Historical Narratives

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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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History Through the Graphic Novel’s Lens

History Through the Graphic Novel’s Lens

by Rachel Cunningham, Circulation Supervisor

After several years of working at Manhattan Public Library, I have come to terms with the dilemma of too many books and not enough time. Recommendations come from patrons, co-workers, and publications, snowballing into an avalanche of unobtainable “to read” lists. However, in January of this year, I decided to work towards two neglected genres – history/memoirs and graphic novels.

To begin, I checked out the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, “Maus.” I had no idea that a few days later the McMinn County Schools in Tennessee would vote to remove the graphic novel from its eighth-grade curriculum. This decision sparked immediate controversy, shooting the book to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. Readers were eager to find a copy of the contested book, and I had the library’s coveted copy in my possession. Within days, I devoured the two volumes where the artist, Art Spiegelman, interviews his father about his experience during World War II, surviving Auschwitz and Dachau with Art’s mother. Spiegelman also depicts the strained relationship between himself and his father, as well as his own struggles with the publicity and success of the first volume: “My Father Bleeds History”. The series provides an intimate view into a life ravaged by war and otherness.

I had gained so much insight through “Maus,” that I decided to continue to explore graphic novel memoirs that spoke to historical events. I came across the series “March” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. The novel opens with a scene from the 1965 march on Edmund Pettus Bridge. The novel then jumps to Lewis in his office in Washington D.C., preparing for the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama. Before departing, a mother stops by his office with her boys, and they ask about Lewis’s history. Beginning in Pike County, Alabama, Lewis details his rural upbringing in the segregated South. Spending his free time proselytizing to chickens, Lewis knew he was different from his brothers and sisters. After a summer trip to New York with his uncle, Lewis realizes that life can be different than what he’s learned to accept. As a young adult, Lewis joins Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.), which focuses on social change through non-violence and passive resistance. Lewis and others took part in the sit-ins at Woolworth lunch counter, where only whites were served. Although the group was arrested for disturbing the peace, the downtown stores served black customers for the first time on May 10, 1960. “March” provides an honest rendering of the difficulty of passive resistance paired with the victories that followed.

Another ugly period of American history is delicately discussed in “They Called Us Enemy.” My American History class quickly glossed over the reality of “internment” camps during World War II. Hoping to gain a better understanding through his experience, I began reading George Takei’s graphic novel memoir. Written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Soctt with art by Harmony Becker, “They Called Us Enemy” begins with the removal of Takei’s family from their home under Executive Order 9066. The novel pairs the disturbing reality the adults faced with the enchantment and imagination of Takei and his younger siblings. “Memory is a wiley keeper of the past…usually dependable, but at times, deceptive. Childhood memories are especially slippery. Sweet and so full of joy, they can often be a misrendering of the truth…I know that I will always be haunted by the larger, vaguely remembered reality of circumstances surrounding my childhood.” Takei details the life of his family and their determination to acclimate to their new existence in Arkansas at Camp Rohwer. Sometimes heartbreaking, other times whimsical, the novel details life inside the camp, their relocation to radicalized Camp Tule Lake in California, and life after the camp’s closure. Takei ends the graphic novel by pointing out the ongoing issues with immigration in America, closing with a quote from former President Barack Obama, “Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other. That my liberty depends on you being free, too. That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.”

Interested in getting started? There are many other graphic novels within the library’s collection to explore historical events like “Kent State” by Derf Backderf and “The Great American Dust Bowl” and “Drowned City” by Don Brown. You can check out other graphic novels on Hoopla Digital with your library card, too!

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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.