For some readers, summer means enough time to tackle a serious work of history. Other readers relish the vicarious thrills of true crime and courtroom drama, while armchair travelers settle in for an exciting new journey (and save a bundle on luggage fees). These books share one trait vital to any summer read: unputdownability.
BATTLE BETWEEN OLD AND NEW
If you know anything about the Crimean War, it’s likely a story told from the British point of view. In The Crimean War, historian Orlando Figes consulted Turkish, Russian, French and Ottoman sources as well, to create a broader picture of “the major conflict of the nineteenth century.”
This battle, both religious and territorial in nature, was the first truly modern war. Steamships and railways were crucial, as well as technology like the telegraph, field hospitals and medical triage. It was also the first to have war reporters and photographers directly on the scene. Yet older traditions such as truces to allow each side to collect their dead from the battlefield were still observed, and “war tourists” traveled from all over the world, opera glasses and picnic baskets in hand, to observe the fighting. Some soldiers were hampered by enforced adherence to traditional dress codes that barely allowed them freedom of movement and didn’t keep out the elements; the war killed almost a million soldiers, but many of those deaths were from cholera and exposure.
It’s fascinating to see a young Leo Tolstoy appear in the story, reporting on the fighting in Sevastopol to Tsar Nicholas and finding his voice as an author in a setting that inspired some classic literature. The Crimean War takes readers through the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, but also well beyond and deeper, in a bold re-examination of this 150-year-old war.
CORRUPTION ON THE CAPE
On January 6, 2002, Christa Worthington’s body was found on the floor of her Cape Cod cottage, stabbed, beaten and half-naked, her two-year-old daughter clinging to her side. Who could have done such a thing? Reasonable Doubt follows the investigation, the trial and its aftermath, and reaches a disturbing conclusion: An innocent man is now in jail for life, and Christa’s real killer is free.
Journalist Peter Manso intended to write a quickie “trial book,” but once he started researching the story, things turned ugly. Christopher McCowen, an African-American garbage collector with an IQ bordering on mental retardation, was interrogated for hours but no recording was made, and his statements were condensed and edited by the investigating officer. Now in jail for life, he maintains his innocence, and can point to a more likely suspect whose connections in law enforcement may have granted him a pass. Manso finds corruption in every corner of Cape Cod law enforcement, possibly even in the presiding judge’s decision to deny appeals for a retrial that would have hurt his chances for promotion. Entrenched racism in the affluent white community made it easy to sell the story of a black murderer, and many believed that a possible sexual liaison between McCowen and Worthington could only have been rape.
It’s a grim tale from any angle, and Manso balances a straightforward accounting of the investigation and trial with a more inflammatory section at the end of the book, listing the missteps by DA Michael O’Keefe along with a Q&A designed to explain the fallibility of DNA evidence and many other pieces of information that were kept out of the trial (but were, in Manso’s opinion, crucial to an understanding of what really happened). Readers will of course draw their own conclusions, but Reasonable Doubt raises potent questions about our courts and the true beneficiaries of justice.
WHEN IN SIENA
Robert Rodi fell so in love with one part of Tuscan culture, it bordered on obsession. Seven Seasons in Siena chronicles the author’s multiple trips to Siena, home of the Palio, a bareback horse race around the town’s central piazza. Seventeen independent societies, known as contrade, compete in the race, and Rodi is determined to find acceptance in the Noble Contrada of the Caterpillar. It’s not a simple matter of asking permission: The culture is insular and macho, while Rodi is a gay American writer who’s just getting a handle on conversational Italian. But he doesn’t give up.
Rodi has been compared to Bill Bryson, and rightly so; Seven Seasons in Siena is packed full of history, trivia and details about Siena, yet reads like a breezy travelogue. It’s also frequently hilarious. When a native indulges Rodi’s rudimentary language skills, “He grins widely, as though listening to a parakeet try to speak Latin.” Seconds after tasting some proffered homemade grappa, Rodi says, “I can feel all the hair on my chest just quietly drop off.” You may decide to spend a season in Siena yourself after reading this love letter to a passionate people and their beautiful corner of the world.