Posts Tagged ‘History’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Melissa O’s Picks

December 26, 2014

I read a wide variety of books of all different genres. Ask me for a suggestion and I most likely have read something that would appeal to you. Here are five books I stumbled upon this year. Some have been out there a long time, others are more recent arrivals, but they are all worth checking out and passing along for more to enjoy!

The Devil's BonesThe Devil’s Bones by Jefferson Bass
Bill Brockton is a forensic anthropologist who founded the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee. There he and his team study of the science of decomposition. He also finds himself drawn into the danger and drama of the murders they are trying to solve. It starts out simply enough, a woman’s charred body in a burned out car. How did she die? Then he receives a package of strange cremated remains. Suddenly he is fighting for his life and trying to solve a crime so hideous you won’t want to believe it. Another reason to love this book is that the author, Jefferson Bass, is actually a pseudonym for Bill Bass, the real-life famous forensic anthropologist and founder of the Body Farm, and cowriter Jon Jefferson. How cool is that!

Pioneer WomanPioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels – a love story by Ree Drummond
I had never read her blog, watched her cooking show, or picked up one of her cookbooks when I stumbled on this autobiography by Ree Drummond. As someone who spent some time feeling lost and unsure about the future, I could relate to her feelings as she struggled with where her next steps should take her. She never thought that future would mean staying in rural Oklahoma. And she certainly didn’t think it would involve a cowboy! I became lost in the words, flowery and syrupy as they sometimes are, as she “accidently” found herself on a cattle ranch and having adventures she never could have pictured in her future. A great read about taking a chance on love and setting out on the path less traveled.

Dangerous PassageDangerous Passage by Lisa Harris
This is a new inspirational series introducing widowed police detective Avery North and medical examiner Jackson Bryant. Harris nicely intertwines a love story into a thrilling murder mystery. Young Asian women are being murdered and the only link between them seems to be a small tattoo of a magnolia blossom. The investigation seems to simply uncover more mysteries and cover ups. Can they solve the case before more women go missing, and will Avery be ready to open her heart to love again?


Stand Up That MountainStand Up That Mountain by Jay Erskine Leutze
If you love the outdoors, this book is for you. If you love gut wrenching legal battles, this book is for you. If you love to root for the little guy, well you get the picture. Jay has escaped his life as an attorney and retreated to the North Carolina Mountains. Living quietly as a naturalist and fisherman, he loves the Appalachian Trail. He learns from a family of “mountain people” that a mining company plans to dynamite Belview Mountain, which sits right beside the Trail. They have evidence of their less than ethical behavior and the fight is on. As an avid mountain hiker and lover of nature, this book captured me, especially since it is in our own backyard! It is hard to believe that we almost lost one of the great treasures of our state. Jay Erskine Leutze recounts his story of the ground breaking legal fight to save this tiny Appalachian community in a book that is as engaging as any fiction tale.

SubmergedSubmerged by Dani Pettrey
The old saying “you can never go home again” seemed to hold true for Bailey Craig. Yet home is exactly where she found herself, for better or worse. She left Yancey, Alaska in disgrace, now can she find forgiveness? Bailey returned to bury her beloved aunt her died in a plane crash. Was it an accident or was it murder? Cole McKenna has put his past with Bailey behind him, until she shows up in town again. Soon she is fighting for her own life. Can Cole accept that Bailey has changed and help her solve the murder before she becomes another victim? Dani Pettrey is a new author and anyone who loves Dee Henderson’s novels should check her out. This new inspirational suspense series is fantastic and I can’t wait to continue the journey with her characters.

Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

August 4, 2014

Midnight RisingBefore the start of the Civil War, a man named John Brown, strong in his religious convictions and a fervent abolitionist, wreaked havoc across the nation. Brown’s presence was spread throughout the east, from New York to Virginia, and west to Kansas. He frequently found himself in the middle of the frantic social battles that were so violent they became dubbed “Bleeding Kansas.” There, with a team of followers in 1856, he led a massacre at Pottawatomie Creek, killing five settlers in violent reaction to severe anti-abolitionist sentiment in the area. Three years later, in October of 1859, Brown led the infamous raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, trying to form a slave rebellion and awaken the nation to the horrors and inhumanity of slavery. Because of his tactics, history has been understandably unkind to Brown, labeling the man as a religious lunatic or imbalanced madman. William Lloyd Garrison, the famous newspaper editor, abolitionist, and contemporary of Brown, even called him “misguided, wild and apparently insane.” But, was he truly insane?

In Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz dedicates 365 pages to the narrative of John Brown’s life. In his famous investigative and journalistic tone, Horwitz details Brown’s upbringing, his days before the massacre, during his time spent building safe havens in New York farmland, and up to the raid on Harpers Ferry. He produces family letters, legal documents, newspaper stories, and more as evidence to try to get to the heart of the question: Was John Brown insane, or did he have any other choice in the society in which he lived? Can a person still do good for the world while doing so in a wicked manner?

We are all familiar with the shock and horror that grips the nation after such horrific tragedies as shootings and bombings, and it is difficult not to draw comparisons while reading. We collectively find ourselves wondering what makes people capable of such violence. At least in this case, Horwitz offers enough information on Brown’s life and society to help us understand a little more about why and how these things could happen in such a violent manner.

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The Secret Life of Sleep by Kat Duff

July 23, 2014

The Secret Life of SleepEver have a difficult time falling asleep? Wake up in the night and fret over hours of lost rest? Millions and millions of Americans struggle with sleep issues every night, adding one of the most basic human functions to an ever-growing list of things that perpetuate anxiety in our frantic modern world. It’s no wonder that the sleep aid industry grows exponentially every year. But are we looking at sleep (and sleep problems) through the wrong lens? Kat Duff approaches the subject in a particularly interesting manner. Through an equal mixture of memoir, anecdotes, history, and scientific research, she explains the importance of sleep in our daily lives for both our physical well-being and our societal norms.

Our sleep patterns have changed quite drastically since the beginning of humanity, when our long ago ancestors slept in short shifts of light sleep, one long deep sleep, and intermittent periods of wakefulness. Even during Medieval times, people cherished this long tradition of midnight waking, using the time for quiet contemplation, visiting with family, or practicing various creative outlets. This sleep schedule changed the most dramatically only as recently as the Industrial Revolution, when sleep became condensed into one long stretch to increase productivity for Western workers. Before this time, no other animal –including humans- tried to regulate their sleep so meticulously, and we have had an immense amount of difficulty as a species in this practice.

Sleep issues are not limited to adult workers, however. Duff also addresses similar societal changes in how parents approach the act of sleeping in raising their children, how teenagers and college students binge-sleep on the weekends, and how all kinds of factors of sleeping habits during youth can result in different traits and manifestations in later life.

The next time you have difficulty falling asleep, consider picking up this book and take comfort in feeling that you are not alone. In addition to knowing a little more about the history, culture, and science of sleep, you might walk away with some insights into handling your own sleepless nights, both emotionally and physically.

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Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

May 2, 2014

devilbookcover.phpI love it when I read a book and it leads me to another book and another, etc.  A few years ago I read the award winning book Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Isabel Wilkerson. It was indeed epic as Wilkerson followed the lives of three individuals leaving the Jim Crow Era South for a better life elsewhere. One of the gentleman was leaving the volatile citrus groves of Florida. She made mention of the Groveland case (Florida) as an example of the danger faced by African American men in the South and I filed that away in my brain, hoping to find out more one day.

