I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But holy cow, with cover at like this how could I NOT resist grabbing Stephen O’ Shea’s 2017 book The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond during my recent trip to the public library? Seduced by its beautiful cover art of course I checked it out. Before I knew it I was hanging out in one of my usual reading lairs with my mind happily transported to the picturesque Alps.
The Alps recalls O’ Shea’s 500 mile journey behind the wheel of a high-end European sports car across the Alpine regions of seven countries: France, Italy, Switzerland (roughly half the book, more or less), Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Austria and Germany. Traveling through this breathtaking heart of Europe O’ Shea reflects on the region’s natural beauty, lectures on its history and serves up humorous commentary on those he encounters, whether they be natives and tourists. The end product is one of those intelligent yet entertaining kind of travel books you might expect from writers like Bill Bryson or Tony Horwitz.
Perhaps because I’m a historian at heart I enjoyed O’ Shea’s little history lessons. My favorite of these was the Battle of Caporetto. It was here in World War I the Italian Army was completely routed by the Austro-Hungarians and Germans. Just to add insult to injury, Italy’s supreme military commander was Marshall Luigi Cadorna, who according to O’ Shea was as cruel as he was incompetent. After the Battle of Caporetto he ordered the execution of officers whose units retreated. His refusal to send food supplies to captured Italians held in enemy POW camps resulted in the starvation of thousands of his own troops. Lastly, while never proven by historians legend has it Cadorna resurrected the ancient Roman practice of decimation—the killing of every tenth man from units that retreated or underperformed.
Figuring the cover art might end up being the best part of this book, I went in with low expectations. Lo and behold, while The Alps isn’t the best piece of nonfiction I’ve read this year I was entertained and leaned more than a few things. (For example, I had no idea the children’s novel Heidi had so many religious overtones.) And that my friends is never a bad thing.