Tag Archives: books

American Reading: History


book collection verticalEven when I’m not travelling to America I continue reading books on that subject. Today I would like to share with you three fascinating titles about the early colonial history of America. The first two especially are close to my interests as they investigate in depth early British – American links.

So, the first book I would like to mention is Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World by Nick Bunker. It describes in great detail the crucial events of the late 16th and early 17th centuries which lead to the establishment of the Plymouth Plantation by the “pilgrims”. Actually, this book is as much about British history as it is about American. In fact it probably tells us more about Britain and Europe in those years than about America. The book concentrates on the Puritan movement which developed at that time and which flourished in a few regions of England from where the majority of the influential pilgrims came from. Bunker concentrates on Nottinghamshire and some parts of Sussex. He also describes the political and religious situation in Britain in those years as well as the European wars, politics and economy (which all contributed to establishing New Plymouth). This book is well researched and investigates many different angles to an otherwise well known but often simplified and stereotypical story of the pilgrims. There is for example a great chapter describing puritans exiled in Leiden which provides great insight into Dutch history and British – Dutch links.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. Some reviews on various websites are a bit critical, especially about the author describing lots of detailed facts and not linking them as well as he could or, on the other hand, stretching some links too far. For a non-historian like myself (though with a great interest in history) this criticism is too harsh. Also, living in London I really enjoyed all the small facts and links to the whole history to London, like mentioning inns and churches where Puritans met in the City, or streets where prominent backers of the whole colonial enterprise lived.

The second book I want to write about today is Death or Victory: The Battle for Quebec and the Birth of Empire by Dan Snow. It describes events almost exactly 150 years later than the first book. By then the British and French colonies in America were well established and had started playing a major role in those countries’ history. They were no more peripheral outposts but places crucial to the development of the great colonial empires. As the title implies the book concentrates on the battle of Quebec in 1759 in which British forces defeated the French and took over North America. As with the aforementioned story of the pilgrims this is another detailed and well researched book focusing on a relatively narrow subject. It describes the British military machine of that time (including many technical aspects of the Royal Navy and British Army) and colonial societies, but it concentrates on this one particular military campaign. There are a lot of references to diaries and letters by British and French officers (especially the British commander general James Wolfe) which gives the book quite a personal feel. As a geographer I also enjoyed the detailed descriptions of local topography and wider geography and how it influenced those historic events. The author describes for example how tides on the St Lawrence river influenced manoeuvring by the navy or how the steep slopes on the both banks of the river limited landing possibilities. Overall this book is a great read for a history buff like me.

Now, what I also really enjoyed is how these books connect to my travels. A couple of years ago I managed to visit Plymouth, Massachusetts, where pilgrims established their settlement and the last year I visited Westerham, Kent, where general Wolfe was borne and where he lived in house which is nowadays called Quebec House (more about the visit here). Now I would definitely like to visit Quebec to see the places described in the second book. However, that has to wait as I just came back from another of my US adventures and need to replenish my budget.

And that’s where I have to mention the third book I wanted to write about today: The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans by Lawrence N. Powell. Yes, you guessed it. It is yet another detailed historical book concentrating on a fairly narrow subject. But don’t worry, it’s not as narrow as the previous two. Basically it is a history of the first 100 years of New Orleans. And what a fascinating history it is. For a start the city is located in the wrong place. Literarily. Its founder, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, ignored orders from France and established it in a less than ideal site (with limited commercial or agricultural merit, founded on unstable soil, and subject to heat, disease, floods, torrential rain, and hurricanes) in a place where he had some properties and personal interests. As you can see corruption is not a new phenomenon. The book covers the period starting from founding of New Orleans in 1718 and ending in 1815 by when the city is already under control of the young United States. In that span it switched from French to Spanish hands (1763), was burned and flooded a few times, moved back under French control (1801), before being taken over by the Americans and fighting off the British. All this is interesting in itself but the best aspect of the book are the parts where the author describes its geographical, demographic and social background.

New Orleans has developed distinct ethic and cultural mix and source of this mix is in those first 100 years. It always had a large slave population but under French, and especially Spanish, rule that society developed in a distinctively different way to other parts of the American south. Part of the reasons were the different cultural attitudes of French and Spanish to race that was distinctly different to the Anglo-Saxon attitude . Also, the Spanish slave code was “more progressive” (if we can ever call it that) compared to anything the English, or even the French, society ever came up with. All this made New Orleans a city like no other.

The book is at times quite heavy in details. For example the author describes the legal nuances of French and Spanish law (especially regarding the slave codes) as well as lists plenty of names of local dignitaries. But all those details really help to understand why New Orleans developed the way it did. And besides, for me the more detailed the book the better, I simply hate simplified histories.