As a result, I finally picked up the Pulitzer prize-winning book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King and it is much more than an account of the trial of three young African-American men accused of kidnapping and raping a white woman in rural 1948 Florida. It is a detailed glimpse in the complex machinations of the Civil Rights Movement as played out in the courtroom. Many things impress me about this book. As always, I am astounded by the cruelty of the Jim Crow era South. Freedom from slavery was an important first step towards equality for African Americans, but given the discrimination faced in the years after slavery was abolished, it really seems like more of a baby step. This book was also a reminder that the landmark Plessy vs Ferguson (1896 Supreme Court decision providing a legal basis for “separate but equal” segregation) was a tremendous hindrance on the path to equality since “equal” is a subjective term that never actual measured up. Thurgood Marshall’s landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954 Supreme Court decision disallowing school segregation) was the result of years of planning and small victories that ultimately overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. I just had no real understanding of the complex planning it took to make it to that one important case.

Thurgood Marshall (chief counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) and the NAACP frequently took on lots of cases like the Groveland Boys (often referred to as “Little Scottsboro” in comparison to a similar case in Alabama 15 years earlier). Their strategy was never acquittal but to kick the case up to higher courts through appeals with a decision that not only acquits the innocent but also has broader significance to civil rights with each case building on top of one another.

If you think this book sounds like a somewhat interesting, but probably overly detailed academic snooze fest you are wrong. Devil in the Grove is a well-written, accessible and at times, a page-turner. Gilbert King is comprehensive as he explores this unbelievable and sad event in American history.

In addition to Devil in the Grove, I also do recommend the above mentioned Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. If you are looking for a shorter read about the Civil Rights Movement, I cannot say enough wonderful things about March (Book One) by John Robert LewisAndrew Aydin and Nate Powell which is a graphic memoir about non-violence during the Civil Rights Movement.

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A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

February 28, 2014

This is a curious little book. In 40 short chapters, the author, E. H. Gombrich, attempts to tell the history of the world from prehistoric times until the development of atomic energy. He succeeds in giving an easy-to-read overview of Western civilization, with a few chapters about Asia and the Middle East scattered throughout.

The book was originally written for children, and you can see this in its casual writing style, but the vocabulary and sentences seem too complex for the children I know. Maybe I’m underestimating them, but at any rate, Wake County has placed this book in the adult section. Here’s a sample passage about Attila the Hun:

“In 444 he was at the height of his power. Can you remember who was in power 444 years before Christ’s birth? Pericles, in Athens. Those were the best of times. But Attila was in every way his opposite. People said that wherever he trod, the grass ceased to grow. His hordes burnt and destroyed everything in their path. And yet in spite of all the gold and silver and treasures the Huns looted, and in spite of all the magnificent finery worn by their leaders, Attila himself remained a plain man. He ate off wooden plates and he lived in a simple tent. Gold and silver meant nothing to him. Power was what mattered.”

Another interesting thing about this book is that, because the author was German, his country of origin figures prominently in his history. That’s a nice change from most English language history books. It’s nice to be reminded occasionally that England was not always the focus of European events. America also gets pretty short shrift. There’s a chapter that is partially about the discovery of America by Columbus, and another about the American Revolution, and a few mentions of our role in the industrial revolution and the world wars, but we are not the focus here as so often happens in the books we usually read. I found that different point of view refreshing.

Like most world history books published in this country, there is almost no mention of either Africa or South America. China gets some attention, but only enough to whet my appetite for more. Likewise, Japan only comes into the book when Westerners force their way into the country. I am now very curious about the history of the rest of the world. Luckily, I work in a library!

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Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson

January 22, 2014

In the last chapter of Consider the Fork, author Bee Wilson writes, “Our kitchens are filled with ghosts.” It’s a fitting conclusion. As the book progresses, the reader realizes just how true the statement is; each apparatus that we use has a now-outmoded predecessor. Our ovens were predated by pots hanging over open fires; before kitches were equipped with hourglasses or clocks, recipes instructed cooks to “simmer for three Ave Marias.” Wilson’s exhaustively-researched history of food technology, which involved trips to museums and visits to food gurus all over the world, is stuffed with similar tidbits that will make you look at such everyday objects as a balloon whisk and a coffee grinder as nearly magical.

