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Archive for the ‘Microhistories’ Category

BeatrixPottersGardeningLifeA rabbit wearing a blue waist coat is a familiar icon of childhood, but adults usually assume Peter Rabbit’s antics don’t have much bearing on reality. Beatrix Potter was a naturalist at heart so her animals often act their natural way (apart from speaking in the manner of citizens of an English country village and wearing clothes). In many cases they are also pictured in real places that Beatrix Potter knew and loved–her own lands and gardens.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life explains how that came about. The book starts with a biography, telling of her privileged, but perhaps lonely, childhood full of pet hedgehogs, country visits and drawings of fungi. Her overbearing parents didn’t want her to marry but she was finally able to wriggle out from under their thumbs by the age of nearly 40 by becoming engaged to her publisher Norman Warne, but her fiance died soon after of leukemia. She always took solace in nature so the great success of her children’s books meant that she was able to buy Hill Top Farm in England’s lovely Lake District. She was only able to live there part time for many years but gardened and farmed enthusiastically. She kept on buying land until at her death at the age of seventy-seven, she left over four thousand acres to the British National Trust. Her house and garden at Hill Top Farm still belong to the National Trust and can be visited by tourists.

If you love Peter Rabbit and his friends try Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life to see their real homes and haunts. Keep copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other famous works handy because it uses quotes from Beatrix Potter’s actual letters, her drawings, (both her sketches and her finished book illustrations), historical photos, and beautiful modern photos of the places she wrote about, making the book a delight even if you only have time to browse through and look at the pictures. I loved seeing a sketch or watercolor of a real place and then to see Peter Rabbit or Tabitha Twitchit standing in the picture.

For garden lovers, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life doesn’t have much practical advice, so it is best as a wintertime curl-up-by-the-fire and dream book. It includes sections on her garden through the seasons, how to visit all the gardens she knew and created throughout her life and and a list of plants she mentioned or drew. It is essential reading for established Beatrix Potter fans who have already consumed her biographies Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature by Linda Lear or The Tale of Beatrix Potter: a Biography by Margaret Lane; or her book of art, Beatrix Potter’s Art: Paintings and Drawings by Anne Stevenson Hobbs; or the series of cozy mysteries featuring her life and haunts by Susan Wittig Albert starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm (more about these tomorrow).

As Beatrix said in a letter, “The best thing about sharing plants is that they always bring the giver to mind,” and the best thing about reading Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is that her story will always bring to mind her enduring animal characters, her brave life, and the beauty and solace of gardening, especially in the real Lake District.

Check the WRL catalog for Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.

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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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SouthernHerbGrowingI have tried gardening on several continents with many climates and soil types. I soon learned that a plant that grows well in one place may get resentful and sulk — or outright die— in another. That is why gardening books that address local conditions are spectacularly useful. Here in southeastern Virginia we are well served by Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene. When I was starting to grow herbs I was looking for a book about a particular type of plant rather than tightly focused on one place, and Southern Herb Growing has turned out to be a wonderful resource to help me with our hot and humid conditions.

The author Madalene Hill was  the national president of the Herb Society of America in the 1980s and her expertise shines through. The first part of the book is called “A Herbal Primer” and covers getting started with sections on soil, mulch and propagation. A large part of it is given over to design ideas including historical knot gardens and theme gardens. The before and after photos can be a little discouraging because the full, tangled cottage-garden look that I crave may take five years to grow. I guess I just have to be patient and wait for my two inch tall sprigs of rosemary to become bushes! And for those readers who can only dream of the space to grow a proper garden, the book includes container gardening (which herbs are well suited to).

Around half the book is the “Growing Guide” with hundreds of herbs listed alphabetically with advice for growing them in the hot, humid South, the herbs’ historical uses and significance, and their modern culinary and medicinal uses. Each listing has the scientific genus and species names, as well as alternate names, so from from Acanthus to Yarrow you should be able to find almost any rare or common herb you are interested in.

Southern Herb Growing is a great book for all gardeners, especially if you want prosaic advice poetically put such as “Basils go home to their fathers at the first sign of cold nights in the fall.” It includes hundreds of beautiful photographs of herb gardens growing throughout the South, so try it whether you are able to immediately use their advice to improve your current garden or look at the lovely pictures and dream…

Check the WRL catalog for Southern Herb Growing.

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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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CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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RiddleLabyrinthDo you know which event was on the front page of The Times of London in 1953, the same day as an article about the first ascent of Mount Everest? Would you believe that the translation or “decipherment” of the ancient script of Linear B was seen as newsworthy as the heroic efforts of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code is narrative non-fiction at its best, with mystery, and high drama. I had never heard of Linear B, and don’t worry if you haven’t either. You don’t have to be a devotee of ancient languages to be sitting on the edge of your seat to find out who, how and when Linear B was deciphered. Margalit Fox’s narrative thread focuses on the American Alice Kober who was a university teacher, but who worked on Linear B in her spare time on her dining room table. The book paints a picture of the academic world in the era before computers led to instant and easy sharing. Linear B aroused great passions and rivalries among academics and lay-people, even to the extent that they hoarded ancient clay tablets and didn’t let anyone else see them for forty years.  Also, as in the best nonfiction, I painlessly learned an enormous amount about Linear B, ancient languages and linguistics in general.

Linear B was written on clay tablets in the Mediterranean area that is now Greece for a few short hundred years around 3000 years ago. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that used it collapsed then it was lost to the world until clay tablets bearing indecipherable text were discovered in 1900 by British Archaeologist Arthur Evans. The clay tablets and the inscriptions on them remained a mystery for the next fifty years. Many people tried to decipher them, but all failed until finally British architect Michael Ventris published his work in the early 1950s. Michael Ventris is usually the hero of this story, such as in books like The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick in 1958  and The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson in 2002. Margalit Fox argues that the meticulous, painstaking and time consuming work done by Alice Kober was instrumental in him reaching his final conclusions. Alice Kober left behind boxes packed tightly with index cards systematically annotating and data-basing minute aspects of the known symbols.

Linear B was only used for administration. In the words of Alice Kober, “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 BC”, but the clay tablets still afford an unprecedented glimpse into the daily lives of people long gone. Only around 120 “hands” have been detected in Linear B tablets, which means not many more than 120 people knew how to write it. That contrasts to the huge gains in human development, because now it is estimated that 80% of the world population is literate!

Try The Riddle of the Labyrinth if you like riveting, historical non fiction with a touch of mystery about diverse topics such as The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester or The Poisoners Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

Check the WRL catalog for The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.

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