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The “Not so dark Ages”
Literature and nonfiction about the early medieval era.
The dark ages, a hole in history from antiquity till the medieval era. A time when most think civilization stagnated and the western world reverted to its base instincts. This thinking could not be more wrong, as this era from the 4th to the 11th century was one of the most influential eras in the history of western civilization. It was a time of migration, change, exploration and a time that saw the creation of some of our greatest works of art and literature. I’ve always had a great academic interest in this time, and here are some books to introduce you to the era.
Anglo-Saxon art : a new history / Leslie Webster - Anglo-Saxon culture is one of the bedrocks of western civilization, and this book gives a glimpse at their extraordinary art. The book was written after the discovery of the “Staffordshire Hoard”, a a huge collection of coins and other objects, and hence offers a very up to date look at the art of the Germanic Anglo Saxons and the Celtic and Roman influences that all melded to create what we know as “England”.
Beowulf : a new verse translation / Seamus Heaney - Beowulf is one of the only surviving examples of Germanic “epic poetry”. Thought to have been written down in Christan Anglo Saxon England, the poem shows many signs of coming from an older Norse/Germanic pagan and oral traditions. The story itself is a wonderful read, and its influences on the “hero” can be seen in stories written even today.
How the Irish Saved Civilization / Thomas Cahill
– Cahill is a prolific author of popular nonfiction that is both informative and easy to read for those wanting an introduction to a topic, and How the Irish Saved Civilization is no different. The book focuses on the contributions of Irish monastics between the fall of Rome and high middle ages in the preservation and translation of classical works of literature, philosophy, and science that wouldn’t rise to prominence in the Christian world until the renaissance.
Vikings! / Magnus Magnunson – Magnunson’s book is a classic starting point for understanding who the vikings
where and their enormous impact on European history. Magnuson creates a portrait of a dynamic people with great contradictions. Warriors who also set the stage for modern trade and some of the greatest explorers and seaman in history who literally left their marks from Russia to Iceland to Canada.
God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 / David Levering Lewis – This book explores the
situation that gave rise to Islam, namely the weaknesses of the Persian and Eastern Roman empires and how the great cosmopolitan cities of Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus) produced such great minds as Ibn Rushd and Musa ibn Maymun, preserving classical civilization in a society where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in relative harmony for centuries.
Lewis Parsons is a Librarian at the Sawyer Free Library
Immigration debates are flooding news sources right now, but the realities experienced by those who flee their homes in search of new opportunities — even political asylum — oftentimes end up shoved to the margins. Though mostly fiction, the following literary works offer up a valuable, varied glimpse into what life is like in America for immigrants and their families.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri – Through nine thematically connected stories, this Pulitzer Prize winner juxtaposes life in India, live in America and the experiences of Indian immigrants to America.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi – A powerful, tender story of race and identity spanning Nigerian villages, post 9/11 America and London. Written by the author of Half the Sky, this book won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – The first novel by one of the most celebrated and original authors writing today tells the story of a sweet, but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd, Oscar Wao. Diaz immerses us in the tumultuous life of Oscar and the history of the family at large, rendering with genuine warmth and dazzling energy, humor, and insight the Dominican-American experience, and, ultimately, the endless human capacity to persevere in the face of heartbreak and loss.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos – This haunting Pulitzer winner looks back on the highs and lows of two Cuban immigrants, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, as they push towards success as mambo musicians.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – Michael Chabon also earned a Pulitzer for this amazing tale of two cousins — one a Jewish-Czech refugee and the other nestled in his native Brooklyn — who play an integral role in establishing the Golden Age of comics.
What is the What by Dave Eggers – Based on the true story of Valentino Achak Deng of the Lost Boys of Sudan program, What is the What chronicles the separation from his family during the Second Sudanese Civil War, the harrowing trek to Ethiopia’s refugee camps, the troubles once he makes it, the sudden run to Kenya and — eventually — his immigration to the United States.
My Antonia by Willa Cather – This classic novel is Cather’s elegy to American pioneers. It takes place on the plains of Nebraska but beautifully recounts the life of Antonia Shimerda, the daughter of a Bohemian immigrant and a strong and willful woman trying to overcome not only her modest birth but her gender in this new strange country.
I am always amazed and somewhat disbelieving that the American colonists found the courage — the intrepidness — to take on the mighty British Empire. To win that war, against all odds, both showed what America was and what it still is today. Two hundred and forty years later, we are still fascinated by our beginnings — and historians are still writing compelling books about it.
Some recent titles include:
American spring : Lexington, Concord, and the road to revolution by Walter R. Borneman – Looking at the few tumultuous months between December 1774 and July 1775, Borneman examines the people and events that lead Britain and the American colonies over the precipice and into war. Both Americans, such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and the British, like Thomas Gage and William Howe, are scrutinized to give depth and understanding to this crucial time period.
Revolutionary summer : the birth of American independence by Joseph J. Ellis – Pulitzer-winning American historian Joseph J. Ellis brings to life the dramatic beginnings of America in the summer of 1776. As the thirteen colonies agree to secede, the British are answering with the military and naval might of the Empire. Ellis reveals both the political, military, and personal aspects of the times.
John Adams by David McCullough – Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for 2002, David McCullough has produced a masterpiece for one of the biggest figures of the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States. A lawyer from Braintree, Massachusetts, Adams’ brilliant mind shown a light on the path to independence. From persuading reluctant delegates of the Continental Congress, to negotiating a peace treaty with England, to obtaining vital government loans from Amsterdam bankers, to serving as Vice-President with George Washington, and then becoming our second President, Adams was an essential component to the success of the American Revolution.
Bunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick – Starting with the Boston Tea Party, Boston and the surrounding communities were the hot flame of discontent and resistance to British empirical rule. Philbrick highlights the march toward war that King George or the British ministry didn’t think that the American colonists were willing to fight. From the bloody scrimmages through Lexington and Concord, to the absolute warfare of the Battle of Bunker Hill, leaders on both sides made decisions that changed the world forever.
Glory, passion, and principle : the story of eight remarkable women at the core of the American Revolution by Melissa Lukeman Bohrer – “Remember the ladies,” is the famous words of one of the most well-known women of Revolutionary times, Abigail Adams. She and several others, including Mercy Otis Warren, Phillis Wheatley, and Molly Pitcher, are highlighted. Each chapter dramatized the actions and words of these women, giving the book a feeling of a novel, yet also containing enough facts to provide a good historical representation.
Helen Freeman is the Technical Services librarian.
My staff picks this month are in response to Ezekiel Emanuel’s article Why I Hope to Die at 75 in the October 2014 Atlantic magazine. Emanuel believes anyone who lives beyond the age of 75 is no longer a productive member of society. I have chosen 6 titles that show just a few examples of how people over the age of 75 enrich our lives. Wisdom, humor, perseverance and character are just some of the qualities I hope to acquire if I am lucky enough to live beyond 75.
The 100-year-old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson ; translated from the Swedish by Rod Bradbury Alan lives in a nursing home and on his 100th birthday, he decides to escape. What happens next is only half the story. As his adventure unfolds, you learn the impact he made on world history throughout his life.
Character is Destiny by John McCain and Mark Salter This is a collection of true stories of men and women who have lived truthfully, many of whom have done their best after the age of 75. This book will prepare us for the hard work of choosing our destiny.
Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman Curmudgeon Buck Schatz is a retired Memphis cop who solves a murder and gets his revenge on an old WWII POW internee at the age of 87, in spite of memory loss and a host of physical ailments.
Have A Little Faith: A True Story by Mitch Albom Mitch Albom talks about two remarkable elderly men who change his life forever. One is a beloved rabbi on his deathbed, the other a pastor who cares for the homeless.
Notes From the Midnight Driver by Jordan Sonnenblick Alex has to perform community service at a nursing home where he meets Sol, who starts out crotchety but turns out to be much wiser. Both realize how much they have in common with each other and Alex realizes that elderly doesn’t mean worthless.
A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom From an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson The author describes her relationship with friend and confidante Joan Erikson, whose struggles with widowhood and her own impending death, inspired Anderson to accept life changes. Despite her grim prospects and advancing age, Erikson is full of life and energy. Joan Anderson was lucky enough to find an incredible mentor to show the way, demonstrating how “elderly” friends are essential to our growth.
Valerie Marino is a library assistant at Sawyer Free Library.
At this time of year, many of us are looking for a gift idea or just some fun reading to release some of the stress of the season. Books with interesting concepts, lots of pictures to browse, or that off-centered topic can fit the bill.
Here are a few favorites:
Other People’s Rejection Letters edited by Bill Shapiro
A collection of notes, letters, emails and texts from the sweet (a little girl’s note saying she’s running away – and glad of it!) to the bitter (a woman informing her mother that she’s expecting a baby but doesn’t want contact with her.) It is like a car wreck — you know you shouldn’t look, but just can’t stop rubbernecking. The only question is how Shapiro unearthed all of these gems!
Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Little Golden Book by Diane Muldrow
From the Baby Boom generation onward, Little Golden Books have been a part of children’s literary lives. Muldrow, a longtime editorial director at Golden Books, has written an engaging guide to life using the illustrations from many of the Little Golden Books produced over the years. You will find yourself reminiscing about the original stories, as well as marveling over the endearing illustrations that the books are so well-known for. A very charming book for young and old!
Records of Our National Life : American History at the National Archives
Established in the early 1930s, the National Archives has preserved the rich heritage of America with the retention of documents, maps, letters, photographs, diagrams, telegrams, and all sorts of items that tell our incredible history with humanity and grace. Covering the time period from 1762 to 2009 the items pictured in this book give glimpses into the past – from the Oaths of Allegiance signed by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, to the images of confederate money, to the first federal income tax form, to World War II posters, to the moving transcript of Lady Bird Johnson’s audio diary on the day Kennedy was assassinated – that inform our present.
What Makes a Masterpiece : Artists, Writers and Curators on the World’s Greatest Works of Art
This survey of art highlights the greatest artistic achievements from all cultures throughout human history. From the cave paintings in France to Vilhelm Hammertoe’s Dust Motes Dancing in Sunbeams painted in 1900, great works are examined by knowledgeable contributors. Beautiful color illustrations, including enlarged sections, allow you to do a world art sightseeing tour with your fingertips. This book will increase your ability to view any art piece with fuller understanding and appreciation.
Someday, Someday Maybe : a novel by Lauren Graham
Graham, of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood fame, has written a witty and funny novel of an actress in 1990’s New York, trying her best to beat the odds. Struggling to keep her head about water, while coming close to her self-imposed three year deadline to become a “serious” actress, Franny Banks is in turns pessimistic and hopeful, and always amusing. As she tries try to give her best performance for an upcoming showcase, as well as not make a fool over herself with a fellow actor in her class, keep her waitressing job and her agent, and be supportive of her roommates, we get a rollercoaster ride of a read.
What if? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
Remember being a kid and asking those near impossible questions to your parents — Why is the sky blue? Why can’t people fly? Do fish sleep? This book is the grown up version of those unanswerable questions. Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, takes the most popular questions from his blog and gives thoughtful technical answers. With stick figures, drawings and a wry style, this book will satisfy any armchair scientist.
Helen Freeman is the Technical Services librarian.