A good history book

This item appears on page 38 of the April 2013 issue.

In his August 2011 “Departure Lounge” column, ITN creator and publisher, the late Armond Noble, wrote, “After returning from a country, have you become so interested in that nation that you bought books about its history?” We repeated the question in our November ’11 and October ’12 issues: “What book would you recommend that tells the history of a particular country (outside of the US)? Let us know the title and what you liked about the book.” We are presenting, here, subscribers’ selections.

Three books I’ve found most helpful are “The Ancient MEDITERRANEAN” by Michael Grant (1988, Meridian, 400 pp.); “The Exploration of AFRICA: From Cairo to the Cape” by Anne Hugon (1993, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 175 pp.), and “Insight Guides — SOUTH AFRICA” (fourth edition, 2005, Insight Guides, 383 pp.), which has a section on South African history.

Nanci Micklon
Fayetteville, NY

Each of the annual 5-week trips abroad that my wife, Lois, and I make is a year-long project, which includes scrutinizing Wikipedia and Lonely Planet guides for the best ideas for travel reads. My “Holy Grail” choices are the finest nonfiction history or historical novels to read while in-country. Here are my greatest hits; each book enriched our visit to the country traveled.

Trinity: A Novel of IRELAND” by Leon Uris (1976, Doubleday, 751 pp.) — This chronicle of events in Ireland from the 1840s famine to the 1916 Easter Rising is shared through intertwined stories from the perspectives of Irish Catholic, Irish Protestant and English families, which form a “trinity.”

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in IRAN” by Jason Elliot (2006, St. Martin’s Press, 432 pp.) — The personal journey of a British writer among Iranian friends humanizes the highly cultured Persian people.

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of BURMA” by Thant Myint-U (2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 384 pp.) — a dense but fully annotated definitive history of Myanmar (Burma) to the present day by the grandson of U Thant. (U Thant was the Secretary General to the UN, 1961-1971.)

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of CHINA” by Jung Chang (1991, Simon & Schuster, 525 pp.) — The grandmother was a foot-bound wife of an imperial warlord, the mother a high-ranking Communist, while the daughter suffered under the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze” by Peter Hessler (2001, Harper, 416 pp.) — a poignant account of his Peace Corps assignment in CHINA in 1996.

Up Country” by Nelson DeMille (2003, Vision, 859 pp.) — a well-written contemporary thriller. The details of this American veteran’s return to VIETNAM embroidered our July ’03 visit.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of CAMBODIA Remembers” by Loung Ung (2000, HarperCollins, 238 pp.) — I bought this painful read in the Phnom Penh Russian Market. It chronicles the suffering of a middle-class family under the Khmer Rouge and explained the sad demeanor of the Cambodians we met during our August ’03 visit.

The Covenant” by James A. Michener (1980, Random House, 879 pp.). Another “trinity” of families — Van Doorn (Afrikaner), Nxumalo (Zulu) and Saltwood (English) — personalize SOUTH AFRICA’s history from European colonization to Apartheid.

The Eighth Continent: Life, Death and Discovery in the Lost World of MADAGASCAR” by Peter Tyson (2000, William Morrow, 400 pp.) — as the book jacket says, “Part field report, part travelogue, part ecological history… about the Lost World.”

The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova (2005, Little, Brown & Co., 656 pp.) — Okay, this is a really badly written novel about Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) being “still alive,” but I enjoyed the references to places in ISTANBUL (Turkey) and ROMANIA that I saw on our trip.

Steve Lopes
Lawrence, KS

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire” by Alex Von Tunzelmann (2008, Picdor, 496 pp.) is a very important, fascinating book about INDIA.

Carol Reagle
Waterloo, IA

Bacardi and the Long Fight for CUBA: The Biography of a Cause’’ by National Public Radio’s Tom Gjelten (2008, Viking, 480 pp.) is a fascinating history of Cuba told through the saga of the Bacardi family rum business.

Starting in 1862 and continuing to the present day, Gjelten covers everything from how the US became involved in Cuban affairs after the country was liberated from Spanish rule to why many people initially supported, then later rejected, Castro’s policies.

The Bacardis, like many affluent and proud Cubans, left only after the revolutionary government expropriated their business, but this book is not only about the Barcardi family. Gjelten provides a refresher on the events leading up to the Bay of Pigs invasion and covers the effects of the breakup of the Soviet Union on Cuba’s economy, the introduction of a duel currency and the issues surrounding the 51-year-old US trade embargo.

Cuba’s history is complicated, but anyone planning to visit should have a basic understanding, especially when it comes to the events leading up to the revolution and what has occurred since. Gjelten explains it all.

Carol Pucci
Seattle, WA

On a January ’11 trip to CUBA, I learned about Operation Pedro Pan. In the early 1960s, 14,000 children were flown out of Cuba to Miami without their parents in a mass exodus that most of them thought would be only temporary but which, for most, became permanent.

Carlos Eire, at age 11, and his brother, 14, were two of these children. Eire, now a professor of history and religion at Yale, has written a deeply moving memoir, “Waiting for Snow in Havana” (2003, Free Press, 400 pp.), about his boyhood in 1950s Havana at the end of the Batista regime and the changes when Castro took over. The book is a National Book Award winner and a real eye-opener.

Travel to Cuba for Americans has opened up greatly recently. For anyone considering a trip to this fascinating country, I strongly recommend Eire’s book on this significant part of Cuba’s history.

Kathy Whitmer
Bellingham, WA

After returning from a trip to Syria, Egypt and Jordan with Overseas Adventure Travel in March ’10, I bought “The Desert and the Sown: The SYRIAN Adventures of the Female Lawrence of Arabia” by Gertrude Lowthian Bell (2001, Cooper Square Press, 368 pp.).

Bell, who was an archaeologist, policy maker, writer and spy, wrote many more books about her travels.

Sandra Riccardi
Tustin, CA

I will either pick up a book about a country before a trip or else buy something after.

I read a long account about the Yangtze River before going to Shanghai a few years ago, and I consumed the history of Captain Cook’s sailings prior to visiting the territories he explored in and around Australia.

While heading from Vancouver, BC, to the PANAMA CANAL by cruise ship, I read “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914” by David McCullough (1978, Simon & Schuster, 698 pp.). In checking the book today, I notice that I wrote 10 annotations on pages I thought particularly important to read to best enjoy seeing the canal area.

Another book that gave me a better understanding of a country I visited was “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes (1988, Vintage Books, 628 pp.), a native Australian who became embroiled in American academia. The book recounts the settling of AUSTRALIA. On my trip, I had numerous occasions to recall Hughes’ history of that continent.

“IBERIA” by James Michener (1968, Random House, 818 pp.) was read, annotated and taken along for my first venture into Spain.

Almost any book written by Hemingway about a country can be recommended before visiting — France, Cuba or others.

A visit to Hamburg, Germany, inspired me to read a biography of the Beatles. Another such biography, about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, took much of my time after a visit to London.

Edith Wharton’s life was of interest to me after I visited Paris. The biography mentioned a trip she took to Athens in which she and her crowd stayed at a hotel, the same one my late wife and I shared in that city.

If you enjoy reading, it is almost imperative that you pursue some of the literature amassed about places you plan to visit.

Philip H. DeTurk
Pinehurst, NC