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Staff Picks: Books

And Still We Rise

There’s still time to go see And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations, the quilt show on display at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum (KVM.) But hurry, it ends June 4. Give yourself plenty of time both to appreciate the amazing artistry and also to take in the depth of the stories depicted.

The quilts have so much texture, vibrancy, passion woven into them. Many depict painful, brutal episodes of racist treatment of African-Americans in the United States’ story. The very first in the display is 3-dimensional. Instantly, you are face to face with the picture of many Africans stuffed into the hull of a slave ship headed to Virginia, while one man escapes to ‘freedom’ into the ocean. Many others offer deep celebration of the inventive, intellectual, creative, athletic, entrepreneurial, political and heroic triumphs of various African-American individuals and groups in the past 400 years.

Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network, curator of this exhibit and author of the book by the same name, will be at KVM this Sunday, May 21. If you plan to go, tickets are free, but required.

Each quilt has an artist’s statement. These appear in the book, alongside photos of their quilts. Reading the book, you have a second chance to absorb what they had to say about their piece and remember.


Now For Something Completely Different

When I was a kid, Monty Python’s Flying Circus came on at 11:00 pm on Sunday nights on PBS, long past my bedtime, especially with school the next day. My older brother had discovered it and his room was in the basement where the tv was, unlike my younger brother and I who shared a room upstairs. So on Sunday nights, my brother and I would sneak into the upstairs bathroom and lower ourselves down through the laundry chute that my dad had made by cutting a hole in the floor and a plastic garbage can and shoving that garbage can into the hole in the floor. It was pretty easy to get down, but it was a struggle as my older brother had to push us back up the chute when it was over.


So I was eager to read Monty Python alum, Terry Gilliam’s book Gilliamesque: a pre posthumous memoir. Gilliam rarely appeared on the Flying Circus, but he was responsible for all the crazy animation sequences. He was also the only non-British member of the troupe, having grown up in the United States. 

 
Gilliam also directed a few of my favorite movies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits, and The Fisher King and he touches a little on all the movies and projects of which he has been a part. 

 
What surprised me most was how normal his childhood was. Especially for someone who created such bizarre images and fantasy filled movies. It’s nice to know that is possible.


The Platinum Age of Television

Although subtitled 'From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific,' this is not just another history of television presented in a chronological manner, although such a presentation can be quite wonderful. No, this one is organized by type of show, making it easy to find the sections that will interest the reader. There are children’s programs, animation, variety/sketch, soap operas, crime, legal, medical, family sitcoms, workplace sitcoms, splitcoms (a word coined by the author), single working women sitcoms, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, westerns, spies, general drama, war, miniseries, and topical comedy. Five examples of each are detailed, dating from the earliest days of television and coming all the way down to shows like ‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘The Office,’ and ‘Mad Men.’  Also included are interviews with or profiles of individuals connected in some way to television, such as Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Tom Smothers, Steven Bochco, Norman Lear, and Bob Newhart. This is primarily a narrative study, although there are some pictures as well. Anyone interested in the development of television broadcasting would enjoy looking at this good effort on the part of author David Bianculli.


A Really Good Day

Having been misdiagnosed with Bipolar II, and later with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), Waldman begins her book at a point where all her remedies for depression and mood swing have essentially failed her. She has stumbled across the book The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys by James Fadiman. Waldman, a previous federal public defender and law professor who taught “The Legal and Social Implications of the War on Drugs” at UC Berkeley, is also the mother of four. Disturbed by the impact of her emotional instability on her family, she begins taking microdoses of LSD following Fadiman’s protocol. Having no interest in an LSD prompted spiritual enlightenment or hallucinatory experience; she is motivated instead to join Fadiman’s experiment by the outcomes described by others who have participated: namely more positive mood and increased ability to focus. 

A Really Good Day, is written as an amusing daily journal of her experience “microdosing” which she intersperses with the compelling story of LSD as a pharmaceutical and then social drug. She is forthright in her concerns regarding the use of LSD as an illegal substance and hiding this use from her children, and her internal conflict with taking what is perceived to be a “recreational” drug. Waldman explores the effects of microdosing on depression and anxiety through her witty and deeply personal disclosure, which she balances with a rich and informative history of LSD. Her skepticism, overcome by self-described “desperation” for “A Really Good Day” is met with outcomes that are surprising and provocative.


Max

Incredibly researched and vividly written, Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali is not for the faint of heart. This historical fiction is based off of real events during WWII, beginning with our introduction to the titular character as he is preparing to be born, the first child of the Lebensborn Program. From his birth until the German surrender, we see the world through Max’s eyes and his heavily indoctrinated thoughts - sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic language included.
Getting through the first quarter of this book was a challenge for how descriptive the writing was in those regards. The second half of the book certainly rewards the reader for sticking it out, as Max subtly comes to understand the world around him, and how he deals with it. Max is a brutal story with an important message, well worth picking up.


