This slim little nonfiction book is weightier than its size suggests. McDade is a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, and I imagine his classes must be fascinating. In Thieves he has perfectly blended history, law, and bibliophilia. In less than 200 pages of text, he recounts the history of the thriving booksellers’ district in New York known as Book Row, the infancy of public librarianship on the East Coast, the individual lives of the library detectives, book thieves, and booksellers, and the various methods thieves used to identify, steal, and disguise valuable library books.
The book does incline to be academic. The writing is (very occasionally) dry, and the lengthy cast of characters can be hard to follow, particularly as many used aliases. But overall, it’s the most fun I’ve had reading about book theft since library school. Required reading for library staff, historians, and literate street gangs.
Read if you enjoyed: Bookhunter by Jason Shiga, Scribes, Script, and Books by Leila Avrin
Find Thieves of Book Row at Multnomah County Library
Deborah Blum’s nonfiction work is a riveting tale of history, science, and politics. What links the science of toxicology and Jazz-Age shenanigans? It’s simple—alcohol, and the lack thereof. Just as medical examiners and forensic scientists were developing the first tests for poison (which had previously been a nearly undetectable form of murder), the US began its noble experiment. The prohibition on alcohol during the 1920s created a raging black market for bootleg liquor, much of which was of dangerously poor quality. The government, hindered by dogmatic support for Prohibition, responded in odd and unhelpful ways. If you’ve ever been curious about Sherlock Holmes’ chemical tests; if you’ve ever wondered about Lucrezia Borgia’s hobbies; and if you’ve ever daydreamed of living through the Roaring Twenties, this is the book for you.
Read if you enjoyed: Stiff by Mary Roach, Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson
Look for The Poisoner’s Handbook at Multnomah County Library .
Tudor vs. Stuart: Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, two icons of British history. Jane Dunn dives into their parallel stories, contrasting their upbringing, style of rule, and ultimate fate. Despite the fact that the two women were related, that they were both reigning monarchs of neighboring countries, and that one held the other in prison for nearly twenty years, they never once met face-to-face. This palpable absence created a tension between them that affected their lives and their policies. Dunn draws on scores of letters between Elizabeth and Mary as well as contemporary historical sources, and crafts a work of nonfiction that reads like an epic saga.
Read if you enjoyed: Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir, Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
Look for Elizabeth and Mary at Multnomah County Library.
The Return of Martin Guerre is the true story of a fascinating historical legal case. The judge who presided over the trial in 16th-century France kept good notes, which later served as the basis for Davis’ book. The story, which has also been adapted as a movie, centers on the uncertain identity of Martin Guerre, a young man who abandons his wife and village. Ten years later, a man shows up claiming to be him. But in a time before photographs, before fingerprints, before ID cards, how can they be sure? This is a bizarre, moving story, and at only 162 pages, an easy foray into European history.
Read if you enjoyed: Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain
Look for The Return of Martin Guerre at Multnomah County Library.
Simon Winchester called his project “the biography of an ocean,” and that is the perfect phrase for this mesmerizing book. Who knew oceanography could be so entertaining? Using Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” as a framework, he explores the history of the Atlantic Ocean, from its geological formation to the development of civilization along its shores; from the slave trade to the Titanic; and so much more. Winchester draws on his own experiences crossing the ocean in ships and planes, traveling for work and pleasure. His respect and affection for the great body of water are clear throughout this rich, exciting work of nonfiction.
Read if you enjoyed: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Look for Atlantic at Multnomah County Library.
Emma Larkin’s extraordinary nonfiction book examining the influence of Burma on George Orwell’s literary legacy was first published in 2005, when the political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. Though the political landscape in Myanmar (formerly Burma) has become ever-so-slightly more democratic with her release and election to parliament, this look at literature in a totalitarian state remains relevant and utterly captivating. Larkin’s premise for this hybrid work of literary criticism/travelogue/political science is that the time Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell) spent in Burma as a young man and member of the imperial police had a profound influence on his later writing, and that the books Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984 form an unintentional trilogy about Burmese politics. A grim, intelligent book, and a must-read for fans of Orwell.
Read if you enjoyed: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, Burmese Days by George Orwell
Look for Finding George Orwell in Burma at Multnomah County Library.