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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.

War Books

MatterhornMy question of the week - Do women read war novels?  I don't mean to ask this in a polarizing and dramatic way, but out of genuine interest. 

I recently finished the excellent Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, a novelization about the Vietnam War.  Marlantes is a highly decorated Marine who served in Vietnam and this 600 page book was 30 years in the making.  The book is technical and almost solely set in Vietnam.  There isn't room for families, girlfriends, or real life.  This book is intense - filled with racial tensions, horrifying wounds, tigers, leeches, jungle rot, thirst, hunger, diarrhea, boredom, bad language and inept military structure.  I probably lost some of the technicalities of the military maneuvers, but in the end you really care about the characters.  At times, reading this was stressful but the pain and longing seems universal and touching.  

The Stone Carvers

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial sits on a preserved battlefield in France where the Canadian Expeditionary Force took part in the Battle of Vimy Ridge during World War I.  The huge marble monument took 11 years to build and has giant human sculptures representing sacrifice, mourning, and strength and includes over 11,000 names of Canadian soldiers missing in action.

In Jane Urquhart's novel The Stone Carvers, we meet three fictional people who wind up working on this magnificent monument. Their lives are transformed both by the beauty of art and the horrors of war. 

Klara and Tilman Becker grow up in rural Canada in a German immigrant community at the turn of the century.  Their grandfather is a wood carver with high hopes for Tilman to learn the master craft.  While Tilman has a natural carving ability, he is proves unable to stay on the farm.  Even as early as 12, Tilman must migrate. Nothing his family does can keep him on the farm, not even a chain.

From Book to Best Picture

We are still a few weeks away from the Academy Awards, but the nominations were announced last week.  Out of the nine best picture nominees, six are based on books.  So while maybe watching the nominated movies is on your February list, it also proves an opportunity to add some new book titles as well.  The six books include:

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

"With beautiful and blunt prose, Hemmings explores the emotional terrain of grief, promising something far more fulfilling than paradise at its end."--San Francisco Chronicle

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a miracle, a daybreak, a man on the moon. It's so impeccably imagined, so courageously executed, so everlastingly moving and fine." --Baltimore Sun

The Winter Sea by Susanne Kearsley

The Winter Sea by Susanne Kearsley.

Is genetic memory just a theory or does it actually occur, or maybe the protagonist in this novel just has a really good imagination?
 
American historical novelist, Carrie McClelland journeys to Scotland to research her new book concerning an early planned Jacobite invasion in 1708. Her story and her research focus on Slain's Castle, now open to tourists, which was the center of much of the plotting in 1707 and 08. Carrie is soon dreaming of her ancestors who were involved in the intrigue. Is she channeling her long ago many times over great grandmother, is her new romantic interest also a descendant or is it her writer's imagination at work.

Room

Jack is a typical five-year-old who enjoys watching TV, reading, and playing games with his Ma. But he has lived all of his life in a single room. The room is his world, shared with his Ma, and occasionally with Old Nick, a mysterious and unnerving nighttime visitor. Told from the perspective of Jack, the novel explores not only survival in captivity but also what happens when captivity ends and the world expands beyond the four walls of Room.

Year of Wonders and Caleb's Crossing

Year of Wonders is a book about the plague, but it is also so much more than that. Anna lives in a small village in England in 1666. She has two small children and a hard working husband. Despite her struggles with her relationship with her father, and a new minister, things are generally going well for Anna. Unfortunately the true history of the village, as discovered by Brooks, creates a tragic backdrop for Anna's fictional life. First, Anna's husband dies in a mining accident, and to help ends meet, Anna takes in a boarder from London. Shortly after this, her boarder suddenly dies, and people in her village begin falling fatally sick. The death of Anna's husband is only the beginning of the upheaval that Anna is to survive. Near the end of the book, everything that she has known was turned up on its head.

Geraldine Brooks came upon a sign at the location of the village and did quite a bit of research to create fictional characters and events. Though all the action takes place in the small quarantined village, the language is lush and the characters vivid.

Graphic Novels from Guy Delisle

People often read travel books of places of either exotic places they want to visit, or of a beloved travel destination. I would think that a travel book of a destination that most people don't ever want to visit wouldn't exactly be very engaging. Guy Delisle proves me wrong.

Delisle is a French Canadian whose work in animation has taken him to some interesting and not so interesting places. Two of these locations have become novel length graphic novels. Delisle has a knack for taking the ridiculous and mundane and making them funny and smart.
Pyongyang chronicles Delisle's stay in North Korea that extends over several months for his job. The charcoal drawings reflect the drab and sterile city. Delisle tries to get to know the residents, but is often thwarted by his guide, translator and driver, with whom Delisle isn't to be without. He is taken to some creepy (and sometimes funny) monuments to the Eternal President. The insights and details are surprising and delightful. Even if you aren't the least curious about North Korea, I would still recommend this title.

Is it that time of year already?

Marriage PlotIn a world of massive amounts of information, I am a sucker for top ten or best-of lists. I appreciate when someone else condenses something into a short and sweet list, something easy to scan and hopefully points you in the right direction.
November brings the earliest end-of-the-year best-of lists and both Amazon and Publisher's Weekly are some of the first to announce their top ten books of the year. Maybe not too shockingly, Amazon's list is pretty predictable with a lot of best sellers, or other books that got a lot of buzz, including debut-darling Téa Obreht, Erik Larson, and the new Steve Jobs bio.

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