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Archive for the ‘Historical Nonfiction’ Category

tamboraThe mortgage that broke Thomas Jefferson’s heart. The worldwide cholera pandemic. The writing of Frankenstein. The first Irish famine and typhus epidemic. The opium trade beginning in the Golden Triangle. The striking paintings of JMW Turner. The surge of British polar exploration. All of these, according to Gillen D’Arcy Wood, have their roots in a single event – the eruption of the Tamboro volcano.

On April 10, 1815, the volcano, located on the island of Sambawa in the Indonesian archipelago, literally blew its top. A few days before, the volcano had hurled out a column of fire and ash; on the 10th, three columns of fire, a tsunami of lava, and ashfall up to 3 meters thick blasted the serene population of Sumbawa, killing nearly everyone on the island and forever destroying its natural resources. Ash from the explosion was flung into the upper atmosphere in tiny particles, and the equatorial winds did the rest.

Those aerosols circled the globe, blocking sunlight and changing the climate. Droughts in some areas, record flooding in others, temperatures so low that 1816 became known as the Year Without a Summer and the Year of the Beggar. Storms lashing Europe, sea ice disappearing off Greenland – all were the result of Tambora’s eruption. The secondary impact on humans began almost immediately and would govern the world’s social and economic foundations for at least the next three years. Without the monsoons, Indian peasants migrated to urban areas, where their waste polluted drinking water and sparked a nearly 20-year migration of cholera around the world. Famine struck one of China’s most fertile provinces, and without rice to eat or sell, opium became the cash crop. Clouds shot through with apocalyptic color entranced the Romantics, who captured their deadly glory in words and images. And farmers in the United States experienced for the first time crop failure leading to bankruptcy and westward migration to evade their debts.

Wood mixes the historical narrative with records from the nascent science of meteorology and modern-day measurements of volcanic dust trapped in arctic ice to document his story. He also draws parallels between the temporary climatic effects that Tambora’s eruption caused and the long-term irreversible anthropogenic climate change we are now seeing. But capturing the worldwide effect of one little-known eruption in tragic human terms makes Tambora a moving book.

Check the WRL catalog for Tambora

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liesI’ve written before about Loewen’s take on history as presented to American students, but in Lies Across America he’s taken on the other history texts that we see all around us. They’re ubiquitous (except, apparently, in Maine), sometimes invisible, sometimes easily overlooked, sometimes a destination for interested visitors. These are the monuments, roadside signs and historic sites that personalize and define American history for many.

Loewen points out that these sites fall into two categories, which he calls sasha and zamani. (If you want a terrific fiction take on the same idea, try Kevin Brockmeier’s Brief History of the Dead.Sasha essentially means people or events retained in the memory of the living; zamani denotes events or people that occurred before anyone currently living could have experienced. The monument to Arthur Ashe is an example of sasha: there are plenty of people who remember him firsthand.  A statue closer to home is zamani – no one living ever encountered Norbert Berkeley. There’s another aspect to these sites, which falls into the zamani realm – who controlled the landscape when the memorial was established?

There are some extreme examples of this: a monument to the Confederacy where there was zero link to the War? The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum that doesn’t have any actual, you know, miners? Plantation houses all across the South that talk about the design of the silverware, but never mention the people who did the work that produced the income to buy that silverware?

More common are the roadside signs that leave you scratching your head. (As an inveterate reader of those black-on-pewter signs, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a U-turn, parked in a questionable spot, then scratched my head at the astonishingly vague text.) “One mile north of here the Whitaker house was built.” When? Why? By whom? If Mr. Whitaker did it, did his wife help? Were there slaves? Was it built in a special way with special materials? Where can I find more? Plus, these signs are nearly always written in a generic passive voice that deliberately deflects reflection on any deeper topic.