So, that’s it for now. All three books are well worth a read. If you only have time or patience for one of them start from the one most relevant to your interests. Oh, and as soon as I read something good I promise to share it with you again. In the meantime there will be more travel stories coming, including of course the fabulous New Orleans.Bourbon Bar


American Reading: Geography

book collection verticalNow, the time has come to write about some seriously geeky books about America, especially its geography. 

To connect with my last post let’s start with a book which connects history and geography. North America: The Historical Geography of a Changing Continent” by Robert D. Mitchell and Paul A. Groves describes in great detail the formation and growth of the North American regions. The book explores the acquisition of geographical knowledge, cultural transfer and acculturation, frontier expansion, spatial organization of society, resource exploitation, regional and national integration, and landscape change. It is full of maps and tables and it explains why American looks as we know it. It even explains why America is called America in the first place. Among many things it, for example, describes is how Spanish missions and presidios were organized, how ribbon land organization developed in the St. Lawrence valley or in parts of Louisiana, how the well-known American grid pattern was developed during the westward expansion, how railways changed the Great Plains or how suburbanization started (earlier than many people think). It is one of the best academic book I have ever read.

The next book which also touches on American spatial organization is Sprawl: A Compact History” by Robert Bruegmann. Suburbanization and sprawl are of course hot and controversial topics so this book got some mixed reviews (to say the least). As the title says it is a history of sprawl from ancient Rome through, for example, inter-war London all the way to the exurbs of Los Angeles or Atlanta. But it also describes the causes of sprawl and presents modern anti-sprawl policies. Bruegmann presents a fantastic work in sprawl’s defence. As he mentions in his preface though, this work is not intended to be an apology for sprawl, it’s supposed to be in its defence and he does a good job doing it throughout the book. It might not present views favoured by many (especially in Europe) but it is a thought provoking book challenging traditional views and it is well worth reading.

Also connected to the issue of suburbanization and sprawl is the next book on my list. InThe Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant” Mark Binelli tells the story of the boom and bust – and of a new society to be found emerging from the debris. The book combines a fairly good overall history of one of the great American cities, from its French fur-trading beginnings until its recent collapse, with an account of the latest changes and developments (for example urban farming or the vibrant art scene). Binelli is a Detroit native (albeit not living there) and he clearly cares about the city, which makes this book a great personal account of one of the most interesting places in the US.

The next book I would like to recommend couldn’t describe a more contrasting side of America, its rural heartlands.Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains” by William Ashworth tells the story of one of my favourite US regions, the Great Plains. Ogallala aquifer stretches from Texas to South Dakota and from Colorado almost to Iowa covering an area almost twice the size of Great Britain. This book is great mix of personal travelogue type stories with expert research about one of the most important issues of the American west, water. Ashworth writes about the geology of the aquifer, farming and ranching in the region, the history of the aquifer exploration and about its uncertain future caused by overuse. It is a really great read about a fascinating aspect of one of the most underrated corners of America.

Another book also about water is The Great Lakes Water Wars” by Peter Annin. The Great Lakes are the largest collection of fresh surface water on earth, and more than 40 million Americans and Canadians live in their basin. It is also another of my favourite region of America however underrated and ignored by most visitors to the US. This title discusses the battle to protect the largest reservoir of fresh water on earth from questionable projects of water diversions or even crazy ideas of exporting it by tankers to China. The author interviewed numerous politicians, government officials, scientists, environmentalists, lawyers and other key figures to give the reader an inside view of the struggle to protect the Great Lakes. The book also contains several case studies including the demise of the Aral Sea in Central Asia after the water from rivers entering the Aral Sea was diverted for agricultural irrigation and the reversal of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan. It is a well balanced and informative book, a bit heavy on legal and political issues but still very entertaining.

Now, “Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America” by Tom Vanderbilt is definitely one of the most interesting books I have read in the last few years. A fascinating travelogue mixing the frightening and the comical as it takes us around some of the most unusual sites in the US. From the bunkers of Greenbrier, West Virginia (where Congress was supposed to be relocated when the worst came to the worst), to the NORAD headquarters deep inside the Cheyenne Mountain, from “proving grounds” of Nevada, where entire cities were built only to be vaporized, to the sites of decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos in the Dakotas. The author travels the Interstate (itself a product of the Cold War) to uncover the sites of Cold War architecture and reflect on their lasting heritage. This book covers a fascinating array of Cold War relics in America. The Cold War was the war that never happened but it still spurred the most significant buildup of military contingency in the US, a collection of truly bizarre and impressive installations. I was always mildly fascinated by military technology but I think this is a great book for everyone with an open mind and looking for a new take on America.

