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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Liars ClubMary Karr’s family was the family in your neighborhood that your parents warned you away from when you were a child. They’re volatile people, emotionally toughened one and all. Still, to get to know them through youngest daughter Mary’s 1995 memoir is a bittersweet pleasure for readers who can handle a walk on the dark and gritty side.

The Liar’s Club takes place in the 1960s in the Texas oil town of Leechfield and a few months in Colorado. Mary is nine and she and her twelve-year-old sister Lecia are wise beyond their years. They’ve been through some rough stuff: watching a sanctimonious grandmother die from cancer, sexual abuse from playmates and babysitters, and endless fights with other kids in their tough town.

Dad, doesn’t help. He’s an oil man who can be a wonderful father, but when life gets the most challenging he often turns into a distant, hard-drinking man known as the most dangerous man in town. He hangs out with the titular Liar’s Club (although by implication, this title also applies to the whole Karr family), men who tell tall stories with hard truths hidden inside them.

But Mom is the most problematic of all the Karrs. She’s a creative, independent, city woman trapped as a housewife in the 1960s in a small town. She’s carrying secrets from a painful past, details that aren’t revealed until later in the book. She tries to mask her pain with alcohol abuse, but that isn’t enough to dull her dark streaks. Her relationship with her husband alternates between passionate romance, sullen distance, and outright ugliness. For her daughters she is sometimes like a streetwise older sister, sometimes just plain dangerous.

As you can tell, this isn’t an easy book, but the lives feel authentic, and Karr leavens the pain with some hard-bitten humor. I’m often skeptical of childhood memoirs: Can authors really remember their youth in that much detail? I was at times dubious of a somewhat similar book, Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, which I enjoyed but took with a grain of salt. There’s a subtle difference in Karr’s approach that makes me trust this book more. She admits at times that her memories differ from those of her sister’s, or sometimes she just tells us when recall fails and she’s working from after-the-fact speculation. And don’t forget, this is The Liar’s Club; even when the absolute truth is stretched, there is painful but sparkling and hard-won honesty at the core of the story. Read the scenes where Mary’s mother starts to burn the contents of the house or where she fails to cope under the combined pressure of a hurricane and the last days of her mother, and you’ll understand what I mean. If you like this, go on to her other memoirs, Lit and Cherry, both of which have also received high critical praise.

Check the WRL catalog for The Liar’s Club

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grantEvery so often, I feel the need to revisit older books that have been sitting on the shelves for a while unread. When my mother was doing some cleaning up at her house, she offered me a box of books that she was going to get rid of, and among them were several of Bruce Catton’s magisterial works on the American Civil War. A few years ago, I read Terrible Swift Sword (first published in 1969), part of Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War. This past week, I picked up Grant Takes Command, the third book in the Ulysses S. Grant trilogy, started by Lloyd Lewis and completed by Catton.

Grant Takes Command follows the career of General Ulysses S. Grant from the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863 through the end of the war and Lincoln’s assassination. Over the course of the book, we see Grant revealed as both a superb, and often lucky, commander as well as a family man, who wrote regularly to his wife, and had her with him at various points of the campaign. Catton does not shy away from pointing out Grant’s failures as well, but compared with the rest of the Union generals, it seems clear that it was Grant’s confidence and tenacity that brought the war to a close. Grant appears to be one of the few generals on the Union side who managed to walk the treacherous line between politics and the war. The close relationship between Lincoln and Grant comes through here; Grant was the only commanding general who Lincoln seems to have completely trusted, and Grant clearly respected Lincoln.

Catton does an excellent job of portraying both the macro- and the micro- aspects of wartime for soldiers and commanders alike. He makes use of diary accounts and of the voluminous correspondence surviving from the war, not only official communiques but letters from officers, enlisted men, politicians, and civilians. These vignettes help us see beyond the maps showing sweeping troop movements, illuminating the daily lives of those at war.

I think that a particular interest here for me is that when Grant became commander of all the union forces he moved his headquarters to the Army of the Potomac, fighting Lee in Virginia. The last two thirds of Grant Takes Command are, as a result, set in Virginia, and knowing the places that Catton writes about, and in some cases having walked the ground, added an additional dimension to the story.

Catton is an able historian, and better yet, is an excellent writer of narrative. You may know how the story ends, but the journey from Chattanooga to Appomattox with Catton as your guide is one not to be missed.

