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I’ve been on a historical fiction kick lately. I recently read Fever by Mary Beth Keane and Mary Coin by Marisa Silver, both new books (released in March of this year). Both books were highly enjoyable – fairly quick reads, but interesting looks at the times in which they are set.

Fever by Mary Beth Keane

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Typhoid Mary was a cook, and passes the sickness along in her cooking. When she’s confronted by doctors who tell her she must stop cooking for people, she just can’t stay away. Cooking for others is what she does best; it’s who she is. What do you do when the one thing that makes you complete can potentially kill someone else? Who are you if you can’t do what you are seemingly born to do?  

Fever is the story of Typhoid Mary. I read about it in the New York Times book review, and it sounded interesting. I’d heard of Typhoid Mary, but didn’t know much else, other than she was someone who got a lot of people sick. The book relies on the facts we know about her life, then imagines the rest, filling in details and conversations and motivations, in a pretty convincing story. The book is not just a portrait of a woman who can’t understand why she’s being picked on by doctors, it’s about self-delusion, denial and taking responsibility for your own actions.

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Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

Recognize the picture on the book cover? It’s an iconic image of depression-era America, taken by Dorothea Lange, of a migrant worker and her children in the mid-1930s.

Marisa Silver has created a wonderfully powerful story surrounding this image – from the present day descendant of the owner of the farm this woman worked, to the woman who took the photograph, to the migrant worker, Mary Coin.

Silver has imagined their lives, both separately – each character fully drawn in its own right – and intertwined – she connects the stories cleverly.

I also read about this book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. I have a B&W postcard with this picture printed on it, from a collection of iconic images of America. I put them all up on a wall in an apartment I used to have – it was a cool wall o’ images; it made me happy whenever I looked it at. So, when I saw this picture was used on a book jacket, despite its being in color, I felt that I just HAD to read it. I didn’t necessarily like the cover image, or the font the title was in…

Actually, for both of these books, I wouldn’t have picked them up because of the cover art – it just doesn’t appeal to me. If it weren’t for reading about them in the Book Review, I wouldn’t have been interested in them. Luckily for me, I did read the reviews and was intrigued enough to give them each a chance. I’m glad I did – I really enjoyed both of these novels, for their characters and the stories woven around them.

2012 brought us the movie “Cloud Atlas,” based on the book of the same name. I don’t know much about it, but I was sent this link, to make me laugh: http://www.theawl.com/2012/11/ways-in-which-the-movie-cloud-atlas-has-changed-my-life

cloud-atlas-low_smallIt inspired me to then read Callanan’s The Cloud Atlas, which my library had (had it been out, I probably would have forgotten about it). I also wanted to read it to spite Cloud Atlas some. I just don’t have any interest in the book or the movie. I think its articlelessness is kind of pretentious, and maybe, just maybe, it seems a little daunting.

This one, The, is set in Alaska during WWII and years later, and goes back and forth, the past being related as a confessional. During WWII, the Japanese had started sending hot air balloon bombs overseas, to land and explode on American soil. This is a story about a man in the bomb squad who had to chase these balloons, and deal with a superior who was being chased by personal demons, and to learn to listen to a local shaman, whose beliefs were chasing his own. And there’s a woman they’re all chasing, in different ways.

Reading the Amazon reviews, you can see all the people who ordered the book thinking it was the one the movie was based on, only to find out it wasn’t… and it still got lots of positive reviews. It’s a really well-written story, interesting and haunting. There was one anecdote the shaman related about a man and wife whose child died and was cremated before they could mourn her according to their beliefs. The shaman helped the parents feel their child in the falling rain, and helped them say goodbye. This passage was simply told, and very moving.

It’s a work of historical fiction, but ultimately a story about the various relationships that get us through our lives, and how each one can teach us about ourselves, if only we let them.

I was looking back at the posts I’ve written over the past year, and came across one from almost exactly a year ago, written after Irene came through the area. THIS year brought Hurricane Sandy, and with her came much destruction to some areas.

For me, it meant being evacuated from the marshy area I live in (luckily, no house damage) and a loss of power for four days. In that time, I had a chance to test out my new iPhone 5 and a borrowed first-generation iPad. My i5 was really reliable in terms of connection and, ooh, the battery life! I was able to charge it in a short car drive, and then it’d last until the next day! That’s a far cry from my old HTC Evo. In between checking CL&P outage maps on my iPhone and playing with my daughter (no school for 5 days!!), I was also able to get some reading done… all on the iPad.

Just before the storm, I checked out a book from my library’s eBook download pageTimeline by Michael Crichton. I am a big Michael Crichton fan (Andromeda Strain is one of my all-time favorites). I charged the iPad up and kept it charged until Monday, when we lost power. From then until Thursday, the iPad retained enough of a charge for me to finish the entire book over the course of those powerless days.

Downloading ebooks and audiobooks to iPads and iPhones is really simple – browsing onscreen for books is a bit tricky, but if you know what you’re looking for and find it, checking out/downloading is a breeze.

I also recently read the whole of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie on my smartphone. The reward of downloading a book the moment I think of having it is huge – it’s a heady power we can enjoy at our fingertips!

I thought perhaps this long biography (625 pages!) would be too much for a phone. My plan was to start it on the phone, then find a print copy to do my ‘real reading.’ But …  the phone is so much lighter than the book.

I was able to turn out the lights, and read the book on my phone in bed, set for white text on a black background, and with little taps of my finger, turn the page as I read. It was so simple and so convenient, and actually really enjoyable.

Format aside, this book was SOO good. Catherine the Great was a really interesting person who led a remarkable life. How she came to power and how she led reads in this book like a well-researched, well-written soap opera.

Despite all the digital reading I’m doing lately, I still love my paper books, and just finished a 545 page historical novel about Marie Antoinette (Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund). It’s another long book (despite her short life), but it must be – it covers the time from when Marie Antoinette was preparing to marry Louis XVI, and goes right up to her unfortunate end. This book is engaging and seems as well-researched as a work of fiction can be.

The novel’s voice of Marie feels real when compared with the actual letters she wrote (the letters, to her mother, are a regular feature of the novel). It could easily have been a frivolous novel, to match the lightweight charm of the subject, but takes Marie and her concerns seriously. The time in which Marie lived was amazing. The world revolted, discovered, changed, all while Marie Antoinette was growing into a woman. This fascinating story is told through her eyes, with clarity and sympathy.

However you’re into getting your reading done – online or digital device or in print, go for it. The library has stepped up to give you more of what you want, when you want it.

And we librarians can help you with the downloading ebooks and audiobooks to your reading device – be it an Apple device, an Kindle, a Nook, or even your computer. We’ve created handouts with simple step-by-step directions for a variety of devices. They’re accessible online or at the library, and we’re happy to help too. You can call us with questions or if you’re stuck on any of the steps. If you don’t have a device of your own, we lend Kindles and Nooks that are preloaded with book titles. You can play around with it, read a book, see how you like the feel, etc. Enjoy!