cartographerFrom a village in Nova Scotia to the trenches of France The Cartographer of No Man’s Land leaps across the Atlantic, between a father at war and a son coming of age at home without him.

When his beloved brother-in-law goes missing at the front in 1916, Angus defies his pacifist upbringing to join the war and find him. Assured a position as a cartographer in London, he is instead sent directly into the visceral shock of battle. Meanwhile, at home, his son Simon Peter must navigate escalating hostility in a fishing village torn by grief.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land offers a soulful portrayal of World War I and the lives that were forever changed by it, both on the battlefield and at home. (description from publisher)

woundedThe number of soldiers wounded in World War I is, in itself, devastating: over 21 million military wounded, and nearly 10 million killed. On the battlefield, the injuries were shocking, unlike anything those in the medical field had ever witnessed. The bullets hit fast and hard, went deep and took bits of dirty uniform and airborne soil particles in with them. Soldier after soldier came in with the most dreaded kinds of casualty: awful, deep, ragged wounds to their heads, faces and abdomens. And yet the medical personnel faced with these unimaginable injuries adapted with amazing aptitude, thinking and reacting on their feet to save millions of lives.

In Wounded, Emily Mayhew tells the history of the Western Front from a new perspective: the medical network that arose seemingly overnight to help sick and injured soldiers. These men and women pulled injured troops from the hellscape of trench, shell crater, and no man’s land, transported them to the rear, and treated them for everything from foot rot to poison gas, venereal disease to traumatic amputation from exploding shells.

Drawing on hundreds of letters and diary entries, Mayhew allows readers to peer over the shoulder of the stretcher bearer who jumped into a trench and tried unsuccessfully to get a tightly packed line of soldiers out of the way, only to find that they were all dead. She takes us into dugouts where rescue teams awoke to dirt thrown on their faces by scores of terrified moles, digging frantically to escape the earth-shaking shellfire. Mayhew moves her account along the route followed by wounded men, from stretcher to aid station, from jolting ambulance to crowded operating tent, from railway station to the ship home, exploring actual cases of casualties who recorded their experiences. Both comprehensive and intimate, this groundbreaking book captures an often neglected aspect of the soldier’s world and a transformative moment in military and medical history. (description from publisher)

Charles Todd’s A Duty to the Dead (the first mystery in the Bess Crawford series) has far too much life and vigor for the god-awful cover design it’s been dealt. It’s really a hideous cover: the image, the colors, the fonts, they’re all drab and uninteresting. But if you can look past them, this is an engaging mystery novel with a heroine anyone would love.

Bess Crawford is a gentleman’s daughter and an Army nurse in the Great War (if you’re thinking of Lady Sybil Crawley right now, you’re not alone!). She’s injured when the hospital ship Britannic is sunk, and during her convalescent leave, she visits the family of Arthur Graham, a wounded soldier she befriended, to deliver the deathbed message he begged her to pass on to his brother. What she finds in the Graham hometown of Owlhurst is a web of secrets and lies that the all-too-British neighbors have happily swept under the rug while they keep calm and carry on.

Bess is in-demand in Owlhurst for her nursing skills, and before long she is pressed into duty caring for a shell-shocked soldier and a possible lunatic. The effect of witnessed horrors and repressed violent memories on the mind is a big part of this novel, which is as much psychiatric as it is suspenseful. In a time when mental health was imperfectly understood, Bess’s intuitively modern understanding of the way our brains work is a mark in her favor.

While you’re waiting (and waiting… and waiting … ) for Downton Abbey to come to US shores next January, this novel can help fill the gap. Its shared setting, dealings with the same issues (the affect of the war on families back home), and the similarities between Sybil and Bess will keep you in the mindset of Downton while you wait for season 3.

I really wanted to read this book, but I kept putting it back on the shelf.  At nearly 1000 pages (985 to be exact) I knew I could read three books in the same time it would take me to finish just this one.  I shouldn’t have waited.  Turns out, it really was a pretty quick read — but that’s because I hardly ever put it down!

Fall of Giants isn’t Ken Follett’s first historical fiction book, nor will it be his last.  Readers will no doubt remember his Pillars of the Earth, which was an Oprah Book Club choice, plus its sequel, World Without End. And of course, this title is just the first in a planned Century trilogy.   But let’s get to the book.  It covers five families — Welsh, Russian, German, American and English.  Some are wealthy aristocrats, like the Fitzhuberts, and others, like Billy Williams and his sister Ethel, are on the opposite end of the socio-economic scale.  Rounding out this mix are the orphaned Peshkov brothers in Russia, an American lawyer working in the White House, and, oh yes, a German spy.  So you see, there’s a little something for everyone –political intrigue, scintillating sex and romance, and some action-packed battle scenes.  Plus the multiple story lines (arranged chronologically) keeps you turning those pages.

What’s most intriguing is how the lives of all these diverse characters somehow logically interconnect.  Though I’m certainly no expert on the World War I era (the book spans the years 1911 to 1924) I was familiar enough to recognize that Follett had meticulously researched this tome, and his inclusion of real historical figures, such as Winston Churchill, seems to enhance it’s believability.  Believe me, even if you think you don’t, you really do have time to read this book.