Check the WRL catalog for Grant Takes Command

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gettysburgHow many schoolchildren do you suppose have memorized The Gettysburg Address, then forgotten it? How many adults can complete the phrase “Fourscore and …”, but don’t understand what Lincoln meant by it?  Jonathan Hennessey, author of this sesquicentennial interpretation of Lincoln’s immortal speech, does both students and adults an immense service in breaking down the speech line by line to show what a radical statement the Gettysburg Address really was at the time.

Abraham Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four months after the three-day long bloodletting that is called the high tide of the Confederacy.  He was added to the program as a courtesy, but audiences nonetheless expected the kind of hours-long oration that served as inspiration and entertainment in the pre-broadcast days.  Lincoln had proved himself a master of the craft during his debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 campaign for the Illinois Senate seat, and was expected to use the forum to extol the Union effort.  Instead, in just 272 words he reiterated a vision which turned a common notion of the Civil War on its head.

The fourscore and seven years he referred to takes us back to the Declaration of Independence, not to the Constitution.  The Constitution was the root document cited over and over again in the escalating debates that led to the War.  Was the Constitution a compact voluntarily entered into by sovereign entities who could withdraw over differences of policy? Or was it the contract by which a single unbreakable entity was formed?  But Lincoln saw the Constitution as an outgrowth of the purposes of the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration as a testament to the values which created a uniquely American people.  The Gettysburg Address is his case for that interpretation.

The speech led listeners through American history from 1776 to 1863, forcing them to recall the political compromises, sectional divisions, and bloody skirmishes which had presaged secession then blossomed into an unequaled bloodletting on American soil.  By walking modern readers through those same questions, and bringing then-current events in (what did the California Gold Rush have to do with slavery?) Hennessey shows that the War was an organic part of all that had come before.  But he doesn’t stop at 1861 – he also carries the reader through the chaos and disaster of a battle that neither side sought nor wanted, and on to the tragic end of Lincoln’s life.

Aaron McConnell’s vivid illustrations are a perfect complement to the text, adapting styles from each historical period and pulling complex and dynamic action scenes together with simple but affecting drawings of contemplative landscapes to build an emotional impact into the story.  He uses a nameless, voiceless African-American woman touring contemporary Washington DC to create an overarching visual narrative, then plunges into the events and ideas Hennessey lays out.  Together, they teach an accessible but not dumbed-down lesson in American history.  The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation is a terrific resource for students wanting a survey of the issues and an illuminating read for adults looking to make deeper connections to their understanding of history.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

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Lucid Food isn’t strictly vegan like the four cookbooks reviewed earlier this week.

Its focus is on sourcing food more ecologically and conscientiously. This makes it an excellent resource for omnivores bothered by factory farming practices and their impact—square with the slow food, clean eating, sustainable agriculture, and locavore movements. I did find Lucid Food to be decidedly vegetable-focused and the many creative vegan recipes included are full of exquisite flavors. Author and catering chef Louisa Shafia really backs up in her life what she writes about in this cookbook by the way she does business; her catering company is also called Lucid Food and practices an innovative waste-free approach.

…more than eighty-five healthful, seasonal recipes that will guide you toward making earth-friendly choices about what you prepare for meals…

Shafia suggests ways to choose fish and seafood more thoughtfully. I learned that the farming of mussels actually inspires cleaner coastal marine stewardship without the use of antibiotics and chemicals, about wild-caught species that are caught using methods that don’t kill unwanted animals in the process, and other safer choices for the eco-conscious eater. We can consume less by using seasonings to add briny flavors associated with fish dishes to tofu, tempeh, beans, and other proteins, still satisfying taste buds without adding to the imminent crisis predicted—that worldwide fish and seafood populations may disappear before mid-century.

This is a beautiful book and I can’t wait to cook more of its fine, elegant recipes that are a fusion of tastes and cultural traditions.

Check the WRL catalog for Lucid Food and Louisa Shafia’s latest cookbook The New Persian Kitchen.

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Vegan and locavore enthusiast Jae Steele aims to educate us about food’s origins—that is, how far it might have traveled to reach your local grocery market. She wants to equip us with the know-how to minimize our impact on the planet and its inhabitants when shopping for plant-based food locally.

First, and foremost, she clearly values and encourages the infusion of fun and joy into your lifestyle, wherever you live. In her book, I finally met a vegan who acknowledges that there are eaters who just don’t like each and every vegetable—no force feeding here! You’ve only gotta eat foods you like.

It’s not enjoyable if you’re feeling shamed or guilted into it, so let’s focus on doing the best we can—and doing it joyfully.

