Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang
I had to find an excerpt from this book for a high school essay writing project, but as I skimmed, I was so intrigued that I ended up reading the whole thing--which is't much of a task, since it's super short and easy to read. It gives as vivid and terrifying a picture of groupthink as you're likely to find. The part of the book where a group of diehard Maoist kids walk through the streets and try to think up more "revolutionary" store names to replace the "capitalist" ones is both hilarious, scary, and so bizarre it's almost hard to believe. But that's the way kids who grew up under the hardline communist rule of Mao thought and behaved. The book is full of normal kid activities reflected in a bizarro mirror of red propaganda. Yes, it's very YA in style, but I thought it was fascinating.
Money Makers by Ben Tarnoff
I was very excited to read about this book--counterfeiters in American history? What a rogues gallery of characters they must be! And they are. Kind of. Tarnoff's book is informative and elegantly written. He explains why counterfeiting was so popular and easy very well, and gives details about the counterfeiters themselves and some of their exploits. However, I'm not sure if this topic should be quite so elegant, instructive, and careful. It struck me as one of those nonfiction books that feels like an expansion of a very good dissertation. When I finished it, I felt like I appreciated the book, but didn't get the wow out of it I'd been hoping for. Maybe I expected too much. I always get my hopes up far too much when it comes to books.
The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey
I found this book while doing one of my favorite things--looking through the bibliography of a book I really liked, in this case Moby Duck. Harvey is onto an interesting topic--map thieves, meaning the type of thief who sneaks into college libraries and slices century old maps out of books and sells them to collectors, a segment of the antique business that has been growing in profitability since the 1970s. He centers his story around Gilbert Bland, a map thief who raided an astonishing number of libraries before finally being caught, put on trial and jailed. Along the way, Harvey gives a great deal of information about the map collecting industry and map thieves.
Also, unfortunately, he also gives a great deal of information about himself. I can't say exactly why, but I always had a feeling that he felt he was the star of the show. Harvey meets plenty of interesting people, but somehow the interviews with them often felt more like "Here I am interviewing this person" than "Here is this person." He also dove a little bit too deeply into pop psychology for me. He researched the life of Bland extensively and while examining his motives for the thieves says (to paraphrase), "You could think that he did it all for the money, but I'd rather think he did it because his parents got divorced." Ummm, really? After reading about the thief, it sure seemed like he did it for the money to me. Harvey's theories just felt like they were based on squishy reasoning. There were other instances in the book when given an option between choosing a melodramatic or rational reason for someone's actions, Harvey chose the drama. It's a shame--Harvey had a lot of good stories for his book; they didn't need pumping up.
This is another instance where I praise one author for doing something, that is putting himself in the story--Donovan Hohn in Moby Duck--and then condemn someone else for doing the same thing. Again, the best answer I have is just that one does it better than the other. I really hate criticizing authors. I do--I'm willing to believe that maybe I was just in the wrong mood, or maybe I just have the wrong personality for that type of writing. So I would urge you to take away from this write up that there are still many reasons to read this book--like I said, map thievery is a quirkily good topic that certainly has not been beaten to death and there is valuable information here. And maybe your tolerance for the things that bothered me will just be higher.