Controversial creations: New non-fiction

Do you prefer paperback or hardback? Soft, flexible pages or crisp glossy ones? A book that flops open with ease or a book that tempts you, in its rigidity, to crack the spine? The truth is we can be rather picky about the physical feel of the books we read. But amongst all these variables, at least some things are certain: there will be paper and words and sometimes images. Right? 

Occasionally, something comes along with the audacity to call itself a book despite defying all expectations and instinct. Take, for example, the cheese book. It is made entirely of wrapped slices of processed cheese and it’s in the collection of a number of libraries around the world. The mere fact of its existence riles people up.

Emma Smith explores such controversies and more in Portable Magic, a delightful history of the book-as-object. She also focuses on our relationship with these objects, on the way they have entranced us and changed us. We recommend it for all book-lovers out there! As for the rest of the picks below, not only do they promise to be just as fascinating, we can also confirm that they are assuredly, unequivocally paper-based.

Portable magic : a history of books and their readers / Smith, Emma
“Most of what we say about books is really about the words inside them: the rosy nostalgic glow for childhood reading, the lifetime companionship of a much-loved novel. But books are things as well as words, objects in our lives as well as worlds in our heads. And just as we crack their spines, loosen their leaves and write in their margins, so they disrupt and disorder us in turn. Portable Magic unfurls an exciting and iconoclastic new story of the book in human hands. Gathering together a millennium’s worth of pivotal encounters with volumes big and small, Smith reveals that, as much as their contents, it is books’ physical form that lends them their distinctive and sometimes dangerous magic. Ultimately, our relationship with the written word is more reciprocal – and more turbulent – than we tend to imagine.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The marmalade diaries : the true story of an odd couple / Aitken, Ben
“Recently widowed, Winne, 84, was in need of some companionship. Ben, 34, was looking for a new housemate. As the UK was locked down in 2020, Ben and Winnie’s lives interwove, forming an unlikely friendship, where lessons were learnt (heat the red wine in the oven with the plates; preserve or pickle whatever you can; never throw anything away) and grief, both personal and that of a nation, was explored. Charting both their time together, The Marmalade Diaries is a very human exploration of home, of the passage time, of the growing relationship between an odd couple, told with warmth, wit and candour.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The facemaker : a visionary surgeon’s battle to mend the disfigured soldiers of World War I / Fitzharris, Lindsey
“From the moment the first machine gun rang out over the Western Front, one thing was clear: mankind’s military technology had wildly surpassed its medical capabilities. In the midst of this brutality, however, there were also those who strove to alleviate suffering. The Facemaker tells the extraordinary story of pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gilles, who dedicated himself to reconstructing the burned and broken faces of the injured soldiers under his care. The result is a vivid account of how medicine can be an art, and of what courage and imagination can accomplish in the presence of relentless horror.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Nomads : the wanderers who shaped our world / Sattin, Anthony
“Humans have been on the move for most of history. Even after the great urban advancement lured people into the great cities of Uruk, Babylon, Rome and Chang’an, most of us continued to live lightly on the move and outside the pages of history. But recent discoveries have revealed another story. Wandering people built the first great stone monuments, they tamed the horse, fashioned the composite bow, fought with the Greeks and hastened the end of the Roman Empire. Reconnecting with our deepest mythology, our unrecorded antiquity and our natural environment, Nomads is the untold history of civilisation, told through its outsiders.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

A natural history of the future : what the laws of biology tell us about the destiny of the human species / Dunn, Rob
“Biologist Rob Dunn grew up listening to stories of the Mississippi River, how it flooded his grandfather’s town, leaving behind a muddy wasteland. Years later, Dunn discovered the cause: the Army Corps of Engineers had tried to straighten the river to allow for the easy passage of boats. But as Dunn argues in A Natural History of the Future, nature has its own set of rules, and no amount of human tampering can rewrite them. He reveals the surprising complexities of the natural world and offers plenty of simple lessons in how we can make the lifestyle changes necessary to ensure our own species’ survival. At once hopeful and practical, this book offers a vision of our future in which humans and the natural world coexist symbiotically.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The family Roe : an American story / Prager, Joshua
“Despite her famous pseudonym, “Jane Roe,” no one knows the truth about Norma McCorvey, whose unwanted pregnancy in 1969 opened a great fracture in American life. Drawing on a decade of research, Prager reveals the woman behind the pseudonym, writing in novelistic detail of her unknown life from her time as a sex worker in Dallas, to her private thoughts on family and abortion, to her dealings with feminist and Christian leaders, to the three daughters she placed for adoption. An epic work spanning fifty years of American history, The Family Roe is a masterpiece of reporting on the Supreme Court’s most divisive case: Roe v Wade.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The science of murder : the forensics of Agatha Christie / Valentine, Carla
“A mortician and forensic expert explores the real-life cases that inspired Agatha Christie, showing how the great mystery writer might have kept current with the latest advancements in forensic science.” (Catalogue)