Packed with useful information, Jae becomes an irresistible friend motivating you to thoughtfully plan weekly meals and seasonal produce shopping, and she makes it all so fun! Learn how to explore a variety of veggies and fruits seasonally. You already knew that folks are asking questions at the farmer’s market, but if you’re feeling tongue-tied, Jae will arm you with the knowledge to get out there and get to know your food and the farmers who grow it more intimately. She includes great details for creating an indoor composting system using red wriggler worms, which I seriously might try, because I’m not quite ready to garden beyond my deck and in pots, let alone start tilling the yard.

Recipes are supplemented with fact-filled charts on individual plants’ versatile uses and health benefits. Woven into Jae’s very clear instructions are tips that most cookbook authors fail to provide such as a thoughtful hint to zest the lemon before you slice into it for juicing—I tried to get the zest from an already-squeezed lemon once and have the scars to prove it!

Check the WRL catalog for Ripe from Around Here.

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Here, in the middle of the week, I’d like to address you middle-of-the-roaders about a book that ensures that veganism is not only for celebrities, that you mustn’t wait until you’re making big bucks to take the vegan plunge.

Victoria Moran gently instructs in the ways of being vegan, without judgment, without scolding those who claim to be vegans who eat fish (you either are or you aren’t a person who doesn’t eat animals), with only a subtle amount of coercion through the storytelling she feels obligated to impart, as a witness to the deaths of animals at slaughter and the horrific conditions of the dairy, poultry, pork, and other animal product industries. Some may have heard it all before—a lot of shocking videos circulate the internet—but for those of you who’ve been oblivious to this media outrage, her essays may cause you to pause before you order that next chicken sandwich.

Even if you’re already convinced that vegan is best, you feel handicapped by the outrageous price difference between organic, locally grown produce at the trendy farmers’ markets and the genetically modified, pesticide-coated, homogenous assortment in your supermarket and discount store grocery aisles! What to do???

Forty brief chapters with facts, personal stories, and guidelines introducing you to vegan concepts and cooking techniques each conclude with a recipe. It’s meant to make plant-based cuisine possible for every kind of eater with any kind of income, not just the elite many of us believe are the only folks who can actually afford to live a vegan, organic, eco-conscious, locavore’s lifestyle. Basically, the book is for those of us who live “main street” lives, not “Fifth Avenue” existences. Moran addresses the fact that wherever you are with these goals, it’s okay; you don’t have to do everything perfectly from the beginning.  Our heartstrings are often pulled by myriad causes. She nudges us in the most compassionate direction, and seems to want us to prioritize minimal impact on the animal world above concerns for our individual health if we truly wanna go vegan—are we okay with that? She challenges us to think about such things as we progress.

But you can only do what you can do, especially if you’re raising a family, and stretching paychecks has become an acrobatic feat.


For example, though we are encouraged to support the organic movement, which she says will become more affordable as demand increases (put your money where your mouth is), she’s realistic about such dilemmas as eating organic all the time being terribly more expensive. She helpfully elucidates a “dirty dozen” list of produce to avoid if not organic and a “clean 15″ list of more economical fruits and vegetables you can buy without worrying over the lack of an organic label (sourced from Environmental Working Group).

A very comprehensive collection of appendices provide additional resources and bibliographies for those who want to take things to the next level, from where to go online for further research to where to buy your clothes, shoes, and household cleaning supplies without harming animals. This book is worth picking up even if it’s just for the to-die-for-yet-guiltless Chocolate Mousse recipe—putting together the unexpected ingredients required a leap of faith but I was astounded by the results.

Check the WRL catalog for Main Street Vegan.

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jacket.aspxPersonal chef to Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, Roberto trained as a master chef, not a master vegan chef! He learned to substitute meatless ingredients in his first week of employment with the celebrity couple who’d gone vegan. All I’m thinkin’ is: not vegan, doesn’t cook vegan, Ellen and Portia determined to live vegan, Roberto must have been spectacular in their eyes (and his references’) despite a lack of experience! I imagine a shortage of truly vegan chefs at this point in culinary history, so I suppose a truly fine chef can adapt. The proof is in the… truly tasty dishes you can create with his cookbook. Perhaps your favorite will be Red Beans and Rice—it’s Ellen’s—served each Monday.

