Nonfiction History Arc: Microhistories

We continued a three-part arc in Historical Non-Fiction with Microhistories.  Because we cancelled our January meeting, please come to this meeting prepared to discuss the Defining Times Benchmark: Stephen Johnson’s The Ghost Map.  Please post your 2nd titles in this category on the blog under Submit 2nd title.

Assignment for March 28, 2017:

Resources:  Cords, Sarah Statz. The Real Story. 2006 Libraries Unlimited. P.149-153, 161, 164. Handed out 11/22/16

Benchmark: Everyone reads Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History

Minutes for Meeting


The NE RART delved into three nonfiction historical subgenres—Defining Times, Microhistories, and Specific Settings. In addition, over the summer we read an historical fiction and an historical nonfiction pairing on the same subject/topic.

Here is the list of appeal that we found most important to readers Historical Nonfiction.

SETTING—must evoke time, place, social aspects; details should reflect the author’s research

STYLE–Narrative Flow—reads like fiction in that it has a storyline where the author’s use of language, setting, and focus all come together with an artful integration of salient details

SUBJECT—Reader’s interest drives choices

CHARACTER—closely related to setting.  Seeing history through one or more characters gives the narrative a hook that allows readers to relate. Anachronistic characters are not tolerated.

PACE—closely related to style. Some readers want a slower approach with obvious researched detail; others want more integrated novel with the story line for a faster pace.

Thank you to Diane Giarusso, Tatjana Saccio, Beth Safford, Jessica Atherton, Jerusha Maurer, and Eileen Barrett for their contributions.

Leane Ellis December 6, 2017


This list is representative – not exhaustive.

 Battles, Matthew. Palimpest: A History of the Written Word. (2015)

 Brooks, Robin. The Portland Vase: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Mysterious Roman Treasure (2004)

 Ferguson, Niall. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. (2008)

 Handley, Susannah. Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution: A Celebration of Design from Art Silk to Nylon and Thinking Fibres. (1999)

 Huler, Scott. Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, and How a Nineteenth Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry. (2004)

 Kelly, Jack. Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: the History of the Explosive that Changes the World. (2004)

 MacFarlane, Alan. The Empire of Tea: The Remarkable History of the Plant that Took Over the World. (2004)

 McPhee, John. The Founding Fish. (2002)

 Shaffer, Marjorie. Pepper: The History of World’s Most Influential Spice. (2013)

 Solnit, Rebecaa. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. (2000)

 Standage, Tom. The History of the World in 6 Glasses. (2005)

 Stewart, Amy. The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Greatest Drinks. (2013)

 Sullivan, Robert. Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. (2004)

 Turner, Jack. Spice: The History of Temptation (2004)

 Winchester, Simon. The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. (2001)

 Yergin, Daniel.  The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (2003)


Elective Titles

Leane Ellis

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the Wolrd’s Greatest Drinks – Amy Stewart
Appeal Factors: Botany & Drink subject/style–brief & to the point/tone–serious with humorous overtones

Stewart discusses the array of herbs, flowers, fungi, trees, and fruits that have been used in alcoholic beverages over time, detailing their history and etymology while presenting growing tips for gardeners and over fifty drink recipes. This was written in an encyclopedic style and lacked narrative flow. But it was chock full of interesting details about the discovery and processing of the plants and some yummy recipes for some really fun alcoholic drinks. With more than 50 drink recipes, and growing tips, this highly entertaining book will please both cocktail enthusiasts and backyard gardeners. The inclusion of rich history throughout will delight armchair historians and the naturally curious.

Easy to read as a reference book or to browse through, I listened to this book as well and the narrator was a bit robotic and the listing of Latin plant names became tedious. Better to read I think.

