Adult Nonfiction

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The Microhistory

The Microhistory

By Benjamin Carter, Library Assistant

Of all the forms that nonfiction books take, the microhistory is my favorite. A microhistory is a history of a small thing – an event, a social phenomenon, a food, or an object – that connects to a larger worldview. The microhistory is a great way to learn more about the world through the narrow lens of a subject one is interested in.

I was introduced to microhistories by the assigned reading for a world history class, in which we read “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World,” by Mark Kurlansky. In “Cod,” Kurlansky delves into the social history of fishing for, and eating, cod. I became enraptured by Kurlansky’s writing and the way he wasw able to craft a world history lesson out of fish. From the Basque people of Spain, to English fish and chips, to New World fisheries in Massachusetts, Kurlansky weaves a narrative of the importance of the titular fish to the peoples of the Atlantic region. He includes the impacts overfishing of cod has had on those cultures and even several different recipes to prepare cod. Other microhistories by Mark Kurlansky available at the library include “Paper: Paging Through History” and, previously mentioned in this column, “Salt: A World History.

The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird” by Joshua Hammer is the true crime version of a microhistory. Hammer tells the tale of an international bird-egg smuggler and the detective of the Wildlife Crime Unit tasked with catching the criminal. To give background on the crimes and the world of rare-bird smuggling, Hammer digs into the history of falcon racing in Dubai, the antiquarian hobby of egg collecting, and of course the biology of the birds themselves. This book is great for true crime fans, bird-of-prey admirers, and anyone interested in an adventure that spans the globe.

Most of us don’t truly appreciate our clothing outside of its style and its comfort. Kassia St. Clair aims to change this in her book “The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History.” In thirteen segments, St. Clair maps the human history of fabric from the first clothing made by humans in the Paleolithic Period all the way to the fabric used in astronaut suits. Because fabrics are produced by people, St. Clair illustrates how our desire to produce textiles has influenced our culture. Fabric production has had an important role in nautical navigation, influenced international trade relations, and helped bring about the Industrial Revolution and the transatlantic slave trade. It is fascinating how much more thought I have put into the fabrics that surround me after reading this book.

Mary Roach is one of the most well-known names in the microhistory genre. She has written books on ghosts, sex, the GI tract, soldiers and the book I read, “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” The question Roach attempts to answer is: what happens to our bodies after we pass on? Just the physical parts, mind you – she leaves the spiritual side to others more qualified. In this sometimes hilarious and absurd book, Roach covers the history of bodysnatching for medical colleges, cadaver testing, head transplants, and more. Roach discusses the generosity of those who donated their bodies to science and the ethics and uses of the tests performed. If you’ve escaped a car crash without injury, you have a cadaver to thank for testing the limits of the human body. She finishes the book by including an answer to what she will do with her body when she no longer needs it. “Stiff” will prompt you to consider the same question while fascinating you and – at times – making you nauseous. For more of Roach’s humorous and offbeat takes, check out “Spook,” “Bonk,” “Gulp,” “Grunt,” or her newest adult novel, “Fuzz.

My favorite thing about microhistories is how versatile they are. In addition to the microhistories in this article, there are histories on books, oil, rain, bananas, forks, pigments, ghosts, mushrooms, epidemics, and poisons – just to name a few. If you want to learn more about the things we interact with every day, stop by the library and ask a librarian about a topic you are interested in.

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Women Authors for Women’s History Month

Women Authors for Women’s History Month

by Rhonna Hargett, Associate Director of Learning and Information Services

Women have been sharing their stories for centuries. They have often been disrespected or pushed into the background, but from Sappho to Phyllis Wheatley, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan, women have written down their perspectives of the world. Manhattan Public Library is celebrating women authors for Women’s History Month in March. The female authors of the past have paved the way for the current rich selection of fantastic books by women.

Sleeping Beauty is one of the more troubling of the classic fairy tales when viewed through the lens of modern values, but in “A Spindle Splintered,” author Alix E. Harrow manages to reform it into a story of women’s strength. Due to a rare illness, Zinnia Gray has known her entire life that it is unlikely she will reach the age of 22. Her illness drew her to the story of Sleeping Beauty from a young age, so her best friend Charm creates a themed party based on the tale for Zinnia’s 21st (and likely last) birthday, even set in a tower, with a spindle at the ready. But the magic of the party becomes all too real when Zinnia pricks her finger on the spindle, finds herself spinning through time and space, and encounters other “Sleeping Beauties” living their own stories. “A Spindle Splintered” is an engaging tale full of adventure, reflection, renewed hope, and strong women.