Packed with “meaty” and “cheesy” recipes substituting vegan ingredients while aiming for equivalent texture and taste, vegans with a fond taste for burgers, quesadillas, pizza, pasta, and pork will find much to love. Now, in my household, in addition to trying to please the meat-lovers in my family with plant-based no-meat-or-dairy recipes, I’m avoiding refined sugars plus seeking real, cleaner food. And while some of the commercial ingredients need scrutiny, Roberto’s ingredients are fairly easy to identify, making vegan cooking more convenient for us busy folks. The “Breakfast” section delighted me by using no sugar other than natural fruits, Agave nectar, and pure maple syrup. Folks, it seems to me that going vegan shouldn’t equal loading up on sugar daily! “Desserts” will satisfy those who desire to live it up occasionally with such treats as the incredibly simple Pumpkin Pie and fiercely scrumptious chocolate cake, Vegan la Bête Noire (The Black Beast).

Very useful is the section “Condiments, Sauces, and Dressings,” recipes that should adequately substitute for some of the staple ingredients of meat-milk-and-cheese-eating culture, including cream cheese spread (using cashews, tofu, and savory seasonings), sweetened condensed nondairy milk with cornstarch, sugar, almond milk, and vanilla (used in “Desserts”), and a very passable Caesar Dressing with no eggs, anchovies, or cheese. I’d been looking for better natural salad dressings made without sugar or corn syrup and Roberto provides a variety.

This is a handsome book—well, Roberto’s on the cover, so that was easy—with color photos of real food, not fancy or over-garnished—how real [vegan] celebrities might eat on ordinary days in the privacy of their homes! Plus, this book helps you feed the true carnivores at your table without sacrificing your vegan principles. The text addresses ordinary cooks who love good food, family time, and entertaining. I absolutely love it when nearly all recipes are complemented with visuals to aid those of us without a personal chef. There are sweet photos of Roberto, his wife, and their son cooking together. Ellen wrote a nice afterword for their chef’s book and features him on her television show. Portia’s story told in the foreword brought tears to my eyes and may convert many a carnivore to veganism.

Search the WRL catalog for Vegan Cooking for Carnivores.

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This week, Mindy highlights titles from the rapidly growing universe of vegan cookbooks.

Embark on a culinary adventure with this mind-blowingly beautiful showcase of very elegant vegan cuisine, artfully presented in jewelescent photography and a very eye-pleasing graphic design format. I love the subtle color-coding of warmish pastel-tinted recipe pages that distinguish “morning” from “afternoon” and “evening,” closing with “late night” and “very late night” (for your midnight cravings). It’s refreshing—not the usual categories of breads, soups, salads, entrées, etc…, no entire meal plans either, just fine examples of fancy vegan recipe standouts to fall in love with.

Shuldiner wants his readers to venture into previously unexplored territory, recommending we give any intimidating or obscure items a first go even though it’s possible to substitute some ingredients with more familiar items. Thankfully, hard-to-find food items don’t predominate, but a few did have me searching online for definitions and sources: agar, yuba, sumac, and pomegranate molasses, not your every-day staples. A list of mail-order and online resources is included. Some of the exotic cooking implements he suggests I was not inclined to acquire—Shuldiner has a recipe for Chocolate-Tahini Timbales cooked in timbale (aka baba) molds, which will surely taste just as exquisite cooked in mini-muffin or popover tins (though not nearly as cute as the pictured “corks” or “bouchons” as they’re called). I’ll cook just about anything with the word “chocolate” involved.

Shuldiner doesn’t use this book to engage in any political or environmental debates about veganism. He merely aims to share his supreme vegan creations for those who want to enjoy imaginative plant-based recipes and to dispel any imaginings of vegan blandness. Gourmet-literate cooks who want to impress guests with fancy vegan food can’t go wrong with this lovely book, and there are many unique and appealing appetizers to try. Vegans, regardless of whether they consider themselves purist, can take their usual fare to the umpteenth level of class with these recipes.

Check the WRL Catalog for Pure Vegan.

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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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Nothing speaks teatime more than freshly baked scones, slathered with strawberry jam, and topped with cream.

RoyalTeas

In my world real scones are plain and stodgy objects which I learned to bake a long time ago, first at Brownies and then as “quick breads” in Cooking class at Intermediate School. When I have made them ever since, I used my Grandmother’s ancient and annotated Edmonds Cookery Book. In the antediluvian antipodes I learned that, as the name quick breads suggests, they are meant to replace bread in a meal, not something sweet, so they are mostly flour and milk and never have eggs. But I am game to try most things once (especially if it involves baking), so tradition be hanged, I exactly followed the Basic Scones recipe from Royal Teas with Grace and Style.  These were not my grandmother’s scones, but light, airy, with cranberries and a crunchy sugary top–they were well worth making (and consuming!)

