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Archive for the ‘Historical Nonfiction’ Category

flandersAugust 2014 marks the centennial of the worldwide convulsion we call World War I. Many of the images we collectively identify with the war came from one region of the line: Flanders.  The mud and shell holes which drowned soldiers, the devastated landscapes, the ancient towns reduced to rubble, the fruitless struggle for advances that could sometimes be measured in meters all characterized the hell which started at the North Sea and ended around the French border with Belgium.

Winston Groom, he of Forrest Gump fame, has been interested in Flanders since finding a automobile touring guide in his grandfather’s attic. In writing a history of the Ypres Salient, as the continuous four year battle was known, he has drawn on contemporary accounts, historical evaluations of the battle, and the biographies of participants from private (including Adolf Hitler) up to general. But everything seems to come back to that map of his grandfather’s.

The topography of the region was perhaps the greatest obstacle that faced both sides, but especially the British. A hill – more accurately a pile of construction rubble 60 meters high – dominated the landscape and provided an observation post for the masses of German artillery. The drainage ditches which made the pre-war farms possible were destroyed, and the heavy rains were channeled into the British trenches. Those farmlands offered little or no cover for assaults which might cover hundreds of meters into well placed German defenses. But the British held the salient as the world dissolved around them. Today, over 200,000 British cemeteries are in Flanders, and a memorial remembers 90,000 more who simply disappeared over the four years.

I became interested in reading an account of the Ypres Salient when the library added The Great War Seen from the Air, an oversized and detailed collection of aerial photographs with analysis and overlays which explain what the reader is seeing. Since I didn’t know the place names and only had a general sense of the war in Flanders, I wanted to know more about what the photographs represented. I don’t know which is worse – seeing the ground-level destruction or the panorama which puts that destruction into a larger context. I am still no closer to understanding how the soldiers and civilians on both sides could allow the futile bloodletting to continue. I do know a little more about the seeds sown by the War to End All Wars, which bloomed into the history of the 20th Century.  Let’s hope that kind of madness never descends on humanity again.

Check the WRL catalogue for A Storm in Flanders

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Shadow DiversNearing its first decade in print, Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers is a nonfiction classic that will be read for many years to come. That’s because Kurson finds an elegant way to combine so many subjects of interest: the exciting adventure of deep-sea diving, the poignant war history of the German U-boat submarines, the detective story of how the divers figured out which wreck they were exploring, and the interesting character portraits of the divers involved, some who sacrificed relationships and even their lives in the pursuit of their obsession.

The story began in 1991, when a boatful of recreational divers explored a new wreck and discovered something that wasn’t supposed to be off the coast of New Jersey, a U-boat. Even that first dive seemed to be shrouded by bad luck and mystery, with the death of one diver, but two men in particular, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, began a six-year adventure as they tried to identify what they found.

The diving scenes are spectacularly exciting in Kurson’s tale, but he finds a way to make the library work that the two men did just as riveting. Both the U.S. and German governments still classified some of the information they needed, and many documents that Kurson found turned out to be inaccurate historical cover-ups that had to be disproved before the hunt could progress.

Adding one more fascinating level to the tale, Kurson recreates the last days of the men aboard the submarine, following them from their selection into the U-boat corps (at a time in the war when such duty was nearly the equivalent of a death sentence), researching journals and interviewing family members to discover their decidedly non-fanatical political beliefs, then telling the tale of their last farewell from families and what can be recreated of their final journey. This is a marvelous blend of diving ethics, deep sea adventure (and sometimes terror), strong personalities in clash, and historical mystery that should please almost any reader.

Check the WRL catalog for Shadow Divers

Or listen to Shadow Divers as an audiobook on compact disc

WRL also has Shadow Divers in ebook and audio ebook formats

 

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StuffMattersCoverHave you ever wondered why, despite putting one in your mouth every day, you don’t taste your spoon? I had never considered cutlery’s marvelous properties that mean it is simultaneously malleable in production, slow to corrode and unreactive in our acidic mouths.  In fact, I had never considered the properties of the millions of unregarded everyday objects that we live in, drive on, sit on, eat and use every moment of our lives.  That is where scientist Mark Miodownik comes in with this wonderful book about material science. It sounds like a dry topic and I would never have guessed that such a book could be fun, but it entertains enormously as it informs. Remember that “everything is made from something” but even Mark Miodownik  couldn’t cover everything, so he has limited himself to ten substances and written a chapter named after an intrinsic quality of each, so “Trusted” for paper and “Fundamental” for concrete.

