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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

Justinians FleaFive centuries after the birth of Christ the ancient Mediterranean world was booming; architecture, literature, trade, and philosophy, were experiencing great leaps in development. In Constantinople, Justinian was trying to hold together the Roman Empire despite inroads from barbarians from all directions. By all accounts he was an able (if at times brutal) leader, but he was unable to fight the first pandemic of Bubonic plague. From 541-542 it is estimated to have killed 25 million people, depopulating cities and perhaps leading to the shape of the modern world from the European nation states to the rise of Islam.

Justinian’s Flea tells this story with sections ranging from the biology of rats, and their passengers of fleas and Yersinia pestis (the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague), to the political intrigues of Justinian’s Court. The author has brought together disparate disciplines and facts including climate estimates from tree rings, the technological advances of ancient warfare, grave sites, and notarized wills. The book is fleshed out with wrenching quotes from contemporary accounts such as the prolific Procopius who said “there was a pestilence by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.”

Justinian’s Flea is a weighty but readable tome and since I don’t usually read nonfiction history, I learned an enormous amount.  I lean towards science nonfiction and this book is a great companion for other books about the role of diseases in human history such as The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy,  Plague: A Very Short Introduction by  Paul Slack or The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

For fiction readers, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which is set in the time of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague 600 years later), includes harrowing descriptions of the disease and the effects on people even if they survived. For those interested in visuals you could also try the History Channel DVD The Dark Ages.

Check the WRL catalog for Justinian’s Flea.

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Link to the Past CoverIt can be fun working right next to Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum; not only do we get to see Thomas Jefferson wandering along the street texting, but we also get to walk past old-fashioned zigzag, split rail fences and see fields of farm animals in the middle of the city.

Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future: Colonial Williamsburg’s Animals is a great way to learn about these animals. It includes sections on cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, pigeons, fish, horses and pets, with simple, clear descriptions of animal management and use, in both colonial times and the present day. It points out that in colonial times animals shared people’s daily lives in a way that they don’t often do today. Of course the colonists used the meat, milk, eggs, and wool from their animals but there were also surprising uses such as including animal hair in plaster for house building, which Colonial Williamsburg brickmakers still do, as they always strive for authenticity.

Modern farm animals have been bred for specific traits over the last several hundred years so to be authentic, Colonial Williamsburg has researched, bought and raised rare breeds such as the Leicester Longwool Sheep. Their research includes works written by the colonialists so Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future has several quotes from George Washington about how he managed his animals.

The text explains and complements the pictures, but like the other books about Colonial Williamsburg Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future is an enjoyable and worthwhile book just for the photos. Every page includes wonderful photographs of the interpreters in costumes performing their farming tasks by hand, as well as photographs of the animals as they go about their lives.

This book is great to read with other Colonial Williamsburg titles: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene, or The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook, by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. It also includes the history of chickens which you can learn about in greater depth from Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization, by Andrew Lawler.

Check the WRL catalog for Link to the Past, Bridge to the Future.

Baa-bara
Baa-bara who came to meet children at Williamsburg Regional Library’s “Sheepish Storytime” on February 21.

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petersonAt first, it sounds like some sort of NPR show or something, but All Things Reconsidered is actually a delightful collection of essays that Roger Tory Peterson published in Bird Watcher’s Digest over the last decade and a bit of his life. Peterson’s name is a household word among birders, and his Field Guide to the Birds can be found all over the country, often in tattered, field-worn condition (my personal copy is taped together and dates from ornithology class at William and Mary ca. 1982).

In addition to being an excellent illustrator, Peterson is an engaging writer, with an obvious affection for and appreciation of the natural world. Whether writing about confusing fall warblers, birding in Kenya, or the renaissance of the Peregrine Falcon, Peterson’s clear prose style and narrative line are a delight to the ear, and the photographs and drawings are a delight for the eye. These are personal stories, introducing the reader to many of the characters of the bird world, both avian and human. They also are a fascinating look at the environmental and citizen science movements over the years, as seen through Peterson’s life and work.

Another great collection of stories to prepare you for observing spring migration.