It would be easy for this kind of microhistory to be presented as the sort of anecdotal ephemera that only social historians and potential Jeopardy! contestants should be truly interested and invested in. But Wilson works hard to emphasize that this stuff is important to everyone who has a kitchen. Kitchens have historically been (and still are) the heart of their households, and they aren’t just about food. They are about technology and everything that comes with it, from the initial fear and ridicule of change (refrigeration was once derided as a way for greengrocers to overcharge for rotting vegetables) to its eventual acceptance.

I really loved the way this book was organized – it seemed counterintuitive at first to have a chapter about pots and pans before a chapter about fire. But learning about the nonlinear way that kitchen technology has unfolded is almost as much fun as the social history and facts you’ll chew on (pun intended!) while reading.

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The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne

January 15, 2014

This book is not your usual chronological biography. Each chapter is about an object owned by Austen herself or particular to her time and place in history. The book is lavishly illustrated with drawings and photographs of shawls, ivory miniatures, bathing machines, and other fascinating objects that figured in her life and work.

One of the best things about author Paula Byrne‘s approach is that it portrays Austen as a living person who is actively engaged with real things in the real world. She liked to dress in fine clothes and drew the pattern of some new lace she had bought in a letter to her sister Cassandra. She loved the ocean, and indeed the only portrait we can be absolutely sure is of her was painted by Cassandra as Jane looked out, apparently, over the sea. She loved playing games with children, particularly her numerous tribe of nephews and nieces, and called her box of spillikins (pick-up sticks) “a very valuable part of our household furniture.” All of this is rather unlike the picture of the demure spinster often depicted in her biographies.

The “real Jane Austen” loved to travel, to see plays and fireworks. One of her brothers owned a fashionable carriage called a barouche, and she loved to go riding in it. She also had the worldly knowledge needed to negotiate with her publisher after her brother, who had begun the negotiations, fell seriously ill. She was not above basking in the praise of her novels; in fact, she carefully recorded the comments of family and friends, and even enjoyed eavesdropping in libraries and bookstores when her books (their authorship still unknown) were discussed by customers.
One other nice aspect of this approach to a biography is that, unlike in a chronological biography, we don’t have to end with her death. Right up until the final paragraph we are celebrating Jane Austen’s life and savoring along with her the things she loved.

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The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at The Turn of the First Millenium by Danny Danziger and Robert Lacey

January 14, 2014

What was life like in Anglo-Saxon England around the year 1000?
Writer Danny Danziger decided to find out and he teamed up with historian Robert Lacey to write a book about it. The duo read up on the topic and interviewed more than 50 historians, and this approach “provided a mass of almost anecdotal details, recalled from lifetimes of study.”

The result was a bestseller that inspired a radio series broadcasted by the BBC, and the book is rich with detail and it manages to bring the year 1000 to life in a wonderful way.

This was, of course, before the brutal Norman conquest of England, and the power structure inspired by Rome had not yet been forced upon the people of the land.

For centuries the British Isles had been under attack from the ancestors of the Normans – the Vikings – and life tended to be short. But people’s lives weren’t necessarily wretched, and “the bones that have been excavated from the graves of people buried in England in the years around 1000 tell a tale of strong and healthy folk.” The Anglo-Saxons were the size of anyone alive today, and their simple and healthy diet ensured “sturdy limbs – and very healthy teeth.”

Nine out of ten lived in the countryside, green and unpolluted, but the country was not heavily wooded, as one might imagine. Britons, Romans, and Anglo-Saxons had all participated in the deforestation of the land in order to plant crops, and the countryside was actually similar to what can be found today. Most villages and towns that exist now had already been settled, and the foundation for the English language was already in place. The folk poems tended to be violent and bloody tales of monsters and warriors “which retained the echo of the voyages that had brought their forefathers to the ‘outermost islands’” on the edge of a seemingly endless sea. The laws, on the other hand, were counterweights to the sometimes brutal life and many were meant to protect women from different kinds of abuse. Slavery was common, but hardly anyone was free. Those who had been forced or surrendered themselves into bondage lived lives that were similar to those of any member of the laboring classes, and few could imagine a life without a protector. The power politics of the time can best be understood by observing how contemporary criminal gangs operate, and the greatest lords tended to be the greatest thugs, “for the English aristocracy […] was a cadre that had been trained to kill.”