Fledgling / Bourne-Taylor, Hannah
“When lifelong bird-lover Hannah Bourne-Taylor moved with her husband to Ghana seven years ago she couldn’t have anticipated how her life would be forever changed. Fledgling is a portrayal of adaptability, resilience and self-discovery in the face of isolation and change, fuelled by the quiet power of nature and the unexpected bonds with animals she encounters. Bourne-Taylor encourages us to reconsider the conventional relationships people have with animals through her inspiring glimpse of what is possible when we allow ourselves to connect to the natural world. She shows that even the tiniest of birds can teach us what is important in life and how to embrace every day.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Turbulence and upheaval in 1922: New history books

What did the world look like in 1922, one hundred years ago, coming out of a World War and a pandemic? Time and history march on, but upheaval and change is a constant. Have a browse of this month’s new history books.

The 1619 Project : a new origin story
“The animating idea of The 1619 Project is that the US national narrative is more accurately told if we begin not on July 4, 1776, but in late August of 1619, when a ship arrived in Jamestown bearing a cargo of twenty to thirty enslaved people from Africa. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric and unprecedented system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin. The 1619 Project tells this new origin story, placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country. Orchestrated by the editors of The New York Times Magazine, led by MacArthur “genius” and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.” (Catalogue)

1922 : scenes from a turbulent year / Rennison, Nick
“1922 was a year of great turbulence and upheaval. The world had just emerged from a war that had killed millions of people and a global pandemic that had ended the lives of tens of millions more. Its events reverberated throughout the rest of the twentieth century and still affect us today. Empires fell. The Ottoman Empire collapsed after more than six centuries. The British Empire had reached its zenith but its heyday was over. The Irish Free State was declared and demands for independence in India grew. New nations and new politics came into existence. The Soviet Union was officially created and Mussolini’s Italy became the first Fascist state. In the USA, Prohibition was at its height. The Hollywood film industry, although rocked by a series of scandals, continued to grow. A new mass medium – radio – was making its presence felt and the BBC was founded…” (Catalogue)

The searchers : the quest for the lost of the First World War / Sackville-West, Robert
“By the end of the First World War, the whereabouts of more than half a million British soldiers were unknown. Most were presumed dead, lost forever under the battlefields of northern France and Flanders. In The Searchers, Robert Sackville-West brings together the extraordinary, moving accounts of those who dedicated their lives to the search for the missing. These stories reveal the remarkable lengths to which people will go to give meaning to their loss: Rudyard Kipling’s quest for his son’s grave; E.M. Forster’s conversations with traumatised soldiers in hospital in Alexandria; desperate attempts to communicate with the spirits of the dead; the campaign to establish the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior; and the exhumation and reburial in military cemeteries of hundreds of thousands of bodies. It was a search that would span a century: from the department set up to investigate the fate of missing comrades in the war’s aftermath, to the present day, when DNA profiling continues to aid efforts to recover, identify and honour these men.” (Catalogue)

The war of nerves : inside the Cold War mind / Sixsmith, Martin
“More than any other conflict, the Cold War was fought on the battlefield of the human mind. Nearly thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its legacy still endures: not only in our politics, but in our own thoughts and fears. Drawing on a vast array of untapped archives and unseen sources, Martin Sixsmith vividly recreates the tensions and paranoia of the Cold War, framing it for the first time from a psychological perspective. Revisiting towering personalities like Khrushchev, Kennedy and Nixon, as well as the lives of the unknown millions who were caught up in the conflict, this is a gripping account of fear itself – one which is more resonant than ever today.” (Catalogue)

The forty-year war in Afghanistan : a chronicle foretold / Ali, Tariq
“The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on 15 August 2021 is a major political and ideological defeat for the American Empire. History sometimes presses urgent truths on a country through a vivid demonstration of the facts. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is one such moment…” (Catalogue)

Who lived there? : the stories behind historic New Zealand buildings / McCloy, Nicola
“From basic stone cottages in barren-looking countryside to pretty coastal villas, romantic churches and small-town taverns, New Zealand is full of buildings whose back stories have been lost over the generations. Jane King’s photographs and Nicola McCloy’s words weave the facts back together to present gripping stories of these places and their ups and downs over time. The strength of women, often left to fend for their families with little help or support, and the enterprise of early New Zealanders feature in this fascinating book… Find out about places as diverse as the old School of Mines in Thames, Rush Munroe’s Ice Cream Garden in Hastings; Couldrey House at Wenderholm, near Auckland; the National Tobacco Company in Napier; Mt Cook Police Barracks in Wellington; Langlois-Eteveneaux House in Akaroa; Donovan’s General Store in Okarito; and the Empire Tavern in Dunedin.” (Catalogue)

