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Staff Picks: Books

Built : The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures

Roma Agrawal, at only 35 years of age, is an experienced structural engineer who has been involved in building some very large projects, such as London's 'The Shard,' western Europe's tallest tower. She is also a promoter of technical and engineering careers to young people, particularly women. In this book, she describes in easy-to-understand terms many aspects of the work that has gone into some of the world's buildings and structures, both ancient and modern. Among these are the pyramids, the Northumbria University Footbridge, the John Hancock Center in Chicago, Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, and Brooklyn Bridge. As Henry Petroski of Duke University says, this is 'a book about real engineering written by a real engineer who can really write.'


Year-End Review

As 2018 winds down, its a customary tradition for staff to compile a list of those books, movies and albums that have inspired us, made us laugh, made us cry, stoked our imagination, and provoked us to think deeply about the relationship between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy and art and life. Here are a few of my favorites.

 

Winter, Karl Ove Knausgaard
Becoming, Michelle Obama
WKW: the Cinema of Wong Kar Wai, John Powers
Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, John Banville
Meaty, Samantha Irby
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh
These Truths: A History of the United States, Jill Lepore
The Largesse of the Sea Maidens, Denis Johnson

 


Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy

Here's another book that's good either for browsing or for reading all the way through. English author Harford has in this volume written a chapter of five or six pages about 50 inventions that shaped the modern economy. I was not surprised to find that all this takes place in exactly 50 chapters. Included are many obvious inventions, like the elevator, air conditioning, clocks, paper, batteries, etc.  But there are also many that I never would have thought to be inventions, although I have to acknowledge that they were, like management consulting, intellectual property, tax havens, and insurance. The fact that this book is written in a breezy, entertaining way makes it appealing to a wide range of audiences.


The Ghosts of the Past: Annie's Ghosts

When I recommend books to patrons, I don't normally recommend the latest book. I normally recommend the books that I keep going back to. This book isn't a classic, but I've probably read it 3 times. Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret is the true story of Steve Luxenberg's journey to find out about his mother's sister, a sister that his mother only revealed upon her deathbed. The book is Steve's journey to learn more about this aunt, condemned to a mental institution, and the family her never spoke of her. Luxenberg explores life in 1940s and 1950s Detroit and in Eloise, the institution to which is Aunt was committed.


Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me

My favorite graphic novels tell true stories. I especially like reading graphic memoirs and learning about other people’s lives.

In Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me: a graphic memoir, Lorina Mapa combines the personal and political, weaving together past and present: her father's death, her teen years and her family's experience with the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines. Music had a big influence on teenaged Mapa. She obsessed about many bands and songs, one day playing Duran Duran’s “Tiger Tiger” 27 times in a row, till her brother threatened to throw the tape deck out the window! On a more serious note, most of her family engaged in the campaign to successfully elect Corazon Aquino and remove dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power. The death of her father several years later brought all the memories back; her graphic novel brings them to life for her readers.

Bonus: the last pages include a discography of Mapa’s 1980's music favorites as a teen!


Stirring the Pot with Benjamin Franklin

Here's a nice cookbook with a good dose of history included, or it might be called a history book with recipes. Benjamin Franklin was famous for his interest and expertise in many fields. I didn't know that one of them happened to be cooking. In this book from the Smithsonian, the author describes Franklin's interest in food and the place it had in his life. She goes into lots of detail, such as what the kitchens he designed were like, how much he valued American corn and other local foods, and how he championed healthy eating habits. There are 62 recipes here. Some of them I would never even try to prepare (or eat), like ox-cheek stew, but there are others that don't sound too bad, like lemon ice cream or apple marmalade. All recipes are updated for use with modern appliances and utensils. This hybrid volume represents an excellent effort by Rae Katherine Eighmey, author, food historian, and cook.


Fantasyland

The country’s initial devotion to religious and intellectual freedom, Andersen argues, has over the centuries morphed into a fierce entitlement to custom-made reality. So your right to believe in angels and your neighbor’s right to believe in U.F.O.s and Rachel Dolezal’s right to believe she is black lead naturally to our president’s right to insist that his crowds were bigger.—New York Times’ Hanna Rosin

According to author Kurt Andersen, America is a nation of grifters and the grifted. His historical survey of America’s credulous embrace of the superstitious and various forms of magical thinking begins with Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church and quickly transitions to a scrutinizing inquiry into the extremely bizarre practices of the puritans and pilgrims. They were arguably the Islamic State of the 17th Century when one considers their extremism. He finishes this readable, breezy examination of uncritical, irrational cult thinking, by arguing that America has long had a unique and troubling relationship between fact and fiction, reality vs fantasy—a bond between utter nonsense and the social and legal freedoms to defend that very nonsense. Example after example, from religious hocus pocus to New Age fads marketed as science, Andersen rips apart America’s infatuation with constructed realities. There are uneven, somewhat sloppy areas of argument when Andersen attempts to draw threads of historical continuity that when situated under the microscope, possess reductive claims. He clearly needs to read a bit further about postmodern thinking and its leading thinkers because he does a disservice to the reader when attempting to link them to various cultural and social developments of the 1970’s. However, Andersen’s book will appeal to skeptics who have grown weary of America’s ‘if you can invent and sell it to the masses, well, then it must be true’ bar for reality.


Hot Pink!

New York Fashion Week has come to a close, but London Fashion Week is just starting up! That’s right, we are right in the middle of the first Fashion Month of 2018, a time I personally refer to as The Highlight of my Instagram Feed.

 

While it is always a delight to see the latest trends sashay down the runway, a true fashionista knows that you can’t really understand where fashion is going until you know where it’s been.  Many are familiar with the revolutionary influence of Coco Chanel, but few know about her contemporary, the avant garde visionary Elsa Schiaparelli.

A mastermind ahead of her time, Elsa Schiaparelli set in motion all of the fashion paradigms we take for granted today. Make sure to check out this book to read about the inventor of runway shows, ready to wear collections, bolero jackets, culottes and most importantly—hot pink!

Also, click here to see some of her most famous works


Fallen Glory

Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History's Greatest Buildings is the story of 21 vanished buildings from all over the world and from all time periods. Most readers would know these buildings by name and location but wouldn't have much more information on them than that. This book fills in those gaps. Some of them are ones that most readers probably have not heard of at all, such as the Karakorum in Orkhon Valley, Mongolia, the Fortress of Golconda in Hyderabad, India, the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, or, closer to home, the Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Missouri. Many photographs and drawings add to the quality of this large, well-documented work. Prolific mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith calls this 'the most interesting book I have come across this year. This is a magnificent study of buildings and other structures that have disappeared.'


Stolen Words

During the Native American Heritage program last November, I sat listening to one of the presenters explain how as a young child she was adopted away from her Anishinaabe heritage.  Now, as an adult, she was determined to learn the culture and language of her elders.  This memory came rushing back to me when I picked up this book, Stolen Words by Melanie Florence.  This nicely illustrated picture book introduces the not-so-long-ago practice of the Canadian residential school system that separated young Indigenous children from their families.   In this story, a young Cree girl asks her grandfather to tell her words in his Cree language.  When he explains that his Cree words were stolen from him as a child, the little girl decides to help her grandfather get his words back.  Historical picture books are great way to introduce young children to the past and to discuss how the past and the present are always connected.