Emmett Conn is now a fully-Americanized 92-year-old man living in Georgia in The Gendarme.  But his story fades back in forth in time, to when he was still Ahmet Khan, a 17 year old Turk charged with deporting a large group of Armenians from Turkey to Syria at the start of World War I.  Emmett has recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor; it is unclear whether the tumor of the medications used to treat it are causing him to have vivid, sometimes terrifying dreams.  Or perhaps these dreams are the truthful but shocking memories of a past he has long forgotten?

A central figure in Emmett’s dreams is the beautiful Araxie, one of the Armenian refugees who first captivates him by her unique appearance, but with whom he later becomes obsessed.  He is determined to protect her — indeeed the odds are stacked against her.  The conditions in the refugee camps are abysmal; food and water are scarce and many die from dysentery.  Of the original 2000 deportees, possibly only fifty are expected to make it alive to Aleppo.

It is an alarming fact of history that these forced death treks occurred.  But more alarming is that so few people know about it, and I include myself in that group.  Initially, I felt guilty about my ignorance, but these feelings were somewhat assuaged when the author (Mark Mustian, who is of Armenian descent) stated that he himself had not heard of the atrocity until well into his thirties.  Indeed, even the World Book Encyclopedia barely mentions it.  I quote: “The campaign reached a peak during World War I.  By 1918 about 1,800,000 Armenians had been murdered and thousands more had fled to other countries.”

This was a fascinating book with a little something for everyone — adventure, danger, romance, much of it in an exotic setting.  Even the secondary characters, such as Emmett’s daughter, Violet, were multi-dimensional.  Still, I think the best part of the book was how the author almost subliminally imparts a deeper message of peace and forgiveness, about how love can transcend race, religion and politics.

Every Iowan needs to take a trip to West Branch to learn about the humanitarian who was our 31st president. Before and after his presidency, he used his management skills and financial resources to help people around the world.

Before he was president, Hoover was chairman of the American Commission for Relief in Belgium. In 1915, he reported, “All Belgium is now on a ration of 10 ounces of bread per day, rich and poor alike, …” (from the Historical New York Times, available through the PrairieCat catalog under the Find Articles tab). Because Hoover was able to get food shipped to Belgium in time to save millions from starvation, he is regarding as a hero there today. Streets and plazas have been named after him. According to a NPR report, “Hoovermania in Belgium,” he organized feeding “more than nine million people every day for four long years . ” He was an “international symbol of American generosity and practical idealism. ”

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum displays give you insight into the depths of gratitude felt by Belgians during and after World War 1. The Belgians embroidered flour sacks with expressions of thanks to Hoover.

The taped interviews also make you understand a little bit of the horrors of  the widespread starvation felt by Europeans.  One man tells of the wonder of getting a bread roll, dubbed “Hoover rolls.”

So, celebrate Hoover’s birthday with a trip to West Branch and learn a little more about a truly fascinating man.

Today is Veterans Day, a day set aside to honor military veterans. Originally called Armistice Day, it was first observed in remembrance of soldiers of the Great War (World War I) and is set on November 11, the anniversary of the armistice with Germany in 1918 (major hostilities were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) The name of the holiday was changed in the United States to Veterans Day in 1954, and was dedicated to all veterans.

Most government offices and many businesses are closed today including the city of Davenport. However, both Davenport Library locations will be open their regular hours – Main will be open 9:30am-5:30pm and Fairmount will be open 12 noon to 8:00pm.

If you are interested in learning more about World War I than numbers and dates, I recommend that you search out Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s harrowing story of what happened to her, her brother, her fiance and their close friends. All of the men were thrown into the “meat grinder” of trench warfare and Vera became an Army nurse in France and Malta. Filmed as multi-part series for Masterpiece Theater, Alistair Cooke stated in his introduction that if this had been a “Hollywood movie” it would have been dismissed as unbelievable but it is in fact, all true. It is a sobering and heart wrenching look at the cost of warfare.

Today marks the anniversary of the official beginning of World War I on July 28, 1914. Now often overshadowed by the popularity of fiction and non-fiction of World War II, the First World War saw the introduction of many aspects of modern warfare including the first use of armored tanks and airplanes as fighters as well as the horrors of trench warfare and mustard gas. And although it was known as the “war to end all wars”, in many ways it contributed to the causes of the Second World War.

Poignant, horrific yet ultimately hopeful, the French language film A Very Long Engagement starring Audrey Tautou is set against the backdrop of the end of the war and it’s aftermath. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Mathilde refuses to believe that her fiance has died in the war. She launches an investigation, a search that introduces a multitude of interlocking stories and incidents. The movie shifts from the couple’s courtship before the war to the horrors of the trenches to Mathilde’s determined search after the war and back again. Throughout, Mathilde’s charm, intelligence and most of all faith remain unshakable and will make you believe too.