Some women’s stories have been written in thread. In the nonfiction narrative “All That She Carried,” author Tiya Miles shares the story of a sack that was found at a flea market. It was embroidered with the story of an enslaved mother named Rose, packing up this sack with a few necessities for her beloved daughter Ashley, who was soon to be sold to another household. In 1921, it was embroidered by Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth, “It held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her ‘It be filled with my Love always.’” Miles, a Harvard history professor, carefully weaves together the researched history of the item with the representational power that it carries. She tells how strongly the sack affects visitors in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where it now resides. People have been brought to tears by this evidence of the cruelty of American slavery that also clearly demonstrates a mother’s hope for her daughter. Although the book is full of researched details, Miles’ engaging writing style draws one in and brings life to two women who lived over a century ago. “All That She Carried,” like Ashley’s sack, tells a brutal story combined with hope for a better future.

Isabel Allende captured the attention of readers throughout the world in 1982 with her book of magical realism, “The House of the Spirits.” She has since published 26 books, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, making her one of the most read Spanish-language authors in the world. Her books cover many different subjects, but her stories often give us a view of the lives of women and how they affect and are affected by the world around them.  Her book “A Long Petal of the Sea” is about the Dalmaus, a Spanish family living in the midst of civil war. We follow Victor, an Army doctor, and Roser, his brother’s pregnant young widow as they flee over the mountainous French border and finally to Chile. They arrive to a country and a family that neither one of them wanted, but they are survivors and eventually find a new version of home. In “A Long Petal of the Sea,” Allende once again demonstrates her trademark ability to show the small moments of beauty that exist in even the most difficult of circumstances.

Manhattan Public Library’s celebration of female authors is part of our ReadMHK program. Go to www.mhklibrary.org to find lists of recommended books and our podcast, and join us for a book discussion focused on women authors on the evening of Thursday, March 17th.

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Quick Reads

Quick Reads

By Jared Richards, Learning and Information Services Supervisor

In the last few months, I haven’t had as much time or the attention span to focus on reading books. Because of this, I have found myself gravitating towards quick reads. I have always been a fan of this format, particularly short stories, but I appreciate it now more than ever. It allows me to jump into new worlds, experience new things, and be home in time for lunch.

I was initially drawn to “The Souvenir Museum” by Elizabeth McCracken because of the cover. It is bright yellow with a teal balloon animal in the center, and I can say with certainty that I have yet to read a bad book that has a balloon animal on the cover. To be honest, this is the first one I’ve come across that meets that description, but one-for-one is still one-hundred percent, and now the bar is set pretty high because I enjoyed this collection.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is that it has several stories featuring the same main characters at different points in their lives. We meet them in the first story as a fairly new couple visiting Ireland to attend the boyfriend’s sister’s wedding. And after popping into their lives several more times, the book ends with them, twenty years later, finally getting married themselves.

Most of the books I read tend to happen in a very short period of time, relatively speaking. A few days or years in a person’s life, or even the history of an empire in the context of all human civilization. Blips on their relative radars. But I do enjoy when I stumble across a story where I can follow characters and get to know them at various points throughout their lives, and it’s even better in McCracken’s collection because it’s just a quick peek, and then you’re off to something else.

In a similar, bite-sized vein, there are essay collections, different from short stories because they typically feature commentary on a specific topic, rather than following a traditional story format. “You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays” by Zora Neale Hurston, was published earlier this year, and contains not only familiar Hurston essays, but also ones that have never before been published.

Hurston was a prolific writer, publishing work on various topics for more than thirty years. Following her death in 1960, Hurston’s work fell out of the public consciousness but has since come back, more popular and powerful than ever.

The titular essay, which was originally supposed to be published in 1934 but never was, feels timelier than ever, and it is hard to believe it was written so long ago. Hurston points out that how Black people are portrayed, often by white authors, fails to capture who Black people actually are, generally relying on exaggerated stereotypes. She uses the analogy of margarine and butter, saying “In short, it has everything butterish about it except butter.” Hurston goes on to say that not including the nuances that all people have, and just collecting the highlights, doesn’t allow you to capture the whole person. She also paraphrases American humorist Josh Billings in saying, “It’s better not to know so much, than to know so much that ain’t so,” calling out the people who think they have it figured out but inevitably miss the mark. It is a very enlightened take on the importance of people writing their own stories, written over eighty years ago.