Empire in Many Forms: March History Picks

This month’s history picks deal with the causes and consequences of imperial expansion – a timely investigation of how environmental damage and illness influenced the decline of the Roman Empire in Paul Stephenson’s New Rome, Paul Moon looks at the full context of colonisation in Aotearoa against the backdrop of the wider British imperial project, and Smedley Butler’s revelations about what his heroic war efforts enabled for American capitalism. A more personal look at the consequences are also examined in two of our World War 2-related titles, looking at survival in Auschwitz and the arrest of Anne Frank.

Always remember your name : a true story of family and survival in Auschwitz / Bucci, Andra
“On March 28, 1944, six-year-old Tati, her four-year-old sister Andra, and other members of the family were deported to Auschwitz. Their mother Mira was determined to keep track of her girls. After being tattooed with their inmate numbers, she made them memorize her number and told them to “always remember your name.” In keeping this promise to their mother, the sisters were able to be reunited with their parents when WWII ended. An unforgettable narrative of the power of sisterhood in the most extreme circumstances, and of how a mother’s love can overcome the most impossible odds.” (adapted from catalogue)

Athens : city of wisdom / Clark, Bruce
“Even on the most smog-bound of days, the rocky outcrop on which the Acropolis stands is visible above the sprawling roof-scape of the Greek capital. Athens presents one of the most recognizable and symbolically potent panoramas of any of the world’s cities: the pillars and pediments of the Parthenon–the temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, that crowns the Acropolis–dominate a city whose name is synonymous for many with civilization itself.” (adapted from catalogue)

The betrayal of Anne Frank : a cold case investigation / Sullivan, Rosemary
“Who betrayed Anne Frank and her family? And why? Despite the many works devoted to Anne’s story, none has ever conclusively explained how these eight people managed to live in hiding undetected for over two years– and who or what finally brought the Nazis to their door. Sullivan introduces us to the investigators, explains the behavior of both the captives and their captors, and profiles a group of suspects. In doing so she brings to life wartime Amsterdam: a place where no matter how wealthy, educated, or careful you were, you never knew whom you could trust.” (adapted from catalogue)

Colonising New Zealand : a reappraisal / Moon, Paul
“Colonising New Zealand offers a radically new vision of the basis and process of Britain’s colonisation of New Zealand. It commences by confronting the problems arising from subjective and ever-evolving moral judgments about colonisation, and examines the possibility of understanding colonisation beyond the confines of any preoccupations with moral perspectives. This work changes profoundly the way New Zealand’s colonisation is interpreted, and provides a framework for reassessing all forms of imperialism” (adapted from catalogue)

Gangsters of capitalism : Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the making and breaking of America’s empire / Katz, Jonathan M.
“Smedley Butler was the most celebrated warfighter of his time. Bestselling books were written about him. Hollywood adored him. Wherever the flag went, “The Fighting Quaker” went-serving in nearly every major overseas conflict from the Spanish War of 1898 until the eve of World War II. Yet in retirement, Butler turned into a warrior against war, imperialism, and big business, declaring: “I was a racketeer for capitalism.” Tracing a path from the first wave of U.S. overseas expansionism to the rise of fascism in the 1930s to the crises of democracy in our own time, Gangsters of Capitalism tells an urgent story about a formative era most Americans have never learned about, but that the rest of the world cannot forget” (adapted from catalogue)

Ireland’s farthest shores : mobility, migration, and settlement in the Pacific World / Campbell, Malcolm
“Irish people have had a long and complex engagement with the lands and waters encompassing the Pacific world. As the European presence in the Pacific intensified from the late eighteenth century, the Irish entered this oceanic space as beachcombers, missionaries, traders, and colonizers. This volume investigates the extensive transnational connections that developed among Irish immigrants and their descendants across this vast and unique oceanic space, ties that illuminate how the Irish participated in the making of the Pacific world and how the Pacific world made them.” (adapted from catalogue)

New Rome : the empire in the east / Stephenson, Paul
“In New Rome, Paul Stephenson looks beyond traditional texts and well-known artifacts to offer a novel, scientifically-minded interpretation of antiquity’s end. It turns out that the descent of Rome is inscribed not only in parchments but also in ice cores and DNA. From these and other sources, we learn that pollution and pandemics influenced the fate of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire. During its final five centuries, the empire in the east survived devastation by natural disasters, the degradation of the human environment, and pathogens previously unknown to the empire’s densely populated, unsanitary cities.” (adapted from catalogue)