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Staff Picks: Books

A History of America in 100 Maps

Susan Schulten here presents a beautifully printed book of historical maps, dating all the way from a Ptolemaic world map created by Henricus Martellus Germanus in 1489 or 1490 all the way down to a DeepMap data visualization for autonomous vehicles created in 2018. There are notes and analytical commentary about all 100, which include other topics such as opening the Oregon Trail, the origins of the Cold War, the geography of Hollywood, and a 1932 map of Harlem nightclubs. I was so taken with the map reproductions that I resorted to using a magnifying glass in order to take in the massive, fascinating detail included in what amounts to a real work of art.


Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow

Here's a recommendation for a new and very readable book in the Kalamazoo Public Library children's section. Read Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow. Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a much lauded scholar for his vast contribution to the understanding of history and American culture. You may know him from the PBS genealogy program Finding Your Roots. Gates wrote the book with Tonya Bolden, the award-winning author of many excellent books for young people. 

The development of racist laws in the Jim Crow era along with murderous violence and property taking perpetrated as instruments of white supremacy are highest on the list of the worst kind of human behavior. As grim as aspects of this history certainly are, this book is ultimately uplifting, with stories of perseverance in the face of oppression. The final illustration in the book is a lovely group picture of a class of preschoolers in Topeka, Kansas, captioned "Faces of the Future 1899". 

About Dark Sky Rising, National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and National Book Award winning author Jacqueline Woodson writes, "Brilliant and more necessary now than ever before. This is a book that should be on every bedside table and in every classroom in America. It’s a history that belongs to all of us. In Gates’s and Bolden’s hands, it is a deeply comprehensive, beautifully illustrated, and moving narrative of survival.” 


The History Book : Big Ideas Simply Explained

I happen to like books from DK Publishing, a firm that produces quality items on quality paper. They specialize in books that have a pictorial, visual emphasis. From the library's teen section is this one-volume digest of world history arranged in two-page chapters. This is a good book even for those who have studied history extensively, since herein, under one cover, are photos and information not often seen elsewhere. It's unlikely that anyone would read this book straight through although one could; it lends itself to selective browsing in chapters of interest to the reader.


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.