Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
James McBride’s The Color of Water was our 2005 Reading Together title. If you attended his talk or his concert the following evening, you too remember how engaging he was both evenings, how much we enjoyed having him here. We bonded with him.
His new book, The Good Lord Bird, was just released last month to strong reviews; it is already included on many best-of lists and is likely to be one of my 2013 favorites.
It is the story of abolitionist John Brown leading up to the raid in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, before the Civil War. Brown takes “Little Onion,” a slave in Kansas mistaken for a girl due to the smock he was wearing when his master was shot. Little Onion travels with Brown to meet Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to muster support for his mission to liberate African Americans and end slavery. It all leads to the bloody and pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry.
The book is much better than this brief review conveys. McBride has been compared to Mark Twain in tone; this book affirms his mastery of historical fiction.
The Good Lord Bird
The story of the building of the atomic bomb is often told from the scientific and decision making perspective. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, is the story from the perspective of young woman, many from the neighboring area in Tennessee, who went to work at Oak Ridge. They would not know until Hiroshima what they were working on, what part they were playing in the war effort.
The nine women highlighted here are each unique yet share a common bond. They are seeking an adventure or a way to better their lives, a commitment to the war effort, and a blind faith in their small part of a larger, unknown to them, project.
Equally interesting is the story of the companion effort underway in Los Alamos, New Mexico: 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the City of Los Alamos published in 2005.
The Girls of Atomic City
Although Zealot got attention mostly for the intriguing back story of the author Reza Aslan--a Muslim turned Christian turned Muslim--it should get attention for its excellent, smooth writing style, its clear portrayal of the history of the times of Jesus. What was it like back then? In a word, chaos; complete political turmoil, revolutionary, messiahs popping up left and right and getting killed by Rome left and right. In this regard, I enjoyed the book thoroughly and learned a lot.
But then there's the portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. This is where the Christ that most people love exits stage left, is drastically different than the Jesus of history that Aslan proposes. According to the book, Jesus wasn't a very nice guy. His most defining act, the act that clarified "his theology," was when he went into the temple and started flipping over tables:
"So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’s brief life that it alone can be used to clarify his mission, his theology, his politics, his relationship to the Jewish authorities, his relationship to Judaism in general, and his attitude toward the Roman occupation” (p. 73).
What happened to "turning your other cheek" and "love your enemies" Jesus? The author thinks these teachings were embellished and "abstracted;" he probably meant love your fellow Jews (not Romans or the Jewish priestly class, who were enemies). Remember the Garden of Gethsemane scene? Aslan says they were hiding, "armed," and had a "bloody" tussle with the arresting party. When Jesus claims he's the Messiah, it's sedition and worthy of death under Roman law. Remember when Jesus preaches the kingdom of God is "within you" or "at hand" or "like a tree with many branches"? "The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution," says Aslan, "plain and simple” and “God’s rule cannot be established without the destruction of the present order” (p. 119-120). And that's why they killed him.
Of course some will argue he is merely selecting those passages of the Gospels that fits his theory (after all, when it comes to the historical Jesus the Gospels are basically all there is). But he will argue that historians can figure out which passages are more historical than others. I'm not a historian, so I won't go there. But I will say there's an awkward disconnect going on between Aslan's portrayal of Jesus (violent) and what he says about Jesus at the end of the book. He laments that we have lost the historical Jesus because he is someone "worth believing in." He also says in interviews that he is a "follower of Jesus." Really? Which teachings? From reading the book you don't get it. But what I think he means is that he follows the Jesus who spoke "truth to power," a force of social justice who cared about the poor and did something about it; who ultimately defied the odds of history by somehow starting one of the greatest world religions ever known.
Ever since Emile Durkheim came on the block, sociologists and historians have taken belief out of religion. Religious belief, they say, is nothing more than, reducible to, a way for people to come together--“social solidarity”. Supernatural beliefs are peripheral, epiphenomenal, don’t matter much, and come later.
Rodney Stark disagrees: to take God out is to completely miss the point of religion, what it means to people, and how it works in history. Or as one review put it: “Religious world views can no longer be reduced to race, class, gender, economics, social location, or one of the other shibboleths of secular academia.” What people actually think about God or Gods or witches or angels really affects how they act in history. And this lengthy book shows how.
Science, for example, comes from a particular conception of a single, intelligent, law-making creator God. Witch-hunting, a second example, came from specifically Christian doctrine and beliefs. Lastly, it was Quakers, he says, not “the Enlightenment” or “economic self-interest” that destroyed slavery. As you can see, one limitation with the book is that it focuses mainly on one form of monotheism, Christianity; and it mostly uses other religions as counterpoints (e.g., Christianity abolished slavery, and here is why Greek polytheism did not).