Loewen couldn’t visit every historical marker or monument in even one state, much less in the country, but was able to read an enormous proportion of them. He offers a set of penetrating questions to ask when visiting historical sites, most guaranteed to put docents on the spot; if they can’t answer those questions, perhaps it will trigger a reexamination by the site’s managers.  He also offers a tongue-in-cheek alternate for the proliferation of roadside markers.

The book is structured so that each entry is self-contained, with footnotes and a complete list of the sources that Loewen used to critique the 100 entries he limited himself to. He also cross-references entries with the same topics or themes, which means a reader can bounce around without losing interest, then go back and read new material with a fresh perspective. Best of all, he is able to balance outrage over the hijacking of history with humor, making this a great resource for teaching students how to critically evaluate what they read and hear from history.

Check the WRL catalog for Lies Across America

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bully

In a feat of near-superhuman endurance, Benjamin powered through and finished The Bully Pulpit. Here’s his review:

Including the endnotes, this is a tome of 900 pages (30 CDs).  Starting with the book on CD, I knew I would not have enough time to listen to the whole book before its due date, so I put a hold on the printed copy also. Shortly after returning the CDs, I checked out the printed version and finished the book. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit concurrently provides detailed biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, exploring their fundamental contributions to American history from the end of the nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Woven into the narrative is the fascinating history behind the rise of McClure’s Magazine, complete with intricate biographies of S. S. McClure and his famous journalists: Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William A. White.  That all of these characters converge is not coincidental. These men and women were at the pinnacles of talent, dedication, and intelligence of their age.

Theodore Roosevelt is a household name. TR, as he is often referred to, had a tremendous influence on this country. William Howard Taft, although not as well known, also used his prodigious knowledge and skills to impact the direction of America. Contemporaries, both men rose above their peers with growing reputations, responsibilities, and national recognition. Although different in temperament and style, they were close friends for many years. Both were moderate progressives who enjoyed affectionate marriages, and were utterly dedicated to their families. However, after Taft became President in 1909, the men became estranged.

Taft did not crave the limelight.  If it were not for his wife, who aspired to live in the White House, he would have served as a distinguished Federal judge most of his career.  He sought equanimity and impartiality in his judicial decisions. His colleagues loved his amicability, intelligence, and fairness.

Roosevelt was a born leader. Anxious to excel and adoring attention, he held interests in every topic under the sun, and was knowledgeable about most of them.  He had boundless energy and enjoyed a good debate. Unlike Taft’s spouse, TR’s wife shied away from civic life. Yet, Roosevelt was happiest when he was inordinately busy and extraordinarily public.

Goodwin’s scholarship is excellent.  In The Bully Pulpit, she brilliantly combines all the lives of the characters to retell this fascinating history of the triumphs and tragedies of two American presidents.  Goodwin’s title reflects her underlying thesis that Roosevelt’s rise to prominence was aided by this masterful stewardship of and relationships with journalists.  However, this book goes a great deal beyond that one focus. Goodwin provides an amazing biographical history of Taft and Roosevelt that not only illustrates how these men lived, but also sheds light on the birth of modern politics.

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IceArmchair explorers, add this to your bookshelf of travel and survival narratives in the cold and lonely north.

The USS Jeannette set off in search of the North Pole in 1879. Manned in large part by men who had just missed the “glory” of service in the Civil War, the expedition boasted the latest innovations, including Edison’s lights and Bell’s telephones, and was spurred on by scientific theories that the Kuro Siwo, a Pacific equivalent to the Gulf Stream current, would sweep the ship effortlessly north to a temperate polar sea. Unsurprisingly, this was not their experience.

Instead, the Jeannette was locked in a vice of pack ice for two years before its hull was crushed, and the expedition was left to make its way 1,000 miles across more ice and unexplored territory to Siberia—before winter, and before their provisions would run out. At one of the lowest points in their journey, they learned that despite days of grueling slog to the south, hauling their boats, the drift of the floating ice over which they were travelling had dragged them north, even farther from rescue than when they started.

