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Magna Carta

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Magna CartaMagna Carta: The Birth of Liberty
by Dan Jones

Last year was the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta. To commemorate the occasion, LibriVox recorded a collection of essays — (Magna Carta Commemoration Essays, edited by Henry Elliot Malden) — which had originally been published on the 700th Anniversary in 1915. I’ve got to admit that this was some of the toughest reading I’ve ever done for LibriVox. Dry, scholarly, and littered with snatches of Latin and French. True, I did learn a lot from it, and found it edifying. But it was learning purchased at the cost of much mental sweat, rather like being back in a tough college course all over again.

Now, months later, browsing through the “new nonfiction” display at my library branch, I discovered this account of the Magna Carta by Dan Jones. This one kept me engrossed all the way through, without ever finding it a struggle. My sister Meg and I used to say that we “liked our history with the people in it” — and that pretty much explains the difference. The book we read for LibriVox last year was all analysis and no people. This new book is filled with people, their desires and activity and personality. Yes, there’s also analysis, but that follows in the wake of the human story.

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Farm Hands

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Farm HandsFarm Hands
by Tom Rivers

The author is a reporter for the Batavia News, located in the middle of Western New York’s multi-county farming region. Agricultural news was a staple of the paper. But as the author realized, this reporting had tended to be focused on the economic impact of the farms, on the $400 million they pumped into the region, on the issues and problems of the farm owners. “Something was missing in those articles: the workers. They were rarely pictured, seldom quoted, and their contributions were largely unappreciated.”

With  about 3,000 migrant workers involved in farm work in Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming, and western Monroe Counties, and about 5,000 scattered through all of western New York, it seemed important to make their voices part of the story. This was particularly essential because, judging from the newspaper’s letters and e-mails to the editor, many readers seemed convinced that the work wasn’t very difficult, that farmers could easily fill their labor force with local labor, that no particular skill or experience was necessary.

So the author wondered — How hard was the work? What demands did it make, in terms of both skill and endurance? Was it something that local workers were avoiding for a reason? The author set out to get his own hands dirty and find out. Over the course of a year, from spring to fall, he persuaded local farmers to let him join their crews and try his ability at farm work, then to write articles for the paper describing what it was like.

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The Frozen-Water Trade

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Frozen Water TradeThe Frozen-Water Trade
by Gavin Weightman

Ice cream is surely the all-American dessert, almost as ubiquitous in winter as in summer. We Americans are known to drink tea iced, beer cold, and mixed drinks “on the rocks”. At first thought, we might assume that these tastes developed in the first half of the 20th century, with the spread of mechanical refrigeration. But they actually began almost a hundred years earlier, in the first half of the 19th century. They were dependent on the exploitation of a natural resource so commonplace that it was taken for granted — Ice.

In the cold winters of New England and the Midwest, ponds and rivers froze regularly and solidly during the heart of winter. The locals would cut the ice and store it in ice-houses, providing themselves with enough to last through the summer. It was a small-scale individual operation which flourished only in regions where nature provided the ice, and even then, only if you happened to own access to your own bit of frozen shoreline.

In 1806, a Boston merchant named Frederick Tudor had what seemed like a crazy idea. He loaded a cargo of Massachusetts ice aboard a ship and set out to sell it in Martinique, confident that it would fetch a good profit in that tropical island. That first improvised and less-than-successful attempt was ridiculed by other New England businessmen. Investors ran the other way when approached about the project.

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Your Year in Books

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This is a little game they’ve been playing every New Year over at LibriVox. The fun is to try filling in the blanks on the questionnaire using only the titles of books you’ve read in the past year.

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2016 Book List Thread at LibriVox

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Over at LibriVox, the folks have a thread going in which we are invited to keep a running list of the books we are reading. It’s a great way to keep track of titles that would probably get lost in my increasingly porous memory. Over here on my blog, I’m only writing about a random selection of books, not everything I’ve read. For my complete reading list, here’s the link to that LibriVox thread:

LibriVox 2016 Book Lists Thread  (This should take you directly to my book list. By scrolling up and down the thread, you can also read other folks’ lists, which is a great way to come up with other reading suggestions.)

(Book list last updated April 1st 2016).

Books Read in 2015

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As you may have noticed, the sticky-post at the top of this blog has changed. The 2015 LibriVox Book List Thread has been updated for the last time. To avoid having to click over to the LibriVox site to see that list again, I’m posting it here for future reference:

(Meanwhile, the new sticky-post above contains the updated link to the current year’s Book List in progress.)

Totals —
57 print books read in 2015 —
and 52 audio books listened to.

What I Read:

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All the Men in the Sea

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All the Men in the SeaAll the Men in the Sea
by Michael Krieger

“Could not put this down” is what I said about this book to co-workers who saw me reading it on break and asked if it was any good. It’s a gripping true story, told in a way that lets me experience events from inside the skins of the ordinary men involved in them. An anxious teenaged deck-hand, a dogged tugboat captain, a fatherly ship’s-storekeeper, an experienced deep-sea diver — one by one, they become real to me. This was an examination of an accident on a work-site, but it was never impersonally statistical. It stayed grounded in the lived experiences of individuals, and the story is always given to the reader through the eyes of human beings. That may be the reason why it grabbed me the way it did. As my sister has pointed out before, I tend to prefer my history “with the people in.”

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