a feel for Colonialism, and explore the political implications of the time. The names of places change. If I may quote They Might Be Giants, “Even old New York was once New Amsterdam. Why they changed it I can’t say, people just liked it better that way.” Except that if you study maps, you CAN say, because the English seized it from the Dutch (who no doubt, uh, borrowed it from the indigenous population.)

This book offered a very cool glimpse into the world of rare maps as well as into the mind of a fascinatingly sketchy character. If you have any interest in maps, heists, or potential super villains, I recommend reading The Map Thief!

Tell me, Bookworms. Are any of you directionally challenged? Am I the only person who is hopeless in finding my way? 

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*

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