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In the Garden of Beasts

Take a fascinating and frightening look at the early years of Germany under Nazi rule. The perspective is from the Dodd family. The Dodds moved from Chicago to Berlin when Professor William Dodd became the U.S. ambassador.

1933 Berlin is a glittering, exciting, and prosperous capital. The Dodds are expected to make connections with Berlin's elite by hosting lavish dinner parties at their own expense. And Dodd is supposed to get Hitler to be less vocal about the Jews.

While America turns a blind eye, Dodd slowly begins to see what's really going on behind the scenes in Berlin. His warnings and reports to the State Department are ignored. Then, Dodd's daughter, Martha, a free spirit, starts dating Rudolph Diels. He's handsome, cultured, important, and the head of the Gestapo!

This book is nonfiction but reads like a riveting suspense thriller once it gets going. Check out In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011) by Erik Larson on Overdrive today: read the ebook or listen to the audiobook. Then, check out our list: we've got more titles of nonfiction that reads like fiction.



The Last Tsarinas: Splendor & Misery

I highly recommend watching the documentary, The Last Tsarinas: Splendor & Misery (2018). It traces the journey for the great, great, great-granddaughter, Maria von Preussen of Alexandra and Nicholas I. She is directly related to Kaiser Wilhelm II and Princess Charlotte. Maria follows in the footsteps of Princess Charlotte in 1817, who leaves Prussia to be wed to the Grand Duke in St. Petersburg, Russia. Princess Charlotte has her name changed to Alexandra and becomes the Tsarina with Nicholas I. They have a very happy and long marriage. This story explains why many Tsarinas were of German ancestry and the many changes that take place in Russia to end the Russian monarchy.

Watch The Last Tsarinas: Splendor & Misery on Hoopla today.



1776

This is a great in-depth look at how George Washington and American troops emerged victorious and gained independence in the American revolution. 1776 (2005) looks at both sides of the war, both English and American, through journals, diaries, articles, and other war documents to paint a vivid picture of what happened.

David McCullough even puts in clarifications to some of the facts that were written by soldiers at the time so they more accurately reflect what happened in battles. The writing is very accessible and easy to follow compared to some historical books that are bogged down by dated language. If you are a fan of history, this is a great book to look at for more information on the American revolution.

Visit Overdrive to read the ebook or listen to the audiobook today.


Teslafy Me

Watch this 90-minute documentary about the story of Nikola Tesla and his achievements from the early 1900s. He was overshadowed by many famous inventors in his day and was never given the recognition he deserved—to this day. He was considered the inventor that kick started the Industrial Revolution.

In Teslafy Me (2019), I learned his patents and ideas are still being used today and remain unchanged. He believed in renewable energy and that energy should be provided to the world for free. His technologies were ahead of their time. He believed in free wireless power transmission and had ideas for cell phones and internet. He was definitely a genius and we are only finding out about him today.

Watch Teslafy Me on Hoopla today. If you are interested in this subject, read or listen to books about and by Nikola Tesla on Hoopla.


The War

If you are a history buff, you will enjoy this Ken Burns production.  The War (TV-14) is a seven-part documentary miniseries about World War II.  This excellent PBS series originally aired in 2007.  It was nominated for 12 awards, with eight wins, including three Primetime Emmy awards in 2008.  The story is told through the unique perspective of four towns in the United States, and how the war forever impacts the lives of the people living there.  You will follow the journey of the people who served in the military, and the people at home awaiting their return.

Watch The War on Hoopla today.


The Queens of Animation

In this eye-opening, fascinating, and heartbreaking account, author Nathalia Holt takes readers through the history of female animators at the storied Walt Disney Company. Women faced great obstacles personally and professionally (harassment, intimidation, abuse), making this story difficult to read at times. And yet, it's gripping. The stories of Mary Blair, Sylvia Moberly-Holland, and Bianca Majolie intertwined with the detailed history of the studio and the larger world make for a compelling read. While the focus is on the early years, the author takes readers through the studio's renaissance of the early 90s and the 2013 blockbuster Frozen. Warning: life at Disney wasn't always a fairy tale.

If you enjoy hidden histories (such as Hidden Figures), you'll appreciate The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History (2019). The engrossing story is well worth a listen, thanks to the fantastic performance by Saskia Maarleveld.



The Radium Girls

Be prepared: this book is heartbreaking and infuriating. But it is so worth the read. The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women (2017) tells the true story of a tragic time in American history. In the early 20th century, advertisements touted radium as a miracle cure. During World War I, factories in the U.S. were employing women to paint watch faces. Their method? Lip, dip, paint.

The constant exposure to radium eventually led to workers' horrific pain and suffering—and the companies denied any wrongdoing. Author Kate Moore shares the personal stories of these women, their fight for justice, and the impact their perseverance had on workers' rights and labor laws.

There is a local thread about a radium plant in Ottowa, Illinois. Check out the NPR Illinois article for more details.

If you enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or The Girls of Atomic City, try this book. It has a mix of hidden history and compelling characters—and it's great for book clubs.



Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (2016)

Trevor Noah has a gift for storytelling (which makes it no surprise that he is now a comedian). I would have liked this book more if it were told in chronological order, but ultimately, I assume the order in which it is presented goes back to the fact that he's a comedian and likely thinks anecdotally vs. chronologically. That said, Noah tells such fascinating stories of his childhood, teen years, and young adult life, all while intertwining the cultural setting of South Africa while he was growing up. I highly recommend the audio to fully appreciate both the variety of languages Noah references and the emotion and humor in his storytelling.

