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Staff Picks: Books

Ten Prayers That Changed the World

Subtitled Extraordinary Stories of Faith That Shaped the Course of History, this is a 2016 book published by the National Geographic Society. In it are stories about ten prayers selected by author Jean-Pierre Isbouts, historian and doctoral professor at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. The book is naturally divided into ten chapters which are: Abraham's Plea, Jesus' Prayer to Abba, The Dream of Constantine, The Voices of Joan of Arc, Martin Luther's Hymn, George Washington's Prayer, The Prayer of St. Francis, The Prayer for Bastogne, Gandhi's Prayer for Peace, and Mother Teresa's Daily Prayer. As can be seen, these chapters cover a wide variety of religious persuasions, thought, and practice. Thus this volume can be used as an aid in personal devotion or as a historical study.

The Last Battle

During the last few hours of the last day of World War II, in a remote medieval castle in an otherwise sleepy part of the Austrian countryside, US and German troops joined forces during one of the strangest and least-likely battles of the entire war. The Last Battle is an account of the hours leading up to that battle, when a small unit of defecting German conscripts and a handful of battle-weary US soldiers fought off two hundred Waffen-SS loyalists trying to take control of the Schloss Itter castle and capture the six French VIPs held captive inside. Desperately low on ammunition, and with only a single battle-damaged tank parked on the castle entrance, the US and German troops- along with the support of dozens of concentration camp survivors, Austrian resistance fighters, and the bickering French VIPs themselves- managed to hold off the invading SS troops long enough for reinforcements to arrive. That this book hasn't somehow been turned into a huge-budgeted Hollywood film is almost as astonishing as the story itself.

The Edge of the Empire

By CE 130, the city of Rome was the center of an enormous empire, roughly rectangular in shape, that stretched from the province of Aegyptus (Egypt) at its southeastern corner to Britannia in the northwest. Bronwen Riley chooses CE 130 as the year in which she imagines and constructs a journey “from the heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall” in this wonderfully accessible 2016 offering. In doing so, she draws upon a wide variety of sources ranging from modern scholarship to the immutable contributions of Cassius Dio, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger.

While Egypt was immensely important to Rome, with the Nile River delta serving as the empire’s breadbasket, Britannia was… less so. Considered by cosmopolitan Romans to be the very embodiment of the term ‘provincial’, Britannia had functioned as an Imperial Province since CE 43 when the Emperor Claudius ordered finished the work begun by Julius Caesar almost a century prior. In the 90 years between CE 43 and 130, the Romans successfully secured their claim on Britannia, from the southern coast to the site of the modern village of Bowness-on-Solway, through the liberal application of butchery, diplomacy, and industry.

Unlike the tamer Senatorial Provinces closer to Rome such as Sicilia, Epirus, or even Macedonia, operations in Britannia were overseen by the Roman military. Riley selects for her travel companions the sorts of Romans who might be appointed to such a post. With her are Sextus Julius Severus, a battle-hardened Roman general who took up his governorship there in CE 130 and Minicius Natalis the Younger, the Patrician champion four-horse charioteer of the 227th Olympic Games, who assumed command of the Roman Sixth Legion at Eboracum (York) that same year.

Riley describes in exceptional detail the ins and outs of travelling as a Roman citizen during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, who we’ll recall from our Western Civ. courses as the third of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. How would one arrange for travel from the ports of Ostia to those in Gallia Narbonensis on the far side of the Alps? What should one know of the intricacies of Gallic hospitality on the way to Gesoriacum (Bulogne)? Here’s a travel tip: avoid the ‘pork’ offered by dodgy innkeepers if you harbor any qualms regarding potential acts of cannibalism.

Along the way, Riley draws attention to the myriad foundations of modern western civilization laid by Roman engineers. Upon arrival in the cities of Britannia, Riley focuses on the ways in which those engineers set to work emulating Roman life on the fringes of the empire. After all, city planning and the provision of civic institutions such as temples, amphitheaters, public baths, and above all, roads, were as important to Romans on the edge of their world as it was to those at its center.