The Year 1000 shows a society that is both alien and strangely familiar, and – as the writers point out – “we might […] consider whether, in all our sophistication, we could meet the challenges of their world with the same fortitude, good humour, and philosophy.”

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Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2013: Kate B’s Picks

December 27, 2013

Though I haven’t reviewed a lot of books for the blog this year, I certainly have read many!  Although I read a broad variety of fiction, I tend to gravitate toward suspense and mystery titles, as well as any book that pays a lot of attention to the narrator’s thoughts and “inner life.”  I also enjoy reading nonfiction, especially memoirs and focused history.  My favorite “new to me” books of 2013 definitely reflect these reading preferences, and here they are in no particular order!

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
One morning, recently-retired Harold Fry is surprised by a letter from a friend he hasn’t heard from in more than twenty years.  Queenie Hennessey, an old colleague, is in hospice care in Berwick-upon-Tweed – about as far from Harold’s town of Kingsbridge as you can get.  Touched by Queenie’s letter, Harold pens a reply and, donning a light anorak and his leather yachting shoes, sets off for the mailbox.  He passes two, then three mailboxes… and as he walks farther and farther from home and his wife Maureen, Harold wonders why he doesn’t just go to Berwick-upon-Tweed and deliver his letter to Queenie personally.  By the end of the day, Harold has convinced himself that as long as he keeps walking north to his old friend, she will survive her illness.  Joyce writes a sparse, allegorical narrative that is told almost entirely within the confines of Harold’s mind.  I listened to the audiobook on a six-hour road trip.  Jim Broadbent’s narration is top-notch, and the story itself is perfectly suited to a long drive.

Still Life by Louise Penny
I’m a sucker for a good detective series, and had been meaning to give Louise Penny’s Agatha Award-winning Armand Gamache series a try for a couple of years.  Three Pines is a sleepy town outside Montreal, unremarkable to all but those who inhabit it.  The police force doesn’t have much to do… until early one morning, the elderly but spry Jane Neal is found dead on a quiet path where she usually walks her dog.  Although it first seems that a hunting accident was the cause of her death, but the more Gamache and his team investigate, the less things add up.  The book is atmospheric with a flavor that is both autumnal and decidedly Quebecois, making it an excellent companion to a hot beverage and a warm blanket!

Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
Pots, pans, stoves, and ovens might seem like the most basic of kitchen equipment to us.  But after reading this history of kitchen technology, you’ll marvel at the ingenuity of the people who figured out that by putting something between food and flame, and by containing the heat, we can improve flavor and get different resulting textures.  This book is full of moments where the reader is invited to think about the origins of everyday kitchen objects that have shaped the way we cook, the way our homes are structured, and ultimately, how we live our lives.  For foodies, technology junkies, and history buffs alike, this is a must-read that’s divided into manageable chunks.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This is a classic in the suspense genre that somehow, I hadn’t gotten around to reading until this year.  It was well worth the wait!  The unnamed heroine has just married Maxim de Winter, a wealthy and kind widower with whom she is deeply in love.  Everything seems perfectly ordinary until she moves into Manderley and meets Mrs. Danvers, the rather sinister housekeeper who seems to spend the majority of her time ensuring that everything in the house is exactly as it was on the day Rebecca – Maxim’s first wife – died.  It’s not difficult to see why Alfred Hitchcock chose this book as one of his first film adaptations.  The book’s slow start and emotional climax are hallmarks of Hitchcock’s work and help add to the inherent creepiness of the story!

