The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins: The Life and Legacy That Shaped an American City by Antero Pietila
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I really wanted to love this book. As a current Johns Hopkins graduate student, I spent two weeks in 2018 traveling around Baltimore getting to know its history and its people. I learned so much as a student and I was thrilled to grab an advanced copy of this book in hopes of learning a bit more about the city and the history of the university that calls Baltimore home. Alas, it was not to be.
It’s difficult to write a book about a man who destroyed all of his papers and correspondence. I get that. However, Antero Pietila tries to cover a Johns Hopkins the man, Johns Hopkins the University, and Johns Hopkins as the city of Baltimore. It’s just too great a swath of time and place to discuss well. Rather than a succinct history of a person, place, or time, Pietila has left us with a rambling narrative that only briefly touches on Johns Hopkins the man but also highlights struggles in funding a university, Civil War strife, grave robbing, building various railroads, race riots, mobs, and more. It’s incredibly difficult to follow as time jumps from the 1700s to the 1920s to the 1850s and back again. I often wasn’t sure who was being profiled or what century I was even in anymore.
While there are some really interesting bits of information (the part on Arabbers and the history of rent-to-own homes were fascinating) the book is just so difficult to follow and tedious to read that I quickly lost interest. For those who have an intimate knowledge of Baltimore, very little in the book will be a revelation. Most importantly, this book isn’t really about Johns Hopkins at all but an overarching view of the history of the university with a greater focus on the city of Baltimore.
It’s not often that I don’t finish a book, particularly an advanced copy, but this one is going to sit on the “to finish” shelf for a bit longer.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“History is a merciless judge. It lays bare our tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets, wielding the power of hindsight like an arrogant detective who seems to know the end of the mystery from the outset.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is an intense read and as usual, David Grann does not shy away from the gory details. Grann’s carefully researched book tells the tale of the systematic murder of the Osage Indians, cut down in cold blood for oil rights that the white settlers thought should be rightfully theirs. What’s even more shameful, is that the murders aren’t the result of a couple of greedy psychopaths, but a deeper plot involving the entire town, desperate to increase their already overflowing bank coffers.
I, personally, had never heard of the murders of the Osage despite the fact that they happened less than a century ago. It is painful to think that this erasure may be intentional but Grann seeks to give the dead a voice.
I don’t know why I’m always surprised by the human lust for money but this book was shocking. Despite that, the lessons imparted were more important than my discomfort. A must read for sure.
The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery set in the beauty and wonder of the Renaissance?
The Royal Art of Poison was disgusting, horrifying, creepy, nasty, and just plain delightful! Full disclosure: I’m a history nerd and a true crime geek (who knew, right?!) and this book fed my love of both. Eleanor Herman starts off with a brief history of poison and there was a lot of it in ancient times. Not just poisons like deadly nightshade but common household items, like makeup and even medicine, with full of arsenic and mercury! Not only was poison a common fear, but the sanitation levels were dismal. If it wasn’t the disease killing you, it was the mercury enemas.
Following the history lesson, each chapter tells the tale of a different historical figure who died under mysterious circumstances. Herman presents the reader with a case study for each, telling the reader about the person’s marriage, the times in which they lived, and the symptoms they presented with prior to their death. Then the reader is left to ponder, did the person die because of poison or were they just unlucky? Never fear, the reader isn’t left hanging! Herman then presents the formal diagnosis along with medical records (if there are any) and the fallout in the event of an actual poisoning.
Eleanor Herman is an historian by training making her books well-researched tales complimented by her vast knowledge. Nonfiction books have the potential to be wordy and difficult to read but Herman’s books are easy to digest, even when the subject matter isn’t. A must read for any history nerd, lover of the macabre, or true crime buff.
The White Darkness by David Grann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s better to be a live donkey than a dead lion.
Full disclosure, I’ve never read a book by David Grann and didn’t love it. This book was no different.
In another riveting book by Grann, The White Darkness tells the tale of Henry Worsley who dreams of crossing the Antarctic on his own. Long an adventurer in his own right, Worsley spent years in the British military while pining for the icy abandon of the South Pole. Finally, Worsley is able to complete the quest of his idol, Ernest Shackleton, and he and his two companions (and relatives of those who originally traveled with Shackleton) voyage together to the South Pole. Not satisfied with making history just once, Worsley decides to traverse the Antarctic alone with no food caches, just a single sled and his own fortitude. A lifelong leader, he always said “It’s better to be a live donkey than a dead lion” but his quest puts his motto to the ultimate test.
The White Darkness is short, coming in at only 140 pages. It’s built off Grann’s previous retelling, a short article in The New Yorker. The book doesn’t specifically improve on the earlier piece, but the photos are stunning. I was able to finish the book in about 2 hours and thoroughly enjoyed it.
*I received an advanced electronic copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley.*
The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery by Barbara K. Lipska
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As the step-parent of a child with mental illness, I’ve often wondered what is really going on in his head. Granted, he suffers from autism as well, but there was so much cross-over between Barbara Lipska’s experiences and what I see with my stepson. The idea that every human is just one unlucky event away from madness is terrifying, but Lipska presents her story brush with mental illness factually and scientifically in a way that only a scientist could. Despite the clinical nature of some passages, Lipska could be any of us, her family could be my own as we deal with the changes in one of our own, and the story it frighteningly relatable.
I highly recommend this book to anyone dealing with mental illness in their family. I’ve already recommended it to a friend whose mother has dementia. It is a powerful passage into the psyche of someone in the throes of brain disease and it is a view not often granted to those on the outside.