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June 5, 2009 - Escape to the Past

Here are 3 non-fiction books that read like the best novels.  All 3 are great stories that are “page-turners” - perfect for escaping from the economic and financial doldrums that have surrounded us this spring, and finding refuge in the past.  You will enjoy each of them.

“Blood and Thunder” by Hampton Sides - The epic story of Kit Carson and the conquest of the American West.
This is a wild ride through the west in the 1830s through the 1860s as seen by an invisible narrator looking over Carson’s shoulder.  The legendary scout and guide logged literally thousands of miles back and forth from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from Canada to Mexico - on foot or on a mule!  In the meantime, he fought and befriended robbers, killers, Native-Americans, corrupt politicians, animals, and snakes.  Even his vanquished adversaries respected and admired him.  He was on a first-name basis with the military and political leaders of North America, including the President of the United States.  Truly, an American hero.  Meticulously researched through public and private histories and letters, Kit Carson becomes at the same time larger-than-life, and down-to-earth.  Action and excitement on every page.  Hard to put down.  Keep the lights on - you will be up late.

“The Lost City of Z” by David Grann - A tale of deadly obsession in the jungle.
A delicious story of unbearable heat, monsoon rains, indescribable torture from insects, bats, piranha, and other natural predators that killed, or drove crazy, hundreds of other adventurers.  Percy Fawcett was a dedicated and respected British Army Officer who tasted his first search of unchartered territory on the island of Ceylon at the turn of the 20th century.  His zeal and determination to find the unfindable caused him to be selected (volunteered) for spying and mapping missions in the Amazon.  Once there, he was hooked. For the next 20 years he became the world’s foremost expert on the jungles of South America, particularly those surrounding the Amazon River.  He hiked, bushwhacked, and paddled hundreds and hundreds of miles through the densest, darkest, and unfriendliest jungles unknown to mankind.  He survived attacks from cannibals, wild pigs, anacondas, vampire bats, poisonous toads, blood-thirsty maggots, and insects large enough to devour a human.  In the 1920's he became convinced, contrary to the popular expert opinions of his day, that the Amazon was home to large native tribes with strong cultures, healthy lifestyles, and expansive cities with secret wealth and riches.  He dedicated the last years of his life to finding “Z”, his own vision of the greatest lost city.  This story will keep you up at night, and researching other books and explorations of the Amazon.

“Agent Zigzag” by Ben Macintyre - A true story of Nazi espionage, love, and betrayal.
Who’s side are you on, anyway?  This is the entertaining and enlightening story of Eddie Chapman - a spy for the German Secret Service during World War II, and at the same time, a British spy for the famous MI5 agency.  A double agent.  He began his career in England as a con man and womanizer, who loved the London night life, and who created tall tales to explain how he paid for his extravagant lifestyle (between stays in jail).  He ended his career as a decorated German spy, who paradoxically provided important secrets to Britain about the German war effort.  Chapman spent the intervening years being trained in espionage, developing personal relationships with the spymasters of both countries, leaving a trail of broken-hearted women and unpaid bills, and developing a reputation as a dependable, if not allusive, information resource for his spy bosses.  This book is at times hilarious, due to the almost farcical scrapes and near-misses that Chapman was involved in; and at times provocative, because of the unique way the spy businesses of England and Germany are revealed (neither were the well-oiled machines they professed to be).  An engaging glimpse of World War II events from a spy’s perspective - exposing the undercover events that snowballed to become the headlines.  Not only will you enjoy this book, but you will learn much about the private lives of clandestine operatives who shaped the outcome of the war.

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