Last Week’s Reading: January 15-21


A dystopian classic, two collections by Poets Laureate, sci-fi shorts, a nonfiction juggernaut, and a powerful play.

Well, Dear Readers, here we are. And here’s what I read last week.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: Even more frightening now than when I first read it ten years ago. If you haven’t read this classic yet, now might be a pretty good time.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove: I bought this collection in Denver last year, and finally read it on Martin Luther King Day. It’s excellent, particularly in the way the title sequence allows us to see the sweep of historical events through individual experience. The poems grouped in “Cameos” and “Black on a Saturday Night” reminded me of Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work; you might try reading the collections together. And bookish folk will love the poems “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967” and  “The First Book.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot: I finally got a library card for our new city’s system, and then proceeded (finally) to read this medical and social history that practically everyone else has read in the six or so year since it came out. I was impressed by the volume of research Ms. Skloot conducted and the sensitivity with which she handled the stories of Henrietta Lacks’s family, but I did wish for more background on cell science and advances made with HeLa cells. If you read the book when it came out, you might want to head over to this website to read updates about the project.

Arrival (original published as Stories of Your Life and Others), by Ted Chiang: I bought this collection because I very much want to see Arrival (unfortunately, I missed it in theaters), and I like to read source material first. “Story of Your Life,” which is the basis for the movie, is exceptionally good, one of the very best short stories—though it feels like a super-compressed novel—I’ve ever read. Stunning, and by that I mean I felt stunned after I read it. Also very impressive was “Tower of Babylon,” which leads off the collection. The other six stories (most of the stories in the book are very long for short stories, by the way) were interesting, but not quite my cup of tea, stylistically; they seemed, with exception of “Seventy-two Letters,” like sustained thought experiments. All the stories, however, reveal a deeply thoughtful mind at work, and offer more questions than answers; I’m glad I read them.

The Laramie Project, by Moisés Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project: This play must have been (must be) incredibly powerful in performance. It’s an exploration of Laramie, Wyoming’s reaction to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1998. The members of the theater group traveled to Wyoming six times in eighteen months to interview friends of Matthew, friends of the perpetrators, police officers, students, religious leaders, and other townspeople; the words gathered in the interviews were shaped into the work. The Laramie Project is an act of radical witness; it’s impossible not to be moved by it.

Notes on the Assemblage, by Juan Felipe Herrera (current United States Poet Laureate): The poems in this collection are political and personal, full of lamentation and exuberance. You’ll find calls to action, pleas for remembrance, elegies, riffs that feel like jazz, Spanish and English talking to each other and not speaking. “Borderbus” was for me the standout poem—heartbreaking and unforgettable.

P. S. Given the busy news cycle this weekend, you might not have focused on the destructive and deadly storms in the South this weekend. If you’d like to support disaster relief efforts, here’s a link to the Red Cross donations page.  You can also check out Pinebelt Relief.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, Dear Readers. See you next week.

Recommended Reading: Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

"Enlist" poster by Fred Spear Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-1129

“Enlist” poster by Fred Spear
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-1129

This May will mark 100 years since the Lusitania, a Liverpool-bound British passenger liner, was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1200 people on board. While the United States did not enter World War I until 1917, when unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram had finally swayed public opinion against neutrality, the 1915 tragedy was still fresh in American minds, and a century later questions still remain about the sinking.

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake* is the meticulously researched tale of the Lusitania‘s final voyage, focusing on the ship, its passengers, the U-boat that sank it, Woodrow Wilson, and a top-secret British intelligence unit that could have saved the ship.

It’s also a fascinating portrait of 1915 America—its attitudes, tastes, movements, styles of dress, and even writing peculiarities (I was struck by the description of the Arts and Crafts movement, which sounds very similar to the DIY/maker culture that’s floating about today [for parodies, see Portlandia]).

photo (18)Mr. Larson follows several passengers throughout the voyage, including Charles Lauriat, a famous Boston bookseller who was transporting priceless works by Thackeray and Dickens to England; a pair of brothers who joined the Lusitania’s crew at the last minute; Theodate Pope, spiritualist and architect; and families with young children. The Lusitania sailed with an unusual number of children aboard, which makes the account of the torpedoing, sinking, and rescue effort particularly difficult to read, since so many children were killed (of thirty-one infants aboard, only six survived). Some parents were separated from their children, and entire families fell together to the bottom of the sea.

The direct responsibility for this horrible event rests squarely on the shoulders of the U-20’s commander, Walther Schweiger (who had once fired on a marked hospital ship), but Mr. Larson makes the case for other indirect causes of the disaster. A delayed departure, fog, conflicting messages sent to the Lusitania‘s captain, orders that the ship shouldn’t run at top speed—all of these played some role in setting the ship in Schweiger’s path.

