RSS Feed

Staff Picks: Books

American Nations

Could the cultural values of the different European immigrants that first immigrated to what we now call the United States still be affecting our election results? Colin Woodard thinks so. He breaks the country up into eleven regional cultures, but he sees most of political history as a conflict between Yankeedom, descendants of the Pilgrims and Puritans; and the Deep South, immigrants from the British colony Barbados that landed in Charleston, South Carolina in 1670. In American Nations, Woodard tells the history of the arrival and expansion of these different groups and how they have aligned and broken apart through the next four centuries.


The most fascinating part for me was the Revolutionary War section which showed that the colonies were in no way united about whether or why to start a revolution.


Don't Miss Out!

 In case you didn’t know, right now in theatres there is a brilliant movie called the Queen of Katwe. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, and David Oyelowo, it follows the journey of a young girl named Phiona living in the slums of Uganda who learns the game of chess and quickly skyrockets through the ranks to be a national champion, even competing in international competitions for the rank of Grandmaster. In the process, she is able to improve life conditions for herself, her family, and uplift the community as a whole. 

 

Right after the credits rolled, I headed straight to the bookshelves to find out more about this incredible individual. The biographythe movie is based on, by Tim Crothers, fleshes out the inspirational tale a bit more to  include the political climate of the country at the time, and gives more details about some of the great challenges Phiona Mutesi was able to overcome.  Don’t miss out on this great story of true life triumph! 


One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

 In 1980, the Chinese Government enacted a one child policy, mandating that each family could only have one child in hopes of curbing the rapid population growth of the country. This controversial policy was put into place to avoid facing another disaster like the Great Chinese Famine from 1959-1961 that killed an estimated 15 to 30 million people

However, there were unintended consequences. At the beginning of this year the one child policy was lifted, but millions of families are still have to live with the unique challenges it caused, such as the gender imbalance caused by widespread infanticide, and millions of unauthorized second children who live unacknowledged by the state, unable to attend school, or even get a library card.

In OneChild: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, Mei Fong explores the aftermath of this policy through well researched analysis, and by following families to capture the repercussions through a more personal lens. This book is a really fascinating, eye-opening read. I definitely recommend it. 


The Poisoning of Michigan

The environmental history of Michigan in the twentieth century (and beyond) has been one characterized by intermittent disasters with wide-ranging implications for the health and well-being of its citizens. One need only examine the Environmental Protection Agency’s maps of Superfund sites (specially-designated toxic waste remediation locations) in Michigan to better understand the current scope of the problems.

We have seen recent examples play out over the last year including the Flint water crisis and the discovery of water contamination stemming from a decommissioned Air Force Base in Oscoda. Citizens of Kalamazoo will be well-aware of the Allied Paper Mill / Portage Creek / Kalamazoo River Superfund PCB remediation process that has dominated the environmental consciousness of Kalamazoo and Allegan counties since the early 1990s - not to mention the subsequent Enbridge oil spill.

As alarming as these scenarios have been, the effects and general contamination produced by each could be described as relatively localized, at least in comparison to a 1973 disaster which resulted in the poisoning of the general population (approximately 9 million individuals) of Michigan through compromised dairy products. This is the subject of The Poisoning of Michigan by Joyce Egginton.

Egginton begins by summarizing the broad strokes of the accident, which began at the Michigan Chemical Corporation where a variety of industrial chemicals were produced. Among these were Nutrimaster, an additive for livestock feed which was shown to increase milk production in dairy cows and have other beneficial effects, and Firemaster, a polybrominated biphenyl (a type of chemical very similar to PCBs) that was being used at the time as a top-notch industrial fire-retardant. The chemicals were nearly indistinguishable to the naked eye, and a paper shortage had led to some extremely questionable techniques being implemented to label the 50-pound brown paper bags in which both Nutrimaster and Firemaster were shipped.

The outcome of this unconscionable confluence of circumstances was that in the Spring of 1973 a truck driver delivered several thousand pounds of Firemaster to the largest agricultural feed plant in Michigan where it was unknowingly combined with livestock feed, dispersed to more than 5,000 farms all over the state and fed to a variety of farm animals for nearly a year before being positively identified.

Egginton goes on to discuss in great detail the efforts of a handful of individuals, including a dairy farmer with a chemistry degree, who worked to pinpoint the cause of what followed: cows lost weight precipitously, milk production plummeted, chickens were born with tumors, animals in general refused to eat and perished. Similar outcomes awaited humans who consumed the products produced by those animals to the degree that a measurable decline in the athletic prowess of Michigan sports teams was noted during the years of peak contamination. All of this took place within an atmosphere which Egginton describes as one characterized by bureaucratic denial, industrial indifference, and the isolation of the afflicted.

Even when viewed alongside such well-known environmental disasters as Love Canal, which would be brought to light five years later, the degree of contamination stemming from the accident remains unparalleled in the United States. Occasionally the event is revisited by the media, and the ongoing effects are measured and discussed, but proportional to its impact, it seems to have become a little-known chapter in the environmental and agricultural history of Michigan.