As I am not a historian, it would be very hard for me to critique or have an opinion on any of these points. I have certainly heard these arguments, but I've also heard arguments against them. Also check out my blogs on John Woolman and Galileo Goes to Jail. As for abolition of slavery, I think most people accept the fact that Christianity had major part to play—but of course everyone knows southern planters also used the Bible to defend slavery.
At any rate, it is a very dense, heavy, ambitious book, a whirlwind of world history, religion, theory and sociology. He comes off as an angry academic, sick and tired of the anti-Catholic and anti-religious biases that are at the bottom of these so-called secular historians (I was interested to find out Rodney Stark is not religious). He calls out scholars left and right, which makes it more entertaining and breaks up the textbook feel but borders on ad hominem attacks. I recommend for history buffs.
For the Glory of God
One of my absolute favorite cookbooks is the 1990 James Beard Award-winning Please to the Table: the Russian Cookbook by Moscow native Anya von Bremzen. The book allows me to recreate some of my delicious memories from the time I spent in Russia several years ago, with recipes for everything from adzhika to pirozhki to vareniki, originating from across the former Soviet Union. So naturally I was delighted to discover von Bremzen’s forthcoming memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, and I devoured it almost as quickly as a plate of blini.
Von Bremzen’s book is not simply about food—something that is so inextricably bound with culture, tradition, politics, economics, the environment. And it is not only personal memoir and family history, but a sweeping account examining the twilight years of the Russian Empire, the nearly 70 years of the Soviet Union’s existence, the Russian Federation’s bleak early days, as well as its more recent economic boom. Into this epic history, she weaves in details of her family’s experience. Like her paternal grandmother Alla, who was born in Central Asia, orphaned, and then raised by an early activist for women’s rights who was later exiled to Siberia. Alla moved to Moscow as a teenager, and brought Uzbek recipes with her. Von Bremzen’s mother’s bout with scarlet fever, suffered while subsisting on wartime rations, contrasts sharply with her first taste of Pepsi-Cola a decade later. And von Bremzen’s own experiences – rejecting on principle difficult-to-procure products like special candy from the Red October Chocolate Factory at her school for children of Communist Party elites, to her confusion over Pop Tarts as an immigrant in Philadelphia – are shared with earnestness.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a satisfying read, and especially suggested for readers of food memoirs like Gabrielle Hamilton’s candid Blood, Bones and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, or Russian culture enthusiasts who enjoyed Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking
August 28th will be the 50th Anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” This past weekend, tens of thousands of people marched on Washington, in commemoration of the event.
I looked for information at KPL about the 1963 march and what was happening here in Kalamazoo during that time. I found writings on the history and significance of the March on Washington, biographies of prominent march organizers such as A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and other civil rights workers, a video recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Local civil-rights events in 1963 included the picketing of the Van Avery drugstore and the October 6 Kalamazoo March for Equal Opportunities. To learn more local events the year ca. 300,000 people were marching in D.C. for jobs and freedom, visit KPL’s Local History desk. We have numerous files of newspaper clippings and microfilm access to the 1963 Kalamazoo Gazette.
The march on Washington : jobs, freedom, and the forgotten history of civil rights
Wow, has this story been in the news lately?!? Maybe you’ve heard about it? It’s about Henrietta Lacks. She was stricken with an aggressive cancer more than 60 years ago. In 1951 she was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital. It was later found out that the doctor took and preserved cells from her tumor without her knowledge. Although that was a common practice at that time, it continues to haunt the family because the scientific industry has continued to use the information gained from Henrietta, herself, and also other family members. They have made this information very accessible and until recently continued to do so. Her cells have been used around the world and they continue to contribute to some major medical advances and financial gains. These cells were named the HeLa cells and are called that till this day.
The book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksby Rebecca Skloot tells her and her families’ story. It was published in 2010 and still remains on the New York Times Book Review Best Sellers list. Currently, it is #4 on the Nonfiction Paperback Best Sellers and although KPL has several copies they are often either checked out or on hold. The book tells about Henrietta, her life and how she died, and how the use of her cells has advanced scientific research. It also talks about the misuse of scientific studies done on her family without their permission, and how money has been made at her families’ expense. Rebecca Skloot can take credit for the exposure that her book has given to the HeLa cells. It has perked some interest and some results in the medical arena. There have been acknowledgements and just recently some laws have been passed that will hopefully prevent and protect families from going through what the Henrietta Lacks family has gone through.
