Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Finished: March 27, 2011
Rating: A

One of the best historical novels I’ve read in a while. Her dialogues are well-written and the characters are both believable and multi-dimensional, for the most part. Most writers of historical fiction have a difficult time with the ‘real’ characters or avoid even writing much with them. Moran tackles real people in this and does a pretty good job of it.

I plan to read more of her books. Hopefully they are as good.

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire by Simon Baker

Finished: March 20
Rating: A+

This easy introduction to Roman history is a companion work for a BBC docudrama with the same title. Each chapter is about a broad period in Roman history with an overarching theme of revolution and change. Baker begins with the founding of Rome and the Romulus and Remus story, moves through the republic, the empire, and the fall at a relatively quick pace. It isn’t detailed and some events, like the first Gallic invasion, aren’t even mentioned.

Nevertheless, the story itself is better served by the quick pace. Simon Baker who works for the BBC does an excellent job of making the historical figures seem real so that the chapters read like stories and not ‘History’. The section on the Gracchi brothers and later on Nero are riveting page-turners. My only criticism is that the later chapters on the fall of the empire seem a bit dry in comparison, but this is more a result of having such a great narrative earlier in the book. Baker also provides bibliographies for each chapter with a selection of both secondary and ancient sources.

If you have any interest in brushing up your knowledge of Roman history, this is the book for it. While I was finishing the book, a student stopped by my office and in frustration said “Do you know anything about the First Triumvirate?!” He had been searching for sources, and our catalog was defeating him. Because of this book I was able to say “Yes, I know something about that.” That simple acknowledgment helped to create a slight rapport so I could ask him more questions. It was a uncommon interaction, but I have Mr. Baker to thank for helping me with it!

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

Finished: Feb 27, 2011
Rating: B+

Gawande of the excellent New Yorker articles on health care has written a book about the checklist and its power in helping us manage complex tasks.  I’m not really sure how to rate this one. It is an interesting read about a devilishly simple concept that has tremendous power, but as an entire book it feels a bit inflated. Gawande has great things to say about health care and improving care, but he says them best in the New Yorker.