It’s an engaging, immersive work that ultimately has far more in common with a historical monograph than a travel guide or a gazetteer, and in my opinion, comes off as less heavy and more approachable. Anglophiles and Romanophiles in particular will not be disappointed.

Anything but ordinary Addie: the true story of Adelaide Herrmann, the Queen of Magic

This winter KPL has invited everyone to take part in a Winter Reading Challenge, and I hope everyone will!  I needed a book for the second reading activity:  Read about a topic you don't know much about.  I thought I knew some things about magicians and how they do tricks, but I realized how little I knew about the history of magicians when I came across Anything but ordinary Addie: the true story of Adelaide Herrmann, the Queen of Magic.  This new biography picture book for children is FANTASTIC!  It is about the life of Adelaide Herrmann who was a "shocking" and "dazzling" magician during a time when being a female magician was unheard of.

I am always excited to see little known facts about women's contributions to history come to light, especially in a children's book.  As a young girl, Adelaide knew she wanted to be different and she wanted to do things not expected of a young girl growing up during the Victorian era.  What better way to shock society than to grow up and become a magician, get shot out of a cannon, be set on fire, or have your head cut off.  The full color illustrations in this book are vibrant and powerful; they bring the pages to life.  The author Mara Rockliff has written a simple, easy flowing story that will engage anyone reading it.  I recommend this as a must read for elementary school kids and preschoolers will definitely enjoy the wonderful illustrations.

The Sultan and the Queen

In 1570, Queen Elizabeth I of England was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Pius V. He named her a heretic, a pretender to the throne of England, and released from their allegiance all her subjects, lest they too face excommunication. Such was the attitude of Catholic Europe towards Elizabeth who, following the death of her half-sister, Queen Mary I, reinstituted the Church of England’s independence from papal authority.

While the kingdoms and principalities of Europe increasingly began to take sides amidst the great wars between Catholics and Protestants which dominated the geopolitics of that region between the sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, England’s geography and antagonistic relationship with Catholic maritime powers, namely Spain, meant allies and trading partners were few and far between. 

When a letter was delivered to Queen Elizabeth in 1579, curiously wrapped in a satin bag and fastened with a silver capsule, it signaled the onset of an unlikely and unprecedented correspondence. For the first time ever, a Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had written to an English monarch. In her search for friendly trading ports, Elizabeth dispatched envoys and merchants to the Mediterranean in the hopes of establishing prosperous relations with the cities of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Word of the arrival of Englishmen in ports under his control had prompted the young Sultan Murad III to write to Elizabeth inviting her countrymen to establish friendly trading relations, provided she would acknowledge his greatness and function as his subject.

With the entire expanse of Catholic Europe acting as a buffer state and certain economic crisis looming, Elizabeth found these terms agreeable enough. The correspondence between these two rulers, and the ensuing cross-cultural transference of goods and ideas is the subject of Jerry Brotton’s The Sultan and the Queen. A professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, Brotton uses this relationship as a wonderfully unique lens with which to view Elizabethan England – no small task, given the sheer volume of available scholarship concerning that time and place.

The result is a work which provides a new angle of insight into the attitudes, alliances, and indeed even popular culture of Elizabeth’s England. Brotton draws significantly on the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe as supporting primary sources to explain how English disposition towards the Ottomans and the tenants of Islam metamorphosed during this era. Armed with this context, it becomes impossible to engage with works such as Othello in the same way again. If ‘untold’ historical narratives are your thing, I promise you will enjoy this offering thoroughly.

A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings

Of the 100 buildings pictured and discussed in this 2015 book, only nine are in the United States, the closest to Kalamazoo being Mies van de Rohe's 1945-1951 Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. Hence, this is quite an international volume. The chapters are Pioneers, Rhetoric (Building with a Message), Sacred, Urban Visions, Big and Beautiful, Material Matters, and Lost and Found. I wonder if the wonderful O'Connor/Houghton volume on Kalamazoo buildings gave Mr. Cruickshank the idea for this last chapter title? Excellent photography and concise commentaries are present in each entry. I particularly enjoyed the one on the Stockholm, Sweden, Public Library. There are photos of both exterior and interior, including the central reading room, of which the author says, 'The white walls reflect light down onto the desks below, making the tall cylindrical room the epitome of intellectual enlightenment.' This is truly a spectacular building, along with the other 99 included herein.

