2011 marks the beginning of the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. Even though it is 150 years in the past, it remains the pivotal, defining event in American history, an event that people come back to time and again. Alistair Cooke once said that to understand America, you had to study the Civil War. While we’ve always had a lot of books about this popular subject, the Sesquicentennial has spurred the publication of many more. Here’s a selection of some of the newest.

Discovering the Civil War from the National Archives. Photographs, reproductions of handwritten records and personal stories.

America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield. A sweeping history of America from the 1830s through Reconstruction.

The Union War by Gary Gallagher. Why we fought the Civil War, from the Northern perspective.

The Civil War: the First Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Drawn from letters, diaries, speeches, articles and memoirs creates a firsthand accounting of the war.

The Civil War: a Visual History by the Smithsonian Institute. This coffee-table worthy book is packed with photographs and maps drawn from the Smithsonian’s extensive collection of artifacts.

Based in part upon her own life experiences, author Jean Kwok has hit the mark in her debut novel, Girl in Translation.  Much like her character, Kwok also emigrated from Hong Kong and starting working  in a Chinese sweatshop at a young age.  She and her family also lived in a roach and rat-infested apartment — without heat!   Still, this story is not so much about deprivation, but more of a story about hope and about overcoming adversity — in short, it’s today’s version of the American dream.

Ah-Kim Chang (translated to Kimberly once they moved to New York) had always excelled in school.  After her father died, she and her mother are indebted to Aunt Paula for financing their trip to America, so they both begin working long hours in a Chinatown clothing factory for much less than minimum wage.  On top of this, they live in a condemned apartment (think roaches, no heat, and garbage bags covering the window) and Kimberly must also attend school, where language and cultural differences abound. As she begins to master English, she again begins to show academic promise, eventually earning admission to an elite private high school, and thereby paving the way for her ticket out of the slums.

The author sometimes spells out conversations phonetically — an effective technique –especially since she  wanted the English-speaking reader to understand life on the “other side of the language barrier.”  She also incorporates a few surprising plot twists at the end, which helps makes the story even more personable and endearing.   Highly recommended.

Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835. 

Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives;  Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt.  Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States.  Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government.  In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.   

In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent.  Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing  most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception). 

As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude.  Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives.  I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.  And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!

Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey creates a vividly funny work of historical fiction in Parrot and Olivier in America by imagining the real-life experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, a hugely popular work first published in 1835. 

Carey cleverly uses dual narrators, each with completely different perspectives;  Alexis is protrayed as Olivier while his servant companion is John “Parrot” Laritt.  Parrot is the orphaned son of an itinerant English printer who is forced to accompany Olivier as he sets sail for the United States.  Ostensibly, Olivier is being sent to research the U.S. penal system for a report to the French government.  In reality, he’s being sent by his parents (who barely avoided the guillitine during the French Revolution) as a politically-correct way for their son to safely escape the reignited Terror back in France.   

In alternating chapters, Parrot sets the tone as the more likeable character — though uneducated and long-suffering, he’s obviously talented and intelligent.  Olivier initally comes across as a pampered snob (Parrot often refers to him as “Lord Migraine) but he proves remarkably open-minded in observing  most Americans (with President Andrew Jackson as a notable exception). 

As the novel progresses, we see a change in attitude.  Indeed, a most unlikely friendship develops, particularly as both title players have varying troubles with their love lives.  I think it’s primarily because the characters are so well developed (even the minor ones) that makes this an enjoyable and entertaining read.  And then, the little history lesson is just thrown in for free!

national_parksThey conjure images of magnificent scenery, destinations for summer vacations with family and sites of historical significance. Most American’s feel a fierce pride in these beautiful places and they should – the National Parks preserve some of the most beautiful and most important locations in our country. They are also uniquely American – before Yellowstone was set aside as the first National Park in 1872, land was preserved only for royalty or the very wealthy. Never before had land been set aside for the people and, like so many of the ideals that America has reached for, it has now become a standard for the rest of the world.

Ken Burn’s spent 8 years filming and creating the six-part PBS series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea which explores the history of the National Parks, from exploitation to spiritualism to conservation, a mirror of the character development of the American people. Co-written with Dayton Duncan, the companion book is as magnificent as the lands and peoples it portrays, heavily illustrated and with vivid writing that bring to life the characters and events that shaped the parks.

Be sure to visit the PBS website for the series which has some cool features including background information on the filming of the series, a place for you to share your own National Park stories and in-depth information about visiting the parks. And in case you missed the series when it ran in September, you can now watch the episodes online. Or put a hold on the library’s copy. And celebrate your American heritage.

Independence Day is coming and we have materials to help you celebrate!

fourth of julyred white blue murderred white muslim

If you haven’t already read James Patterson’s book, 4th of July, this is the perfect time to do so.  For those of you already familiar with Patterson’s story lines or characters, this is part of his Women’s Murder Club series and features San Francisco police lieutenant Lindsay Boxer.  (Perhaps you’ve even caught some  of the TV crime shows with Boxer as the main character, as played by Angie Harmon.)

Another appropriate title is Red, White & Blue Murder by Bill Crider.   This is the thirteenth novel in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery series, in which Rhodes is presented as a likeable Texan lawman.  His character is wry and warmhearted, in a humorous,  down-home and folksy way.

If you’re looking for something a little more serious, try Red, White , and Muslim: My Story of Belief by Asma Gull Hasan.  Described on the back cover as “a warm, witty, wonderful story about what it means to be both Muslim and American in a post 9/11 world, ” this should be an enlightening and educational read for those of us less familiar with the Muslim faith.

Enjoy your 4th of July holiday!

Independence Day is coming and we have materials to help you celebrate!

fourth of julyred white blue murderred white muslim

If you haven’t already read James Patterson’s book, 4th of July, this is the perfect time to do so.  For those of you already familiar with Patterson’s story lines or characters, this is part of his Women’s Murder Club series and features San Francisco police lieutenant Lindsay Boxer.  (Perhaps you’ve even caught some  of the TV crime shows with Boxer as the main character, as played by Angie Harmon.)

Another appropriate title is Red, White & Blue Murder by Bill Crider.   This is the thirteenth novel in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery series, in which Rhodes is presented as a likeable Texan lawman.  His character is wry and warmhearted, in a humorous,  down-home and folksy way.

If you’re looking for something a little more serious, try Red, White , and Muslim: My Story of Belief by Asma Gull Hasan.  Described on the back cover as “a warm, witty, wonderful story about what it means to be both Muslim and American in a post 9/11 world, ” this should be an enlightening and educational read for those of us less familiar with the Muslim faith.

Enjoy your 4th of July holiday!