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Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle is not an “early conception to modern-day racing and e-bikes” type of history book. How could it be? For Rosen, the bicycle is “the realization of a wish as ancient as the dream of flight.”

The history here emerges from the edges of the byways that Rosen follows in pursuit of his next ride. In one chapter, he manages to humiliate himself in front of the dazzling trick cyclist Danny MacAskill while on a mountain bike ride in Scotland, which leads to a brief, engaging history of stunt bicycling. In another chapter, Rosen writes about going to Bhutan to participate in a one-day, 166.5-mile road race, reputed to be the most difficult bike race in the world. He does not finish and does not, as he had hoped, meet Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s fourth “dragon king,” who abdicated the throne in part to pursue his interest in mountain biking.

What develops out of these entertaining chapters is a story of the bicycle as a great disrupter. It was pedaless in its earliest form, like an adult-size Strider. In the 1700s, it became the plaything of dandies such as foppish Prince George of England, who offended the earthbound populace just as some lycra-clad weekend bike warriors do today. Later bicycles were decried by cart drivers and horse riders for disrupting the flow of traffic—but by World War I, bicycles were replacing horse cavalry in some battles. National bicycle organizations led the movement to grade and pave the roads motorists now believe are for their exclusive use. During the pandemic, stationary bikes “merged the old-fashioned act of bicycling with that quintessential twenty-first-century experience: staring at a screen.”

Bicycles also gave women greater freedom. One amusing chapter quotes 1890s newspaper editorials about the immorality and—gasp—implicit sexuality of bike riding. Girls and young women could pedal on their own, by themselves, away from the surveilling gazes of parents and community. Worse, they left their dresses behind and wore pantaloons!

In a chapter about his own bicycling experiences, Rosen says he’s not a gear head. “To this day, I can barely patch an inner tube,” he writes. But he is crazy about bicycles—“If the pedals turn, I’ll ride it”—and that love shines through in these pages. In fact, it glows so brightly that even a confirmed nonrider may give in to the urge to make her next grocery run on an e-bike.

Jody Rosen’s love of bikes shines through in this amusing, unconventional history of the bicycle as a great cultural disrupter.

The Nile’s mythic reputation as the longest river in Africa, and arguably the world, once inspired generations of European explorers to seek its source—and exploit Africa’s vast resources in the process. Now, thanks to this richly detailed story well told by historian Candice Millard, a colorful and controversial chapter in world history resurfaces. In River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, 19th-century explorers’ egos loom godlike over expeditions, their abused local guides save lives and prompt discoveries, and the second largest continent on Earth finally gets mapped.

Millard, the prize-winning author of Hero of the Empire, among others, introduces a cast of characters and succeeds in making each of them unforgettable. Richard Burton, “an army of savants in a single man,” was chosen by the Royal Geographical Society in 1856 to head the expedition to locate the source of the Nile—“one of the most complex and demanding expeditions ever attempted.” But he soon ran afoul of his quirky colleague, John Hanning Speke, and barely survived their quest. It was Speke who earned the discoverer’s fame and glory, though his character flaws (paranoia and narcissism among them) marred his reputation and may have cost him his life. Sidi Mubarak Bombay, the previously enslaved man who guided the expedition and repeatedly saved them from treachery, disease, injury and themselves, didn’t immediately receive recognition for being integral to their success. Burton’s wife, Isabel Arrundell, was a fervent Catholic who defied her mother to marry Burton, a proclaimed agnostic who proposed by dropping off a note on his way to Africa.

Millard excels at describing it all, balancing narrative flow with abundant details that give a vast landscape its weight and power, clarify complicated people and arduous journeys, and add those who have gone largely unseen to the historical stage. Take, for example, such memorable details as a beetle burrowing into Speke’s ear; the thieves, deserters and raiders thwarting these yearslong expeditions; diseases and infections leading to blindness, deafness and death; the hardships of Bombay, who was once traded for cloth; and two huge, breathtakingly beautiful lakes, one of which, it was finally proven, spawned the Nile.

In River of the Gods, a mythic and unforgettable history of the Nile, European explorers’ egos may loom godlike but East African guides save lives.

Robert S. McNamara served as secretary of defense in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations and was the primary architect of America’s war strategy in Vietnam in the 1960s. Even as the war became increasingly unpopular, Robert continued to insist that progress was being made, that victory was just around the corner. He didn’t admit his mistakes, even when doing so could have changed history. Many veterans and protesters still believe Robert never fully apologized for his role in the war—including his only son.