Author Eileen Shafer has run teashops and tea tours for many years and it shows in this engaging idea, etiquette and recipe book. Almost half the book is hints and advice for making the perfect elegant tea party, and with chapter headings like “Setting a Beautiful Table” and “Creating an Inviting Atmosphere” there is a lot to work with. It is full of exquisite photographs of table settings, tea sets, dignified rooms and (my favorite) food. Eileen Shafer lives part of the year in Williamsburg and the book is part of Williamsburg Regional Library’s Local Author Project.

Royal Teas with Grace and Style has smaller selection of savory tea time recipes such as sandwiches, but comes into its own with a great selection of cakes, cookies and slices. I got carried away one day and made so many cookies and cakes that the chocolate cake didn’t get eaten (unusual in my teenager-filled household). The book gives the splendid idea of using the left over chocolate pound cake to make trifle, but the recipe for trifle calling for cool whip and instant pudding didn’t sound nearly so splendid. This time I stuck with tradition and used whipped cream and custard from imported custard powder for a scrumptious trifle. I also made the lemon drop cookies and they were mouthwatering – strongly lemon flavored and slightly astringent. I like lemon flavor with other flavors so I had the idea of rolling the dough out with a batch of chocolate cookie dough to make lemon and chocolate swirl cookies, with triumphant results.

Try Royal Teas with Grace and Style for great recipes and wonderful ideas about stylish teas. My colleague Janet wrote a lovely review of Eating Royally, by Darren McGrady in 2012, which features how the British Royals really eat. Royal Teas with Grace and Style may not have the British authenticity of Eating Royally but it has plenty to inspire fans of baking and fans of elegant tea parties.

Check the WRL catalog for Royal Teas with Grace and Style.

sconesLemonCookies

And here are some of the lemon cookies and scones that I made.

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imageI hadn’t meant to write about The Monuments Men, which, thanks to a movie starring the dapper George Clooney, already has an impressive reserves list. But I keep running into folks who say, “I had no idea there was a book!”—a statement that brings out the evangelical librarian in me. So: there is a book! And if you’re at all interested in the intersection of art and WWII, then you’ll enjoy learning where history and the movie overlap, and where the truth has been stretched to fit a different story.

Nazi art thefts during WWII were meticulously planned and immense in scope. After the war, 400 tons of artworks removed from museums and private collections were found in salt mines and castles, the best of them earmarked for Hitler’s proposed Führersmuseum, never built. But while the scale of art plundering was unprecedented, so were the preservation efforts of museum curators and the military, especially the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, known as the Monuments Men.

Eventually, 350 men and women from 13 countries served, but at the beginning, there were only a handful: as of D-Day, eight men to inspect every important monument between the English Channel and Berlin. They expected to do conservation triage—follow after the front-line soldiers, survey liberated towns for damaged sites, and organize emergency efforts to protect works from exposure or keep Roman ruins from being used as parking lots for tanks. They didn’t expect that so many masterpieces would be missing completely. As the war drew to an end, their mission morphed into a treasure hunt for artworks and other valuables stashed in hiding places throughout Europe.

Possibly the most bizarre of these was at Bernterode: underground, in a sealed room, a circle of regimental flags surrounding the coffins of Frederick the Great and former German President von Hindenburg. The most exciting cache was at Altaussee, where the paintings were a survey of Art History’s greatest hits, and the mine was packed with bombs.

Edsel’s account follows several of the Monuments Men, drawing on their writings and interviews with surviving officers. It was lonely work, each man improvising on his own without much support or even assigned transportation. The work of identifying and returning artworks continued until 1951, while questions of rightful ownership concern the courts to this day. (For a taste of postwar Monuments work, the National Archives has a fascinating article about the myriad political and logistical issues raised by those coffins alone.)

Check the WRL catalog for The Monuments Men.

The Monuments Men in Italy had a slightly different chain of command, and Edsel covers their exploits in a second book, Saving Italy.

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ChrisHadfield You forget, sometimes, that there are people living in space.

During his 146-day sojourn on the International Space Station in 2012-2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield reminded me, and many others, about life in space, as well as the natural beauty of life on earth. While his crew carried out a record number of science experiments, Hadfield was also spreading curiosity and enthusiasm about life on the ISS through savvy use of social media.

He traded tweets with fellow Canadian William Shatner (“Standard Orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface”). He posted YouTube videos about working without gravity (why you can’t wring out a washcloth in space, for instance). And he used his enviable perspective from the ISS cupola to share photos, including a Valentine’s Day heart for the planet.