At the end something a bit lighter (but still informative). How the States Got Their Shapes” by Mark Stein describes in fifty manageable chapters how the US states got their often weird shapes. Some of the stories in the book (like for example the war between Ohio and Michigan) are absolutely fascinating. This book might be quite repetitive but you can still choose on a few particular chapters. I myself as a true map and US enthusiast thoroughly enjoyed it and read it from cover to cover.

That’s it for now. When I find an interesting book on America, I’ll share it here; meanwhile I’m busy preparing for my next trip to the USA…

American Reading: Fiction & History

book collectionEven when I am between my trips to the US (like at the moment) I still can’t completely abandon my American passion. That’s when reading and researching comes handy.

So I decided to share some of the interesting books about America which I have read in the last few years.

Let’s start with some classics. I have to admit that it was only recently that I decided to read two of the most important American books: The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. Steinbeck’s novel especially made a big impression on me. I’m not really a big novel reader but this is an excellent book. Steinbeck’s description of the great depression and corresponding poverty is very vivid. It is definitely one of the best books I have ever read. It also feels relevant in our contemporary economic crisis. Sometimes when I watch the news or documentaries about poverty I think that times haven’t changed that much since the 1920s.

On the Road is a much more optimistic book, a classic travel story set in the late 1940s. It is one of the defining works of the Beat Generation with its protagonists living a life against a backdrop of jazz, poetry, and drug use.

One of the best anthologies I have read was State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America”. It is a collection of essays, one on each of the fifty states, which must have been inspired by the legendary WPA American Guide series of the 1930s and ’40s. Authors of the essays vary from well-known novelists and journalists (think Anthony Bourdain, Susan Orlean, and Sarah Vowell) to not so well-known, but they are all worth a read. Stories in the book are really diverse, two of the chapters (not surprisingly on cool Oregon and Vermont) are even in the form of short graphic novels.

But it is non-fiction which I really enjoy and one of my favourite subjects is history. Over the years I have read many publications about American history. Some of them were thin and light booklets, some were standard books and some of them were complete and detailed multi-volume works (including a five-volume history of the USA published in Polish). I don’t remember the titles and authors of all of them but here are some of a few of my recent favourites.

Let’s start with “Colonial America: A History, 1607-1760” by Richard Middleton. This is a single-volume narrative history of the 13 North American British colonies which eventually formed the nucleus of the United States. The author covers the entire period from foundation and the first settlement of the Pilgrim Fathers to the start of the movement for independence. I really enjoy such precise and geeky books.

For the same reason I also really enjoyed 1776: America and Britain at War” by David McCullough. This detailed yet colourful book presents the story of the year of the birth of the United States of America. It tells two stories: how a group of squabbling, disparate colonies became the United States, and how the British Empire tried to stop them. It features a cast of amazing characters from George III to George Washington, to soldiers and their families. However, I have to warn you about two things: it only cover year 1776, not the whole war for independence, and it helps if you already know a bit about US history when you read it.

Anyone even remotely interested in American history should read something about the American Civil War. This was a defining moment in American history as well as its bloodiest war and it accounted for roughly as many American deaths (about 620,000) as all American deaths in other U.S. wars combined. A good book to start with is The American Civil” War from the excelent Essential Histories series produced by Osprey Publishing. This book, with a foreword by Professor James McPherson, traces the course of the war in both Eastern and Western theatres, looking at strategic, geographical and logistic factors as well as the soldiers, officers, and civilians who were caught up in the conflict.

Another book which I simply have to list here is Simon’s Schama The American Future”. It traces the history of a country whose most enduring trait is its capacity for self-renewal, especially in times of disaster. Examining issues of power, race and immigration, religious fervour and prosperity, this masterful portrait of the world’s most controversial superpower looks backwards and forwards to understand why now, more than ever, the fate of America, and by extension the rest of the world, is hanging in the balance. An assessment of America’s past at a time of apparent radical change – the 2008 presidential election – is the prism through which Schama’s narrative works (the result was not yet known when the book was published) and lies behind the book’s title.

Finally, one more interesting book about American history which I want to mention is The American West: A New Interpretive History” by Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher. They present the American West as both frontier and region, real and imagined, old and new, and they show how men and women of all ethnic groups were affected when different cultures met and clashed. Their concise and engaging survey of frontier history traces the story from the first Columbian contacts between Native Americans and Europeans to the multicultural encounters of the modern Southwest. It is great book, but in my opinion it lacks a bit of balance At times the authors summarize crudely-with dismissive judgements (“nonsense”) and use exclamation points galore to show us when we should boo or hiss. Less empowered (victim) groups are too often uncritically treated as noble and the majority as vile even though the book pays little attention to the latter. Still, even with those few drawbacks, it is still well worth reading.

As much as I like history, it is not everything. At the end, I am still a geographer, both in my heart and by profession and I always enjoy books which have some “geographic angle” to them. There are quite a few of them so I will have to write about them next time.