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Staff Picks: Books

Passing

 It’s Black History Month! A time to celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans, but also a great time to examine some of the social issues and complexities of race in America.  For all of the insistence upon inherent difference between races, it is actually just a social construct based on appearance with a few cultural differences thrown in for good measure. Or as Maya Angelou put it in her poem Human Family, “we are more alike, my friends/ than we are unalike.” 

In the 1920’s when Black Americans were treated poorly and granted way less opportunities for success, many fair-skinned Black Americans decided to cut ties with their family and friends to  try and live out the American Dream the best way they knew how—by pretending to be White. Americans were all too aware of this, and as a result, there were many films and novels focused on the subject of passing.

My absolute favorite novel from this time period is Passing by Nella Larsen. Published in 1929, during the Harlem Renaissance, the story follows two women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, childhood friends who meet later as adults. Irene is married, and living in Harlem right in the hub of the Black social circle, while Clare, a wealthy socialite who married a racist White man, is passing for White.

Passing explores themes of deception, jealousy, loyalty and betrayal. It’s a tale of fashionable frenemies, scandalous parties, and a crazy twist ending I’d love to talk to you about if you get a chance to read it. I love it to pieces and hope you will too. 

 


The life of a Pullman Porter

The Pullman Porter: AnAmerican Journey touched my heart. Not just because there is a lot information that is not generally known but also because my father had been a porter many, many years ago. My brothers, sisters and I romanticized his journeys and thought my dad looked handsome in his uniform. We were not aware of how demanding, degrading and difficult the job was. After all, what did being a Pullman Porter have to do with shining shoes, babysitting, making beds and other forms of servitude?

 After reading this book, I realized also that my dad was traveling and learning things about this country. He was able to learn what was important to share with his children and to teach us what we needed to know in order to survive in America. The Pullman Porter: An American Journey was written by Vanita Oelschlager. Vanita Oelschlager publishes books for children that teaches morals and values I personally appreciate her acknowledgement of the Pullman Porters.


Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what happened in the years leading up to the atrocities. The question people always ask is "how could this happen?" The following books discuss, in great detail, the events that led to genocide in Europe.

The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power by Richard J. Evans

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945 by William Sheridan Allen

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a great website examining the history of the Holocaust, and also features resources on preventing future genocides.


Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe

When Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy, she wore an exquisite silk dress made by Ann Cole Lowe.  I did not know that Ann Cole Lowe was African American until I discovered this wonderful picture book written by Deborah Blumenthal and illustrated by Laura Freeman. Despite dealing with segregation and prejudices, Cole’s designer fashions were highly sought after by the Vanderbilts, the Rockerfellers, and the Roosevelts. In addition, she established a prosperous design studio on Madison Avenue in New York City. Included at the end of the book are citations for further readings on Ann Cole Lowe and other historical African American fashion designers. This book is a great read for young children and just in time for Black History Month.

 


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.