Author Sides delves into the background of the expedition, setting the usual narrative of cold and deprivation in its Gilded Age context. Vivid descriptions, many from the letters and journals of the men involved, add to the account.

Possibly the most striking character in this story wasn’t even on the expedition: financier James Gordon Bennett, Jr., editor of the New York Herald, whose journalist was embedded with the crew. In a book filled with colorful personalities, Bennett is still, as Sides writes, “spectacularly weird,” having once abducted a musical theater company, broken off an engagement by urinating into his prospective in-laws’ grand piano, and boosted newspaper circulation by printing a fake story about New Yorkers mauled by escaped zoo animals in Central Park (“A Shocking Sabbath Carnival OF DEATH!”)

Check the WRL catalog for In the Kingdom of Ice.

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spyHave you ever been so ticked off at the characters in a book that you wanted to yank them through the print and slap them? For me, it’s usually those comedies of manners in which the whole plot could be resolved by someone taking a deep breath and speaking their mind. In A Spy Among Friends, it’s the real people with the sense of privilege and identity that assumes, against all evidence, that one of your chums couldn’t possibly betray your country.

Nicholas Elliott, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess all came to the highest circles of British government through the same path. After a middling Oxbridge education, a friend of Pater puts a word in the ear of a fellow Club member, and suddenly Military Intelligence or the Foreign Service has a new acolyte. Wear the club tie and handmade suits, drink heavily, and send others into harm’s way. The problem is that four of these five men had a loyalty higher than the institutions that made them. They were spies for the Soviet Union.

Kim Philby pulled off probably the greatest intelligence coup in history. Taken in total, his career as a Soviet spy spanned 30 years, enabling him to betray Republicans in Spain’s Civil War, anti-Soviet cells in Russia, military and counter-intelligence operations during World War II, anti-Nazi factions in Germany, Allied agents, and infiltrators hoping to destabilize their Eastern Bloc countries. He was also able to protect Russian spies in the West, including Burgess and Maclean, either from detection or arrest, by tipping them off. He charmed his way into the inner circles of British and American intelligence, creating a vast pipeline of secret information that flowed on a river of booze and weekend parties directly to the KGB.  He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for excitement—he did it for ideology.

Nicholas Elliott was perhaps Philby’s closest friend, and his greatest victim. Time after time Elliott shared operational details with Philby, then wondered why those operations spectactularly failed, with fatal consequences for the people on the ground. He couldn’t picture that Philby, whose charm and drinking ability easily elicited critical secrets from their circle, was the source of those betrayals. Elliott even subverted investigations into Philby’s background for 12 years, playing up the idea that the working class detectives from MI5 had no right to question the aristocrats of MI6. And on his word, MI6 closed ranks to protect Philby. When Philby finally defected in 1963, Nicholas Elliott was the last British intelligence agent to talk with him.

Ben Macintyre does a great job bringing that culture of entitlement to life, effortlessly capturing the atmosphere of the British Empire’s last bastion without making it seem cliche.  While he occasionally talks about tradecraft and agent recruitment, his interest really lies in dissecting the old boy network. An afterword by John Le Carre, which is really a collection of snippets, shows that Nicholas Elliott seems never to have overcome that trust in connexions. Looking back at all he’d tried and failed to accomplish, it really made me want to reach into the book and slap him. I just didn’t have my white gloves on.

Check the WRL catalog for A Spy Among Friends

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NativeAmericanGardeningNative American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods was first published in 1917 as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation and has been reprinted in numerous editions (and with slightly varying titles) in the following hundred years. This is not surprising because Buffalobird-Woman’s comments, interpretations and knowledge of organic gardening are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.

