Book bits

Three books about Elizabeth I, Q-and-A with the author of 'Sin in the Second City,' and readers' picks.

Sin in the Second City

Author: Karen Abbott

In her new book about a famous Chicago brothel – Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul – freelance journalist Karen Abbott explores turn-of-the-century debates over morality.

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Q: What made you interested in this topic?

A: It was a bit of family lore. My great-grandmother emigrated from Slovenia in 1905. Her sister went to Chicago one weekend and was never heard from again. I became really interested in poking around what was going on at the turn of the century and came across all kinds of lurid stories of disappearing girls.

Q: What makes that time and that place –Chicago – so interesting?

A: At that time, European tourists wrote about Chicago a lot. It was a pretty big tourist attraction, and they called it the most American city. I think that was true. It embodied all the American ideals – ambition and self-improvement and striving to be better.

Q: We think of the Victorian era as being very prim and proper, but you write that there were high-class brothels and red-light districts in cities from Pittsburgh to Omaha.

A: Every town with a population of at least 100,000 had an enormous red-light district. Because it was so visible, there were organizations akin to labor unions for madams.

The Victorian way of thinking was that prostitution is a necessary evil. If we have these segregated districts, society women would be safer from rape and other dangers.

The progressive era was the first era in which people started challenging this idea, saying it's not necessarily true that if we shut down the red-light districts that [vice] will scatter into respectable districts.

Q: What similarities do you see between the moral reformers of that time and those of today?

A: One of the themes of the book is the cyclical nature of religious fundamentalism, the idea that society can be improved by incorporating religion into the laws. There's also this ongoing debate that crops up again today, that this is a Christian nation founded on Christian values.

It's interesting to see that our society continues to grapple with the same issues we were dealing with 100 years ago.

– Randy Dotinga

3 books about Elizabeth I

It remains one of history's more famous and yet most uncertain love stories: Where exactly did friendship end and love begin? Elizabeth & Leicester: Power, Passion, and Politics by journalist Sarah Gristwood is a dual biography that explores the lifelong partnership between Elizabeth I and her childhood friend Robert Dudley. "Elizabeth & Leicester" offers detailed portraits of its two main characters, along with a fresh glimpse of life in the Tudor court.

The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir serves up a close look at the rich personality that was the Virgin Queen. Historian and author Weir skillfully depicts Elizabeth's impressive intelligence and her tremendous capacity for politics, even as she makes clear that this was a formidable opponent who was capable of mendacity and betrayal. Weir's story is also rich in details about Elizabeth's court and the life of her times.

Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne by David Starkey focuses on Elizabeth's early years and her battle for power. Starkey's straightforward recitation of events reveals a young woman more vulnerable than many ever imagine Elizabeth to have been. This portrait of the young Elizabeth throws much light on the later years of her reign.

– Staff

Readers' picks

I am reading Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road. I find it a wondrous read. Writing is absolutely beautiful and the "trip" I am taking is glorious !– Anne N. Kirby Palo Alto, Calif.

For a great "at the site of action" war story, choose any of David Robbins's books. I just finished Last Citadel. Robbins has a great command of description and he truly researches his history. This book deals with the German Tiger tanks and the Cossack war front in World War II. Happy page turning! – Marilyn Kortum, Arlington, Texas

Just finished Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. He writes like Mark Twain! What a gift this new guy is. Honestly, I bought the book because I liked the title, giving pathetic credence to the old "book-by-a-cover" thing. But the characters are so big and engaging; the story unique, cool. I hope Mr. Enger is hard at work on his next novel. I'm a groupie, for sure.– Phyllis Coletta, Colorado Springs, Colo.

26a: A Novel by Diana Evans is the most powerful book I've read this year. Reading this story about being a twin and then becoming a lone twin is taking part in an inevitable sadness that you know is coming. Nothing about this book feels forced or manipulated. Evans is a writer to watch. – Doug Berman, Montclair, N.J

I am reading A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East by Tiziano Terzani. A fortune-teller tells this Asia-based Italian foreign correspondent not to fly in 1993. He travels through Asia by bus instead and is led on a remarkable journey of rediscovery.– William Carlile, Phoenix

I just finished reading Washington's Crossing (Pivotal Moments in American History) by David Hackett Fisher: Excellent! – Peter Slovik, Las Vegas

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