The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting

I clearly remember learning penmanship in the early grades at my elementary school. We first were taught manuscript printing and then graduated to writing in cursive. I tried so hard to make my letters look like they did in our instruction books and on green placards the teacher had put up over the blackboard, succeeding at least some of the time. Fast forward to 2017. I have reverted to using manuscript printing a lot of the time, or at most, a hybrid of manuscript and cursive. The only time I use cursive exclusively is to sign my name on my checks, and I don’t even write that many of them anymore. What precipitated all this reflection is a 2016 book by Anne Trubek which is about ‘the history and uncertain future of handwriting.’ She says, ‘The future of handwriting is anything but certain. Its history, however, shows how much it has affected culture and civilization for millennia.’ This book is panoramic, tracing the story of handwriting from earliest times all the way down to the digital age when keyboarding in the form of texting, e-mailing and social media is so prevalent. Ms. Trubek maintains that there are artistic aspects of handwriting that need to be preserved, such as in calligraphy, but the loss of handwriting’s prominence will also ‘give rise to changes—in accessibility, in democratization, in advantages unimaginable to us now—that should be celebrated.’


WASPs of WWII

During World War II, two disadvantaged groups got to serve their country as aviators. One group was the Tuskegee Airmen, composed of African American males. The other group was the WASPs: Women Airforce Service Pilots. Unfortunately, neither group welcomed black females. If you want to be inspired by black female aviators, read up on Bessie Coleman, Janet Harmon Bragg, and the contemporary superstar Vernice Armour.

In her nonfiction book WASPs: The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II, author Vera S. Williams outlines the origins of the program, detailing the roles of General "Hap" Arnold, Jackie Cochran, and Nancy Love. She also describes the lifestyle, duties, and accomplishments of the women and gives other relevant historical information. Some of the women's main jobs (all of them domestic) were towing targets in the air for target practice, testing new and repaired aircraft, ferrying planes from factories to bases, and simulating situations to help the male cadets prepare for combat. To my delight, the book draws on some great sources to tell the story of the WASPs. Passages from interviews that the author conducted, photographs, newspaper clippings, and transcripts of songs fill its pages. The variety of sources and the direct writing style make this book both fascinating and accessible to all kinds of readers.

I immensely enjoyed reading this text, and that is really saying something, because nonfiction can be difficult for me to get through. It was nice to delve deeper into this subject to get the full story. If you are curious about one of the ways that women served their country during World War II, check out WASPs: The Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II by Vera S. Williams.


Steamboat school : inspired by a true story, St. Louis, Missouri 1847

Steamboat School is wonderful picture book that highlights yet another little known Black History fact.  It tells the story of the courageous and determined Reverend John Berry Meachum who ran a school on a steamboat that sailed up and down the Mississippi River. The story begins with young James, a free black growing up in Missouri during the 1840s.  While attending Reverend John’s school in the basement of a church, with only candle lights to see, James comes face-to-face with the harsh reality of the 1847 Missouri law which made it illegal to educate any Blacks (slave or free) in the state.  Author Deborah Hopkinson and illustrator Ron Husband have create an inspirational must-read with Steamboat School.


Rad Women

Rad Women Worldwide and Rad American Women A-Z tell the stories of women who did amazing things, some well-known and, maybe more importantly, some not so well-known. From Angela Davis to Zora Neale Hurston, Rad American Women A-Z came first and focuses on American women. Rad Women Worldwide focuses on forty women from all around the world who moved beyond boundaries. From punk rockers to polar explorers to authors, organizers, athletes, artists, and more, both of these great collections of biographical profiles feature amazing cut-paper illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl. Both are great for all ages but reside in the library's Children's and Teen materials collections. Check them out if you are interested in being inspired and learning some real-life amazing stories!

 


News of the World

The Civil War is over. Army Captain Jefferson Kidd is traveling through Texas from one remote community to another reading the news to residents from newspapers around the country, telling them about distant countries, scientific experiments, an upcoming census, explorations. Along the way, he is asked to escort a 10-year old girl, captive for four years among the Kiowa, back to her aunt and uncle in southern Texas. She is the sole survivor from an Indian raid and has few memories.

In one sense, this is a western – the wild west, Indians, good guys and bad guys – but in the boarder sense it is a snapshot of a time and place, a sense of duty, and ultimately of love.

This slim volume was a National Book Award Finalist and on many “best of” lists for 2016. Reviewers have described is a “jewel”, “not to be missed”, “excellent in every respect”, “beautifully written”. I agree.