Hadfield’s post-retirement memoir is loosely organized around three missions in space: from his first flight to Mir on the Atlantis, both now retired; through a spacewalk from Endeavor, installing a giant robotic arm on the ISS; to his last landing, after five months on the ISS, in the Russian Soyuz—”a wild 54-minute tumble to Earth that feels more or less like 15 explosions followed by a car crash.” Mission anecdotes are mixed with advice on how to think like an astronaut, much of which boils down to extreme, obsessive preparation and attention to detail. Canada didn’t even have a space agency when 9-year-old Hadfield decided that he wanted to be an astronaut, but he set himself to acquire the flight and engineering skills that he would need, spending years as a fighter pilot and test pilot until reality caught up with his dreams.

I am too hard-headed to benefit from most self-help books, but apparently I will listen to motivational pep talks from people who have been in space. And Hadfield does have a gift for presenting his career of extreme competence without coming across as a braggart. He’s easy to relate to and has a clear calling for sharing his passion for the space program and involving readers in the sheer “wwooooww” factor of a spacewalk.

If you enjoyed Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, you’ll appreciate Hadfield’s wry descriptions of peeing for science. Astronauts on the ISS perform scientific experiments, but also they are scientific experiments—in how the human body reacts to long sojourns without gravity.

Check the WRL catalog for An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

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painSylvia Plath’s summer internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine is explored in William and Mary graduate Elizabeth Winder’s insightful debut Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.

In the spring of 1953, Plath, then a 20-year-old junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of twenty young women selected by the editors of Mademoiselle magazine for an internship as a guest editor of the magazine’s yearly college issue.  She travels to New York in late May and spends the month of June in the city: living at the Barbizon Hotel; spending long days working at the magazine; and enjoying evenings filled with parties, ballets, and dates.

Within two months of her return to Massachusetts, Plath suffers a mental breakdown that leads to her first suicide attempt.  Years later, these experiences form the basis for her only novel, The Bell Jar, published shortly before her suicide in 1963.

Instead of recounting the grim details of Plath’s breakdown, Winder focuses on Plath’s interests and cultural influences in an “attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist.”  Winder succeeds in reaching her ambitious goal.

Divided into eight sections filled with short, fast paced chapters, the book’s structure gives the reader the experience of an exciting, yet ephemeral, summer adventure.  The whirlwind of activity is anchored by candid interviews with several of Plath’s fellow guest editors.  These interviews are insightful and serve as a response to Plath’s depiction of her summer in New York in The Bell Jar.  The interviews, particularly the recollections of Carol LeVarn, provide some of the book’s most poignant and thought-provoking moments.

Winder balances the serious tone of the interviews with lively descriptions of Plath’s love of literature, fashion, and the popular culture of the early 1950s.  The text is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs, vintage advertisements, and fashion illustrations, including photos from the college issue.  Frequent sidebars include extended interviews, biographical sketches of people Plath met in New York, and quotes from her journals.  These sidebars add context to Plath’s experiences without breaking the momentum of Winder’s narrative.

Engaging and well-researched, Pain, Parties, Work will appeal to readers who are interested in Sylvia Plath’s life and work.  Elizabeth Winder is scheduled to present a program on Plath with Catherine Bowman at William and Mary on Thursday, March 20.

Check the WRL catalog for Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

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Bud has found another gem hidden in the stacks:

higherOne of the best things about working at a library is being able to wander through the stacks and find, through sheer serendipity, wonderful books that you’ve never heard of before. Higher by Neal Bascomb is an example of this. I noticed it, hidden away in the architecture section, while re-shelving and was intrigued enough by the description to start reading. It hooked me from the start.

This non-fiction book tells the story of how three of New York City’s most famous landmarks, the Chrysler Building, The Manhattan Company Building and the Empire State Building, came to be built. It’s a fascinating tale.

In the early 1920s, architect William Van Alen was asked by automobile magnate Walter Chrysler to design a skyscraper that was unique, beautiful and tall… taller than any other building in the world.  Van Alen, an example of the architect as artist, was delighted, and with a virtual blank check began the design and construction on what would eventually become that art deco jewel, the Chrysler Building.

Meanwhile, across town lived another architect named Craig Severance. Severance was far more interested in the financial rewards of the construction business than its artistic aspects.  He and Van Alen had formerly been partners in a successful architecture firm but had parted acrimoniously leaving them bitter rivals, both professionally and personally. Severance was not about to let Van Alen get credit for the world’s tallest skyscraper so he gathered funding from friends and investors and started work on the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street.

