I’d much rather endorse a book I fully enjoyed than disparage the ones I didn’t. That’s why each post about a given work offers a generally positive opinion. However, a friend of mine convinced me that posting about the books I didn’t like was a service to the handful of you who have opted to follow History Reading Challenge. With one exception, I haven’t bothered to finish the books listed below, so it might be instructive to know how far I got with a particular title before I formed my negative opinion and gave up.
The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander by Jim DeFede
- Finished this one
- Great topic, but too “Lifetime Movie of the Week” in tone
This story tells about Gander, the Newfoundland town where hundreds of aircraft were grounded on 9/11. In response to the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., the United States abruptly and completely closed its airspace nationwide–indefinitely. This drastic measure suddenly left air traffic already inbound to the U.S. without a destination. Tiny Gander has the first North American air traffic control tower with which inbound European flights can communicate, and the ones without the fuel to continue on to other Canadian airports on that day needed to land at Gander’s tiny airport. This airport had seen little traffic since World War II.
I was intrigued by the logistics of feeding, housing and generally managing the thousands of scared passengers who outnumbered locals by a huge margin. Furthermore, the ways the small communities of Newfoundland spontaneously and generously assisted the strangers among them captured my imagination, and I enjoyed reading about it…to a point. Unfortunately, the author has a strong tendency to over-dramatize anecdotes that can stand on their own, turning even small kindnesses into saccharin, Hallmark-card moments. I finished the book out of respect for the people of Newfoundland and what they did. Unfortunately, the maudlin writing style made me want to kick the dog by the time I made it to the index (note: no animals were harmed in the reading of this book).
The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace
- Made it about 30% through the book
- Too much trivia about too many vintages irrelevant to the main story
Back in the 1990s, a curious bottle went to auction at Christie’s and was bid upon by Kip Forbes for his father, billionaire Malcolm Forbes. The bottle had the name “Th. J.” written on the label, and Thomas Jefferson was a known oenophile, but did the bottle really belong to the author of the Declaration of Independence? If so, it would be worth a fortune. However, its provenance had not been proven, and its value at auction depended largely on its history. Foremost experts in wine held one opinion about the bottle, while a historian at Monticello, Jefferson’s historic home, raised questions about authenticity claims made by Christie’s. Jefferson had kept meticulous records about nearly everything, including any purchases made for his household. Wines were always recorded…but there were a handful of exceptions, as when unremarkable vintages were purchased by agents overseas and shipped to Jefferson. And it gets trickier: were the contents even wine at all? Sounds like an interesting premise for a book, right?
Absolutely. I’d still love to know what happened, but I can’t bring myself to slog through all the trivia about the soil at this chateau versus that one; this year versus that year; credentials for various wine experts appearing in the book; trends in wine tasting (apparently, American nouveau riche had a habit of drinking priceless wines at huge society-page parties…”conspicuous consumption” indeed). Do give this book some consideration if you are enough of an oenophile to read that sort of information with interest.
Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell
- Only read 25% of the book according to my Kindle
- Ratio of agenda to content gets annoying
By the time I gave up on this book, I was sick of the author’s soapbox and his snarky attitude toward many of the people he encountered. Blackwell’s detailed and lively description of the [still radioactive] woodlands surrounding Chernobyl made for absorbing reading for one who only remembers the burning concrete ruins shown on CNN at the time. A perverse little tourist industry has grown up around the disaster, and the author’s visit there was the one real jewel of the book.
In another adventure, though, he visits a region (in North America) known for its refineries where flocks of migrating aquatic birds perished in a wastewater lake – they sank like feathered stones, apparently – and the company responsible is such a huge piece of the local economy that the locals tend to give them a pass on the whole duck thing. I’ll admit, there was a strong element of the absurd in what the author encountered there; however, his observations and research prior to the trip would have spoken for itself, no pounding on the podium required. That said, I was put off by the hard time he gave to lower-level employees–a tour guide and a truck driver–who need their paychecks and don’t make company policy. I suppose the title should have been a red flag for the reader who dislikes agenda-driven nonfiction.
Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey by Hugh Pope and Nicole Pope
- Only made it to page 40
- Not organized in an obvious way
I couldn’t make it very far in this book before frustration with its structure set in, which is a shame. I’d love to learn more about this nation’s rich history, particularly given its cultural position between East and West. It’s a part of the world I just haven’t been able to penetrate in this project, and learning more about the Middle East was part of the inspiration for beginning this blog’s project in the first place. Alas, the “veil” remains in place, as the prose was too painfully dry. Furthermore, the organization left something to be desired, as figures were introduced by name, but not described or explained until later in the work. The writing style could probably be forgiven as just especially academic, but the jumble of narratives deserves an editor with a firm hand and plenty of red ink.
At present, I am six months into my project, so this list of books is likely to grow. Perhaps interested readers of this post will have some alternatives to the topics covered here to suggest. In particular, I’d love to have a recommendation for a good introduction to history in the Middle East.