Three books you should read and why

The following three books are non-fiction and are about three historical people, all of whom were adventurous. It is not that you should read these books to learn about these people, but you should read them because each writer transports you to another place and time; in fact, you could say, each writer takes you to another world. Just like fiction, just like fantasy, except these stories are real. History does not have to be dry. These writers make history come alive.

Take for Example “Black Count” by Tom Reiss. If you have read “The Three Musketeers” you are familiar with Alexandre Dumas. No, this book is not about him, it is about his father General Alex Dumas, a black slave who rose to a generalship in France, unheard of in his day. At one time he outranked Napoleon, but we know being outranked never stopped Bonaparte. When reading about General Dumas’ adventurous life, the battles, the campaigns, and getting imprisoned, you can see where his son got the role model for some of his fictional characters. Not only did General Dumas have a swashbuckling life, but he was a great leader and soldier. All I can do is tell you about him, but Reiss, in his book, makes General Dumas come alive, just as he makes the time in which Dumas lived come alive. And by the way Reiss won the Pulitzer Prize.

Another Pulitzer winner was Stacy Schiff who won for her book on the wife of the great writer Vladimir Nabokov called “Vera.” The book of hers I read which could have won the Pulitzer had I been voting is “Cleopatra.” The first femme fatale may have been Eve, who hung out with serpents, ate forbidden fruit, and deceived her husband in the process, but she had nothing on Cleopatra. Cleo must have had charisma, cunning, ambition, and smarts to seduce world leaders like Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, and though we know little of how she looked, she did have a big nose-check out her profile on ancient coins, she had to have had a captivating personality. But all of that takes second place to the time and place in which Schiff takes you. I read this book over a year ago and I can still see the main street in Alexandria in which Schiff describes animals, like elephants, being paraded down the wide avenue where vendors on both sides sold everything you need or want, one giant farmer’s market, and the description of Alexandria and the people who lived there, including a Jewish section, and you can see why the city was the New York of the ancient world.

The third book is “Rebel Yell,” by S.C. Gwynne. It is about Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. Talk about a complex man. He was considered, when teaching at VMI, a bit of a loser, both by students and faculty. Students made fun of him, the faculty ignored him. He was a private person, walked funny, his cap down to his eyes, prayed everyday, near fanatical about religion, talked little, and definitely not a people person. So how do you explain his brilliant tactics during the Civil War, who became a hero to the Confederacy for his beating Union generals. Of course it is true many of the Union generals like McClellan were timid, but Jackson was still brilliant. And can you imagine this. A group of Union prisoners being marched down a southern street and when seeing Jackson riding towards them on horseback, broke away from their march and went up to Jackson and cheered him. It is one thing to be a hero to those who support you, but when does the enemy cheer a general on the other side. It was not an isolated incident. There is so much to learn in this book about the Civil War, things I never knew before and once again the theme is carried out in that you are transported to another time and place.

What I saw in these books were the snow in the alps as Dumas marched into battle; I saw the sand in the Egyptian desert through the eyes of both Dumas and Cleopatra; I saw battles, the horrors of the Civil War; I saw Cleopatra and Anthony plotting on a ship after a great feast; I saw conflicted people. These books appear to be biographies, but they are books of adventure that fiction writers could only hope to write.

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