If you get a chance pick up the book The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks and delve into this fascinating story.
The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks
For a child’s view of a day in the life of Stalinist Soviet Union, read: Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin. Sasha is ten years old and is in 5th grade and his father is a member of The State Security, which is the Secret Police. Sasha’s mother is dead, for some mysterious reason she never returned home after a hospital stay. Sasha and his dad live communally in a house with several other families. Everyone is always under suspicion, every spoken word is potentially threatening and nobody knows whom they can trust. Sasha is getting ready for the ceremony to join the Soviet Young Pioneers. A young Pioneer is a reliable comrade and always acts according to conscience. A Young Pioneer has a right to criticize shortcomings. But in his haste while carrying Stalin’s banner, Sasha accidentally bumps into Stalin’s statue and breaks off the nose on the statue! Did anyone see the accident occur? If the accident is discovered, then it is truly a bleak day for Sasha. This story is an excellent portrayal of a day in the life of a fifth grade student and the bleakness of life in the Soviet Union under the dictatorship of Stalin. Eugene Yelchin was born and educated in Russia, but now lives in California.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose
Recently I’ve read a couple of very good books about resistance efforts during World War II in several countries. Shirley Hughes, who is best known for her picture books for very young readers, has now written Hero on a Bicycle for older children.
In 1944, 13-year-old Paolo lives in Florence with his mother and sister; their father has quietly disappeared into the mountains. They are quite certain he is working for the resistance, but no one talks about that. Paolo would love to have an adventure; every night he secretly rides his bicycle through the quiet, dark streets of his town. Suddenly, when the possibility of a real adventure comes to him, Paolo has to make a quick decision. Can he become a real hero?
Hero on a Bicycle
I have read books about Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander IV, and his family in the past. Each has portrayed the family as scheming, manipulative, and scandalous. One need not look far to see this perception of the family perpetuated through other materials at the library. G.J. Meyer's book, The Borgias: the hidden history, call these attitudes into question, especially when talking about Rodrigo and Lucrezia Borgia. The book focuses on three main members of the family: Alonzo (Pope Calixtus III), Rodrigo (Pope Alexander IV), and Cesare. Meyer conducted a lot of research for this book and believes the rumors started about the family were the result of political enemies hoping to tarnish the family reputation that were perpetuated as a result of historians that did not dig deeply enough into the stories to uncover the truth.
Alonzo was an obscure Spanish Cardinal before being unexpectedly elected Pope in 1455. This begins the ascension of the family to the upper ranks of Rome and the Church. Alonzo’s nephew, Rodrigo, moves with him to Rome, is appointed protonotary apostolic and, a year later, Cardinal. The book gives many details about Rodrigo’s life following Calixtus’ death as he continued to be one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church. Meyer works to debunk many of the myths about Rodrigo, especially the myth that he fathered a number of children with a longtime mistress named Vannozza. Meyer argues these children, which include Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, two renaissance figures greatly villainized in the centuries since they lived, were Rodrigo’s nieces and nephews. Meyer argues Rodrigo’s greatest weakness as a leader was his extreme nepotistic tendencies for these young Borgias, and though this is indisputable, there is no dependable proof that Rodrigo was their father.
The political situation in 15th and 16th century Italy was an every changing tapestry. Alliances were made and broken with ease, some seemingly changing with the moods of their young, spoiled, irrational rulers. The Papal States was a number of small city states in central Italy that were supposed to pay tribute to Rome and the pope but were, in reality, ruled by local warlords who had seized power of the cities and, generally, ruled over them with an iron fist. A serial headache of the Renaissance popes, the author does a good job keeping up with the ever shifting landscape of the Papal States, as well as the rest of the Italian peninsula and parts of Spain, France and Constantinople. Cesare, a military mastermind, aimed to reclaim these rebellious city states and carve out a kingdom for himself in the Romagna. The last section of the book details this quest. The thing I liked best about this book, besides that it challenged all that I thought I knew about Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia Borgia, was its “Background” sections between chapters. These sections allowed the author to distance the reader from the developing story of the Borgias to offer background information on different people, places and situations. These chapters unfailingly put the drama of the book’s characters in greater context. They were also very interesting (to one who is interested in learning more about Renaissance Italy). Meyer also concludes with a section titled “Examining Old Assumptions” that elaborates more on the characters of Rodrigo and Lucrezia bringing up things he was unable to work into the full text.
This is a dense book that takes some concentration to read. It is well written, comprehensive and definitely challenges the status quo understanding of the Borgias. I am so glad I stumbled upon it the library’s collection!
The Borgias: the hidden history