My favorite chapter has to be the one about chocolate, which is of course “The most deliciously engineered material on earth.” Beware, though: you won’t be able to read about the “wild and complex, sweet and bitter cocktail of flavors” without getting an urge for a Little Something.  ( I will admit that I had to partake and “Flood [my] senses with warm, fragrant, bittersweet flavors, and ignite the pleasure centers of [my] brain.”). If chocolate is not your thing you can read Stuff Matters for the explanation of why the sky is blue on page 98 and how this relates to the “Marvelous” substance  aerogel, which “is like holding a piece of the sky”.

Stuff Matters is a great book that I recommend for everyone. It is accessible enough for middle school and high school science classes, with lots for the students to learn: “The definition of the temperature of a material is, in fact, the degree to which the atoms in it are jiggling around.”  It is very readable for everyone while also being accurate, up-to-date science written by a scientist. Try it if you liked the fascinating nonfiction of The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox, or the intersection of science, history and society in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. You should also read it if you have ever been in a concrete building or wrapped a gift in paper that is strong, colorful and creasable.

Check the WRL catalog for Stuff Matters.

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1219On Labor Day in the year 1921, at a bootleg booze-infused party in San Francisco, movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle followed a woman named Virginia Rappe into the bedroom of room 1219 at the St. Francis Hotel and locked the door behind them. Four days later Rappe died in agony, Arbuckle was arrested and charged with manslaughter and the motion picture industry was engulfed in a major scandal. In the nonfiction book Room 1219, author Greg Merritt delves into this tawdry tale and tries to determine exactly what took place behind that locked door.

Rappe died of peritonitis caused by a rupture in the bladder, but what caused the rupture? Some of the party-goers blamed Arbuckle, but he repeatedly asserted that he had done nothing wrong. The prosecution was hampered by a lack of hard evidence and the witnesses were shady to say the least, so it took three fractious trials, two of which resulted in hung juries, before a verdict was reached.

The jury had spoken but the press and public had already made their determination. The tabloid nature of the crime led to overwhelming and appallingly sleazy publicity. All involved were irrevocably slandered. The movie industry was threatened with boycotts and censorship laws. To salvage their business, the studios tried to appease the public by hiring a censorship czar named Will Hays whose job it was to ensure the “moral purity” of Hollywood films. To show they meant business, Arbuckle was sacrificed. His films were pulled from theaters and he was forbidden to work on screen ever again. He spent the final years of his short life trying to regain his lost stardom.

This is an interesting bit of Hollywood history, and author Greg Merritt has done a nice job in bringing it to life in a book that is abundantly researched and decidedly fair and unbiased to everyone involved in the case. Beyond the incident itself and its aftermath, he also gives us detailed bios of Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe and many of the other players in the saga, along with some interesting sidelights on the history of the film industry. As to what really happened in room 1219, Merritt speculates and it sounds plausible, but there are only two people who know for sure and they are long gone. I’d recommend this for people interested in the history of cinema or true crime.

Check the WRL catalog for Room 1219

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big miracle 2012I’m usually a sucker for animal rescue stories and films (just look at some of my previous posts, including this one.).  While vacationing at the beach last week, I was presented with the opportunity to watch this movie, and I hesitated, wondering if I wanted to spend my valuable beach time watching yet another movie about animals that need to be rescued.  Well, I was glad I did, because The Big Miracle is exceptional for several reasons:

One extremely cute family of three whales, including an adorable baby whale, that get trapped in the ice five miles from the shoreline near Barrow, Alaska, in 1988. Their desperate calls for help are very moving.

Some extremely hazardous weather conditions,  including temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit , high winds, blizzards, and treacherous ice, mean that their chances of survival are slim, and make for exciting drama.

An extremely unlikely group of people join together to help these poor whales, including a Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore), a wealthy oil tycoon (Ted Danson), a local TV news reporter (John Krasinski), and a local Inuit tribal elder (John Pingayak).  A typical movie like this pits the good-guy activist against the bad-guy industrialist, so it’s refreshing to see them all working together for once, even if they have ulterior motives for helping.

The actions of this group bring about some amazing results.  The local TV news reporter, who first discovers the whales, does a feature report about their plight for the local Anchorage news. The story is picked up by the national news, and quickly goes international. Before long, thousands of reporters from all over the world are descending on little Barrow, Alaska.

More importantly, the news reports bring people to the town who think that they can help in the rescue operation, including two brothers from Minnesota who have invented a de-icing machine.

