Tuesday, January 23, 2007


This is true: Truth is stranger than fiction. Here are four non-fiction stories that all involve elements so strange that they'd be unbelievable in a novel. I highly recommend all four: they're exciting adventures in an exotic time and place with weird and twisted characters that'll keep you engrossed. If you're the type who usually goes for pop-fiction but are looking for something a little more substantial but still a page turner, here you go...

The rating system is based on how difficult a book is to read, not how good it is. All the books at Hansisgreat come highly recommended.

* <-----------> ** <-----------> *** <-----------> **** <----------> *****
Easy - - Pretty Easy - - Moderate - - Pretty Challenging - - Challenging

The Gates of Africa, by Anthony Sattin
$27.95 at Bn.com ISBN: 0312336438
*** (moderate)
Death, discovery, and the search for Timbuktu. Set toward the end of the 18th Century, when no one (in Europe, anyway) knew what was in the interior of Africa: they knew the shape of the continent and the coast. Unfortunately because of the thick jungles and virulent diseases, no white man had ever traveled more than a few miles inland and come out alive. Cartographers who depicted Africa on maps would make things up: phony mountain ranges, rivers, and so on. It was that or blank space! This is the story of the first few explorers who tried to answer the question: what exactly was in there? There had been legends of a city of gold called Timbuktu, no one even knew for sure if it was a real place. Several die in the attempt, I don't mind telling you. Voyaging up the Congo amidst hostile natives and malarial mosquitoes makes a lousy vacation but good reading, and Sattin is a great story-teller, understanding exactly which details are interesting. Four stars!
The Fourth Crusade, by Jonathan Phillips
$15.00 at Bn.com ISBN: 0143035908
** (pretty easy)
One of the strangest wars in history, in which absolutely everything goes wrong. They actually never got to the Holy Land or attacked a single Muslim soldier: it devolved into a state of near-anarchy outside Constantinople as the armies that were ostensibly on "the same side" fought each other and leaders drop like flies due to assassination and intrigue. Among the characters is Enrico Dandolo, the eighty year old Doge of Venice, who is blind and infirm, but plays most of the other players like puppets. It'd be a funny story if it weren't real and terrifically tragic. You needn't know anything about the previous crusades or medieval history to follow it, and Phillips' easy-going, novel-like writing style earned it the "pretty easy" rating.
The Children of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir
$13.50 at Bn.com ISBN: 0345407865
*** (moderate)
I mentioned The Wives of Henry VIII in a previous article, this is the sequel. Henry represents a turning point in British (and medieval) history. This is the story of his children and successors, four interesting rulers in their own right. Edward is first, his only son who inherited the throne when he was eleven. Then Mary, his oldest daughter whose Catholic radicalism earned her the nickname "Bloody Mary" for which the delicious tomato juice cocktail is named. Their tragic cousin, the Lady Jane Grey, who reigned very briefly and died under mysterious circumstances. Finally Elizabeth, the great dowager queen who ruled over fifty years of prosperity and patronized Shakespeare. It's short (only 366 pages) and a fun read indoors with a glass of wine on a cold winter night.
The Embarrassment of Riches
, by Simon Schama
$23.00 at Bn.com ISBN: 0679781242
*** (moderate)
What do you know about the Dutch? If you're like me, probably not much. Schama has produced a terrific first reader here: no long lists of kings' names to remember. The chapters can each be read independently, and all involve a different aspect of Dutch high culture. My favorite involves whales that washed up on the beach. Let me mention: we know what whales are, we've seen video footage of them in their underwater habitats. These people had no idea what a whale was, and when one occasionally washed up on shore they thought: "what the f**k is this thing?!" Funny. How they punished criminals, buried their dead, worked, laughed and loved. The fifteenth century in a land of windmills and funny hats will start to feel surprisingly familiar. Not history, just good stories about history. Funny anecdotes.

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