Nonfiction

To See Every Bird on Earth

To See Every Bird on EarthMicrohistories are a subgenre of non-fiction books which take a particular subject or single event and through intensive historical research try to contextualize the chosen subject within the broader picture.  Both Simon Winchester and Mark Kurlansky are well known microhistorians.  Kurlansky in particular is known for Salt: A World History, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.  As a history nerd, I find that a well written microhistory uncovers a previously unthought-of subject or event and breathes life into the history cannon as a whole.  Curious?  Check out titles like Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, or Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  Several years ago I read and enjoyed a microhistory called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel. Read more »

Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain

ImageThe title of this book Lighting Out for the Territory by Roy Morris, jr. refers to the last paragraph in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck reckons that it's time "to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest", which is exactly what Clemens himself did in July 1861. Clemens had ridden as a guerilla maurader for the Missouri militia in a locally formed group in the very early days of the Civil War called the Marion Rangers. They never saw any real action, but his brief stint with them, plus the ever present chance he could be drafted by either side, Union or Confederate, to pilot a gun boat, made the mostly neutral West look inviting.

His brother Orion had been appointed as Secretary to the Territorial Governor of the newly created Nevada Territory. Orion invited Sam to go along to share expenses. From this happenstance beginning one of America's great writers was born.

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See Jane Goodall's Life Through The Eyes Of Two Great Illustrators

Jane Goodall has had a lovely life. From her childhood love of the outdoors to the chance day she contacted famed scientist Louis Leakey, she always knew what she wanted to do: go to Africa and work to help animals. In her life, Goodall has been many things, including an activist for the environment and a UN Ambassador of Peace; however she is most known for her lengthy career working with chimpanzees. In 2011, two books were created that help us to explore Jane's life from its roots to the present.
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A History of the World in 100 Objects

ImageWhat a cool idea for a book. Telling the history of the world by looking at museum artifacts. To make it even more interesting, these descriptive reports of jewelry, mummies, pottery, coins, art, textiles, etc. were written by experts for radio.  Luckily, for us we get to view the pictures also, hundreds of them.

A History of the World in 100 Objects is no coffee table book but a book to be read end to end. The entries for each of the objects (that range in date from 2,000,000 B.C. to 2010 A.D.) describe not only the artifacts themselves but what they teach us about history and about humanity. For example of silver bowl full of coins from around the year 927--shows that already England was well on its way to becoming a monarchy. Inscribed on one coin is Athelstan Rex totius Britanniae or Athelstan, King of All Britain.  

Other items found in this same buried stash were arm bracelets from Ireland, Viking coins, and others from as far away as Afghanistan. A Viking stash of coins showed that they were becoming Christian--engraved on several was St. Peter's name (Petri), but also inscribed was the hammer from Thor, the old Norse god. Read more »

Arctic Obsession: the lure of the Far North

ImageOne of the earliest historical reports of a far northern, snow-covered place was by Pytheas who sailed out of what is now Marseilles in 325 B.C., and discovered a place he called Ultima Thule, a six day journey north of Britain. No one knows exactly where his ship landed but people believe that it may have been Iceland, Greenland, Norway or the Shetlands.  Pytheas described the remarkable midnight sun and reported that the sea surrounding Thule was "neither sea nor air but a mixture like a sea-lung that binds everything together."

In the following centuries the Romans and medieval scholars called the Far North "the kingdom of the dead" where the Cyclops lived "in a place of chaos, the abysmal chasm." In those days scholars also believed that the North Pole was a "gigantic metallic rock rising out of the ocean." Read more »

London Under

London UnderAs someone who has explored sewers as a kid--they were in a new subdivision; it was on a dare--I totally understand the appeal of life underground. Who hasn't dug in their yard and hoped to find arrowheads or pottery from thousands of years ago?

Ackroyd, who wrote a book about the above-ground city several years ago, now dives underneath to recount the other world under busy streets, cathedrals, government buildings, and flats.

It's fascinating stuff. In the 19th century workmen excavating before constructing new buildings discovered huge chunks of the Roman wall that surrounded the city about two millenia ago. Other builders during that same time period found a stairway down to a brick-walled room with a spurting spring that they believed was used as a baptismal font during medieval times.
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The Sun's Heartbeat

Sun's HeartbeatBrowsing the new science books, I came across The Sun's Heartbeat. I picked it up expecting a rather dry collection of facts and was immediately engaged by a chapter titled "The Wild Science of the Bearded Men."

Not only can Bob Berman write but he also has that gift shared by all the best science writers: the ability to translate complex scientific terms into language that anyone can understand.

This book provides a compelling overview of several thousand years of sun research including the great sunspot controversy of the 17th century. The invention of the telescope in 1608 spurned a race to discover facts about the sun. Johannes Fabricius and his father discovered little spots on the sun and excitedly watched them for days until they burnt out their retinal cells. An English astronomer who had voyaged to Roanoke with the English explorers also began recording sunspots. And Galileo himself entered the fray. In fact, Galileo engaged in a decades-long fight with the German professor Christoph Scheiner over sunspots. Over who discovered them first--in fact, neither had, over whether the sun has an atmosphere, and many other topics.
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An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science

ImageWhile most books about the Arctic or Antarctic focus on just one thing--the indomitable quest to reach one of the poles--this book has a much broader canvas--it covers the equally arduous work of making new scientific discoveries during the age of great polar exploration.

This broader canvas allows the reader to learn about biological, geological, and meteorological phenomena but also about the cost of empire. England sponsored many of these expeditions while this country held political dominion over one quarter of the world. And as the twentieth century dawned, political power was changing rapidly. Britain had lost face in the Boer Wars in Africa and needed heroism and success to bolster its image abroad and its people's faith in the government and military as Germany, France, and the United States were becoming arch competitors.

But the book is mostly about science and adventure under the most brutal conditions. At one point Scott and Shackleton dock near an ice floe and decide it's time to use a hot-air balloon to get a better view of the landscape ahead. In this totally unpeopled land, Scott rides up into the air and views the vast white expanse. For most of us, such a view would provoke sheer terror. And Scott himself was a little nervous in the little bamboo basket. I kept thinking, what if he falls out.
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The Book of Songs & Rhymes with Beat Motions


Singing is one of the best activities children and caregivers can enjoy together. Singing promotes a love of music in young children and helps build early literacy skills by breaking words down into small pieces. The library is a great source of wonderful songs for early childhood in books, CDs, Books on CD, and DVDs. A particularly good source of engaging songs for preschool and young school-aged children are the materials by Dr. John Feierabend. Look for his books in the Parent-Teacher Resource Room. Adults who spend time with small children will love The Book of Songs & Rhymes with Beat Motions . Here you will find songs, rhymes, and games that encourage moving with the beat. These rhymes and songs have been passed along for generations and are full of magic and imagination. You will also find CDs of songs collected by Dr. Feierabend in the Children's Audio-Visual collection.

Nurse, Soldier, Spy: A Civil War Hero

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. This isn't an anniversary to "celebrate", but such a pivotal conflict in our nation's history is certainly one to commemorate and learn more about through the amazing stories told by the people involved. Sarah Edmonds was one of those people.

In the picturebook biography Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, A Civil War Hero,
we learn that when she was just 16, Sarah disguised herself as a man and ran away from her home in Canada to escape an arranged marriage. She came to the United States and assumed the name Frank Thompson. When the call came in Michigan for young men to join the Union army, "Frank" wanted to sign up as a way to thank the country she had been living in for the last three years. While the other soldiers teased Frank about her small feet, no one ever guessed that Frank was actually a woman.
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