The situation on the ground quickly becomes desperate, as the rescuers race around the clock and face crisis after crisis to save these whales.  I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that it involves a lot of ingenuity on the ground and help from the Alaska National Guard and an icy neighbor of the United States. And I won’t say if all three of these whales make it out alive (oops, maybe I have said too much).

This exciting, feel-good movie is based on true events in 1988 as set forth in Thomas Rose’s book Freeing the Whales.  The acting is top-rate, and I especially enjoyed Drew Barrymore as the Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer.  In one scene she dives under water to check on the health of the whales, which I found to be very memorable and sad.

I also enjoyed watching media clips from 1988 of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings when they were still in their prime. This gives the movie a sense of authenticity (reminding viewers that this was a real story) as well as a sense of nostalgia for older viewers like myself who remember watching these famous TV news anchors.

The Big Miracle is an exciting movie that I highly recommended watching, on or off the beach.

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VegetableGardeningIf you are able to make the trip to Colonial Williamsburg (and do pop in and visit us at the Williamsburg Library if you do!) you will notice the beautiful gardens. Like everything in Colonial Williamsburg, they strive to make the gardens authentic to colonial times, which means lots of cottage vegetable gardens grown in old-fashioned organic ways. Whether you can visit us or not Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way is a great book for both gardeners and history buffs.

For gardeners Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way offers a wealth of practical advice and techniques, as the author points out, “many gardening tasks have spanned the centuries relatively unchanged”. Coaxing food from the earth has always required the same patience, diligence and skill.

The historically minded can learn about the past of vegetables, for example did you know that “The onion and its relatives–leeks, shallots, garlic, and chives–are among the most ancient and important vegetables known to humankind”? More practically for a modern gardener, it lists varieties of seeds used in 18th-century Virginia and if they are now unobtainable, it lists Heirloom substitutes. To learn how to make their gardens authentic, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation turned to gardening books written hundreds of years ago like Philip Miller’s The Gardener’s Dictionary from the 1750s. Information found in these works had to be adapted to suit local conditions, such as the heat in Virginia summers.

Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way is filled with stunning crisp photographs, both decorative images of bountiful garden produce and many showing gardening techniques. As a bonus, spot the colonial Williamsburg staff in their costumes as they work in the gardens – terribly hot in the summer in coastal Virginia’s hot and humid climate!

This book is an obvious choice for gardeners, especially those interested in organic vegetable production. It will also fascinate history buffs with its wealth of information about how people lived and grew their own food over two hundred years ago. If you are a local resident be sure to pop into the library and check out our signed copy.

Check the WRL catalog for Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way.

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Poisoners HandbookScience isn’t just esoteric stuff done in a distant lab by detached and isolated scientists, rather it has everyday and real-life implications for us all. And in the case of The Poisoner’s Handbook, real death implications as well. In a time of numerous CSI television programs we blithely imagine that a forensics expert glances around a crime scene, swirls something in a test tube, and twenty minutes later announces that the butler did it, who then confesses to being a serial killer. This makes good TV but real forensics is much slower, less certain and more work. Forensics is also a lot newer than you might imagine. A hundred years ago in New York, arguably the world’s premier city, the police and medical staff  often had very little idea of what was killing people. Accidental poisoning was common because poisons were easy to acquire and almost impossible to detect in a body. Cyanide was common in cleaning supplies and pest control, with unsurprisingly fatal results! Poison was also an excellent (or more accurately dreadful) way to murder people because it was very hard to prove what caused death.

The subtitle of this book: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York sounds glamorous, but the book paints a portrait of a scary world where ignorance ruled, followed closely by corruption and hubris. The corruption of New York during prohibition was ranged against the dedication of scientists and doctors, notably Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, the courageous and brilliant real-life heroes of our story.

Author Deborah Blum says she wanted to be a chemist until she set her hair on fire with a Bunsen burner. Her father was a scientist and mother had a collection of murder mysteries, so she wanted to combine them for a nonfiction scientific Agatha Christie and she succeeded remarkably well. Try The Poisoner’s Handbook for nonfiction with the characterization and suspense of a novel. It is a fascinating portrait of the historical intersection between science and society, likeThe Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Bear in mind, this is not for the squeamish, as forensics are described in detail and poisoning and its aftermath are painted as so common that it is surprising that anyone survived at all.

PBS recognized the dramatic potential in this great book and made a documentary that was released in February, 2014. It is a great companion to the book with historic photographs of New York as well as our heroes Norris and Gettler.

Check the WRL catalog for The Poisoner’s Handbook.

Check the WRL catalog for the new documentary based on the book The Poisoner’s Handbook.

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