Craig McNamara’s loving but brutally honest account of his difficult relationship with his father, Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, From Vietnam to Today, tells of his father’s reluctance or inability to engage him in serious discussion about the evils of the war, or to apologize to the country. Veterans wanted Robert to understand the true cost of the war in human terms of lost lives and limbs rather than “lessons learned in the war,” as Robert put it in his 1995 book, In Retrospect. When that book was published, Craig asked his father why it took 30 years for him to try to explain himself. “Loyalty” was his father’s only answer. For Craig, this meant loyalty to the presidents he served without regard for ordinary people. This loyalty to the system eventually got Robert appointed as president of the World Bank and led to other personal advantages. “Loyalty, for him, surpassed good judgment,” Craig writes. “It might have surpassed any other moral principle.”

After Robert was out of government, but as the war continued, Craig received a draft notice. During his physical, he was found medically disqualified to serve because of being treated for stomach ulcers for several years. Despite his opposition to the war, not going to Vietnam as a soldier still made him feel overwhelming guilt. To cope, he set off on a motorcycle trip through Central and South America.

Through life-changing experiences during his travels, Craig discovered his love of farming and began a new direction for his life. He is now a businessman, farmer, owner of a walnut farm in Northern California and founder of the Center for Land-Based Learning. By making different choices than his father, Craig has begun to make peace with his family’s complicated legacy. His mother always played a positive role in his life (the memoir is dedicated to her memory) and acted as a “translator” between father and son, but it took years for Craig to understand how dysfunctional his family was with respect to speaking the truth.

Because Our Fathers Lied gives readers a vivid, front-row view of the divisiveness in one very prominent family, and through that family, a view of the national divisiveness that continued long after the Vietnam War.

Many Vietnam War veterans and protesters still believe Robert S. McNamara never fully apologized for his role in the war—including his only son.

In the mid-20th century, air travel was considered glamorous, even romantic. Federal regulation kept fares high, and passengers were mostly businessmen en route to work destinations. And what did those men want to see at the end of a long work week? A blushing, girlish attendant who doted on them—or so the airlines assumed. A new pair of nonfiction books offer insight into the sexism women faced in the early decades of commercial flight, as seen through the eyes of the women who lived it.

Cover for The Great Stewardess Rebellion by Nell McShane Wulfhart

The Great Stewardess Rebellion recounts the midcentury fight to get airlines to overturn their sexist requirements for flight attendants. In the 1960s, stewardesses were often fired after their 32nd birthdays, or upon marriage, or upon becoming pregnant—whichever came first. Their continued employment was dependent on regular weigh-ins, and they were required to meet other physical expectations, too, such as cutting their hair to their employer’s standard or wearing gloves while in uniform.

Journalist Nell McShane Wulfhart traces flight attendants’ union and legal battles throughout the 1960s and ’70s, focusing on two women whose experiences help make the political personal. Patt Gibbs was unconcerned with age limits when she applied to American Airlines at age 19, since 32 seemed impossibly distant, and she happily monitored her weight to better her chances of being accepted, dropping from 121 to 110 pounds before submitting her application. However, once Gibbs was hired and she saw how poorly she and her colleagues were treated, she became involved in union work—reluctantly at first, then as a passionate advocate for better pay and fewer discriminatory rules.

Like Gibbs, Tommie Hutto also became enraptured by air travel as a young woman. She became an American Airlines flight attendant after college graduation, as a way out of her conservative Texas surroundings. Hutto, too, became involved in the union, and as she and Gibbs sought better treatment for the women who staffed every flight, they transformed from adversaries to allies.

Wulfhart tells the story of airline unions through Gibbs’ and Hutto’s experiences while weaving in the tales of dozens of other bold women—such as Sonia Pressman, who fought for airline industry change as an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Dusty Roads and Jean Montague, American Airlines flight attendants who brought the industry’s discrimination to the EEOC’s attention; and Cheryl Stewart and Sharon Dunn, Black flight attendants who challenged their colleagues’ racism. With stylish flair, The Great Stewardess Rebellion explores the nuances of these spirited women and the sexism they battled.

Cover of Fly Girl by Ann Hood

While Wulfhart reveals how women fought to change air travel, Ann Hood paints a portrait of how air travel shaped one woman’s life. Hood (The Book That Matters Most, The Red Thread) is now a bestselling novelist, but in the late 1970s and early ’80s, she was a TWA flight attendant. She always wanted to write, but first she wanted to see the world beyond her Rhode Island home, especially after falling in love with air travel when she took her first flight to Bermuda as a teen. 

Hood’s memoir, Fly Girl, brims with details and personal anecdotes that air travel buffs will love. She recounts both the horrifying ways that misogyny affected her workplace, including unwanted advances from badly behaved passengers, and happier memories of the glamorous days of flying, when stewardesses could bring home sizable paychecks thanks to the work of the flight attendants’ unions. However, as the industry changed in the 1980s, Hood experienced furloughs and had to take jobs with less affluent airlines, bouncing from plane to plane. Through all the ups and downs, jet lag was her normal.