Check out Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood and other titles on this year's 2019 Lincoln Award (PDF): Illinois Teen Readers' Choice nominee list.

Betty Ford by Lisa McCubbin (2018)

bettyFormer First Lady Betty Ford thought her husband Gerald Ford was going to retire after his time in the U. S. House of Representatives, but instead he moved to a higher office, taking over the Vice Presidency when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned, setting her husband up as one of the most powerful men in the world without even running for office. His demanding job made him a largely absent husband, forcing Betty to raise her four children almost as a single mother.

While her husband was in the White House, Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, it was like receiving a death sentence. She also suffered from an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. In 1978, her family staged an intervention. Ford was open with the American public about her health issues and would go on to co-found the Betty Ford Center. Her outspokenness about her personal experiences put the focus on women’s health issues, alcoholism, and addiction, prompting many to seek treatment themselves.

You don’t need to be a fan of President Ford or Betty Ford’s politics to enjoy Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer by Lisa McCubbin. This is an inspirational and sympathetic portrait of a woman dealing with many issues while living in the political arena.

RBG (2018) PG

81njbw6zvql-_sy445_It's no surprise to people who know me well that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my personal heroes (and in the immortal words of The Notorious B.I.G. via Lin-Manuel Miranda -- "and if ya don't know, now ya know").  When I found out that there was a documentary coming out on her life, I knew I would be seeing that in the theaters—but now RBG is out on DVD for everyone to enjoy!  The documentary includes interviews with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her family members, political figures, authors of the book The Notorious RBG, and many more.  It covers her life from childhood to current service and includes footage from her confirmation hearing, as well as audio files from court cases.  What struck me as the best part of the film though were the moments that we, the public, don't always get to see -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg interacting with her granddaughter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg watching Kate McKinnon play her on Saturday Night Live, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life with her beloved husband. I also have to admit that I was delighted to see information on her pop culture influence, including one of the best baby costumes ever: Baby RBG.

I think this is an important documentary for anyone with a political interest to see.  U. S. Supreme Court Justice Bader Ginsburg's friendship with Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, despite their political oppositions, is something we can all learn from.

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home by Denise Kiernan (2017)

jacketI adored Denise Kiernan’s first book (The Girls of Atomic City) on a little known piece of history. Now, she turns her attention to the creation of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.

In The Last Castle, Kiernan details the lives of Edith and George Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt) along with the construction of the massive house and the development (and protection) of the surrounding forests and land. The author effortlessly weaves the threads of the stories of people, places, and events in American history from the Gilded Age to WWII. An engaging and fascinating slice of history.

 
 
 
 

The Crown. Season 1 (2016) TV-MA

the-crown-2016For anyone obsessed with Britain's royal family (like me!), The Crown is a perfect blend of drama and actual history, creating a highly enjoyable television series.

The first season of The Crown covers the years 1947-1955, which includes famous events such as Princess Elizabeth's marriage to Philip, King George VI's passing, and Queen Elizabeth's coronation. But there are also a fair amount of things I had no idea happened in England, like the Great Smog of 1952.

I spent a lot of time after episodes doing research and now you don't have to; a companion book was released that documents the differences between series and true history.

If you're waiting on the third royal baby to be born in April or Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's marriage in May, this is a fabulous way to pass the time!

Watch season 1 of The Crown on DVD or borrow a Roku to stream it via Netflix. Stay tuned—next week, Jez reviews season 2.

 

The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon (2017)

In 1917, a ship full of explosives en route from New York to France exploded in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia. Killing 2,000 people and wounding 9,000 more, the explosion leveled 2.5 square miles of Canada. In The Great Halifax Explosion, author John U. Bacon combines engaging human interest stories with what happened leading up to and after the explosion (which was the largest in the world until the atomic bombs were dropped in 1945). He introduces readers to the families of Halifax and details their daily lives in this fascinating story. For fans of history books with a personal narrative.

If you visit Halifax, you can see the Mont Blanc Anchor. Learn more from Canada’s Historic Places.

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King (2016)

In this engagingly readable mix of art, history, and biography, author Ross King details the later years of Claude Monet’s life. Set against the backdrop of WWI, Mad Enchantment documents Monet’s work on paintings both large and small as well as his life in Giverny, France (and his relationships with other artists such as Renoir and Rodin). The prolific artist, although hindered by grief and failing eyesight, produced the massive paintings found in l’Orangerie in Paris.

The Art Institute of Chicago plays a role in the book, too. Did you know its representatives tried to purchase the paintings that ended up in l’Orangerie? At least we have many other Monet works in Chicago. Whether you’re planning a trip to Paris or Chicago, or just want to learn more about one of the greats (who was not always admired during his lifetime), I recommend this book—I lost track of the number of times I thought, “I didn’t know that.”

 

Home Fires. Seasons 1 & 2 (2015-2016)

Inspired by the book Jambusters by Julie Summers, this BBC TV show is set in rural Cheshire, in the village of Great Paxford. Home Fires showcases the Women's Institutes’ contribution in boosting morale on the home front during WWII. It’s the story of a group of inspirational women who are left to carry on during one of history's most trying times. We share their emotional struggles, their fear, their sorrows, and their determination to "carry on" no matter what.