And that path was being tracked by British intelligence, though they did not share information with Cunard that could have prevented the sinking—but why? Mr. Larson’s suggestions are intriguing.

The book only falters, in my opinion, in its over-focus on Woodrow Wilson. While Mr. Larson shows how hard Wilson was working to keep the country out of the war (Wilson’s strongly-worded notes to the Kaiser after the sinking were the target of Onion-like satire, and the political parallels with the present day are hard to miss, especially given Wilson’s fondness for golf), I was often taken out of the story’s grip when the book detoured into Wilson’s relationship with Edith Bolling; I felt that story belonged in another book. Wilson’s political maneuverings and diplomatic philosophy could have been more strongly juxtaposed against those of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty when Lusitania sank. I would have liked to see more focus on Churchill, as well.

Dead Wake is well-written and suspenseful, even though the outcome of the sailing is a foregone conclusion. I found it hard to put down, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to read one of Mr. Larson’s books.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

An Interview with Michael Blanding, Author of The Map Thief

Yesterday, I reviewed Mr. Blanding’s newest book, The Map Thief. Mr. Blanding graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Map Thief? What was the writing process like?

Michael Blanding Author Photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

Michael Blanding
Author Photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

MB: I have always been interested in maps, and was struck by Smiley’s story when I first read it in the New Yorker back in 2006. I was fascinated by how much people were willing to pay for antiquarian maps and how Smiley was able to exploit that desire for these rare objects in perpetrating his thefts. When I heard he was out of prison in 2011, I approached him for an interview and found him very willing to talk and tell his story. As I started working on the book, however, he suddenly stopped cooperating, and I had to work hard to report around him through other dealers and libraries in order to piece together the story. It added a lot more work to the writing and reporting — so that it eventually took me three years in all.

Writing the book clearly involved a great deal of research into the world of maps; is there a particular cartographic time period or geographical region that was a favorite with you?

photo (82)MB: As a lifelong resident of New England, I was fascinated to learn about the early settlement of this region by the English in the1600s. Smiley was also a New England native and specialized in this period, and so I was able to learn a lot from the maps he traded and eventually stole… At the time, the Dutch “golden age” of mapmaking was waning and the English were the upstarts in colonizing the area — so their first maps are very crude. But very quickly over the course of the century you can see them filling in details and creating more accurate depictions of the area as their knowledge and power increased. It’s very cool to see that happen right on the pages of these maps and atlases.

Many of the events of The Map Thief take place in the Northeast, and the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library figures prominently in the book. Since you are a Boston-area-based writer, can you recommend any other locations in Boston where new cartophiles might find interesting maps to peruse?

MB: Interestingly, before Smiley started stealing maps, he was a successful map dealer for many years — and his first and most important client was Boston real estate developer Norman Leventhal. Over the years, Smiley helped him acquire the largest collection of maps of Boston and New England ever assembled. While Leventhal eventually donated money to endow the map center at the Boston Public Library, he kept the rarest and most valuable maps in his possession — and they can now be viewed in a permanent exhibit at the Boston Harbor Hotel. The exhibit offers a fascinating glimpse at the history of Boston on multiple walls of its lobby and conference rooms, and I really recommend it to visitors of the city.

Given the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in his self-portrayal, would you be interested in interviewing E. Forbes Smiley III again if he decided to grant interviews once more? Do you think there’s anything left to be gleaned there?

MB: Though Smiley gave me a lot of information about himself and his thefts in the six hours he spoke with me, there were still pieces of the story he promised to tell me before he cut off contact — including exactly how he stole the maps and which maps he stole when. I was able to piece much of this information together from other sources, but still had to speculate on some ofthe chronology of the thefts. I would have liked to go through this chronology in more detail and cross-reference it with information he provided to the FBI to try and pin down these details.

What kinds of projects are you working on now?

MB: I don’t have another book project as of yet, but I am working on some interesting magazine stories, including an article for WIRED magazine about issues surrounding electronics manufacturing overseas. I’m also putting together a proposal for a new book that combines investigative reporting and memoir — we’ll see if that comes together! At the moment, though, I’m very excited to work on publicizing The Map Thief through media and speaking events — and finally sharing my baby with the world after three years of work.

My thanks again to Mr. Blanding for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about The Map Thief and Michael Blanding’s work at

If you’re in the Boston area, head over to the Brookline Booksmith on June 3 from 7-9pm for a reading, reception, and signing with Michael Blanding. 

Out Today and Recommended: The Map Thief, by Michael Blanding

photo (82)For years, E. Forbes Smiley III seemed to be the kind of man who matched his name’s connotations: moneyed, educated, successful. An antiquarian map dealer, Smiley shuttled between both sides of the Atlantic, becoming an expert in valuable and rare maps, particularly early maps of New England.