With time, Hood’s self-confidence grew, with regard to both her ability as a flight attendant and her understanding of people and cultures. She began to use time in the jump seat to write, and steadily she made her way toward the writer’s life she’d always dreamed of.

“Life unfolds on airplanes,” Hood writes. “People are flying to funerals and weddings, they are on their honeymoon or leaving a partner, they are carrying a newborn on their first flight to meet grandparents or taking a kid to college or on their way to adopt a baby. And they fall in love.” In Fly Girl, Hood paints a first-class portrait of chasing your dreams and coming of age in the sky.

Two nonfiction books render the complex lives of women during a bygone era of air travel.

“My mother was part of a generation of women who inherited all the burdens of the past and yet found the will and the means to reject them,” writes Jyoti Thottam, a senior Opinion editor at the New York Times. When her mother was 15, she left her home at the southern tip of India and traveled more than 1,000 miles to Mokama, a small town in an area considered to be the poorest and most violent in the country. There, she spent seven years studying nursing at a hospital run by a handful of Catholic nuns from Kentucky. As an adult, Thottam found herself wondering: How did these unlikely events transpire?

After 20 years of meticulous research, Thottam has chronicled Nazareth Hospital’s history in Sisters of Mokama: The Pioneering Women Who Brought Hope and Healing to India. This immersive, transportive read starts with the hospital’s founding in 1947, in the midst of the Partition of India into India and Pakistan. The fact that six nuns from Kentucky even managed to travel to Mokama at this time—much less stay and transform a vacant building into a successful hospital and nursing school—is nothing short of miraculous.

Once the sisters reached Mokama, they faced endless deprivations, including bone-chilling cold; suffocating heat; monsoons; a scarcity of food, medicine and supplies; and a lack of electricity and running water in the early years. Undaunted, the resourceful nuns nevertheless insisted on the highest of standards. They put a container of water upstairs, drilled a hole through the floor and ran a rubber hose down to the operating room so that surgeons could scrub under a continuous stream of water before surgery. One sister even built a still to provide distilled water.

Thottam has done an excellent job of transforming numerous interviews, letters and records into a compelling narrative that conveys the hardships and triumphs of these dedicated nuns and the nurses they trained. Everyone was overworked, and things weren’t always smooth. The young, homesick Indian girls were only allowed to speak English, and the nuns could be extremely strict. In telling their stories, Thottam makes a multitude of personalities come alive and shares a variety of perspectives without passing judgment.

On the surface, Sisters of Mokama seems like such an unlikely story. It’s a good thing Thottam has documented this little-known saga so that generations to come will know it really happened.

After 20 years of research, Jyoti Thottam shares the immersive and unlikely story of a group of nuns from Kentucky who opened a hospital in India in 1947.

In Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth, Clyde W. Ford confronts readers with a difficult truth about the current state of American affairs: Our politics, economy and social structure are inextricably linked to the enslavement of Black people. The freight trains and trucks that carry goods across the country follow the rail lines and roads built by enslaved people. Our insurance companies, banks and stock exchanges—in both the North and the South—are direct descendants of the institutions that financed and protected the slave trade and commodities produced with slave labor. Our Constitution is the result of compromises with slave-holding states, ensuring through the three-fifths clause, the Fugitive Slave Clause and the Electoral College that power remained in the hands of powerful white men and that slavery continued to flourish.

Ford wants readers to realize the lasting and severe harm that slavery has done to our country on both an intellectual level and a visceral, emotional one. There is no lack of evidence to support his argument, and his book is very well researched and documented. But unlike histories that are so loaded with documents, statistics and official accounts of proceedings that they numb the reader, transforming the tragedy of the past into mere abstraction, Of Blood and Sweat adroitly avoids these pitfalls. Instead, Ford weaves the stories of real people who lived through these times into his narrative, making the information feel immediate and alive. The author of 13 fiction and nonfiction books, including the memoir Think Black, Ford brings to life Antoney and Isabell, an Angolan couple who were among the first enslaved Africans brought to Virginia in 1619; Briton Hammon, an enslaved man whose New England owner permitted him to become a sailor; S.G.W. Dill, a white former Confederate soldier who became a passionate advocate for equality—and was murdered for it by white supremacists; and countless others, the sinners and the sinned against, whose lives illuminate not only what happened but why.

More importantly, Ford makes a clear case that the past is never over. The wounds inflicted by slavery have never healed, and he argues that they will continue to harm our country until we deal with them honestly. For many Americans, reading Of Blood and Sweat will be an excellent first step in that process.

Some histories are so loaded with documents and statistics that they numb the reader, but Clyde W. Ford’s Of Blood and Sweat feels immediate and alive.

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