Michelle Deschene

The Secret History of Wonder Women – Jill Lepore
Appeal Factors:

Let’s talk about getting off on the wrong foot with an author. In the first paragraph, Lepore authoritatively labeled Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman as the first superheroes, and the longest-lasting ones. Now let’s take a stroll back to 1941: Wonder Woman debuted in December of that year, but for our purposes it’s March, and Captain America has just appeared on the stands. Last I checked, Cap can still be found in both new comic book pages and in the infinitely fine form of Chris Evans. It’s possible Lepore assumed her readers would take for granted an exclusive focus on DC Comics, but if so, it was sloppily handled because the text itself suggested a wider lens. Sadly, that would not be the last issue I had with the content of the book, the half-realized argument being made, or the structure of the thing.

Before Wonder Woman there was William Moulton Marston, future polygamist, alleged feminist. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Marston went to Harvard, where he earned a law degree he wouldn’t use, and another in psychology. While at Harvard, he initiated experiments in lie detection using a blood pressure cuff, and would go on to pimp this service to the Supreme Court, the President–to anyone, really, if he thought the potential for notoriety was attached to the proceedings. While I’d suggest that Marston wanted to be a kept man and so kept losing his jobs on purpose, if subconsciously so, he occasionally worked as a professor or lecturer at various universities, as a psychologist for a Hollywood film studio, as the treasurer of United Dress Goods, and so on until he hit on the business of comics. Up until the success of Wonder Woman, he was mostly supported by the women in his life, one in particular.

Marston met and married Elizabeth Holloway, his primary breadwinner, and then he met and married former student Olive Byrne, and often invited a third lover to stay in their home. Byrne is the niece of Margaret Sanger, a fortuitous connection for Marston, as the bulk of his purported feminism was lifted from Sanger’s work, along with that of other first wave feminists. (When Joye Hummel was brought on to write Wonder Woman scripts, Byrne gave her a copy of one of Sanger’s books, assuring Hummel that all she needed to know about the character could be found within it.)

The title of this book does not lead one to believe it is a biography of Marston. Had the structure been different, say, with Wonder Woman’s “birth” taking lead over Marston’s, perhaps the content might have gelled with the title. Perhaps this would have been a true microhistory. What the reader gets is predominantly a biography peppered with information about the Women’s Lib movement, and that because of the Byrne/Sanger connection, but moreso, I believe, because Lepore needed something to put weight behind her claim that Marston was a feminist and therefore so, too, was Wonder Woman. Perhaps those early Wonder Woman comics (and their creator) really were feminist, but in my opinion, Lepore did not support the argument, nor did she present the so-called “secret history” in an exciting or compelling light.

Jerusha Maurer

The Year 1000 – Robert Lacey
Appeal Factors: Engrossing, accessible, light hearted

A survey of life in England in 1000 A.D. reveals how various people viewed the end of the millennium and what their lives were like. This was an enjoyable read. It was an informative overview of this time period. It, however, was just an overview. The information was interesting, but it seemed to just skim the surface. It made me curious to know more. Very good for someone who is interested in history but not ready for a huge tome.

Eileen Barrett

The Year Without Summer: 1816 – William K. Klingaman & Nicholas P. Klingaman
Appeal Factors: interest in weather, natural disasters, climate change and the effects

The violent eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcanic mountain on the Indonesian Island of Sumbawa resulted in riots, famine, crop and village destruction, fires, ash, disease, pumice stone fields some three miles wide that floated in the sea like icebergs and crazy weather patterns for almost two years. On April 5, 1815, for two hours lava flowed and ash spewed into the atmosphere, heating the air to thousands of degrees which rose causing cooler air to rush in. The eruption threw millions and millions of tons of sulfur-dioxide gas up into the atmosphere where it combined with hydroxide gas forming minute droplets that remained suspended in an aerosol cloud and blew across the globe. This ash cloud extended more than 300 miles wide at points and as the ash fell so did darkness, covering the sun wreaking havoc around the globe. Authors Klingaman and Klingaman focus on the after effects of the volcano on New England and Europe.