Lives in Ruins : Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson
This is an engaging look at the lives of archaeologists, a combination of armchair travel, popular science, and history. I enjoyed reading it very much, especially the author’s travels to visit archaeological sites and interview archaeologists in the Caribbean, Peru, a tiny island in the eastern Mediterranean, South Dakota, Fishkill and Fort Drum in New York, and the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island. The author audits classes, goes to field school before volunteering at a dig site, attends conferences, and visits museums. Other than the weather and working conditions, it sounds like fun. As a group, archaeologists are highly educated, passionate about their work, and grossly underpaid, if they’re even employed. They eat sandwiches, swat mosquitoes, work under hot sun or in the rain, often with a developer’s bulldozer looming, drive old vehicles, and tell great stories and drink beer at the end of a long day.
The reader learns about the discovery of an unknown Revolutionary War cemetery in New York, and how a civilian archaeologist working for the Department of Defense is helping soldiers learn to protect sites of cultural and historical importance with decks of playing cards. Many sites have been lost to development, while others are waiting for funding, such as the search for explorer James Cook’s Endeavour in the Newport harbor. This is a November Library Reads pick.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Petronella comes to Amsterdam in 1686 as the young bride of merchant Johannes Brandt, with only her parakeet for company. Johannes’ sister Marin rules the household, frowning on sweets and nagging her brother to find buyers for a recent shipment of sugar from South America. Marriage to Johannes is not at all what Nella had expected, and servant Cornelia is her only friend. A replica of the Brandt’s house in miniature is an extravagant wedding gift, and Nella writes to a miniaturist to furnish the little house. The elusive miniaturist seems to be either a spy or a prophet as the figures and objects delivered mirror people, objects, and tragedy which soon visit the household. Johannes is accused of a serious crime by the owners of the sugar in his warehouse, and many secrets are gradually revealed. The 17th century city of Amsterday is vividly described through Nella’s eyes, with its emphasis on order and cleanliness, prosperous yet rigidly moralistic. The atmosphere is dark and wintry, the pacing picking up speed as Johannes’ trial approaches and Nella struggles to find answers to the family’s dilemmas. While not all questions are answered by the end of the book, this first novel is impressive and memorable. A good read-alike is Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach.
Maeve’s Times: In Her Own Words by Maeve Binchy
Maeve Binchy fans rejoice! A new collection of her articles from the Irish Times has just been published. A wide variety of topics are included, most humorous but some serious, and the articles were written over a period of five decades. Maeve, who died in 2012, was a born storyteller who wrote for the paper’s London office, bringing an Irish viewpoint to stories set in England and abroad. Maeve writes about royal weddings, Margaret Thatcher, clothing, travel in Europe and Australia, life as a young teacher, boring airline passengers, daily life, and getting older. In case you missed it, her last collection of connected stories, Chestnut Street, was published earlier this year.
Two novels being published this month feature Jane Austen as a fictional character. Jane Austen and the Twelve Days of Christmas, by Stephanie Barron, is the twelfth book in a mystery series, but this book can be enjoyed without reading the other titles. Jane, her sister Cassandra, and other relatives are guests at a house party at The Vyne over the Christmas holidays in 1814. When Jane isn’t socializing, being a dutiful daughter, or penning her novels, she is a witty and observant amateur sleuth. Spirits are high because Napoleon is in exile and the War of 1812 seems to be over. But when a military courier falls from his horse and dies after visiting The Vyne, Jane suspects murder. Fans of Jane Austen novels or historical mysteries will find this book a real treat, and it’s been selected as a Library Reads pick for November.
First Impressions: a Novel of old books, unexpected love, and Jane Austen, by Charlie Lovett is the author’s second book, following The Bookman’s Tale.
Upset by her uncle’s death and the loss of his personal library, recent Oxford graduate Sophie Collingwood takes a job with an antiquarian bookseller who knew her uncle. Within a week two customers ask for the second edition of an obscure book by Richard Mansfield. One threatens her, the other man, Winston, takes her to dinner. In the past, Jane Austen has made a new friend, the elderly cleric Richard Mansfield, who admires her writing. Jane has not yet published anything, and struggles to find time to write. Sophie’s quest for the book turns into a mystery that questions Jane Austen’s authorship of Pride and Prejudice, in a romantic and suspenseful book. I would have liked more scenes with Jane and less of Sophie trying to decide whom to trust, publisher Winston or book-loving American Eric. Both Sophie and Jane rely on their sisters for advice and friendship, which is a nice touch. I enjoyed this book, but it’s not as absorbing and memorable as Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Home Grown by Ben Hewitt
I wasn’t sure if I was the right audience for this book, as I’m not contemplating homeschooling, or unschooling, children. But I still found it fascinating, as an account of a homesteading family, a unique look at parenting, and a chronicle of the life of a writer.
Ben and his wife Penny buy land in Vermont, surrounded by dairy farms, build a small cabin, later add a basement and an addition, and welcome two boys into their life. Ben writes magazine articles and non-fiction books, and the family runs a small farm. The boys are self-directed learners, not following a set curriculum, and are very creative and productive, more interested in exploring the woods, raising dairy goats, and learning wilderness skills than in sitting down and reading textbooks. Yes, the boys are learning basic academic skills including science and history, but only when it’s connected to one of their interests. Finn and Rye also have daily and weekly chores on the farm, weekly music lessons and occasional tutors to learn particular craft and wilderness skills. Since this book was published in early September and has been publicized on public radio and elsewhere, the Hewitts are getting many questions about how to encourage creativity in children and also comments criticizing the boys’ non-standardized education. This is an absorbing read in how some children learn when they are free to explore their interests. For more about the Hewitts, check out Ben’s blog.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie
This is a fascinating novel about the birth of printing in 15th century Mainz, Germany. Peter Schoeffer, a young scribe in Paris, is called home by his foster father Johann Fust to apprentice with the man known as Johann Gutenberg. Merchant Fust is the investor, Gutenberg is the creative, difficult boss, and Peter is stuck in the middle. With Peter’s creativity and hard work, a secret workshop is set up to produce the first printed bibles. The Gutenberg Bible is famous so I knew the project must ultimately succeed, but the author manages to make the reader doubt if this workshop will finish the project before the funding runs out or the Church leaders shut them down. Peter falls in love with illustrator Anna, who is not pleased when she learns that Peter is no longer a scribe. This is not a fast-paced book, but is full of details of life and work in mid-15th century Germany, a place of occasional unrest with the merchants in conflict with the church leaders. The characters are vividly drawn, and the descriptions of the first print shop are excellent.
Lock In by John Scalzi
A pandemic has left many people completely paralyzed in this science fiction thriller. Named after the President’s wife, Haden Syndrome patients can interact with the world via humanoid robots known as threeps, online with each other in the Agora space, and occasionally with human Integrators who’ve had a neural net installed. A law cutting government financial support for Haden patients has led to protests and corporate mergers. Chris Shane, a famous Haden patient, is a newly minted FBI agent who is teamed with Leslie Vann, a former Integrator, to work on cases with a possible Haden connection. In their first week together, Shane and Vann handle a series of murders and the bombing of a pharmaceutical plant. Shane proves to be as hard on his robotic threeps as Stephanie Plum is on cars. John Scalzi is a very creative science fiction and fantasy writer, and has been blogging at Whatever for sixteen years. I hope he writes more crime thrillers featuring Shane and Vann.