He was also stealing them.

In The Map Thief*, Michael Blanding investigates the paradox that Smiley represents. How could a man who treasured maps, who taught himself about them by poring over them in some of the world’s finest libraries, desecrate the very documents he valued and betray the people who shared his interests?

Mr. Blanding delves into Smiley’s life and work, bringing to life Smiley’s quixotic attempt to shape the world to fit his vision. (For instance, Smiley tried to reinvigorate a Maine town on his own, without much consideration of residents’ input, which turned into a spectacular failure.) His friends came up with the term “Forbes dollars”: “a personal accounting system in which Smiley always spent less than he had and was always owed more than he was” (83). As his career progressed, Smiley sank deeper into debt, impulsively buying maps even if he didn’t have the funds ready to pay for them.

In one instance, Smiley bought a rare atlas from another dealer for $50,000. When his check bounced, the other dealer demanded the atlas back, but it was too late: “he had taken the atlas apart right on the train up to Boston, selling several charts of Boston Harbor to Leventhal and keeping the rest, hoping to sell them to other clients to recoup the cost. [. . . ] he [the other dealer] couldn’t help but be appalled that Smiley had so cavalierly taken apart a book with less than ten known copies in the world” (73).

If the thought of Smiley tearing apart an atlas he (ostensibly) bought makes you shudder, the actual thefts will repel you. The gravity of the thefts — the number, the institutions affected, the rarity of the works taken, the fact that many are still unrecovered — is simply outrageous; Smiley’s prison sentence seems ridiculously light. I’ve had the privilege of handling two or three rare books, and the thought of someone opening one too swiftly sets my heart racing — the thought of someone ripping out a page is painful.

Though Smiley is the subject of The Map Thief, and Mr. Blanding places him in the context of the lively and sometimes strange world of rare map aficionados (dealers, collectors, and librarians), the book shines brightest when Mr. Blanding recounts the history of the rare maps themselves and the people who created them. The research is meticulous, and the historical characters fascinating. The book includes several full-color plates of some of the maps discussed in the text, and they’re just glorious (this comes, by the way, from a person whose only displayed map is one of Middle Earth). If you aren’t a map person before you read this book, you very well may be one afterward.

Tomorrow: An Interview with Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Recommended Reading, Bonus Round: The Lost City of Z, by David Grann

I’ve run out of Thursdays to post my Recommended Reading, but I’ve read a couple more books recently that I didn’t want to leave unwritten-about when the calendar flips to 2014.

The first is David Grann’s 2009 bestseller The Lost City of Z, a nonfiction account of Mr. Grann’s attempt to trace the story of legendary explorer Percy Fawcett’s disappearance into the Amazon in 1925. I bought the book for my husband a couple years ago, and I’ve been eyeing it ever since.The Lost City of Z

You’ve probably noticed that my reading habits tend toward fiction and poetry, but I do try to live up to my “Omnivorous Reader” tagline by dabbling in YA, nonfiction, and even, once, romance (shudder). And I’m very glad this is so, because The Lost City of Z was a great read.

Now, generally I don’t go in for books about adventurers and extreme sports, because I just can’t get over the “why the hell would you leave your family to perform some completely unnecessary feat of strength and possibly endanger people who are required to rescue you?” reaction. All those books about people who climb Everest drive me CRAZY. Don’t get me started on skydiving. Want a physical challenge and have money and/or time to burn? Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, or help medical brigades deliver care to rural areas of the world, participate in disaster relief, join an archaeological dig. Or, you know, just take a hike, with the proper equipment and planning.

Anyway. Lost City of Z avoids this problem since a large chunk of the book traces Fawcett’s treks in the first quarter of the twentieth century, when great swaths of the Amazon were unexplored and when aerial surveys weren’t feasible. Fawcett made invaluable contributions to cartography, and though he was as ethnocentric as the next British explorer in those years, he avoided violence and showed respect for tribespeople. Yes, exploration is inherently violent in many respects, but this guy wasn’t out to conquer — he was out to make discoveries. And the discovery he most wanted to make was of ‘Z,’ the name Fawcett coined to describe a city of a hypothetical lost Amazon civilization, which he believed would have rivaled the Aztecs or the Inca in sophistication and scope.

As Mr. Grann tries to understand Fawcett’s disappearance (the man was a legend, unbelievable skilled at survival and endowed with an almost miraculously sturdy constitution), he inserts himself into his own narrative, poking through dusty archives, visiting with Fawcett’s descendants, even trekking out to the Amazon himself. In a documentary film, this kind of move would be an automatic turn-off — seriously, even Werner Herzog barely gets away with it in Grizzly Man — but Mr. Grann is so relentlessly focused on his object of study that these self-insertions make sense. Fawcett is so hard to track down that he turns other people into explorers.