Check the WRL catalog for All Things Reconsidered

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chuIt is Spring once again (or almost anyway) and soon the Williamsburg area will begin to see migrant birds coming through on their way North. After a long, cold Winter, it is a joy to get outside and be alert to what birds might appear today. It is almost as good to be inside reading Miyoko Chu’s fascinating book about bird migration.

Chu, who works at the acclaimed Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, has written a book anyone who loves birds should read. It is a deft blend of science and history, along with practical information about watching migrant birds at the different seasons of the year. Chu covers topics from birdsong to nesting to banding in her discussion of migrating birds. Her narrative style moves easily from the specific (looking at a particular species’ migratory habits) to the general (examining how habitat loss at either end of the migration affects bird populations). Her writing is crisp and elegant, and always accessible for the lay reader.

Anyone who enjoys birding will find something to like here. It is a great book for those rainy days where the birds are not calling or moving much.

Check the WRL catalog for Songbird Journeys

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windThe Harmattan is a fierce wind that blows across sub-Saharan Africa, stripping vegetation, drying out watering places, and causing health problems for the inhabitants of the Sahel, as the region is known. The dust clouds it creates can block the sun, and have even been strong enough to lift sand particles which are carried by trade winds as far west as Florida. In Jeffrey Tayler’s skilled hands, the Harmattan becomes a metaphor for the insurmountable problems that affect countries across the widest and poorest part of continent.

Jeffrey Tayler, who served in the Peace Corps and writes for The Atlantic, traveled from Chad to Senegal, encountering first-hand the ancient traditions and modern troubles that define Africa for many Westerners. Fluent in both Arabic and French, he was able to speak with all types of people without the filter of an interpreter. These encounters turned up both superstition and up-to-the minute awareness of international affairs (many people weren’t shy about criticizing the Iraq War, then two years old), but were for the most part genial and even-handed. One tradition, that of hospitality, has not diminished even in the face of desertification, unrest, and religious extremism.

Even ten years after Angry Wind was published it remains a timely read. Boko Haram’s power base is in the Sahel. Niger holds the last spot on the Human Development Index. Mali suffered a revolution co-opted by an al Qaeda offshoot and had to have French assistance to quell it. Chad is overwhelmed by refugees from Darfur, and has a history of coups d’etat that could destabilize the central African region that surrounds it.  And history dominates it all – Tayler finished his journey in the House of Slaves on the Atlantic Coast of Senegal, where men, women, and children from the region would have their final views of Africa. Anyone who wants background on this essential region of a continent headed for its own maturity owes it to themselves to read Tayler’s journey.

Check the WRL catalogue for Angry Wind

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jacket.aspxYes to the Mess introduced an entirely new model among leadership and business titles, and Frank J. Barrett, a jazz musician himself, brilliantly succeeds at utilizing real-life examples to illustrate that the risk-taking and improvisational mentality practiced by jazz musicians is akin to what successful business leaders do. One example is the accidental invention story of Play-Doh (and its patent), resulting from letting Cincinnati school kids fool around with a sticky wallpaper cleaner and finding it the perfect modeling clay for youngsters. Practicing the art of jazz improvisation through risk-taking in today’s unclear, complex, evolving universe can reap innovative benefits that more linear thinking and traditional top-down leadership can hinder.

The media and public opinion are unfairly harsh on those who take the risks that produce innovation. It often takes a lot of failure to produce brilliance. Barrett shows that leaders can instill trust in others by revealing vulnerabilities and the human capacity to make mistakes just like the rest of us, being open to correction and feedback that can improve things throughout the team’s efforts. Jazz “fallibility models” inherently accept this sort of model that allows the leader to sometimes be taught by underlings—as Ellis Marsalis reportedly learned a few new things from his son Wynton.

Good musicians, like competent executives, have learned how to learn…

A key component of learning is hanging out with good mentors. With our intranets, databases, shared servers and software programs that make everyone’s files searchable within an organization, we get a false sense that it’s all there for efficiently taking and using or that we need less of the human connection (jamming). But the real-life face-to-face jam session is what it’s really all about. Best business practices today demand the inclusion of leaders and philosophies that are actively

nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization…

Barrett emphasizes the need to be storytelling and brainstorming and roleplaying in order to discover the unexpected and the unplanned solutions, and for just doing: hands-on learning experiences, not just knowing what’s in the rule books. Some skills simply are “not easily articulated, codified, or stored.”  Serendipity (one of my favorite things!) means that solutions are not always straight from some manual.