Dead Presidents

Dead presidents. That would be all of them except for five. This rather unorthodox and macabre yet sometimes humorous book published in 2016 discusses the circumstances of the presidents' deaths, burials, and legacies. Other than the first chapter, which is about George Washington, author Carlson does not take a chronological approach, but a topical one. Chapter 3 ("The First Patient") is about Garfield, Hoover, and Taylor, and the doctors who kept them alive (and occasionally made them worse). The fifth chapter ("Death Trips") is about the posthumous (yes, that's right) travels of Polk, Monroe, Tyler, and Lincoln. In chapter 8 we read about "Unintended Legacies," the story of how the reputations of Taft, Jackson, and Jefferson have changed over time. For a different way to consider the presidents of the United States, please try this.


Calling all Fashionistas!

 Let’s begin with a simple truth. I love fashion. I also love to shop; but like so many other fashionistas, I never gave any thought to where my clothes are coming from before they arrive on the hangers at the mall, or where they go long after they’ve been donated to the Goodwill. It’s no exaggeration to say the book Overdressed by Elizabeth L Cline completely changed the way I think about fashion. 

 

Overdressed shines a light on the recent phenomenon of “fast fashion,” a term coined to describe the low quality, cheaply priced trendy clothing stores like Forever 21 that have become such a large part of the landscape in the shopping world. In her book Cline examines why this shift has occurred while going further to explore the consequences playing out on a global scale.

This book is a fascinating critique of the fashion world, and I heartily recommend it to all of the fashionistas out there.  Looking for more sordid details on the unsustainable business practices of the fashion industry? Be sure to check out Magnifeco by Kate Black.


Prisoners of Geography

This 2015 book, subtitled Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World, is praised by Newsweek as a work that 'shows how geography shapes not just history but destiny.' The ten maps and the discussion of each conveniently take up ten chapters: Russia, China, United States, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and The Arctic. The discipline of geopolitics gets a very good airing here, with answers by British author Tim Marshall to such questions as: 1) Why will America never be invaded?, 2) What does it mean that Russia must have a navy, but also has frozen ports six months out of the year?, 3) How does this affect Putin's treatment of the Ukraine?, 4) How is China's future constrained by geography?, 5) Why is Tibet destined to lose its autonomy?, and 6) Why will Europe never be united? The physical aspects of the world's nations are a major factor in determining the conduct of international relations even in this modern age. Historical yet current, this book is a rich source for understanding the world scene in the 21st century and the background to its development.


Information Wants To Be FREE

 Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand is famously credited with the saying "information wants to be free", but it was hacktivist wunderkind Aaron Swartz who took his quote as marching orders and set out to actually make it free – with both troubling and thought provoking results. The new book The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on The Internet by Justin Peters reads like a highly contextualized biography of Swartz and the history and circumstances that led to his tragically taking his own life in 2013 rather than face what most characterize as an overly aggressive federal prosecution for anonymously downloading massive amounts of academic articles from the JSTOR database. Peters veers off from the Swartz storyline multiple times to give context and a sense of history to the complex history of intellectual property in the US, something that he is criticized for in Stephen Witt’s NYT Sunday Book Review of the book. But I loved the veering off and the lively and accessible prose that Peters uses here. Aaron Swartz believed deeply in the power of open access to information as the central idea that makes our democracy so powerful. I will leave it to readers of this book to make up their own minds about the status of that ideal today and what they are willing to do about it. Highly recommended! 

For more about Swartz and his story, I recommend the great documentary The Internet’s Own Boy.


First Ladies

One of my fields of study in addition to librarianship has been political science, so it naturally follows that I would be an eager viewer of C-SPAN. In fact, I have been known to watch Senate hearings at 3:30 a.m. The program on which this 2015 book is based, though, comes on at the more reasonable time of 8:00 p.m. on Sunday evenings. Susan Swain, the moderator of C-SPAN's series on first ladies of the United States, is in my opinion one of the finest interviewers on TV. In this book she has compiled material from the series that originally ran in 2013 and 2014 and is now being replayed. The result of her efforts is, under one cover, an absolute treasure of information and little-known facts about the presidents' spouses, and by extension, the presidents themselves, their families, and events concurrent with their time in the White House.


Countdown to Zero Day

I casually picked up Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the launch of the world's first digital weapon because I was familiar with her writing for Wired magazine where she covers cybercrime, privacy, and security issues. While I knew Zetter as a skilled writer, I was not prepared for this book to capture my attention so profoundly and to be such a scary thrill to read. The book begins as an account of the detection and spread of what seemed at the time (2010-11) a rather routine computer “malware” attack but quickly unfolds into a thrilling whodunit with complex international implications and a glimpse at the kind of cyber-warfare that we will face in the future.