Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell
This book was mentioned several times in the reviews of Dead Presidents—a book I recently read, and loved. Maybe it's just a case of 'dead president' fatigue, but I didn't love Assassination Vacation as much as I expected I would. Both books are similar in topic, but very different in tone and if you have to choose just one I'd go with Dead Presidents. I wasn't familiar with Sarah Vowell, a contributor to NPR's This American Life before picking up this book, but I did enjoy her personal asides and think that we'd probably be great friends if we ever met in real life. Sometimes Vowell's "historical tourism" pursuits were too obscure and light on historical significance for even me to care much about—although it's always nice to discover other people who are passionate about their interests, no matter how strange they may seem.
This was a no-brainer for me as soon as I saw it—a book on the history of photography with a particular focus on spirit photography? Sold. I generally loved this book (and all of the photos were a nice addition), but I had one major problem with it—it's never stated exactly how William Mumler made his famous spirit photographs. Mumler was eventually put on trial for fraud and photography experts presented seven possible methods for obtaining similar results, but Mumler was acquitted and it's never explained exactly how his photographs were made (or who the "spirits" actually were). This is the one question I was dying to know when I started this, and 300 pages later I'm still left wondering.
I remember recently searching for a book on Joseph Lister and his revolutionary discoveries in antiseptic surgery, and coming up short. When I saw a listing for The Butchering Art on Amazon months before its release date, I checked on it frequently and impatiently awaited its arrival at my local library. It was definitely worth the wait, and I tore through this enjoyable account of Lister's fascinating life in less than a week. I read a lot about medical history, and Lister comes up frequently, so it was nice to finally fill in the gaps with more of his story. Lister wasn't working in a vacuum—he had several mentors, a very supportive father and drew heavily on Louis Pasteur's revolutionary germ theory (maybe my next biography subject!).
The subtitle "grisly world of Victorian medicine" sold me alone, and if you love reading about bone saws, gangrene and other gruesome bits of history like me than you'll love this book. Lister's lifelong passion for research and improvement is as admirable as his skills as a surgeon, and I actually teared up at the end of this book—not because of Lister's death, but because of his inspiring life and the countless lives that were saved because of it.
America's Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories, by Bruce David Forbes
I love holidays and reading origin stories for cultural phenomena, and this book delves into why and how five holidays (Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving) became what they are today. Forbes presents a three-layer-cake theory that these holidays have been shaped by modern popular culture, a religious or national overlay and seasonal celebrations. Forbes is a Professor of Religious studies and might devote a little too much time to the intricacies of religions for my taste and he can be a bit dry (and corny, ending chapters with phrases like, "stay tuned!"). But this is one of those books that I came away from with an endless list of fun facts that I can't wait to trot out during each holiday season.
The Magician and the Spirits, by Deborah Noyes
I picked up this book on a whim while at the library, because I couldn't pass up a book about Houdini and spiritualism (or great cover typography). It's a YA book, so it was an easy read, but as a result it didn't really provide me with any new insights into either subject. I already knew a lot about spiritualism from my interest in the Fox Sisters and from reading The Apparitionists, but this book just left me wanting to read a proper biography about Houdini and his fascinating life.