Paper: Paging Through History

Mark Kurlansky – what’s not to love? Kurlansky, author of Salt, Cod, The Basque History of the World and Birdseye, does it again – this time on paper.

The history of paper and its impact on the world is given the Kurlansky treatment in “Paper: Paging Through History.” That is, it is a history of paper, and a history of civilization through the object of paper.

The story is well-told, starting in China, slowly moving west, with innovations along the way, including more sophisticated papermaking, printing and finally the intrusion of computers. Kurlansky makes a good case that technology doesn’t bring about change, but that change requires new technology. If the Chinese weren’t such bureaucrats, they wouldn’t have needed paper to keep records, etc.

This book proceeds chronologically, and ends by debunking the oft-held argument that computers will replace paper, but we know by now that is not the case. New technology rarely wipes out the old, it just offers a new path.

Kurlansky also manages to weave insights from his other legendary books (cited above) into his tale of paper – because everything is connected somehow, and he’s found the connections again. With Kurlansky’s next book, Havana, don’t be surprised if paper somehow plays a key role in it.

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

Hermann Rorschach’s inkblots revealed more than they should have, for being simple pieces of art. They could never be reproduced (in a couple of ways), were praised and criticized, were in fashion and out of it, and his 10 simple cards became part of pop culture.

To use a metaphor that this book dismisses, the Rorschach test is itself a Rorschach test … you see what you want to see.

“The Inkblots” follows more than the development of this tool of psychology (and explains how both psychology and psychiatry changed in the intervening years). It recounts the man’s history and how it figured into this seemingly all-seeing test. We find out the long road to publication and use, and the wave upon wave of criticism after.

Even the test that you and I know now isn’t given the way Rorschach gave it. Or read the same way he did. Study after study changed, narrowed, widened, manipulated and fundamentally changed the test, to the point that its real usefulness has been clouded.

This is a challenging book, full of minutiae, and some rabbit trails and dead-ends. Also, as this was a review copy, it lacked the color plates that would explain more about the test. I don’t know if that would make any difference – the author says the real Rorschach test isn’t usually allowed to be reproduced. But I’m sure a little Googling would get you there.

Ultimately, it’s interesting but, for me, leaves more questions than answers. Is it a valid test? Maybe yes, maybe no. Was it unfairly disparaged? Maybe yes, maybe no. Is this book worth it?

Rorschach test. It’s all a Rorschach test.

It’s also a book I received for review, in case that wasn’t clear.

The Beatles and the Historians: An Analysis of Writings about the Fab Four

Some Beatles books are for everybody, some are for fans, and some are for obsessive fanatics. This is the latter, and you’d have to be a fanatic about history itself, too, for this book to reach you.

The Beatles and the Historians isn’t just a look at the Beatles and how history has measured them. This is an academic study (maybe academic-lite) about the changes in how the Beatles were covered and regarded in books and articles, from their beginning to now.


The author identifies four distinct phases of Beatles coverage: the Fab Four era, the “Lennon Remembers” era, the “Shout!” era and the latest era, identified best as the Lewisohn era. Each era is named for the distinct idea or book that defined the coverage.

The Fab Four era was the myth around the band when they were together, with the magazine interviews and official statements of the Loveable Lads from Liverpool. This was reflected in the authorized biography by Hunter Davies released in 1969. That book pushed the sanitized version of the Beatles story, only barely touching on controversy.

When the Beatles broke up, John Lennon’s interview with Rolling Stone, gathered into a book called “Lennon Remembers,” exploded the Beatles myth, but put a spin on it that made John look good and Paul look bad. That book was influential throughout the ’70s and informed much of what was written for the decade.

When Lennon was killed, the narrative changed again, and the publication of “Shout!” soon thereafter helped deify John and destroyed Paul further. “Shout!,” for all its flaws (and there were many), became the new orthodoxy of Beatles information.

Finally, in the 1990s, Mark Lewisohn gained access to the archives and started setting the record straight on the Beatles and their roles in the group. His influential books have become the latest word, and the most complete, on the group.

The book delves into these eras deeply, and discusses the process of historiography, which is a challenge if you’re just here for the music.

Again, not a book for the mere fan, but more for the obsessive fanatic.

I received this book in advance for review.

Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South

This starts out in the middle of the turmoil just before the Civil War.

Robert Bunch, British Counsel in Charleston, is on the front lines, watching the U.S. slide into war. As a diplomat, he had to hold back his own feelings about slavery (hated it) in the midst of an entire system that lived by it.


The “secret agent” part of this book may be overdone. As a diplomat, he watched, listened and reported back. It’s what diplomats do. Very little subterfuge, other than pretending he wasn’t against slavery, just so he could get closer to those who were.

We see event after event in the buildup from his point of view. And you know what? I kept waiting for something big to happen.

No stealthy escapes from authorities, no sneaking slaves over to the North, no sabotage of Confederate plans or materiel. Maybe I wouldn’t have been waiting for them if the title was a little more reserved.

It’s a good book but not the best I’ve read either about the war or spies.

I received this book for review

Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It

“Rhapsody in Schmaltz” is a wonderful love letter to Yiddish food – and anytime anything ethnically Yiddish is involved, it’s always a fun look at the language, too.

Wex recounts all the tasty Yiddish food out there – and all the rest, too. From chicken soup to matzoh to bagels and everything else, we get the story of all the food, from its creation to its current manifestation.


The story of Yiddish food is also the story of the Jewish people around the world. Most of it is from the Ashenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, but the other Jewish ethnicities and their foods are brought in.

A lot of the food isn’t so much Jewish as Eastern European – German and Russian, mostly.

And it is all covered in schmaltz – chicken fat, which is the most Yiddish food of all.

This is a fun look at food, history and language. Worth it.

I received this book for review.


Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

How Benedict Arnold went from Revolutionary hero to treacherous turncoat – and how it all was uncovered by accident – is the ultimate subject of “Valiant Ambition.”

But there is more to this story. How George Washington was more a symbol of leadership during the war than an actual military leader, and the deep sectional divides as the war dragged on.


Philbrick makes the case that the American public had grown tired of the war and would have failed or given in if not for Arnold’s attempted betrayal. That galvanized the public, and the war reached a new phase.

This treatment pulls in more characters and events, and closes with Arnold’s defection and the war continuing. The ending felt to me like the set up for Episode 2.

I’ll read it.

I received this book for review.

Operation Whisper: The Capture of Soviet Spies Morris and Lona Cohen

​You’ve heard of the Rosenbergs, but you’ve probably never heard of the Cohens, Morris and Lona, who pulled off a spectacular bit of Cold War espionage … then disappeared.

The story starts out with young, idealistic communists in the 1930s and comes to its first climax with the theft of blueprints for the atomic bomb. 

As the Rosenbergs were  rounded up for their spying (for a much smaller secret), the Cohens ran.

Soon, in England, Peter and Helen Kroger mysteriously showed up and start selling books. And stealing secrets.

Eventually they are caught, and thus ends the first great round of East vs. West.

This is a Cold War tale that’s riveting in it’s scope and detail. Carr weaves his tale with the everyday ins and outs of being a spy.

I received this book for review.

Operation Whisper: The Capture of Soviet Spies Morris and Lona Cohen