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 Weekly Words about New Books in
Independent Bookstores

August 12, 2018

Gripping Iconic Events in American History Come to Life in New Paperbacks
 
The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis. One of history's most catastrophic pioneer journeys is brought to life by author Wallis, who  uncovered hundreds of new documents that illuminate how a combination of greed, backbiting, and recklessness led the group to become hopelessly snowbound at the infamous Donner Pass in present-day California.
 
The story begins in 1846, when an unlikely band of 87 travelers led by brothers George and Jacob Donner and the Reeds, headed by adventurous, business-savvy patriarch James, set out for California. According to Wallis, personal motives for taking the journey varied - bachelors thirsting for adventure, parents wanting greater futures for their children - but the concept of Manifest Destiny, a philosophy that drove 19th-century U.S. territorial expansion, certainly swayed many. Simply stated, advocates of Manifest Destiny believed that the United States was destined by God to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent.  Unfortunately, the good Lord apparently was silent on the consequences of reckless planning, paltry rations, and snow storms - all of which doomed the ill-fated wagon train party. In the book's climax, Wallis not only details the truth behind the cannibalism that has become the Donner Party's legacy but also the heroic rescue parties that managed to reach and rescue nearly 50 survivors.    
   
 
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. It's one of folk history's best-known rhymes:  
Lizzie Borden took an ax 
And gave her mother forty whacks. 
When she saw what she had done, 
She gave her father forty-one. 
 
Or did she? That's the teaser introduction to a debut novel The New York Times called "lurid and original." Schmidt has reimagined the infamous Lizzie Borden stor y while offering an unsettling portrait of a troubled family. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, took place in 1892, leaving little evidence and many unanswered questions.
Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, Schmidt slowly reveals the events of that fateful day. You'll have to read the book to find out more. 
 
See What I Have Done caught the eyes of independent booksellers early on, and they made it one of their Indies Introduce picks for Summer/Fall 2017. The program features a panel of booksellers who find and showcase undiscovered authors and compelling books, and Schmidt's speculative tale was voted one of the 10 best. In reviewing the book, panelist Carolyn Hutton from Mrs. Dalloways's Bookstore in Berkeley, California, was effusive in her praise: " See What I Have Done takes all the major players in the Fall River murders (including Lizzie Borden) and brings their inner thoughts to life in this thriller of a debut. Each character has alternating chapters and distinct voices, illustrating the class divisions, tensions, and possible motivations for the famous murders in 1892.The plot is terrific and I couldn't put it down!"    
History of Molecular Biology Proves Important and Accessible    
 
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen. Respected science writer Quammen, author of 15 books, here explains how recent discoveries in molecular biology can change our understanding of evolution and life's history, with powerful implications for human health and even human nature. The book, which is arriving in bookstores Tuesday, has already built some early buzz with an NPR appearance and good reviews, including from Kirkus Reviews, which called The Tangled Tree an "impressive account of perhaps the most unheralded scientific revolution of the 20th century." As I'm no expert in this area, here's a brief description of the book's content from the publisher:
 
In the mid-1970s, scientists began using DNA sequences to reexamine the history of all life. Perhaps the most startling discovery to come out of this new field - the study of life's diversity and relatedness at the molecular level - is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or the movement of genes across species lines. It turns out that HGT has been widespread and important. For instance, we now know that roughly 8 percent of the human genome arrived not through traditional inheritance from directly ancestral forms, but sideways by viral infection - a type of HGT. Quammen chronicles these discoveries through the lives of the researchers who made them, bringing the deep study of genome histories to bear on a global crisis in public health. 
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WHY THE COLUMN?
Hi, I'm Hut Landon, and I work as a bookseller in an independent bookstore in BerkeIey, California.

My goal with this newsletter is to keep readers up to date about new books hitting the shelves, share what indie booksellers are recommending in their stores, and pass on occasional news about the book world.

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