Tag Archives: Non-Fiction

Book Review: Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

 

Three stories weave together here, all of them fascinating in their own right: the story of the scientists at Los Alamos, including Robert Oppenheimer, the man who would become known as the father of the atomic bomb; the story of the Russian spies, including the unassuming Harry Gold, who were hard at work attempting to steal the secrets to building the atomic bomb, and the efforts of Allied forces, including Knut Haukelid and a few other dedicated Norwegian resistance fighters, to prevent the Germans from building an atomic bomb themselves. The names are important, because what Sheinkin does so splendidly is put human faces to the historic events. Literally, in fact, since each section of the book begins with a scrapbook-style double-page spread of photographs. This is an epic story, and Sheinkin lists a number of consulted sources in the back matter, but he picks out details sure to capture and hold interest all the way through.

This is a fascinating read, with appeal for older kids and teens as well as adults. It has great potential for classroom use, perhaps paired with Ellen Klages’ The Green Glass Sea. MacMillan even has a Teacher’s Guide (.pdf) already prepared with pointers to the Common Core State Standards. Also check out the post at Reading to the Core, which says of Bomb, “This is the kind of book you could build an entire curriculum around.” Suggestions for how to begin to do so are included, of course. Don’t limit this book to the classroom, though. After all, who could resist a true story of international spies and “the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon”?

 

Recommend to: Older kids and teens (and adults) who would like a “true story” that reads like a spy thriller.

 

Source: Checked out from my public library

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Book Review: Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

The city’s comedians have been out writing signs. One says: WHAT ARE YOU ALL RUNNING FROM? Another says: YOU’VE GOT GREAT STAMINA. CALL ME. 1-834-555-8756. Yet another reads: IN OUR MINDS, YOU’RE ALL KENYANS.

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth by Adharanand Finn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the world of distance running, athletes from a single country have been getting a lot of attention over the last several years. The East African nation of Kenya has produced some of the fastest runners on the planet. English journalist – and runner – Adharanand Finn wanted to find out what the Kenyan secret was, so he packed up himself, his wife, and their three young children and moved the family to a village in Kenya. There, he met runners. He interviewed them, he observed them, and he trained with them. Through it all, he puzzled over what element could be the key to the success of Kenyan runners (genetics? diet? culture?), and he wondered whether it was possible to improve his own distinctly non-Kenyan performance.

I am a big fan of the whole “quirky memoir” genre, in which the author tries out some experience and writes about it. Through Finn, I got to explore Kenya and take a peek inside the lives of runners whose names I see all over the running magazines. I enjoyed the easy, conversational tone of the first-person present-tense narration. Each chapter is headed with a small black-and-white photograph of people or events discussed in the book. This is not a book to help you improve your own running times, or even really one that thoroughly explores every facet of Kenyan running (a subject of academic research in its own right). It is an enjoyable tale of what one man’s attempt to understand what it means to be a Kenyan runner.

Source: checked out from the public library

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Book Review: God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy

In our imaginations, we offhandedly associate the term “inquisition” with the term “Dark Ages.” But consider what an inquisition – any inquisition – really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organized systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power, and justified by a vision of the one true path. considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately viewed not as a relic but as a harbinger.

God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World
by Cullen Murphy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synopsis:
From medieval France to sixteenth-century Spain and Portugal and their colonies half a world away to 1940s Germany to modern-day Guantanamo Bay, Murphy follows the “inquisitorial impulse” around the world and through the centuries. His research takes him to the Vatican archives, rural France, Berlin, and the National Archives, among other places, as he outlines the events and procedures of the Medieval Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, and the Spanish Inquisition, as well as what he terms the current “Secular Inquisition”. His circuitous route through history sharply illustrates how the spirit of the Inquisition remains alive and well.

 

Review:
Murphy covers a lot of ground (metaphorically and literally), giving a tantalizing overview of the topic. This is not a deep scholarly work, which is a point in its favor. Murphy has an eye for descriptive details, and he distills what is clearly an enormous amount of research into a work that appeals to the non-expert in the topic. He moves around in time and place, introducing important people and events early on and reminding the reader about them later, drawing connections across centuries. The Inquisition, by its very nature, is not a pleasant topic, but Murphy creates a narrative that is enjoyable to read even as it leaves the reader with some disturbing ideas to ponder after closing the book.

 

Final Word:
A compelling look at a part of history that remains all too much with us in the present.

 

Source:
E-ARC via NetGalley, provided by the publisher by request.

 

 

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Book Review: The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester

I re-read Alice in Wonderland not too long ago, and I was charmed all over again by the story. Since I enjoy biographies, and I generally like Simon Winchester’s writing, this book seemed right up my children’s-literature-loving alley.

The Alice Behind WonderlandThe Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yet, for most, even after the book is finally shut and put back, the memory of the image proves hauntingly and lingeringly distracting, and for a long while.

Winchester begins this slim volume with a description of a photograph Charles Dodgson (better known today as Lewis Carroll) took of then-six-year-old Alice Liddell, after a discussion of how the photo ended up in a library at Princeton. This first chapter is a good indication of what is to come: a curiously circuitous look at the life of Dodgson and the creation of both Lewis Carroll and his famous book, the girl who inspired it, and quite a bit about the history of photography.

While I have enjoyed Winchester’s writing in the past (I read The Map that Changed the World a couple of years ago), I don’t think this is his best. It just meanders a bit too much, the tone even wavering from conversational to a touch too formal. And there are a couple of oddly repetitious bits; the explanation that Alice’s sister, Lorina, was named after their mother and nicknamed Ina appears at least twice, for example.