As the book goes on and the buildings go up we learn a lot about how the construction industry operated in the 1920s. How funding was pulled together through financial wheeling and dealing and the covert finagling involved in buying property.  The construction trade was complicated and detail-oriented. Hiring work crews, the demolition of the property’s pre-existing building, the logistical problems of making sure that materials are at the right place at the right time, and the actual process of constructing a skyscraper floor by floor are all clearly explained.  

You might think this kind of technical information would be boring but it’s not. The work was by its very nature costly, difficult, dangerous and exciting all at once, especially at the rapid pace the projects mandated.  Remarkably, construction on both buildings was completed in less than two years despite the additional complications brought on by all the secretive architectural adjustments and machinations that Val Alen and Severance went through in order to insure that THEIR building was the tallest.

Unfortunately for the both of them these efforts were all for naught because while they were focused on each other, a group representing General Motors also entered the race and with its completion in 1931, the Empire State Building became the world’s tallest skyscraper.

I found this book to be colorful, fast-paced and well written. It makes you look at something you’ve always taken for granted, an office building that’s been standing there for 80 years, with a new eye and appreciate what a wonder it is and just how much effort went into creating it.  I was also struck by the pride and optimistic, “can-do” spirit that was such a big part of America at that time.  Bascher concludes the book with this paragraph:

 All the exuberance, daring, romance, moxie, innovation and pride that infused the decade is seen in these pinnacles. No misfortune or turn of events could take that away. Even if these skyscrapers were ‘torn down, as others have been before them, ‘ Chrysler said at the time of the race, ‘the spirit of the men working together that they represent will build new ones.’ It was this spirit-not steel and stone- that carried these skyscrapers higher.”

I recommend Higher for anyone interested in New York City, architecture or history.

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brysonWe have reviewed a lot of Bill Bryson’s books here at BFGB. For good reason: Bryson is one of the wittiest writers currently publishing. Whether he is writing about travel, literature, or hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bryson always has the right turn of phrase, and often it is one that leaves you laughing out loud.

But there is often a more serious side to Bryson’s writing; it is not just about the jokes. That is the side that comes out in his thoughtful and intriguing look at America in the summer of 1927. It was a busy summer, and Bryson pulls a lot of threads together as he examines what was capturing the public imagination. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight was in May, Babe Ruth was breaking home run records while leading the Yankees to victory in the World Series, the Mississippi was flooding, and Al Capone was taking over Chicago. These are just a few of the stories that Bryson weaves into his narrative.

What makes the book more than just a dry history lesson is Bryson’s seemingly effortless ability to move from these big events back to the individual. He always can find the personal in the global, and it is the stories of these smaller lives that make One Summer: America, 1927 come alive. Part of the book’s poignancy is knowing that the Great Depression was just around the corner, and that many of the people that you are reading about will face hard times. There is an elegiac tone to the whole book.

Reading history often can tell us as much about where we are now as where we have been, and as we come out of the most recent recession, with our own big events playing out on the global and national stages, it is fascinating to compare the similarities as well as the differences between 1927 and 2014. Bryson is an astute observer and an able guide on this journey.

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hardyIn Ten Years in the Tub Nick Hornby mentioned a number of books that sounded like ones that I would like. First on that list was Claire Tomalin’s biography of Thomas Hardy. WRL had a copy, so I took it home and dove in. While Hardy is known to most readers as a great novelist, I am more partial to his poems. In either case, readers will come away from Tomalin’s superb book with a better understanding of Hardy’s life and writing.

It is always interesting to see how much a writer’s personal life is evidenced in his or her fiction. Tomalin does an excellent job of pointing out both how Hardy’s relationships with his family, his friends, and his geographic circumstances not only informed his writing, but sometimes appeared directly in the stories and poems. It is often the case when reading a biography of an artist whose work you enjoy that you run the risk of disappointment in their personal life. Does it really matter to your enjoyment of his writing that Hardy and his wife had a difficult relationship, and that he was hardly blameless for their problems? I think that the further away in time that you get from the person the easier it is to separate out the personal and the artistic lives. So for me, the revelations about Hardy’s prickly personality set the poems and novels in a new context, but did not reduce my pleasure in them.

Thomas Hardy’s life and his creative work were both shaped by the Dorset countryside that he loved. Tomalin is an excellent biographer of place as well as of person and she leaves the reader with a clear picture of the villages, farms, and wild places that Hardy enjoyed. She also easily kept my attention from wandering throughout a long (Hardy lived from 1840 to 1928) and character-filled story. Anyone who loves Hardy’s novels or poetry, or who is interested in the writing life, will find a great deal to enjoy in this delightful biography. As a sample, here is how Tomalin ends her book:

[Hardy's poems] remind us that he was a fiddler’s son, with music in his blood and bone, who danced to his father’s playing before he learnt to write. This is how I like to think of him, a boy dancing on the stone cottage floor, outside time, oblivious, ecstatic, with his future greatness as unimaginable as the sorrows that came with it.

