Microhistories: History on a Small Scale
These are a few of the recent books with a narrow focus on a single subject, event, or place. I’m reading Paper, enjoyed Consider the Fork, The End of Night, and have Butter on my list of books to read. These titles and many more are on display this month at the Woodridge Public Library. Enjoy!
Bogard, Paul. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, 2013.
Brox, Jane. Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010.
Donovan, Tristan. Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, 2014. Eckstut, Joann. The Secret Language of Color, 2013.
Foy, Simon. Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, 2010.
Garfield, Simon. Just My Type: A Book about Fonts, 2011.
Hucklebridge, Dane. The United States Of Beer : A Freewheeling History Of The All-American Drink, 2016.
Kawash, Samira. Candy: A Century of Panic, 2013.
Kosrova, Elaine. Butter: A Rich History, 2016.
Kurlansky, Mark. Paper: Paging Through History, 2016.
Lukacs, Paul. Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Ancient Pleasures, 2012.
Metcalf, Allan. OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, 2011.
Roach, Mary. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, 2013.
Shaffer, Marjorie. Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice, 2013.
Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, 2012.
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
After a minor medical procedure intended to make Briddey Flannigan and her boyfriend Trent able to sense each other’s emotions, Briddey hears a man’s voice, and panics. She’s hearing the thoughts of C.B. Schwartz, a nerdy coworker at Commspan. C.B. tries to convince Briddey that she’s now telepathic, and that no one else must know. Trent wants help to develop a new phone app, while Briddey just wants some peace and quiet, unlikely given her overly intrusive Irish-American family and gossipy coworkers. Briddey’s young niece Maeve gets involved as C.B. teaches Briddey how to quiet her mind before Trent and their doctor find out what really happened. Fans of slapstick romantic comedy will enjoy this fast-paced romp, which skewers our society’s dependence on digital technology and avoidance of self-reflection and true intimacy. The author nicely contrasts internet dating sites with the simple pleasures of reading in a library surrounded by others, or taking a walk late at night.
The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel
A mixture of science fiction, mystery, and romance, this fast-paced first novel is really hard to put down. Elena, chief engineer on a Central Corps starship, reluctantly goes on shore leave on the planet of Volhynia. Unexpectedly, she connects with Trey, a retired PSI captain who’s now the baker at his sister’s restaurant. The next morning, Elena’s crewmate and former boyfriend, Danny, is found dead outside that restaurant. Trey’s arrested, but Elena can provide an alibi. When that isn’t good enough for the local police chief, she asks her captain Greg Foster for help in solving Danny’s murder. His murder may be connected to a nearby wormhole and a long-lost Central Corps ship. Full of intrigue and adventure, this book is a good read-alike for Lois McMaster Bujold, Ann Leckie, and James S.A. Corey. A second book, Remnants of Trust, will be published in November.
Arabella of Mars by David Levine
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this fun adventure and science fiction novel, set in London in the early 18th century, on Mars, and in the breathable skies between. Arabella Ashby and her brother Michael, raised by a Martian nanny, enjoy life on their Martian koresh wood plantation, but their mother takes Arabella to London so that she can become a proper young lady. Soon, Arabella needs to get back to Mars to save Michael from a threat on his life. She signs on to the sailing ship Diana as a cabin boy, and her skills in working with clockwork automata are helpful. The Diana, built of lightweight koresh wood with silk parachutes for landing, has a mechanical navigator to help chart a course around the Horn, a zone of turbulent weather. Arabella, in disguise as Arthur, enjoys the journey despite the hardships, including an attack by a French privateer and a mutiny against Captain Singh. More adventures await on Mars, and Arabella will need Captain Singh’s help to save the day. Naomi Novik and Mary Robinette Kowal are good readalikes with Regency era fantasy, but not quite the same tone, perhaps because they aren’t science fiction/adventure novels. I need to find more books as well-written and fun as this one, read some of the author’s short stories, and wait for a sequel to Arabella of Mars.
Historical fiction readers may enjoy this two-volume novel that won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. I read it five years ago, and enjoyed rereading it almost as much. Three time-traveling historians visit Great Britain during World War II from Oxford in the 2060s. Eileen is in a country house, observing children evacuated from London during the Blitz, and has her hands full with anxious Theodore and mischievous siblings Alf and Binnie Hodbin. A measles epidemic keeps her from returning to Oxford as scheduled. In London, Polly is assigned to observe Londoners during daily life and in shelters during air raids by finding a job at a department store. When she tries to report back to Oxford, nothing happens. Mike Davies, with an American accent, is supposed to be a reporter in Dover covering the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk. He arrives in a small town down the coast and has great difficulty getting to Dover. Unexpectedly, Mike gets caught up in the action and helps save the life of a soldier who goes on to rescue hundreds more. He also suffers an injury that would be easily treated in his own time. Eileen and Mike make their way to London to find Polly, and the trio is concerned that their actions might have affected the war’s outcome or that something has happened in future Oxford to prevent their returning home. Two other historians are working hard to retrieve them, with unexpected consequences. The pacing is fast and the tension level is high, but there are plenty of lighter moments. The real highlight of this novel is the spotlight on daily life on the home front in Great Britain during World War II. Long, but definitely worthwhile, with characters I really cared about.
The End of All Things by John Scalzi
If the enemy of an enemy is a friend, then two space empires, one human and one alien, should work together despite their differences to prevent a war and save Earth. Readers of Scalzi’s science fiction space operas may be familiar with the alien Conclave and the human Colonial Union. Familiar characters are joined by pilot Rafe Daquin, who has to think his way out of a terrible situation, and Lieutenant Heather Lee, whose paratrooper forces are tired of visiting planet after planet to keep the peace. Exciting and thought-provoking, this book is darker in tone although less violent than other books in the Old Man’s War series; a satisfying read. Old Man’s War is the first book in the series, one more book is planned.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
To begin with, this is a massive book that feels like two different novels. Most of the book is set in the near future, with an epilogue at the end set 5,000 years in the future. At the start of the book, Earth’s moon breaks apart into seven massive pieces. Scientists don’t know why, but soon realize that the rocks will start colliding with each other, forming smaller and smaller boulders that will eventually result in a destructive hard rain of debris. Estimated time to the hard rain is two years. Stephenson has put a lot of thought into what might happen if we had two years to prepare for disaster, including the political, social, and technological challenges, and puts most of these thoughts in the book. His readers are used to these info dumps, but they are unusual. What happens is that the International Space Station gets a lot bigger and busier, with Earth trying to send as many people into space as possible. These challenges take up most of the book, with an intriguing glimpse at a new civilization in a marvelous setting in and around Earth 5,000 years later. The characters, settings, and plot are all compelling reading, but a few events seemed forced to me, unrealistic even for ambitious science fiction. I really would like to read more about the people of the future, and hope Stephenson writes more about their world.