History

The Great War

If you are a fan of graphic novels or comic book histories, Joe Sacco’s incredibly detailed book about the battle of the Somme is a keeper.  The accordion style of the book imparted a narrative push to this graphic history that has no text.

The folded-over 24 foot long drawing also gave Sacco a large expanse of space to record the planning for the war on the ramparts of Montreuil-sur-Mer, the gathering of horses, laden carts and howitzers before the battle, and the trenches, explosions and destruction of the battle itself.  

The artist also vividly captured the digging of graves and the field of white crosses after the bloodshed ended.  Sacco’s drawings are very accurate, expertly rendered, and they convey emotion. To get the full effect of this book, you should spread it out across a long table or even two tables.

The one-day battle had 60,000 British casualties—the largest of any battle Britain has been involved in before or since. Included in a separate booklet is Adam Hochschild’s narrative essay that places the art in context.

The Yellow Birds

I’m not one for war novels, but this little gem hooked me from the start. The writing is stellar and the characters speak and act with a naturalness that only comes from actual combat experience. 

Kevin Powers, the author, is an Iraq War veteran. The story he has written about his experiences is heart-breaking.  The narrator, 21 year old Private Bartle, had literary aspirations in school and received a lot of taunting from his friends, so he decided to prove his manhood by becoming a soldier. This mirrored the author’s life who enlisted at age seventeen.  At basic training, he meets, the pimple-faced newbie, Murph, whose mother begs Bartle to promise to bring him back from Iraq unharmed.

Of course, no experienced soldier would ever make such a promise but something about the woman reminds the private of his own mother, so he readily agrees. Big mistake. They soon get sent to Al Tafir where a series of bloody battles, including civilian deaths, jade both men. 

Dispelling Dark Myths

Did you ever hear the story of “Typhoid Mary” as a child? I remember a gaggle of us neighborhoods kids scaring each other with stories of the woman whose myth lived long after she died.  It’s not a person we learned about in school, yet just the mention of her name culled up disease, darkness and death.  That’s one reason I was happy to come across this sympathetic portrait of an Irish-American woman who was much maligned by the press.

Not a biography, this fictional account relies on many true-to-life details to make its story highly believable. Young Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland at age fifteen to stay with an aunt. She soon went to work and started as a laundress--hot dirty work that offered no hope of advancement. Being smart and clever, Mary noticed that the cooks were paid much more and had more freedom. She also liked the creative aspect of crafting fine meals for the wealthy of early 1900s New York City.

Mary got her big break as a substitute cook, and she turned one success into a career. By the time she was 17, she received an excellent summer gig in Oyster Bay, but unfortunately fever swept through the summer place leaving the baby she loved and several other members of the household dead.

Read-A-Likes for These Is My Words: the Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901, Arizona Territories by Nancy Turner

In August 2013, the Books Plus library book club read the book These Is My Words: the Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901, Arizona Territories by Nancy Turner. The book is very loosely based on her grandmother’s memories of moving to the Arizona Territory and what life was like there on the frontier.  Fast paced and character driven, the author brings to life the hardships of ranching before electricity and cars. Sarah is a no nonsense woman who survives and thrives through happy times and sad.

 Other books featuring pioneer women include:

Jane Has Her Say

I love this new age of biography where not only famous people’s lives are examined but also everyman’s or in this case everywoman’s. Of course, Jane Franklin’s life would have faded into history were it not for her very famous older brother. But this compelling biography gives a very interesting account of the life of an ordinary, rather poor Boston woman during the time period of the Thirteen Colonies.

Jane grew up in a big family and Ben was six years her senior, and he taught her to read. They corresponded their whole lives, and were for many years the last two left from their nuclear family. Many of Jane’s letters have been lost, but can be somewhat reconstructed from her brother’s responses to them. Like her brother, she was very opinionated and thought of Benjamin as her “second self.”

At age fifteen, she married a saddler named Mecom, and for the next twenty plus years, she was either pregnant or nursing children. She had twelve children and all but one died before she did. Most, unfortunately, died as adults which was less common at that time. Her husband was not a good provider and eventually went crazy. So Jane and her children boiled and sold soap from home.

Her letters to her brother and his gifts of books, many of which he had printed himself, gave her an intellectual life that she otherwise would not have had.  They shared many secrets from the rest of the family, some of them jokes.

The Garden of Evening Mists

This beautiful historical novel is set in an exotic place, rural Malaya, after World War II before it became the country of Malaysia. It’s also one of the rare novels that is centered on a Japanese garden.

The narrator, Teoh Jun Ling, a woman of Straits Chinese heritage, has just retired from her career judging war criminal cases. Previous to that, she was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. In fact, she was the only person to survive; after being tortured there, she developed a great hatred for all things Japanese. Yet her dear sister, Yun Hong, who died at camp, always had a passion for Japanese gardens after she had visited the island nation as a child.

Yun Ling returns to the highlands to see old friends and also to visit the tea plantation of Yugiri where an ex-Japanese, Aritomo, has long worked a spectacular garden.  Although she is repulsed at asking a favor from someone Japanese, she requests that Aritomo build a Japanese garden in her sister’s memory.

He adamantly refuses. But then a few days later suggests an alternative. If she is willing to serve as his apprentice, he will teach her how to create her own.

Many Eras, Many Lives

Have you ever wondered how different you would have been if you’d lived during Napoleonic times, the First World War, or the Second? This novel explores how much the era a person lives in affects his or her personality, and choices in life.

In the autumn of 1985, Greta Wells loses her twin brother to AIDS. She’s also been injured in a serious car accident that has also harmed her dear Aunt Ruth.  Because Greta sloughs through a deep depression that will not lift, her psychiatrist recommends an old treatment that is becoming new again. Greta calls it electric shock therapy. Dr. Cerletti corrects her—“It’s called electric convulsive therapy.”

During my college years, I worked as a psychiatric aide at two mental hospitals, and I watched this procedure several times.  It struck me as something medieval and horrifying, but luckily in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, ECT is not described in great physical detail.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

I will admit to having been both leery and intrigued by the premise of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. The idea of one of our historically beloved presidents being turned into Buffy the Vampire Slayer appalled me. However I like a good vampire film as much as the next person. I also like being surprised.

Jeremiah Johnson

I was once asked what I thought of Robert Redford. My response was immediate. I didn't like him and I thought he was a lousy actor trading on his good looks, though he was certainly a talented director. A short while later the discussion turned to our favorite movies when asked I began naming them: Sneakers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Last Castle, The Sting, The Great Waldo Pepper, The Natural and finally Jeremiah Johnson. There was a sudden pause in the discussion when the person I was talking to said, "Didn't you just say ...?"

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Leading the news today is the announcement that Detroit filed for bankruptcy. They aren’t the first municipality to file, but they are the largest. What this means for residents, city workers, retirees and the state of Michigan remains to be seen. 20 billion dollars is hard to wrap my mind around, and is a figure without names and faces.

Hoping to personalize this story is native son Charlie LeDuff. His recent nonfiction work is called Detroit: An American Autopsy. LeDuff is a journalist who left Detroit at an early age and traveled the world covering international conflicts and won a Pulitzer for his contributions at the New York Times. He returns to Detroit to work for The Detroit News.

This book covers a variety of stories, including the fall of ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, city council corruption, the crumbling auto industry implications, and the struggles of a local fire station. You also meet LeDuff’s family and follow them while they are coping (or not) with living in and near Detroit.

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