Lastly, to quickly diverge from the more traditional quick-reads realm of short stories and essays, we have cookbooks. There may be people out there who read cookbooks cover-to-cover, and to be fair, some are written that way, but that is not for me. I jump in, grab a recipe, and walk away with some good food to eat while reading short stories and essays.

Ruffage” by Abra Berens features vegetables as the main characters. Berens tells you how to buy and store each vegetable before going into multiple recipes for each, in different forms like raw, roasted, and pureed, and includes variations for each recipe to help you change things up and keep it interesting.

Her latest book, “Grist,” is similar but features grains, beans, seeds, and legumes. Whereas vegetables tend to be seasonal items that can spoil quickly, the main characters of this book are pantry staples that have a long shelf life and will be there when you need them. No matter the season, you will find recipes worth trying in these books.

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What is Bluegrass Music

What is Bluegrass Music

by Bryan McBride, Adult Services Librarian

Defining a musical style can be difficult, no matter the type, and bluegrass is no different. What is bluegrass music? How did it get its name? Who started it and when? Are bluegrass songs always in the key of G? Unlike most musical genres, it does have a definitive beginning date and a singular creator. July of 1938, Bill Monroe broke with his older brother Charlie, left the Monroe Brothers group, assembled a group of musicians of his own choosing and called them the Kentucky Blue Grass Boys.

There are three questions answered right there. “Bill Monroe: the Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man” by Tom Ewing is exhaustive in its biography of Monroe, who is known as the Father of Bluegrass. The unanswered question remains: Are most bluegrass songs in the key of G? If anyone alive would know, it’s Ewing, who was a long-time guitarist in Monroe’s group. The key of G became a staple for a couple of reasons. For one, it was a good singing key for Monroe, who along with being the namesake of the genre, gave name to his singing style: the “high, lonesome sound,” named for his high tenor singing above a lower-pitched singer. For another, the most common way to play a banjo is to tune it so when the strings are strummed in an “open” position, it plays a G chord. Banjo and fiddle were the essential instruments in the music of Bill’s youth, and his mandolin didn’t fit very well in the traditions that existed before his talent and vision sparked a new kind of music. He was hard-headed, and determined to chase his vision.

Not only does Ewing’s book cover the life of Bill Monroe, it includes the history of those who played in the Blue Grass Boys, as well as other musical influences going on during the run of the Blue Grass Boys. History is one of the things I love about bluegrass. Maybe it was Monroe’s singing background and love of God from attending church, or living with his uncle from age ten following the death of his parents. One of Monroe’s best-known songs is “Uncle Pen,” a song about Bill’s uncle who was known for his fiddling at barn dances. If you wanted to host a square dance you needed two things: a caller and a fiddler, and Uncle Pen was the man you called on to do the fiddling. Bill grew into Uncle Pen’s sideman for these dances. Region was an important part of a musician’s character as well. Monroe included Kentucky in the name of his group so people would know where his group was from without asking. It is a bit foreign in this day of occupational mobility and the breakdown of family, but in the rural areas of the mid-to-late 1900s, roots were important and it shows in the music.

One of the fascinating aspects of bluegrass is its genealogy, and Ewing covers that in depth. He includes countless, noteworthy musicians who either started their careers with Monroe, or joined up with him mid-career as Monroe became a regular performer at the Grand Old Opry. These include Ralph and Carter Stanley, Del McCoury, Stringbean, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt. Stringbean was Bill’s first banjo picker, and Monroe claims he hired Stringbean for what his entertaining, comedic skills brought to the group. Earl Scruggs played banjo sometime after Stringbean left the group. Scruggs became legendary himself for a whole new way to play the banjo. The “Scruggs Style” uses finger picks to pick the strings rather than the old-time clawhammer style of playing the banjo with mostly downward strokes. Monroe’s lightning-fast playing, Scruggs’ style, and the high, lonesome singing created an energy level in string band music that had never been seen before.

Bill Monroe was the father of bluegrass and his legacy holds an amazing place in history. Ewing writes that in Monroe’s span of more than fifty years of Blue Grass Boys, 149 musicians had played in his band. Ewing’s book shows us a history of people, a history of place, a history of music.  A musical heritage that lives today in young string-band musicians, around campfires at music festivals worldwide. Monroe’s musical influence cannot be overstated and his impact is well-documented in “Bill Monroe: the Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man” by Tom Ewing.

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