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hornbyI am feeling very meta-…, writing about a book that is about writing about books, some of which are about writing. I have a great affection for essays and my library at home has lots of examples from Montaigne to Abbey to McPhee to the Whites (E.B and Katherine) and many more. When I came across this collection of Nick Hornby’s essays on books he has read, written originally for The Believer magazine, on the new book cart, I checked it out, immediately realized I needed to own it, and went to the bookstore and bought a copy.  Hornby’s column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” has been running more or less monthly since 2003 and covers just that–books that Hornby has read in the past month. Each essay begins with a list of books purchased that month and then a second list of books read. Hornby then proceeds to discuss those two lists and anything else that comes into his agile, inventive, and always entertaining mind.

There are two ways to read books like this. First, you can look at the lists the author offers, and count how many titles you have read, or at least heard of, reveling in your superior literary tastes. This is the competitive, ego-driven option. Or, you can step back, read the essays, and start making your own lists of titles mentioned that you ought to go right out and get and read. This is, of course, the more mature way to read the book. OK, I did both.

Hornby is a font of great ideas for books to read as his interests, his own protests to the contrary, go beyond football (by which he means soccer) and rock-and-roll. From all types of fiction to a fascinating array of nonfiction, Hornby’s descriptions of his monthly reading are filled with titles I want to read right now. As The Believer‘s “About” page indicates: “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.” So the reviews here are generally positive, and that is great. I would much rather hear about why I should be interested in a particular book or writer than why I shouldn’t.

This is also a book about what it is to be a reader, and Hornby captures all the ups and downs of the reading life–those times when you just cannot get through a book and the times when you start a book and the next thing you know it is 3 a.m. and you are still reading. Hornby understands and conveys with humor the times when life gets in the way of reading. Spouses, children, deadlines, one’s own work, and, yes, the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match, all have a way of derailing our reading time. That being the case, it is great to have a guide as thoughtful, eloquent, and passionate as Nick Hornby to offer some possible titles to get you back on the road to reading.

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topsyI looked at the title of this book and I thought, “Elephants, this could be a heartwarming story, a la Disney.” I was wrong. It was dark and disturbing, as well as revealing and intriguing. It also is not so much the story of Topsy the elephant, but the stories leading up to the story of Topsy the elephant.

Topsy has two main themes running through its pages. First it traces the tawdry history of elephants as center pieces in American circuses. These largest of land mammals have amazed and terrified audiences in America since 1795. Second, Daly relates the dawning of the electric light bulb, including Edison’s perfection of the bulb and Westinghouse’s successful commercialization of electricity. The author brings these seemingly disparate topics together under one big top for a show you probably have not seen before.

Daly uses his pages to weave together an interesting account of the rise and rivalry among the largest nineteenth century circuses, integration of pachyderms into that form of entertainment, and the history of the electrification of America. Along the way Daly examines the development of the electric chair, competition between circus greats P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh, and the bitterness felt by Thomas Edison toward George Westinghouse. Barnum and Forepaugh competed using all resources available to them, including guile and humbug, to present the most profitable circuses in the world. They told outrageous lies, fleeced their guests, and activity worked to outdo one another. Edison viewed himself and his inventions as unimpeachable and incorruptible. He activity sought to discredit Westinghouse as an inventor and businessman. Even as Edison resolutely refused to face reality, his name remained synonymous with the brilliance of his light bulb.

Daly’s timeframe spans the entire 19th century. Among many topics he touches on are politics, economic, crime, transportation, animal welfare, geography, racism, alcoholism, public entertainment, and capital punishment. Clearly a great deal of research went into writing this book. He writes in an easy style that keeps your attention, although often examines disturbing events. Most of those events relate to what today is nothing short of unrepentant animal abuse, especially with respect to circus elephants. It was tempting for me to skip these parts, however, they are an integral part of Topsy. This popular history includes plenty of fact and figures, but it is more story than history. That is to say, the goal is to illustrate how various people and events interacted during the 1800s to “make history.”

Whatever you do, don’t read this book expecting the glamour of circuses or the genius of inventors. Daly’s text strips away both. I sought both and found myself disappointed. Not because Topsy failed to deliver a compelling and interesting tale, but because it’s not a sweet and innocent account.

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