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.

Towers Falling

I remember how nice the day was. How I didn’t want to go to school. I remember being bored in my Focus on Freshman class when the assistant principal ran, red faced and huffing, into the classroom, handed our teacher a piece of paper, and then ran out. I remember the whole class asking if we were on lockdown, if there was an active shooter in our school, or in the high school across town. I remember the teacher struggling with how to explain what had just happened to a bunch of 9th graders. I remember thinking the world was about to change.

It’s hard to imagine that something that happened not that long ago, something I can still remember so vividly, could be a foreign concept to someone else. In Towers Falling, fifth grader Dèja Barnes wonders how something that happened before she was born could have to do with her. How could this bit of history, something that happened 15 years ago, have any impact on her now? The story follows her as she realizes that 9/11 may have happened before she was born, but the effects have touched everyone around her, and ripple outward to affect her life in ways she did not previously understand. This book does such a fabulous job of showing how we are all connected through our small communities that build outward and how we’re all connected as Americans to 9/11 and how history is never something that exists only in the past tense.

The Princess and the Warrior, A Tale of Two Volcanoes

There have only been a few occasions where I have discovered an author that I would eventually become obsessed with.  Duncan Tonatiuh (toh-nah-tee-YOU) is one of those authors.  I was so excited to read his latest children’s book, The Princess and the Warrior, A Tale of Two Volcanoes. In it, he retells the legend of the two great volcanoes overlooking Mexico City: Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.  Once again Tonatiuh's artistic style successfully represents the legends, the people, the history, and the culture of Mexico.  

Tonatiuh is Mexican American and he grew up in both countries.  He has received well-deserved recognitions and awards for his works including the Pura Belpre’ Medal and the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book Award. Now more than ever, it is important to continue to highlight diverse children’s books that promote pride, acceptance, and appreciation for all cultures. This book does all this and more.


Best Book on Racism I've Ever Read

There is nothing I can say to do this book justice. Let's start here: certain books change our life, our perspective, our understanding, and bring us to a new level as moral human beings. This is one of those books (The Invisible Man and Between the World and Me come to mind as well). But this was the best book I've ever read on racism in America, bar none. I enjoyed Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, and this is similar, but Stamped is much better in terms of scope and writing style, ambition and courage.

Do not be fooled or scared by the length of the book. I devoured every single page and, wanting more, began reading it again. It reads fast, like a short book with huge ambition - it chronicles the entire history of racist ideas in America, and it does so brilliantly to a popular audience. From sipping English tea and trading slaves to the Americas, to Barak Obama as president, all ideas about race are analyzed and put into their historical context (to name one: "law and order")

Some main ideas to chew on. First, ideas about race come in three flavors (a) antiracist ideas, which means roughly "there's nothing wrong with Black people." hint: that's the correct position. (b) segregationist ideas, "there's something inherently wrong with Black people", and (c) assimilationist ideas, "there's something wrong with Black people, but we can fix it, and they probably need to be more White." The book is a case study in how wrong, insidious, and powerful assimilationist ideas are throughout our history. Second, Black folks can be racist towards black people. Ideas don't discriminate and we are all swimming in the same pool. Indeed, the author begins the book by saying he had several racist ideas that he had to shed during the writing of the book. He drank some of the kool-aid, without even knowing it. A big part of the book is boldly calling out these ideas. He is not soft on historical figures. History has always had antiracist ideas and racist ideas. Third, most of the solutions we have tried have not worked, sadly. Pointing at successful Black people and saying "see! look!" hasn't worked (and has the opposite affect). And educating White people hasn't worked either. Kendi believes nothing less than a massive, grassroots movement (e.g. Black Power, Black Lives Matter) which forces powerful people to end discrimination will work. And having truly antiracist people in power is the only long-term solution. End discrimination, he says, and you end racism and racist ideas about Black people.