Full of outsized personalities and interesting factoids, The Lost City of Z reads so smoothly that it felt novel-like. Highly recommended.

Recommended Reading: The Pinecone, by Jenny Uglow

What drew me to this book was its subtitle: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine—Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary. I thought to myself, “why haven’t I heard of this person?”

Pine Cone image courtesy of cbenjasuwan /

Pine Cone image courtesy of cbenjasuwan /

Sarah Losh (1785-1853) was part of a large and prosperous family who lived in Wreay, in Cumbria (northern England). As I learned from Ms. Uglow’s history, Sarah never married, but enjoyed a full and exciting life of the mind, traveling and working with her sister Katharine (her closest friend, like Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra). She consistently stood up for and helped the poor and the vulnerable in her community, and after her death the townspeople planted a tree in her honor, the tribute they thought would be most fitting.

Sadly, Sarah ordered her own papers and letters to be destroyed, so Ms. Uglow reconstructs her history by painting a picture of her extended family and the cultural milieu of Cumbria in particular and late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England and Europe in general.

Sarah’s crowning achievement is the unique (to say the least) village church at Wreay, which she redesigned herself, choosing everything from the stone to the timber to the glass. She even helped to carve the baptistry and the candlesticks. The church features lecterns in the shapes of an eagle and a stork; images of ammonites and other fossils, pinecones, lotuses, and even bats! I did wish the book’s pictures were in color so that I could get a better sense of the church’s tone — I rather doubt I’ll be in Cumbria any time soon.

A few odds and ends that I loved (and which made me realize that, for books like The Pinecone, I should really invest in these):

  • The Bishop of Carlisle, Dean Milner, wore wigs, which, according to his granddaughter, “were known in the family as ‘Highty, Tighty, and Scrub; the first for London and State occasions; the second for official appearances in Carlisle; and Scrub for home wear'” (72).
  • Sarah’s father John belonged to a club, and the men, over a very long sitting, would each drink three bottles of port, except “‘On rare occasions, wrote Lonsdale, ‘such as a victory by Nelson or the dashing Cochrane, the fourth bottle to each man was held to be the right mode of rendering the fact historical'” (74).
  • One thing that struck me was how forcefully and effectually Sarah’s uncle, James Losh, advocated for the education and intellectual advancement of his nieces, and his admiring praise for Sarah’s many accomplishments. (For instance, she studied Italian and French, could sight-read Latin, and she studied ancient Greek three hours every day until she could translate it almost at sight; Ms. Uglow compares her to Eliot’s Dorothea [78]).
  • A book that was popular in the nineteenth century and so good that Byron “allegedly wept with jealousy when he read it” (209): Thomas Hope’s Anastasius. I just looked for it on Goodreads, and there isn’t a single rating or review.
  • Instead of gargoyles, Sarah’s church features a crocodile, a cross between a snake and a plesiosaur, a winged turtle, and a dragon. The dragon’s mouth spouts smoke from the boiler in the church below. Seriously. Her church has a fire-breathing dragon.
  • I love the profusion of treatises with unassuming titles in the nineteenth century. Ms. Uglow does an excellent job of showcasing some of those titles, as well as the nineteenth century’s numerous amateur societies that discussed and spurred advancements in the arts and sciences. I wonder, do blogs today take up some of these societies’ functions? Are we a dispersed Society for the Advancement of Reading?

Full of interesting anecdotes and offering a sweeping overview of this fascinating period in English history, The Pinecone is an excellent foray into reviving the memory of an extraordinary woman.

Have you read any great nonfiction books lately? Do you know of any forgotten female figures in need of a revival?

Recommended Reading: The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin

I’ve been waiting anxiously for the Supreme Court to issue its major rulings for this session, so I asked friends to recommend the best books about the Court. Votes were cast for The Nine and for The Brethren, and the library got The Nine in first, so here we are.

It’s a startling portrait of the justices and their major cases over the last twenty or so years, and I felt I learned quite a bit about some of the justices’ personalities and the reasoning and maneuvering behind some of the major rulings. Based on this strength alone, I recommend the book.

The book is dated, of course (published before the 2008 election), but that can’t be helped. However, I felt at times that Mr. Toobin’s portrayals of the justices shaded toward unseemly. For instance, is it necessary to say that Justice Scalia “raged”? Or to comment more than once on Justice Ginsburg’s (physical) stature? Or to call Justice Kennedy vain? Far more interesting was the revelation that several of the justices enjoy travel and are interested in the views of their international colleagues.

I didn’t care for the organization of the book, which too often was chronologically vague and disjointed. And I would have preferred a narrative with fewer overt political opinions from the author, who seemed to me, at times, to be taking on the role of interpreter of the nation’s laws for himself.

Still, it’s worth reading if you’re interested in the workings of the court.