Jazz improvisers and great scientists and innovators alike know the value of keeping at it: making guesses, trying things out (sometimes repeatedly), tinkering with incremental adjustments, all with an open spirit of curiosity and wonderment.

This jazzy attitude reminds me of experiences I’ve had with the iterative process of beta-testing databases built from scratch when I was in library school. It taught me to appreciate the inevitable shortcomings of most end products we encounter as consumers—there really is no such thing as perfection. More than a few databases could have used a bit more tweaking before release, such as the “very public beta test” of Healthcare.gov.  On the other hand, can you imagine not having Amazon’s database, or IMDB? How about not being able to search the library’s online catalog database and returning to the old days of the handwritten card catalog? Today’s librarians could only step up to that plate after crash courses in penmanship!

Barrett annotates  a set of “eleven practices and structures that can help your organization emulate what happens when jazz bands improvise.” My two favorite take-aways are that we should all get a chance to solo now and then and that play flows into learning. This book should have widespread appeal far beyond the jazz music fans most likely to notice it first.

Check the WRL catalog for Yes to the Mess.

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Latin for Bird Lovers00_Birdwatching has been a passion of mine for many years, and I have been fortunate to see some amazing birds in exotic locations that include South Africa and Tanzania. I saw this book on the library’s new book shelf, and I was immediately interested. Very few popular birding books are based on the scientific names of birds, which are usually in Latin. Most guides are based on common names and classes of birds, with the scientific name coming after the common name and listed in smaller print. I was intrigued by this approach, which uses the binomial system of genus and species, which scientists use to classify and study birds. These scientific names can be based on several things, including the features of the bird, places where they are found, and even the names of people. The authors hope that this approach will deepen your understanding of birds and make your birdwatching more fascinating.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, though I have a few quibbles with the actual listing of names which makes up the bulk of the book. The listing is actually a compilation of both genus and species names. But you only get one of the names, so if you have a specific bird you are looking up, you have to look up both names to get a full understanding of the scientific name of the bird. I also think an index of common names of birds matched to their scientific names would have been helpful. Without it, those of us who are Latin-deficient either have to browse through the list (which can be fun, but…) or we can grab a bird guide like Birds of North America by Ken Kaufman, find the Latin name of common birds we like, and then use this guide to find their scientific meaning in English. I like woodpeckers, so I did a search for some common woodpeckers I see around my bird feeder. The red-bellied woodpecker is Melanerpes carolinus, a black creeper from the Carolinas, whereas the Northern Flicker is Colaptes auratus, a golden chiseler. I could not find the complete scientific names for the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) or the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), but I did find that picoides means “likeness of a woodpecker” and pileatus means “capped,” so you get at least a partial understanding of their names. And any new knowledge of the birds you love to see is a good thing.

This book is packed with special features, including profiles of 20 genera of birds, including my favorite, Melanerpes, the largest genus of woodpeckers (with 22 species); Corvus, the genus of about 40 species of crows or ravens (known as the smartest birds in the world, they can make tools, play games and find hidden objects); and the beautiful but odd Phoenicopterus, which is made up of 6 species of flamingo. There are also 8 different bird themes covered in this book, including bird beaks, the color of birds, and feathers and the important role that they play in the life of birds. There are also brief biographies of 11 famous birders, including the well-known John Gould and the birder with the famous name, James Bond, whose book, Birds of the West Indies, was read by Ian Fleming, who decided to use his name for the hero of his novels.

I highly recommend this book for people who are interested in knowing more about birds. And, if you like this book, you should definitely check out some of the other excellent birding books in the WRL collection, some of which I have reviewed for Blogging For a Good Book, including Angry Birds: 50 True Stories of the Fed Up, Feathered, & Furious by Mel White, Hand-Feeding Backyard Birds, by Hugh Wiberg, and Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask by Mike O’Connor.

Check the WRL catalog for Latin for Bird Lovers.

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