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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History (Book Review)

February 12th, 2008

las-vegas-book-review.jpg This article by Jennifer Young is a book review of Las Vegas: An Unconventional History, a historical account of the rise of Las Vegas, Nevada as a city that has become famous for its casinos and night life. Although I have not read the book myself, this reviewer makes it look like a pretty good read. Relatively speaking, Nevada is one of the most libertarian states in the USA, and since I like reading about historical topics as well, I might want to put this one on my future reading list.


Written as a companion to the PBS American Experience series and anticipating the 100th anniversary of the city’s founding, Las Vegas: An Unconventional History by Michelle Ferrari with Stephen Ives is as close to the city as you can get between two book covers. It is a riveting account of a city that stands as a “monument to reckless abandon and unbridled excess”. From the lights of the casinos to the mobsters and glamour girls, this is a spectacular account of an American dream-come-true and for some, a dream-gone-bad.

This coffee-table book published by Bulfinch Press would make a great gift for Vegas lovers, gambling enthusiasts and even American history fans. Divided into thirteen chapters, it begins at the dusty beginning of this desert town, a mere outpost that was not even listed on the 1900 census. Even at its earliest stages as a small settlement, however, it seemed like a haven for prospectors, drifters, cowboys and rail passengers congregated for liquor, gambling and sex at ramshackle saloons and prostitution “cribs”.

The notorious history contained in this volume is extensive and coupled with advertisements, postcards and other visual memorabilia from the early days of the Flamingo onward to today’s extravagance and neon-lit casinos and hotels. The old photographs published here include the two-story Hotel Nevada, Fremont Street in 1905, the infamous Block 16, The Arizona Club, Hoover Dam construction and many more.

What’s more, this book offers a glimpse into the personal lives of people who passed through the city which seems always a place for transient populations—celebrity and tourists alike. It talks about the crooked vice squad commander married to a Hollywood madam, about Clark Gable’s divorce, about the mobsters who propelled the city onward in all areas of vice.

Naturally, there is a rather large section of the book devoted to electricity; that is, the infamous lights of this city that when lit, can be seen from space—according to astronauts. Cheap electricity generated by Hoover Dam has made Las Vegas the neon capital of the world, boasting literally millions of bulbs. Even the McDonald’s on the strip is lit with neon.

Not surprisingly, this history also showcases the shows and show-stoppers. Everyone from Esther Williams to Sammy Davis Jr. to Elvis to Frank Sinatra is included. Show scenes as well snapshots add much to capture the majesty of the show business stage.

From Siegfried and Roy to Liberace, this book doesn’t leave much out. It is a standout in terms of both text and photography. It has a lot to say and equally as much to show. A must read before your next visit—to the most visited American city.



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