Mimus by Lillie Thal
As a young adult novel set in a Middle Ages without magic, dwarves, witches or unicorns, Mimus is unique from the start!  In a peace negotiation gone wrong, King Philip is kidnapped by a rival kingdom’s army, and later so is Philip’s son Prince Florin.  In a cruel act of humiliation, the enemy ruler assigns Florin to be a fool, studying under the court jester Mimus.  If Florin doesn’t perform the songs, jokes, and impressions his mentor writes, it will mean torture and punishment for him and his father – but every song mocks his father and every joke has his homeland as the punchline.  Can Florin let his guard down long enough to learn who Mimus really is – and how he can save his home kingdom?  Packed with philosophical conversations between Florin and Mimus, along with several action sequences, this book will appeal to adult fans of historical fiction as well as teenaged ones.

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2013: Amy W’s Picks

December 24, 2013

My name is Amy and I am a read-aholic. Seriously, I read a wide range of genres and I will read it any way I can get it (e-reader, traditional book, audio book, etc).  Here are some pleasant discoveries from my year of reading. I hope you can include some of these books in your 2014 reading list. Enjoy!

crossingThe Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
This first in the Dr Ruth Galloway mystery series has everything including a sassy, smart  female protagonist, a mysterious atmosphere, a colorful cast of characters, history and mythology. Dr Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist—to put it more directly, she is a bone expert. Her quiet academic world gets turned upside down when she is asked to examine bones at a local archaeological dig. Bones? At an archaeological dig? Big deal! Well it is a big deal when a local girl has been missing for nearly ten years and Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson is committed to closing the case and putting her family at ease. To complicate matters, another girl goes missing. This is a fun page, intelligent page turner that will send you running to the next book in the series.

victorianInside the Victorian Home : a Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders
This book is delightful! It is one of those books you want to tell people about constantly but worry that they will roll their eyes after the sixth or seventh Victorian life fun fact. But it is packed with interesting tidbits at every turn of the page and you cannot help but be aghast at some of the details. Artfully constructed, Judith Flanders moves room by room through the Victorian home describing not only the practical uses of the room, but also closely examining Victorian society in its most intimate setting. This book is well written and supported by diaries and journals. So if you often find yourself at a loss for something interesting to say at a party, read this book and you will be the life of the party.

financialThe Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter
If you enjoyed the show “Breaking Bad,” you would probably enjoy this book about Matt Prior, a nice guy saddled with debt after following his ill-conceived dream. He is struggling to support his family and his marriage is falling apart. So one night at the 7 Eleven he falls in with some real losers in an attempt to keep his home out of foreclosure. Hijinx ensue, more bad decisions are made. You never stop rooting for Matt in this funny, fast-paced and heartwarming book.

wolfWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Today’s scandals have nothing on Henry VIII and his henchman Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall takes place from the point of view of Englishman, Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell was the son of a drunken blacksmith and rose from those humble beginnings to be the king’s right-hand man. This book is a challenging read everyone seems to be named Thomas, John, Henry, Harry, William, Mary or Anne. But it is very worthwhile to read this award-winning book, a historical look at the complexities of power that still rings true today.

attachAttachments by Rainbow Rowell
Alright, this was not my favorite book this year but this is one of my favorite contemporary authors and I am dedicated to reading anything she writes. My colleagues will have raved about a couple of her YA books published this year (Fangirl and Eleanor and Park) and I agree. Written for adults, this book is fun too! And the dialogue is witty and the characters are likeable. Lincoln O’Neill is kind of at a standstill and he takes a really boring, go nowhere night job monitoring email at a local newspaper. Things start to look brighter when he falls in love; unfortunately, he falls in love with Beth while reading her hilarious and honest email exchanges with her best friend and co-worker, Jennifer. Oh, and Beth does not know he exists and he knows the intimate details of her life which would be kind of creepy. Earlier I used the phrase “funny, fast-paced and heartwarming book”, it applies here also!

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