It is a pleasant read, and a relatively quick one, full of bits of trivia about both Dodgson and his social world. But rather than bringing the reader into Dodgson’s world, let alone that of the girl in the title, Winchester’s prose maintains the distance between then and now.

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Book Review: At Home by Bill Bryson

At Home: A Short History of Private LifeAt Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.

Bill Bryson turns his insatiable curiosity and boundless enthusiasm for research to a subject quite literally close to home. His home, to be precise, a former rectory in Norfolk, built in 1851. He takes the reader on a guided tour of the house, room by room, from the entry hall all the way up to the attic. Along the way, he discusses the history of just about every domestic subject: food, health, birth, death, gardening, etc. His knack for pointing out just the right absurd detail provides unexpected laughs in the midst of very serious subjects.

I was introduced to Bryson’s work during the year I spent in Manchester. It was a year after the publication of Notes from a Small Island, and Notes from a Big Country was running as a weekly column in The Mail on Sunday. Reading those columns about his reentry to the nation I’d just left, I fell a little bit in love with his writing. Fifteen years later, I still love it. I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with next.

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Book Review: Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming

When kids come to the library looking for a biography, there are a few usual suspects, and Amelia Earhart is one of them. There is a lot of information about Earhart floating around out there, some of it more legend than truth, as Fleming notes at the opening of this attractive biography. I enjoyed Fleming’s biography of P.T. Barnum, and she brings much the same approach to the famous “aviatrix”.

Amelia LostAmelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We believed we were about to see history in the making — the first woman to fly around the world, but she didn’t come, and she didn’t come.”

Fleming begins her biography of Earhart near the end of the story, joining the crew waiting for her arrival at Howland Island as they realize that the famous pilot is lost. She then jumps back to the beginning, and the chapters of the book move chronologically from Amelia’s birth to her final flight. In between the chapters, though, are brief two- or three-page sections about the progress of the search. This dual narrative maintains a feeling of suspense throughout the book, even though the reader knows the search is ultimately unsuccessful.

Beautifully designed, full of photographs and sidebar notes, with a striking red, black, and gray cover, this biography has plenty of visual appeal for children and adults. Fleming dug through mounds of research (many sources are noted in the back matter) to tease out the truth of Earhart’s life from the legends. She portrays an Amelia Earhart who is daring and inspiring, yes, but also a very real human being. A truly outstanding biography.

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Book Review: Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider by Jean Fritz

History was never my strongest subject. Much to my American History teacher spouse’s chagrin, I know next to nothing about an awful lot of people and events. It just doesn’t stick. But I do know that to learn something new, the best place to go is a children’s book. So, I was excited to see that Jean Fritz had a new biography coming out about Alexander Hamilton. I knew so little about Hamilton! I knew he was on the $10 bill, of course, and that he had, um, something to do with banking, and, well, I knew about Aaron Burr. So, thank you to Jean Fritz for pulling Hamilton out of obscurity for at least one reader!

Alexander Hamilton: The OutsiderAlexander Hamilton: The Outsider by Jean Fritz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

Noted autor Jean Fritz turns her keen eye for historical detail to the life of Alexander Hamilton. From his early years in the West Indies to that fateful day in Weehawken, NJ, Fritz puts Hamilton’s story center stage while also setting it in the context of the birth of the United States. The tone of the narrative is conversational and should appeal to middle grade readers. Historical images are reproduced throughout the book; while lovely and certainly helpful in setting the mood and tone in certain passages, the lack of captions may leave some readers a bit puzzled. The image credits are squeezed into a text-dense single page in the back matter. The back matter also includes several notes on particular points, but there is no indication in the text itself that the notes exist. (This is entirely reasonable, since children’s books do not generally use footnotes, but it is a little odd to reach the end and discover the notes.) The included bibliography indicates her research sources and points to further reading. An impeccably researched, fresh look at a figure who frequently fades into the background for kids studying American history.

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Book Review: Sweater Quest

I’ve been waiting for this book to come out since Martini was interviewed on Cast-On last year. I enjoyed her first memoir – actually, since it was about her experience with Postpartum Depression, maybe enjoyed isn’t the word I want to use.  But it was a great book.  So, I had high hopes for this second outing, and I was not disappointed.

I pre-ordered through Amazon and received my copy today. Since Lil Miss was napping and K was watching something that appeared to be a movie involving World War II, I headed out to the Sky Chair on the deck.  And there I stayed until I finished the book.

Here’s my review as it appears on Amazon, GoodReads, and LibraryThing:

It seems like such a silly idea: A memoir about knitting a sweater? But like Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (who makes an appearance), Martini isn’t really writing about knitting. She’s writing about knitters. Mostly, just one knitter.

Over the course a year, Martini sets out to complete a sweater known as “Mary Tudor”. As she tackles the challenges of acquiring an out-of-print pattern and substituting for out-of-production yarns (no small feat for a project in which color is key) as well as stranded colorwork and steeking, she gathers together details about the designer, Alice Starmore. She explores why knitters are so attracted to Starmore’s famously difficult-to-obtain and difficult-to-knit patterns, and how far they can stray from the designer’s vision yet still remain faithful to the project.

Martini travels to Rhinebeck, Nashville, and Toronto to interview bloggers well-known to knitters around the world. The history of Tudor Roses and the Alice Starmore brand intertwine with the history of knitting in the Shetland Isles and North America and the life one particular American woman in the early twenty-first century. Witty and self-deprecating, Martini doesn’t hesitate to share her liberal leanings or drop the occasional curse word. Her writing style is clean and sharp, a pleasure to read. She’s clearly aware of the absurdity of her “quest”, which just makes it all the more enjoyable.

I gave it 5 stars out of 5.

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