I originally searched for this book because I had read that it was a great way to learn about organic gardening methods but I found myself fascinated by Buffalobird-Woman’s strong personality as she talked about the history of her tribe and the lives of northern Native Americans. Buffalobird-Woman, or Maxi’diwiac, was born around 1839, two years after smallpox nearly completely wiped out her tribe of Hidatsas. When she was interviewed by anthropolgist Gilbert L. Wilson in 1912, she had never learned to speak English, so her memories were translated by her son Edward Goodbird or Tsaka’kasakicand. Despite the passage of time and the distancing effect of her words being translated and transcribed by at least two other people her personal voice comes through. Even if she would have considered a wink and a nudge too bold, I can picture a twinkle in her eye as she describes the best way to fold a skin for cushioning on a hard wooden platform or talks about the cheekiness of boys as they try to steal corn or chat up girls. She is opinionated, pointing out that food preserved a different way than that used in her childhood is dirty.

The book works well for my intention of studying old-fashioned agriculture as practiced before mechanization. It turns out that Buffalobird-Woman weeded grass exactly the way I do, but worked much harder for much longer hours. She describes the entire agricultural practice from clearing the land through weeding and guarding the growing crops to harvesting and how to preserve food. She also includes recipes of the main things they made from their crops, but they mostly sound quite bland and uninteresting. Look for lots of low tech, practical ideas like spoons made from stems of squash leaves. I learned some surprising things, including that plants I thought of as South American, like maize, pumpkins, squashes, beans, sweet potatoes, cotton, and tobacco, were cultivated by Indians centuries before Columbus. Also that Buffalobird-Woman practiced selective breeding of sunflowers by choosing the largest heads to save the seeds from to plant next year.

The book is illustrated with the originally published diagrams and line drawings, many redrawn from sketches by Buffalobird-Woman’s son.

Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods is a great choice for readers of the difficult but inspiring lives of real women like Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth or Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also has lots of practical information for readers interesting on authentic old-fashioned horticultural techniques such as Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene.

Check the WRL catalog for Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods

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ArtofAcquiringEveryone’s heard of the painters Matisse and Picasso, but fewer have heard of the sisters who early last century brought hundreds of their paintings to the United States and, in the 1940s, bequeathed their huge collections to the Baltimore Museum of Art. To this day the Baltimore Museum of Art has one of  the world’s premier collections of modern art housed in the sisters’ three-thousand piece, three-story Cone Collection.

The Art of Acquiring is a portrait of sisters Etta and Claribel Cone, who were born into a large and wealthy American family around the time of the Civil War. They never married and spent a good deal of their lives traveling to Europe, particularly Paris, and spending their inherited wealth on art. They were notable for their time for their unbending independence. Claribel trained as a doctor when such things were uncommon for women and she worked as a research scientist for a number of years. Younger sister Etta appears to have lived in her big sister’s shadow but she quietly asserted her own independence by buying paintings society considered obscene and scandalous, but are now seen as artistically important such as Henri Matisse’s 1935 “Pink Nude” (Grand nu couche). The sisters can only be described as tough and single-minded. A famous family story recounts that when Claribel became trapped in Berlin after the start of World War I, she hunkered down and waited out the war, diverting and charming visiting army officers with stashed candy.

Author Mary Gabriel spent years extensively researching the Cone sisters using letters, Etta’s diaries, Claribel’s notes, oral histories, and interviews. In the time before instant communications, people–especially rich people going on European tours–wrote lots of letters, sometimes several a day. Quotes from the letters are occasionally catty (especially when Gertrude Stein was involved), sometimes poignant, but always enlightening. The book also includes extensive notes, a bibliography and an index.

The color plates in The Art of Acquiring show some of the more significant paintings mentioned, but keep an art book or two handy to look at the other art works as they are described, both as they were created by the artists and purchased by the Cone sisters. The Art of Acquiring will be of great interest to modern art lovers and readers fascinated by the Belle Epoque of Paris in the early years of the twentieth century, with real life characters such as Gertrude and Leo Stein, Matisse, Picasso and more.  It is also engrossing if you like biographies of real women who went against the social mores of their times and always followed their own paths.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art of Acquiring.

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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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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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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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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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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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